Teaching

Teacher-Musician Dr Michael Spacie LRSM (Piano Performance), LTCL (Piano Recital), LTCL (Piano Recital), LLCM (Piano Recital), LLCM (Piano Performance) etc..

Being a successful musician is not necessarily about a record deal, making lots of money, being well-known with fame or being a celebrity. It can be about following a musical path on a journey to greater understanding and to a place that immerses deeper in music as an art, applying along the way a high level of skill and discipline to one’s musical activities, gaining enlightenment and satisfaction from a greater insight, wisdom and knowledge as musical success can take many forms, the fruits of which can be passed on to others.

Composition

Teaching music is not solely an activity with subject knowledge but a profession for the teaching-musician which is one reason why the ability to compose as well as perform is important. Formal training in music does not stifle creativity and it does not necessarily mean you have to follow ‘the rules’. Both composition and improvisation are a great way of measuring musicianship. Professionalising music education is achieved with evidenced innovation, creativity and dedication.

Composition is how a composer thinks in sound and should be a fundamental form of musicianship by development of the inner ear particularly with the hearing of harmony, chord types, chord progressions and ‘voice leading’. To compose successfully, the musician first requires an idea about the mood, the harmony to be used and the general ambience as well as how to shape a melody, create rhythmic subtlety, create differences in similar ideas, rhythmic motifs, sequencing, question and answer phrases, melodies with altered accompaniment patterns as well as how to balance sounds and how to communicate the complete piece to an audience. Once the original musical stimulus is in place, the rest should follow on generated from the original idea. One of the important facets of piano composition is to create a harmonic structure before any melody is composed and constructed. Creating an effective harmonic pattern can easily yield a tune, whether a full presence of melodic line or evidence of melodic motifs or fragments. This forms the basis for added complexity of a wider range of ideas using the inherent harmonic colours which then evolve to become more widely available in the compositional process in creating an individual or unique piece of music that may consolidate an existing style without producing pastiche. Repeating rhythm patterns, exact or with subtle variation can provide unity by integrating various rhythmic complexities. Patterns can be repeated and feature in several phrases elongating the composition and providing a vital expansion tool. Articulation marks such as staccato, accents and tenuto can have a structural sense as well as expressive function bringing alive the internal structure cohesively. The sound is further enhanced by the use of the left una corda pedal and the right damper pedal on the modern piano (present at least since the developing piano towards the end of Beethoven’s life as reflected in his later keyboard works, and, with Chopin the metal plate in the Paris Pleyel Pianos which he so adored), contributing to a smooth legato with syncopated/legato damper pedalling and the una corda as a colouristic pedal also enhancing the tonal warmth, harmonics, colour and general atmosphere where appropriate: a significant step forward from Mozart’s Anton Walter rather soft-toned Viennese fortepiano made of wood with distinct clarity of bass and quasi-clarinet sounding treble register. It is worth remembering here that the epitomisation of the Mozartian style in Vienna was a somewhat clear and satisfactory melodic line with largely uncomplicated accompaniments. Even the fortepiano was a significant development from the Harpsichord with no dynamic range and breaking chords due to the plucked mechanism (as opposed to the struck mechanism of the modern piano) and the Clavichord with a dynamic range of ‘p’ (soft) to ‘pp’ (very soft) with a bass that would distinctly rattle, albeit in modern day thinking the latter are instruments in their own right. Furthermore, on the modern piano, by just touching the top of the keys producing the minimum of sound gives rise to interesting pianistic touch and tone. This, along with good left-hand facility produces a greater intensity of tone colour and overall an effective and impactful performance. However, expressive ideas are best when they support structural coherence and not get in the way, or too much self-indulgence arises creating an unwanted distraction to the message and story of the music. A balance has to be achieved.

This website celebrates learning and achievements of students and tutor and where examples of composition and piano technique can be found on the ‘Performances’ page of this website. Here the compositional and piano technique skills of teacher-musician Dr Michael Spacie are evident.

