It’s hardly possible, of course, to discuss in detail the many different aspects of instrumental tuition in a short text. The constant process of spiritual reflection and artistic freedom in the way we engage with music is complex and individual, and developed over such a long time, that even the most comprehensive university paper would be unable to do it justice. As such, the following lines should serve more as a sketch, should present a few personal thoughts, provide just one view. –
The highest priority for me is always the artistic, that which is between the notes. Harmony, melody, rhythm…phrasing, articulation, style…it’s all related to what moves us in every way, particularly inwardly, emotionally – but also of course physically.
An interpretation should, so to speak, make sense, i.e. be “psycho-logical”. If it fails to reflect the emotional aspects of the piece, or lets them uncontrollably fall apart, the whole thing can appear to be “psycho-illogical”. Of course, contrasts and breaks play a decisive role as well – in art as in life. Depending on the situation, we therefore consciously have to feel our way into the music as well as into ourselves.
It should be understood already at the most elemental level of communication that musical phenomena can represent “characters”. Like people, they can be merry, reflective, or sad, moody or even angry. It’s also, of course, possible to forge other synaesthetic associations: light, colour, haptics, even taste and smell. Sometimes we “simply” experience the appeal of the algorithms in their shifting patterns or as a kind of meditative repetition.
For me as a teacher I see it as a noble duty to open the gates of the imagination and, together with my students, to unlock the inner world of the imagination, consciously to feel and explore all these characteristics of music.
In addition, it’s extremely important for me not to set up stubborn boundaries between classical music, jazz, rock or pop, between music that is “serious” and that which is more entertaining. Rather, for me the quality of any composed music exists in its ability constantly to reveal new experiences, even when you’re engaging with it for the hundredth time. On a purely personal level, I find transcendence in Bach, Beethoven, David Grohl, Schumann, Coldplay, Brahms, David Bowie, Mahler, Schoenberg, Peter Kruder, Matthew Herbert, Messiaen, Ligeti and, not least, Jacob Collier – and please forgive the long list, which in any case is far from comprehensive!
As a provisional conclusion to this section let me add that I regularly encourage my students to improvise. The joy that comes from trying out new musical ideas yourself in the imagination and on an instrument is something that today is far too often left unexplored in institutional instrumental tuition.
Instead of technique I prefer to talk of motor skills, in the sense of a totality of skeletal musculature. Accordingly, it’s of course not just the hand in conjunction with the arm that plays a role, but also breathing and posture as a whole. It’s quite common, therefore, that we’ll spend some time in a piano lesson working on balance exercises to seek out underlying tension.
Two aspects form the focus, then: fine motor skills (fingers/hand) and „wholeness“ (arm/body) which are the dialectic poles of a constant process, as it were, of zooming in and out.
The solid basis for instrumental virtuosity is, however, without doubt the fine motor skills. Finger work, therefore, is often the main focus. The arm as a whole (albeit finely differentiated as wrist, elbow and shoulder) then in turn helps the fingers in the optimal execution of their task.
I like to compare the system with an ideal federal democracy, in which the citizens (fingers), however different they might be, take on their obligations with a sense of their own responsibility. The local authority (wrist) is there to enable immediate balancing out in case of certain imponderables; while the forearm and elbow (the individual county or state) lead on to the wrist, the upper arm (the federal government) holds up the whole system. The shoulder and the rest of the body should in no way become unnecessarily tense.
You need a lot of patience and a certain amount of instinctive feeling for the various moving parts for many motoric hurdles to be overcome. These abilities can only be developed when all sides play together. Students must also naturally be prepared to embark on this path with regular, conscious practice. The musculature in turn needs time to grow, while it also takes time before the fine motor skills can rely on the neural network in the brain (and cerebellum). It’s like cycling with no hands or tying shoelaces and, according to the difficulty of the work, it can take days or months.
