Res severa est verum gaudium – “True joy is a serious matter.”
In a time where the world grinds to a halt, where quarantine is becoming the new normal, I believe in the value of arts, specifically the art of music. I also believe in the value of musical activities in our modern society. As a piano teacher, I take pride in demonstrating to students the extensive expressions possible on the piano. My gift to my students is the path to their personal true joy – music enhances one’s ability to communicate and connect, internally and externally.
To realize the above grandiose ideals of piano studies, there are multiple practical layers to its process that should be discussed. The first is discipline, a component we encounter regularly across all studies. For adult students, discipline is a simpler issue, which often ties to building a habit of reading scores and interpreting markings carefully. Advanced students often execute their grand concepts at the expense of the composer’s intentions; mistaken as freedom, this is in fact a disrespect and failure in comprehension. Freedom cannot exist without discipline, and to truly convey the timeless poetry left for us by composers in the past, the student must learn to discipline their personal emotion. Freedom will come as the student learns to unleash their personal feelings at the appropriate moments in the music – otherwise it would be chaos.
Regarding discipline in young students, most children I have taught are inherently curious and excited for knowledge, yet lack the habit to practice outside of lessons. For students under the age of 8, I ask parents to help them build the habit of playing 15 minutes a day for four to five days a week, following the tasks and steps laid out in lesson plans. To retain any new-earned ability on the piano, consistency is the key; the human brain builds neural pathways over time, not from single instances of high volume drowning of information. I often use the soccer analogy when parents seem confused: a soccer team needs to practice weekly or more throughout the season to be playing in games, the coach could never schedule a last minute 4 hour practice the day before a game, and expect the kids to perform well. The same goes for math, fencing, dancing, calligraphy, and piano.
In the past, parents have argued with me by saying that children should not be forced to do something they do not want, and that if they do not want to practice, they shouldn’t have to. To this, I regret to say that most children do not understand the cause and effect of work and reward; I certainly did not understand it until the age of 10, at the earliest. Work is work and most of the time not fun, it requires systematic self-examination and self-correction, but the reward includes satisfaction of self-improvement and recognition from friends, family members, and teachers. This is a personal growth that can only be earned, and remain a part of oneself that cannot be taken away.
After establishing a healthy attitude and work ethic, the second layer to piano studies is the technical aspect. The word “technique” is often linked with flamboyance and show-off, but a good foundation in technique is a necessary vehicle to carry out artistic visions, something I have personally learnt the hard way. Before I decided to pursue music professionally at the age of 16, none of my teachers thought I would play the piano seriously and never taught me proper technique. Teachers one after the other deferred this responsibility to the next, and although I picked up certain skills along the way, I developed tension, back pain, nerve pain in my upper spine and pelvis, slipped disc, etc. For years, practicing became a physical torture, until I met my teacher Alan Feinberg. After a few months of work, I rarely feel pain from playing piano and if I do, I am able to identify the cause and fix the issue. My enjoyment for playing returned with renewed passion, and when I started adopting his methods on my adult students, they all showed significant improvement, playing with ease, stronger core in their sound, and a fuller understanding of the physical structure of their own hands. My experience of suffering from poor technique gave me a perspective on the importance of a healthy technique, and I take technical operation of the instrument seriously in my teaching, so my students can pursue their highest level of achievements, free from pain and injuries, for years to come.
The last aspect that I focus on in my teaching, which is the most difficult to teach, is ideas. I follow a very basic approach based on the belief that music is either a song or a dance (often both), so I ask my students to sing and dance to demonstrate the musical idea. This is a method I learnt from my teacher Paul Hersh, who nurtured my true joy in music. Piano is a percussive instrument, and with its vast possibility, students are often caught up in the operation of the instrument, unable to tap into any voices that come from within. A story of Chopin’s teaching illustrates the secret to musical artistry: he would ask his students how much they practice, and whatever answer he received, he would say, practice half that amount. Take the extra time to go to the museum, watch the symphony and opera concerts, submerge in culture.
This is also what I tell my students, the best thing you can do for yourself is to absorb influences around you, inform yourself, further your stylistic knowledge, and use it in your music. Experiment, play for others, be open to constantly molding the idea, and allow it to evolve. I lead my students to form their visions with informed and concrete choices, and most of all, I push them to find in themselves their need to express musically. I believe in the power of enunciating what one most desperately needs to manifest, and the connections born out of it. These connections, both inward and outward, can shape my student’s identities, give purpose and meaning to their time, and bring true joy.
The rewards of music cannot be valued materialistically, and everyone deserves to be supported along their pursuit. As a teacher, I take my student’s artistic journey seriously and I see in each of them their full potential. The satisfaction of successfully guiding them to access the world of music and realize their vision in it, is my personal reward of being a piano teacher.