Piano technique

In lessons, it is important for the teacher-musician to teach notation, music literacy, and rhythm in order to form a strong technical basis, also creativity and musicianship as well as pianistic skills. A holistic approach is important rather than simply ‘teaching’ by purely correcting errors. A good tutor will take elements/features from a piece of music to build an in-depth understanding of how music works. Technical work may include ambidextrous playing where the left-hand is as equally involved as the right-hand with distinctness and musical shaping of notes. Also circular wrist movement is crucial in flexible piano playing whether moving from note to note or using movements to encompass larger groups of notes or various note patterns. Tension is required to play a note but release of that tension after the note has been played is important too. A relaxed feel in the arm and hand with a loose wrist and use of the arm as a hinge to provide the right amount of weight is crucial along with the finger somewhat stretched to produce a louder sound and the finger close to the key to play a softer sound. A range of subtleties of tone can then be managed rather than striking the keys from above and producing the wrong sort of sound for that particular moment. Furthermore, the wrist moves when playing a note through roughly the stages of neutral-downward-neutral-upward-neutral positions, being connected with a circular movement of rotation avoiding wrist tension and almost ‘caressing’ the keys for flexibility as should be evident watching any good pianist play. Circle shapes are useful in moving from one note to another releasing tension with the wrist and relaxing the hand through circular wrist movement whether single notes or larger groups of notes or various note patterns or clusters. Using fingers from the hand joints with the pads of the fingers on the keys along with the free movement of the arm and wrist is important for producing a musical sound from the resonating parts of an acoustic piano. Correct technique helps musical fluency with satisfaction for the listener along with quality musicianship. The hand, wrist and arm should ideally support the fingers with rotational wrist motion essential for finger strength, flexibility of the wrist and the release of the tendon of each of the fingers and of the tendon between the fourth and fifth finger. The finger tips are used to gain strength with appropriate sonority, for when a key is played, any tension should be immediately released by allowing the wrist to move down followed by an upward movement – a circular wrist enabling relaxation and release of tension which helps to produce a rich tone by further movement to the following note with the whole arm moving behind the note with essentially the wrist absorbing the tension giving rise to a subtlety of tone. It is important to round the wrist correctly and learn how to press the fingers into the key to produce different tones and colours and also how to phrase correctly. Also, each finger has strength built with piano playing and each has the capability of a different nuance and character but working together as a whole to produce piano music colours. The specific choice of a finger to play a certain note in a phrase can help to shape that phrase in a certain way and produce a certain effect. Furthermore, the ideal touchweight required to depress a piano key with minimum pressure to enable it to go down is around 50 grams (two ounces is almost 60 grams which is a little heavy; conversely, repetition could be poor with less than 43 grams). However, touchweights will have different applications for various dynamic levels and articulation.