I very often draw the comparison to gardening: it calls for daily upkeep, selective watering, and careful attention to fertilizer, light and air – not to mention dedication – to be able eventually to enjoy splendid flowers and fruit. Nothing ever grows faster if you pull at it – and great trees need years to grow!
PS: you can find numerous videos about this subject on YouTube. Personally, I strongly advise against trying to find a “recipe” for piano technique there.
There are as many individual motor requirements as there are people. Certainly, some basic points can be applied generally, but piano technique needs to be worked on constantly with living tuition.
Now to supposedly external factors. How my studio is set up is very important to me. I’ll never forget a five-year-old child who was scared of the dark and dusty classroom in which I once had to teach, at the music school in a town that shall remain nameless. To get to this sad, grey room you had to go through an even darker corridor at the far end of the building, which felt spooky even to me in November, with its half-open lockers, out of which, any imaginative child might have thought, evil spirits could fly any time.
Nor will I ever forget how cheerfully this little girl came to her piano lessons as soon as we’d moved to a much nicer and brighter room. This is one major reason why I see a homely environment as so important. And the temperature of the light is important, too: I can’t work on the colours of sounds under hospital-style strip lighting!
Furthermore, although work on the music naturally stands in the foreground, non-musical themes can regularly play a role in my tuition – from Dürer’s Young Hare, for example, or the poetry of Eichendorff, to using the example of an inclined steering axle to demonstrate kinematics and motor function. Of course, smartphones and tablets can also be of help in better understanding complicated concepts, and the broadest variety of materials can help make the learning experience easier to understand. A model of a grand piano’s mechanism, for example, should be an essential element in understanding how the instrument’s sound is made in the first place. Newton’s Cradle can help with visualizing the principle of impulse transmission in a straightforward way, while a small Möbius strip and a simple rubber band are among the things I also use to bring piano tuition to life.
When it comes to detailed work at the instrument itself, however, working together can call for extreme meticulousness. Yes, I demand a lot, but at the same time I take care not to demand too much; instead I always focus on the balance between being encouraging as well as demanding. As I say: nothing ever grows faster if you pull at it! At the same time, though, nothing much of value flourishes when you let everything grow wild and don’t care pay any attention to the fertile soil and the plants.
When obstacles appear, I naturally don’t advise going around them. My motto involves much more: let’s tackle it together! You can do it, and I’ll help you! External as well as internal resistance should ideally make you stronger, in that we learn to overcome it – and, if we don’t happen to manage it first time, that’s all part of being human. Failure is also something that needs to be learned. There will no doubt be another task where we can stand tall again and strengthen our self-confidence – with what is absolutely one of the most important foundations for a feeling of self-esteem: achievements that come from your own inner effort.
My students all also know that they can speak with me openly about any problem. Topics and problems to do with time are also discussed in piano lessons, where there’s no room for prejudice or platitudes. For me, education always also means a collective exercise in maturity. Especially as musicians, we’re at home anywhere in the whole world; we avoid kneejerk judgments as much as possible and make an effort always to reflect – not to judge people on the colour of their skin, their religion, gender or individual preferences, but by their deeds and their works.
Ultimately, we seek to understand ourselves better, and in mutual understanding we end up finding a higher sense of where we belong.
In summary, let me say that my teaching style is about paying attention to one another on a personal and individual level. Artistic development is directly linked to personal development. Conversely, personal happiness depends on the right choice of profession. I therefore tend to give realistic recommendations when it comes to deciding the subject to study. Many young people already have realised only once well into their instrumental studies – or even later – that their dreams and expectations don’t correspond with the realities of building a career.
In my view, it’s sensible to offer timely reminders that the music business is no wonderland.
Regardless of whether we grow up to be successful as musicians, language professors, lawyers, doctors or engineers, music never leaves us, will always be there at our side. It continues to grow within us and accompanies us throughout our whole lives. And what we’ve learnt by practising and playing is something we’ll never lose – quite the opposite: it will always shine in and for us!