The Importance of Beginning Technique

I have to be honest: I sometimes cringe when I hear of teachers who say they are "only" qualified to teach beginners. 

Now let me explain - I know there are many wonderful teachers out there who teach only beginners, who feel that they are not advanced enough to teach intermediate and above students. Now it may have something to do with my own beginning piano study, but the reason I cringe at this is because I worry about what kind of technique they are teaching their students. 

I started lessons with a wonderful, dear teacher who lived in my neighborhood. It was a great experience, and she was a good teacher who instilled in me a love for piano and for music. However, when I transferred teachers about six years later, my new teacher had to completely fix my technique! (Has anyone else had this same experience? Feel free to take our poll on this topic!) Talk about an eye-opener. I was suddenly learning things I should have learned long before, and I feel that my playing improved very quickly after that point.

Image from Clavier Companion
I think that sometimes as teachers we underestimate the importance of teaching good, correct technique right from the beginning. Students need a good foundation of technique right from day one in order to become good, proficient pianists.

My piano pedagogy teacher in college taught us that you should never teach anything without technique. There should be a technique reason and a theory reason behind every concept you teach to your students.

I'd like to go over a few basic techniques that are important for your beginners to know and be able to execute correctly. These techniques will provide a good foundation for the developing pianist.

Hand Shape

This is hugely important. Students should play with a nice, rounded hand shape. Fingers should be relaxed and curved, and should strike the piano keys at the fingertips (except, of course, for the thumb, which strikes the keys on its side/corner). The wrist and arm should be level, with the elbow slightly extended from the body.

There are all sorts of analogies to use to teach this curved hand shape - however, if you have the student naturally relax their hand on their lap, it will almost every time result in a nice, relaxed shape that you can just transfer right to the piano keys. (Who knew it was so easy, eh?) Oh and can I just mention the importance of staying relaxed and avoiding overall tension, such as in the shoulders? My college piano teacher once told me I looked like Frankenstein because my shoulders were getting so tense. Nice.

And one other fun idea - try putting little sticker dots on your student's fingers on the exact place the finger should be striking the key! (Which would be on the fingertips, except for the thumb of course.) You could also put some on the keyboard and have the play by lining up the dots. This works well with the young'uns. 

High Loud Fingers

I feel that it is important for students to learn to play with strong fingers to achieve 1) control over their playing, 2) evenness in their playing, and 3) a nice, deep sound.

(In contrast, think of students who play by keeping all fingers touching the keys at all times and kind of push the finger down into the key with their hand or wrist. This is all fine and good when they're playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" or "Oscar the Octopus" but what happens when they start playing scales, etudes, or Liszt pieces of craziness? The required finger movement just won't be there, and the results will be sloppy.)

You can achieve this technique (while avoiding injury) by lifting the fingers, one at a time, straight up, then bringing them down into the keys while keeping the wrist nice and relaxed. Try having them play a simple five-finger scale while saying, "up, down, relax" to get these movements down.

Really, the goal you're going for with this technique is for your students to play with control and confidence.

Staccato Touch

I love teaching staccato (nerdy, I know). I think it is one technique that really gives the student control over the character of their piece, and when they achieve that great staccato sound they get so excited!

Here's how I like to teach staccato. I call it my Basketball Analogy:

image link
Pretend that the keyboard is a basketball, and you are dribbling it. (Hopefully your student has dribbled a basketball before - if not you may have to take them on a little field trip out to your patio or driveway for an object lesson!)

What happens if your hand is touching the basketball the entire time you are trying to dribble it? Will it bounce? Um, no. You need to actually have your hand above the basketball, and then come down with some force and whack it (very technical terms here). The ball then bounces while you lift your hand up again and repeat.

Now obviously you want to do this with nice, curved fingers (but probably NOT with the actual ball - you don't want to jam those precious piano fingers). But at least it gives them the general idea that it is ok to get away from the keyboard a little. It's amazing the difference in staccato when you can get those little fingers to strike the keys from a little ways above the keyboard.

If your student feels a little sheepish with their hands up in the air, just whip out a few photos of famous pianists, and that ought inspire them a bit:

This is Lang Lang.
And Martha Argerich.

Oh and p.s., on a side note I want to mention that STACCATO does not necessarily equal FAST, nor does it equal LOUD. Try challenging your students to play a SOFT staccato piece with a SLOW tempo.

Legato Phrases

This is actually two different concepts. It's one thing to play smooth and legato, and a whole different thing to actually play legato notes within a phrase.

As for legato: I like to illustrate smooth, connected notes by having my student walk across the room. We talk about how one foot cannot lift up until the other one is on the ground. (They can go ahead and try it. It is pretty near impossible, without jumping :)) In order to play a smooth, connected line of notes, one finger should not release its key until the next finger is playing.

Beginning students should learn the basics of playing a phrase. I like to tell my students that a phrase is a musical sentence. (This analogy works very well with all those little bookworms out there.) What would happen if you were reading a book, and there were no punctuation marks between the sentences? Would the book make any sense? Not really. There needs to be something that separates musical phrases (and sentences) in order for them to make sense.

That something is a slight lift of the wrist, like a little breath. A good way to teach this is to begin with two-note phrases, and have the student say, "down, up! down, up!" as they play and move their wrist down and up. Faber and Faber has a great little analogy called a "Wrist Float-Off." Pretend there is a balloon with a string tied around your wrist, slowly pulling your wrist upward. On a closed piano lid, let your wrist rise slowly (keeping your shoulder relaxed) until only the tip of finger 3 is touching the surface.

So there you have it - my take on beginning technique. I'd love to hear your ideas as well. Let us strive to give our students a wonderful foundation of technique to build on for years to come, even if we choose to "only" teach beginners!

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