Avoiding stiffness in the wrists and also the forearms is important even if the fingers are supple and well-developed in terms of good technique. Appropriate relaxation of the muscles and tendons and freedom of the forearm gives greater control and hence freedom for nuance of expression achieved by the forearm preparing in advance for the next note, chord or phrase, and not being jerky; preparation is of importance in gaining pianistic control. Different pieces of music will demand various forearm movements such as moving in the same direction or in the opposite direction as witnessed when playing hands together in Bach Chorales or Hymns for instance. An expressive ‘singing’ sound can be achieved by ensuring the forearm is behind the top note (soprano line) of each SATB 4-part chord, albeit, different ‘voices’ (lines) of alto, tenor and bass can be emphasized for a ‘singing’ sound also. In piano writing, octave movement requires closeness to the keys and a fairly low wrist with a slight rotation movement and one finger that leads or guides such as the thumb in the right hand and perhaps the fourth or fifth finger in the left hand thus creating a lead from the left side of each hand due to its symmetrical arrangement. Any accompaniment chords to accompany octaves should be balanced with the right amount of weight and not overshadow any melody disguised as octaves. Here the fingers should be close to the piano keys for a semi-legato effect. Fingering is crucial: once a fingering is working to produce a musical effect, it generally shouldn’t be changed as the brain is hard-wired to play patterns and sequences. Broken chords, scales and arpeggios are advisable to familiarise with proper and good pianistic fingering. Practicing fingering patterns will consolidate them, usually achieved by careful, initial slow practice. For more advanced pianists, finger patterns may be based on musical experience rather than being ‘prescribed’, therefore, working out new patterns that are convenient. Finger tips are best used for scalic passage work along with a flexible wrist and curved finger position, although a flatter finger position can be workable for any chords containing black notes for subtlety of nuance if the style of the piece demands. In addition, placing a thumb on a black key was once thought not to be satisfactory but is generally now more accepted. Fingers can have their own character and touch with perhaps the third finger and the thumb being the strongest; however, at times the fifth finger may sound out of balance in terms of strength of tone. Moreover, different finger strengths may be apparent to different pianists although almost always the fourth and fifth fingers will need power to be further developed and supported by the knuckles. Fourth and fifth fingers used in passage work as well as the thumb, second and third fingers will lead to a more even and balanced peformance with a more natural feel and often better hand movements will result without tension and without the hand and wrist ‘locking’. Necessary and accurate thumb placement is important too as the fingers will likely fall into place, creating a balance of evenness over the five fingers collectively. Lessening thumb accentuation will often help to shape a phrase more musically. Sequences can help the student absorb finger patterns as they entail repeated patterns. Alberti bass broken chord patterns can be practised using block chords with the allocated fingering; however, repeated notes often demand a different finger to be used to increase the variety of nuance but also at times the same finger can be used for repeated notes if more comfortable which can in turn create a more even and smoother onward movement for repeated note patterns. The second finger is a good choice for repeated notes keeping it in close proximity to the keys for control and clarity and just tapping the key repeatedly with the second finger. Furthermore, an organist’s trick of finger substitution is equally applicable to the piano. It entails holding a key down with one finger whilst quickly changing to another finger or thumb ensuring the note is held for the full duration of its value. Rather than over-using the sustaining pedal to join note passages, finger substitution can aid legato (smooth and connected) playing of a line/melody creating smoothness and fluency, thus an unbroken musical line can be produced often with movement of other notes concurrent. Also, finger sliding can be achieved by using the same finger e.g. thumb followed by another thumb movement or any finger followed by the same finger sliding from one note to another to help the music have the appearance in sound of being joined; the technique is best done using adjacent notes but need not be restricted to this. An even intensity of the two notes involved is beneficial for full effect, therefore, the second note must match the first in sound level – a good technique in obtaining an effect of smoothness and evenness when appropriate and where required in the music. Importantly, not causing tension always has to be remembered with flexibilty in the wrist, arm and hand and thus not causing any problematic or damaging issues as a result of unwanted tension. ‘Finger pedalling’ is an important technique too. This is done entirely with the fingers by overlapping certain notes where notated on the page or where such artistic effect is acceptable by over-holding of some notes, and thus is reminiscent of harpsichord playing when the plucked mechanism of the instrument was a difficult medium in order to obtain sustained sounds. Such sounds became easier to produce with the fortepiano of Mozart’s time as the fortepiano which was made solely of wood (prior to the development of the metal plated (metal frame) Paris Pleyel piano favoured by Chopin and Debussy amongst others) was the first instrument to implement a pedal with early models boasting a knee-lever to operate a kind of damper mechanism. Furthermore, when playing the harpsichord, holding down a key whilst playing another (‘finger pedalling’) with the fingers was the only way of sustaining the sound, and this was not entirely satisfactory; however, an interesting technique.

