Singing for pianists

The third of my five ‘E’s for outstanding instrumental teaching is developing an Enquiring mind. I think that it is vital that the teacher gets into the habit of asking questions rather than answering them, so that the student quickly learns that he is expected to work things out for himself. A simple example: “don’t forget the E flat in bar 5” becomes “which note did you play wrong in bar 5?” It is so easy to fall into the trap of giving the answers, but telling is not teaching and we should not be in so much of a hurry to teach a piece of music that we forget to teach the student.

Assuming the student answered the question correctly, let’s make the next question a little more difficult: “Can you sing me the E flat please?” At this point, in 9 out of 10 cases, the student will reach for an E flat on the piano – if they get the chance that is, because I’m ready for them! “No, don’t play it, sing it.” For me, this really gets to the crux of the problem. Sitting at a piano is like having a calculator in an arithmetic exam, but easier; if you want to know an answer, just press the relevant key and the answer is immediate.

At the simplest level, this is going to test the student’s aural memory. Can they remember, in their inner ear, any of the notes which they have been playing in the last few moments? The questions which they need to ask themselves are going to be the equivalent of a mathematician showing how they reached the answer – if they think that you are just expecting them to pull an E flat out of the air then of course they have every reason to panic!

A few more leading questions might help; “The phrase started on a B flat, can you remember what that sounded like? Yes? Well, can you sing me a B flat then?” Once they have sung the B flat, a little theory might be required: “How far away is E flat from B flat? Ok, sing up a four note scale from the B flat and we should get there!”

My piano pupils are used to this type of questioning, resigned to it perhaps! They realise that I am serious, however, and although in the early days some will just dig their heels in and refuse to sing – I had a pupil once who took weeks and weeks even to pluck up the courage to proffer a single squeak – they all know that it is an expectation. The benefit, of course, is that they are using their ears, and they soon realise that it can be quite helpful to have their ears connected up with what their fingers are doing.

This style of teaching encourages the student to use their brain, their memory, their ears, their knowledge of theory, their voice …. and sometimes diversionary tactics! The alternative “don’t forget the E flat in bar 5” seems unhelpful in comparison.

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3 responses to “Singing for pianists

  1. I do this, too, much to the annoyance of some piano students!
    So nice to find your blog, I look forward to reading more.

  2. Singing for pianists lovely post

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