FIND-ING A PIECE THAT WILL KEEP YOU
ENGAGED WITH YOUR
HEAD AND YOUR HEART - AND EN-JOY Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject
Some people like to have a piano teacher who tells them exactly what pieces they should be tackling. Other people like to determine for themselves what pieces they want to work on and go to a teacher for advice on difficulties which emerge. As a teacher it is usually much easier if people have a clear idea of what they want to achieve than if they look to you to provide all the direction and motivation. Sometimes, however, it is a good idea with all pupils to make a strong suggestion as to repertoire which they should study. If the suggestion is suitable then almost all pupils will respond positively. And if it is not - well we can all learn from mistakes. But what makes for a suitable suggestion of repertoire, whether you are a teacher of someone else or simply teaching yourself? It may seem obvious but it is important that the choice of piece is not too hard. By this I mean that it is not SO technically demanding that your only possible experience will be one of frustration and a sense of failure. There are still pieces that I feel like this about having never had or made sufficient time energy and patience to make them ‘sound right’ despite many hours of practise. Sometimes I have looked at one of these pieces again - maybe twenty years later - and realised that the reasons why I abandoned the piece were to do with a lack of understanding, impatience, trying too hard; in fact many of the factors that I am exploring in these essays. It is in fact difficult to discern at a particular stage what is too hard for oneself. On the other hand it is also important that the choice of piece to work on is not too easy. If you can sight read a piece through with 100% accuracy that piece is too easy for you to seriously work on unless it is a piece which makes an extra imaginative and musical claim on your attention. With something like the famous opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata you may well be able to sightread it accurately but it could still be a really important piece for you to work on to develop your awareness of sound, voicing and inner pulse. With many pieces of comparable technical difficulty, however, they may prove useful as sight reading practise but not warrant taking up your time of serious musical engagement. The repertoire which you choose to work on needs to be music which both challenges you and rewards you. It needs to be musically engaging and it needs to be both intellectually and emotionally satisfying for you to practise. Sometimes you will be able to identify such a piece for yourself from something that you have heard; sometimes you will need the advice of a teacher or trusted friend. As a young teenager teaching myself I remember becoming obsessed with a piece which I heard on the old Third Programme (forerunner of Radio 3). I remember tracking this piece down in a music shop in Birmingham and spending hours and hours trying to get this piece to sound as I wanted it to. It challenged me; it engaged me emotionally and intellectually, and was the cause of many highs and lows in my teenage experience. If I had had a teacher, however, I would not have been given this piece to work on because it was much too hard. It was only years later when I had some lessons as an adult that I began to understand that Chopin’s Ballade in F minor is one of the real greats of the piano repertoire. I have come back to this piece at different stages of my life and still have a powerful relationship with it but I have still never felt sufficiently in control of it to perform it to an audience. There is a paradox here. The Chopin was too difficult for me when I tried to learn it, and yet I still think of it as one of the key stages in my lifelong love affair with the piano. Occasionally as a teacher you have a pupil who is determined to learn a particular piece and who will not be deterred by any amount of being told that it is too difficult. I remember a twelve year old boy once who was determined to play Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer in the original version even though he was not fluent in Grade 2 scales. Despite my protestations that it really wasn’t possible at this stage, he spent months and months working on the piece outside of the lessons until he could prove me wrong. I was amazed - and also really pleased. And I often remember this from many years ago when I have a pupil who wants to tackle a piece which is ‘too difficult’. The most important thing has to be a real engagement with a piece in both the intellectual and the emotional dimensions. If the head and heart are both fully engaged then the body will be prepared to do the work that is necessary.