Pianists releasing tension in their wrists and hands will help to prevent any tendency to tighten up when playing a passage, especially music moving at a fast pace. Pianists, on the whole, tend to process the treble clef more quickly with the attention defaulting to the melody line usually but not always scored in the treble clef. There can be delayed left hand movement when first learning a piece which can be corrected by a focus and emphasis on the left hand as a musical entity in its own right. Sometimes the student has to go back to basics to fix a technical problem or because sight-reading skills need improvement due to perhaps memorising everything they learn rather than reading music notation per se. Often sound will be inextricably linked to movement, particularly for advanced students, and if there is a mistake in the phrase or something out of place, it may well be linked to unnecessary physical movements and perhaps some tension in the piano-playing apparatus. Keeping shoulders, arms, wrists and hands loose and relaxed without tension and tautness is important as this could lead to tendonitis felt at the wrists and repetitive strain injury. Releasing tension as part of piano technique when a note or notes have been played helps to avoid such complaints. Having a good hand movement that is well-honed and prepared can help, along with a refined keyboard geography without tension but producing good control of movement. Practice is essential and not just aiming for the aural image/sound image, but instead, problem-solving using the score to form proper technique and musical interpretation using strategies such as slow practice, hands separately, small sections and perhaps a metronome but also using the practice strategy of doing away with rhythmic note values and other instructions and just finding the pitch contour of the notes in some sort of fluency without hesitation with each hand separately and also dealing with any direction changes through leaping without ‘reaching’ i.e. the hand helps to locate the notes without ‘extension’. Technique is not separated from the music per se just as music is not separated from the rest of culture, past and present. Indeed, assimilating scale, broken chord and arpeggio fingerings feed directly into playing the piano repertoire as many compositions contain these technical details particularly Baroque and Classical repertoire where, generally speaking, to feel as few strong beats as possible when playing aids a more natural sense of flow. Tone control is important in training pianists and should be introduced early on in lessons so that works by the Classical era composers such as Mozart and Haydn flow without mechanical accentuation on, for instance, the first beat of the bar, thus avoiding bumpy and uneven playing which is essential for achieving some sort of ‘singing’ tone. Also, to aid articulation a very tiny gap can be used before an accented note, a ‘Sforzando’ or a syncopation, particularly involving a tied note, again this helps for more musical and articulate playing which helps shape a phrase musically and communicates the work as a whole.

Teacher-musicians of diploma standard, particularly Licentiate level, will generally by their very success be lucky enough to possess an advanced natural technique. This can be largely self-created and will have developed somewhat inevitably and naturally or at this stage of competence the pianist will more than likely be in constant pain when performing. The advanced technique giving rise to spirituality in music is fairly easily achieved if you are relaxed when playing giving rise to ease of performance, control, musical insight and with a variety of tonal colours and subtleties. Pianists throwing themselves around when playing are perhaps misdirecting energy away from the fingers, distracting an audience and rather getting in their own way of the music and its spiritual path, thus distorting their own spiritual path. The pianist when performing has to remember the audience needs to be focussed on what is being expressed rather than too much awareness of who is doing the expressing.

This website celebrates learning and achievements of students and tutor and where examples of composition and piano technique can be found on the ‘Performances’ page of this website. Here the compositional and piano technique skills of teacher-musician Dr Michael Spacie are evident.

