Notes from the Piano

Photo by Clare Tallamy on Unsplash

Teaching Technique

Discussing technique and the teaching of it can be a contentious topic as there are so many different schools of thought about this subject.

There are many Pianists and teachers who have very strong thoughts about the ‘correct’ way to do this and the ‘correct exercises to use’, there are so many useful exercises and studies to aid the teaching and development of a good technique, and equally as many strong views on the subject.

Whereas some swear by Hanon, others by Corot, Beringer or Dohnanyi for example, others strongly believe that the Taubman technique is THE only way. Many teachers devise their own exercises specifically to suit their students’ needs and hands, and speaking to many pianist/piano teacher friends, many of us use a combination of exercises and studies both for ourselves and for our students.

In her excellent book ‘The Complete Pianist’ piano professor and concert pianist Penelope Roskell shares her ideas on technique, and the exercises which she herself has designed over many years of professional playing and teaching. Penelope believes that ‘the fundamental physical movements involved in piano playing are the same, whether at beginner, intermediate or advanced level.’ And that ‘It is never too early to teach good technique.’  I wholeheartedly agree with Penelope and think that lacking the technical ability to play repertoire of increasing levels of difficulty is the reason why many students become frustrated and can lead to students giving up playing altogether.

Whatever preferences and opinions teachers and students may have regarding the choice of studies and exercises, one thing I am sure that all professional teachers would agree on is that the importance of developing a good technique right from the outset, cannot be underestimated, neither can the damage done by either teaching technique badly or not teaching it at all. This is why the very first piano teacher is so important.

In some schools beginner piano students are initially sent to non-specialist instrumental teachers who may only be playing at grade 5 level themselves and may not know how to teach technique, these students are then passed on to a specialist when they pass grade 5! There is so much wrong with this approach, not least the focus being entirely on exams, but that is a topic for another post! My main issue with this approach is that by the time these students are passed on to a pianist they have developed such bad habits that their ‘technique’ is often working against them, and this must be addressed before approaching any more demanding repertoire. I feel both sad and angry on behalf of these students as technique is not an optional extra, it is an essential foundation skill and should be taught from day one, with good posture, good hand position, developing legato, learning how to make a lovely sound, otherwise we are just teaching musical typewriting surely?

Injury can also often be a result of poor technique and as Penelope Roskell says, ‘Teachers have a duty to protect their students from injury to the best of their ability.’

We need to know how to show students to play without tension, not just to avoid a harsh tone, but to help prevent injuries occurring.

There are so many issues around technique and so many possible negative outcomes from not building a solid technique from the very outset. It is also of foremost importance that the repertoire selected for the student is at the right level of difficulty for them technically and for their hand shape/size too, what works or worked for us is not necessarily going to be right for our students.

As Gina Bachauer said in an interview with Adele Marcus ‘every human being and every human hand is built differently. So you have to find exactly what suits you.’ 

We are lucky as pianists and piano teachers to have such a vast amount of repertoire to choose from, and it is our duty as piano teachers to really know our repertoire well enough to help students select that which is technically suitable for them and their own hand.  Unfortunately, our profession remains unregulated which means that just about anybody can teach piano and as Penelope says, we have a duty of care to our students. It is our responsibility to ensure that we choose technical exercises and repertoire which will ensure our students develop a strong technical foundation on which will serve them well on their musical journey.

Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.