The Most Helpful Piano Lesson

The most helpful piano lesson I ever had was given when my teacher called a number of her pupils together in a class and actually showed us how to practice. Not told us how, but actually showed us how. I had had other teachers deliver long lectures on how to do it but this was the first time one ever demonstrated her method to me with her sleeves rolled up – and nothing up her sleeve!

In this lesson the teacher memorized a page and a half of a piece which was entirely new to her and worked it out as she would have done by herself.

She read it over once to see what it was all about and, without losing any time, she went right to work on the first phrase and memorized as she went along. I was surprised at the great number of times she repeated over and over again so small a thing as half a measure. When she had gained a working knowledge of the whole phrase she went over and over that, trying it in many different ways as to touch, pedalling, and fingering, and upon deciding which was best, she then practiced the approved version numberless times until she really knew it in her mind.

I had thought that when musicians began to approach perfection they discarded childish things like counting aloud. It was a surprise, then, to hear this teacher rigidly counting each measure. I concluded right then and there that she really had nothing up her sleeve – that there was no magic about it, nothing but hard work and a never-say-die spirit. My great regret is that the first teacher I had did not do something of that kind for me. It would either have made me quit then and there or it would have saved the years of useless dreaming of royal roads to success and countless hours of poorly directed and misapplied practicing.

The teacher of whom I write opened my eyes to the fact that acquiring a repertoire or playing a single piece was an accomplishment of an architectural sort – a thing built up piece by piece. Her first running over the selection was like a builder studying over the general plan. The practicing over and over again of one phrase was like the laying of the foundation, then each part was properly finished off before adding the next. What she did with the second, the third, and the remaining phrases was but a counterpart of her work on the first.

When she had done all of that she laid aside the notes and played the piece from memory. And I could see the value of each piece of preliminary work.

It reared up a perfect, finished structure, not the poor patchwork of mistakes, glossing-over, and lovely embellished fakes of the poor amateur musician-architect. When it was all over most of the class went home to practice as rapidly as they could, and for the first time they really knew how!