Performance and composition skills

Performance can be impactful but so can composition, the latter not necessarily being highly original in style and essence. Most compositions consolidate existing styles as well as some originality of unusual harmonies for instance. It is important that expressive ideas work fully in tandem with structural details of the piece of music overall. Composing and improvising helps you understand the building blocks of music i.e. phrases, punctuation, development of themes, construction of melody and how to produce pleasing and delightful sounds that engage the human emotions through sensitive playing and communication of characterisation, individuality, musical shape, sonority and musical colour. Performance markings can be called expressive markings are indicative of the structure of the piece and act often as a route map through a score. The music score presents choices, some aspects are movable, others not so. However, the illusion of the piano as an orchestra is interesting and again the many colours harnessed to the inherent structure of the piece of music. Flexible ‘rubato’ (flexible approach to timing) should always be subtle and natural and not self-conscious or a ‘correct’ or uninspired performance may arise in support of the ‘baggage and expectation’ of how a piece is thought to be played. Instead subjective imagery or telling a story behind the notes and music can help guard against an overly ‘correct’ version, or playing resulting without any meaningful engagement. To avoid a ‘generic’ performance and having something interesting to say involves an emotional and spiritual performance engaging and fulfilling through certain feelings, shapes and ideas of creativity and craftsmanship. For instance, if possible, when performing, guard against playing excessively under tempo with a lack of melodic projection; rubato is often best structured on gesture and musical shape and motifs having clear melodic direction. The teacher-musician can help the student to play more expressively and freely with skill and confidence exploring a colourful variety of sounds which can be connected to emotions and feelings as well as a spiritual path, but also depicting an event, situation or a story. Listening to what a student plays well is as important as the correction of any errors. A student may also play a great mistake, which is unintentional and may well sound better than what was on the page in the original score. Students should always be encouraged to feel good about themselves, for this is the receptor for musical growth and going forward on their musical path, for when a student plays the piano they have to think, feel and do with an absorption that is difficult to think about anything else at the same time. The performer can then have their own pleasing performance rather than imitating others or pleasing fashion or a whim of a particular person or getting somehow in the way of their own performance which will depend on mood, instrument and acoustics. Performance is very closely linked to composition and analysis with a quest for meaning and the teacher-musician should facilitate where possible flexibility and adaptability with spontaneity, always encouraging the student to explore musically.

This website celebrates learning and achievements of students and tutor and where examples of composition and piano technique can be found on the ‘Performances’ page of this website. Here the compositional and piano technique skills of teacher-musician Dr Michael Spacie are evident.

Teaching the student

The teacher-musician ideally will develop individual teaching styles and methodologies and ethos over decades of teaching which is more valuable than abstract theories of teaching and learning; the tutor will have acquired experience in how students learn and impediments to learning along with experience in assessment and planning and the promotion of independent learning for life; the tutor having an understanding of learning and how to assess it. The tutor will not simply teach on instinct but have the ability to explain aspects of both technique and interpretation. The tutor’s performing skills should directly feed in to the teaching skills and students highly benefit from musicians who are good quality performers with a good standard of instrumental expertise as well as fundamental skills such as the ability to hear how a music score should sound, an ability to sing at sight and a good grasp of complex harmony and counterpoint. Conducting a student whilst they are playing, particularly an advanced level student can very much help to express nuance and musical subtleties and encourage a variety of pianistic touches and range of tone colour as the piano is capable of a myriad of tonal properties through the understanding of the creation of musical motifs and their development, dissonance and resolution giving rise to harmonic colours with a balance between novelty and repetition, as the expression in performance needs to match the form and structure. The tutor should have a reflective attitude and be open to new ideas harnessed to increased musicianship skills, especially when setting a student’s pace of learning and structure to that learning, how to practise, and issues a student may struggle with. Some improvements are instant, but others can take weeks or months, so a long-term mindset is best irrespective of frequency or duration of lessons. Some students enjoy taking Graded exams and describe a good mark such as a distinction as one of their proudest moments, while other students like to use the exam syllabus to measure their level of musical progression without actually sitting an exam, yet other students purely learn for pleasure and see no contradiction between technique acquisition and playing simply for fun, and of course fun encourages motivation which fosters engagement; other students have a desire for a certificate as evidence of hard work and progress. The successful teaching-musician has the ability to meet the learner where they are, find out where the student wants to go and work together to help them along the journey of illumination and greater musical understanding, whether that be a graded examination, favourite tune, performance diploma, hymnody or the main stage of a public festival or concert or to simply play for themselves and/or family and friends where not only the performer but others can share musical enjoyment and inspiration in order to journey where previously not thought possible.

