Last Saturday I attended the first round of the European Piano Teachers' Association (EPTA) piano competition for the Surrey region. I'd invited five of my students to play who have exams looming as I thought it would be good performance practise for them. I wasn't too bothered about the competition element but it proved to be very interesting.
Because it was a competition there was an adjudicator. We were fortunate enough to have Masa Tayama, 'one of today’s most accomplished pianists, ... much in demand across Europe and Japan'. As well as his international performing career he has taught at Chethams, is a principal tutor on the EPTA Piano Teachers' Course and is currently a professor at the Elmitt Piano Academy where he gives lecture recitals and masterclasses.
At the end of each class Masa gave each student individual feedback which provided excellent suggestions for how to improve future performances. There were so many gems I thought it would be helpful to share them here. Before I do, they can be summed up as finding the meaning behind the music and conveying it. This leads to real music making rather than just technical playing of notation on the page.
Curve your fingers!
Instead of repeatedly making this point Masa made it at the start of each classes' adjudication. He made the excellent point that other musicians, for example string or wind players have multiple points of contact with their instrument. Pianists have just one: their fingertips. Therefore the fingertips need to be under control. This means each joint round and firm rather than collapsed. It is only with curved fingers that students will be able to make great progress at their instrument.
I started a drive for curved fingers this term by handing out play doh for students to press their fingers gently into before playing each day. Watch the video on how to use it here. I have talked about curved fingers with my students for years but was freshly inspired by Masa. My students will now be starting simple technical exercises to strengthen their fingertips and I'm assured by him that this will transfer into their general playing.
I have a lot of new beginners this term and not only have they received play doh too, I am very carefully making sure they play with curved fingers from day one. I used to do this and somehow over the years it fell down the list of priorities with young beginners in favour of having fun just playing the piano. It's now back at the top of the list!
'Look like you're having fun'
Masa mentioned that many performers looked like they 'had to be there' rather than they wanted to be there. His opinion is if they are going to be there anyway they may as well enjoy it! This was particularly the case for 'silly pieces' where students were encouraged to really let go and have fun with the piece. A case in point was one of my student's pieces entitled 'Waltz of the Toads' which is a waltz written for very inelegant creatures. So he suggested really getting into the character of the piece and playing it inelegantly! I'm looking forward to the next lesson where my student will be given the choice whether she wants to play it like that - I must say it's much more fun this way and sounds great!
Whether the piece is silly or not, the point was to look like you want to be there and that you're enjoying yourself!
'Where's the pulse?!'
Masa noticed that in several performances he couldn't really locate the pulse. The pulse or beat gives music some of its character and in classical music we want to emphasise beat 1. Of course this isn't always the case and the waltz mentioned above is a case where we abandon this rule and emphasise beats 2 & 3! But generally when playing students need to show the pulse by emphasising beat 1 and putting less stress on the other beats.
There was much talk of dynamics. Dynamics are the different volumes we can use when making music. He made excellent suggestions about using imagery when thinking about them. If the phrase is forte (loud) is it an angry loud, an excited loud etc. think about what sort of mood the loud is and that will influence how you play it. The same with piano (quiet)- why is it piano here - is it scared, timid, shy, gentle, kind, - think about the mood and try to convey that in your playing. One point he made repeatedly was 'do dynamics because you want to, not because you have to'. If you can find the meaning behind the dynamics then you will want to do them, because you've found the point of them!
Dynamics combined with mood, character and pulse give the piece it's meaning - the meaning needs to shine through in every performance and that is where the real music is made. Not in just deciphering the notation, but finding the meaning behind it and conveying that.
It's your turn!
So, you've done all the hard work. You've learned your piece, you've found the meaning, you know how you're going to convey it. Now it's time to go and play it for other people to enjoy!
It's scary going up and playing in front of an audience and it's tempting to rush through the performance and be pleased when it's all over. But Masa pointed out that when you go to the piano it's your turn. It's your turn to be listened to, to have a go, to share the lovely music you've been learning. So relish this time, enjoy it and go for it! Try to forget about the audience and just enjoy your music making, showing the character and mood of the piece.
A parent whose child played on Saturday said to me at the next lesson that the children will only do what their teacher has told them, which is true. I explained that this was an opportunity for her child to play for someone with so much more experience than their teacher is likely to have. Someone who's not readily available to teach young beginners, someone who has performed and taught at the highest level, who can bring new ideas and fresh insights for students and their teachers alike. Parents - if your child ever gets an opportunity like this then go for it! Make sure they are well prepared and take along some paper and pen to write down the comments to give to the teacher. The feedback will be well appreciated.
Not only was this a learning experience for my students in terms of gaining performing experience and receiving feedback, but it was one for me too. A chance to refresh my teaching, be reminded of what's important and listen to new ideas for how to teach what's important. I have come away from Saturday freshly inspired to look for the meaning behind the music and help my students find it and convey it too. I'll leave you with a Chopin Waltz which I performed at a Meetup group the following day which has great meaning to me.
Director of Surrey Music School.