Teaching Basic Technic
Last week, we learned about the basic motion of rotation. Are you ready to use rotation on a real work of music? Great! But first we need to take a brief detour.
The most important activity my beginning piano students perform in their first piano lessons is singing, and then playing, pentatonic folk songs. This is because I want them to experience piano playing primarily as an aural and kinesthetic art, rather than one that is reading-based. I introduce steps (two next door notes), skips (two notes separated by one note in the middle) and leaps (anything bigger than a skip) in this context—as something one hears and feels, rather than lines on a printed page. We sing, before taking it to the keyboard.
It’s not long before I progress to half steps and whole steps. A half step is two keys as close as possible together; a whole step is two keys, separated by one key in the middle. Confusing? It could be, since the definition of a whole step is dangerously close to that of a skip.
Here’s where a listening-based approach really pays off. The definition may be similar, but the sound is not close at all. Students hear and understand this readily, after some repetition. We are laying the groundwork for a conceptual understanding of scales. They are built on patterns of half steps (semitones) and whole steps (tones).
The D Song
Tobias Matthay felt that fundamental movement problems in scale work were always functions of rotation. That is correct, in my view, so it’s important to introduce the rudiments of rotation early in piano study to avoid later problems. Let’s do it with The D Song, after the notes have been learned. We’ll start with just one note.
If you want to perform any kind of movement, you have to prepare in the opposite direction. If you want to put your foot down to step, for instance, you have to lift it first. If you want to throw a ball forward, you have to wind up backward.
The first finger to be played in The D Song is the thumb. Because of its length (or lack of it), the thumb is always played with a medial rotation, toward the middle of the body. That means that the preparation has to be lateral, away from the body.
Here are the steps, starting with the left hand:
- gently rest your thumb over middle D
- rotate (turn the doorknob) laterally, to the left. Your thumb should lift and be facing up at about a 45 degree angle
- flex your fingers so that they are strong—not stiff, but not totally relaxed, either
- I show students the correct flexion by asking them to hold a Beanie Baby, before we start the rotation process. The fingers should be firm enough that the Beanie baby doesn’t drop, but not so strong that the Beanie Baby is clenched
- release the energy of the arm and let the forearm fall and the thumb push into the key, in good thumb position. If you do it right, you will get a full, resonant, bell-like sound
- the arm continues the rotary movement medially, to the right. This is not a separate motion, it’s a continuation of the forearm motion that caused the thumb to play. The thumb rolls a bit to its side, so it is resting briefly on the nail
- an important component of this process is that the thumb has to relax once it has struck the key, so the rotational movement can continue, while the thumb lightly holds the “D” key down. It should not be pressing as it rests on the keybed.
Is this too much information for a beginner? for one note? Way too much, if you try to present it all at one time in words. I don’t do that. I demonstrate, I make up stories, I correct as I go, and I don’t expect too much perfection at the beginning.
More notes—and gestures–to come!
Teaching Basic Technic
- D is a good note on which to start singing, since it is well within the range of most students. For our purposes right now, it doesn’t matter too much whether you use a traditional solfège approach or simply sing note names. A simple two-note song may take some students several weeks with which to match pitch. Don’t worry, it will come as long as they keep singing. ↩