The Black Hole of Piano Study

There is often a big gaping hole in the piano education of classical pianists. Many of us can play very advanced pieces with great artistry, have great technique and are very accomplished pianists - but what happens when someone sticks a fakebook or lead sheet in front of us? Or when we are asked to play something in a different key? Or when we are expected to improvise or play a song by ear? Even many of the most advanced pianists get weak in the knees in such situations and are not able to do these things.

In Martha Baker-Jordan's Practical Piano Pedagogy, she refers to this phenomenon as the "black hole of piano teaching." She says,
There seems to be a huge void in the universe of our classical piano training and concertizing that I call the "Black Hole of Piano Teaching and Performance." The gravitational pull of this hole is so strong that the functional keyboard skills of harmonizing, transposing and improvising (all of which can include reading chord symbols) are sucked out of our world into oblivion. Concert pianists, studio teachers, even piano and pedagogy professors, all are affected, and many go through life without ever acquiring these skills. I include composing here as well, even though it isn't normally thought of as a functional skill. I believe that composition is also a vital part of piano study and that the ability to teach it is just as important as it is for harmonization, transposition, and improvisation. (Baker-Jordan, p. 243)
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I personally did not really learn these basic keyboard skills in all of my years of pre-college piano study, except for the occasional transposition exercise and basic instruction and exercises involving seventh chords. And even though I was the pianist in my junior high and high school jazz band for a few years, I somehow (amazingly) was able to skip over that whole improvising thing, because I never had a teacher who helped me with it and I felt too completely lost and self-conscious to attempt it in front of the whole class.

So, what is wrong with this picture? Why is it that so many pianists get to such advanced levels of study and ability without these basic skills? I remember in one of my college keyboard classes, we had the assignment to be able to sit down and play "Happy Birthday to You" by ear. I suddenly realized that I had never even thought of trying that before. And I remember thinking about the panic I would feel if I were at a party, and somebody (knowing I was a piano performance major) asked me to play that on the piano to accompany the singing.

So, I would like to focus on this important topic here on The Teaching Studio this week! How are we, as teachers, doing in teaching our students basic, functional keyboard skills? Can our students play chords and harmonize from a lead sheet? Do they feel comfortable improvising? Can they transpose a simple piece up a half or whole step? Or to an entirely different key altogether? Do they have opportunities to compose their own pieces? Can they play multiple lines of music at once (such as an SATB choir song?), or play from different clefs? I can't wait to hear lots of comments this week!

Please take a minute and take our "Black Hole of Piano Study" Survey!

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