The essence of the Teacher-Musician

Teacher-musicians should have influence, take responsibility, be professional and transparent when dealing with students, parents and guardians, and inspire people. They should also of course have an understanding of safeguarding. The teacher-musician is essentially a mixture of honing one’s own skills and craft. Time is needed to practise and focus on oneself and one’s own efforts but when teaching you have to care more about others and give your time, often generously over and above what students pay for and that time has to be given sacrificially: balancing the twin activities of teacher and musician has to somehow be achieved.

The essence of the teacher-musician is to develop student minds and encourage open-mindedness, to think differently regarding music, to facilitate enthusiasm regarding progress and to continue to discover music throughout their lives away from the bombardment of the internet, emails, texts and the like and to enjoy the solitude and wonderment of piano playing.

Furthermore, having a classical training enables a student-centred approach to teaching whereby musicianship and musicality are developed rather than just simply having a focus on teaching notation and technical progression as important as these are. Any classically trained musician should be able to freely and excellently compose and improvise without difficulty in a variety of styles and genres ‘drawing the sound out of the instrument’ to share with others giving a sense of accomplishment and reward and restoring a work/life balance.

Performance qualifications

Holding the Licentiate piano performance diplomas from UK major examining boards (which are highly sought-after qualifications in the music world) develops and informs one’s own teaching. The LRSM, LTCL and LLCM performance diplomas are recognised among the leading diplomas worldwide. However, those teaching the piano will doubtless amount to more than the sum of their qualifications though having esteemed sets of letters after a teacher’s name will and should add an important dimension to a teacher’s grounding and status within their immediate community as well as further afield. Performance Licentiate diplomas are the proof of extensive and rigorous training arguably more than degrees in music where piano or instrumental studies may well be compromised in an academic degree structure due to pressures of time, focus on deadlines and last-minute learning. Degrees in music are plentiful in today’s society compared with the more rare Licentiate performance achievements which are a suitable culmination of years of training, high skill and knowledge levels and clear evidence of betterment, challenge and skill which is so essential to learning the craft of performing and artistry with proper time-evolved musical development and necessary technical competence and interpretative assurance. Licentiate performance skills are specialist skills which take time to learn and experience to perfect and are more of a natural musical development.

The teacher-musician can teach across many student levels and abilities by realising different resources and strategies work for different students. Music lessons therefore provide a technical and artistic approach and guidance; discipline of a regular practice regime can help progress; good teaching points out the positive aspect of a student’s playing and makes clear where improvements are needed building good communication. A performance can articulate and communicate what is felt and if a performance is convincing, the listening audience will also be convinced of the playing. Regarding a student moving to you from another teacher, the teacher-musician must ascertain concise details regarding current level and achievements; a brief outline of the current goals; any technical issues/interpretational issues currently being focused on; repertoire or styles of pieces to be worked on; for more advanced players, which printed edition is being used for a piece of music; the inclusion of aural and sight reading; whether specific tasks for practice are required; any areas of specific interest in piano music and music in general. Essentially, performance and compositional skills along with developing confidence and commitment are of fundamental importance.

Essentially, performance qualifications enable the teacher-musician to have a personal music connection to others. It is a gift to be able to inspire, teach, educate and motivate. It is great to see people grow in confidence over time and surprise themselves by what they can achieve, also when the learning process has developed to allow the freedom in the music to express something personal and of course the greatest joy is to see students happy with their progress. It is good to find the student’s learning pace and going with it. This inevitably allows time to cover creative aspects of playing as a student then feels supported and relaxed as well as exploring piano technique (which is connected to the mind) enabling students to understand their playing rather than simply emulate. It is good to share success with students and to see their appreciation of their learning when they have been inspired, helping them to play music which speaks with something extra special along with respect for that music and an absorption of its detail. This will not generally happen if overly-complex repertoire is used nor if a student or parent has unrealistic expectations nor if a student wants to cut corners or when mistakes are not embraced properly as learning but become a default way of playing without awareness of the same or when a student indulges in overly-negative self-criticism which can paralyse performance and take away the fun aspect. Also, technical and musical challenges are easier to solve and implement when the student wants the piece to sound better; once a technical issue has been overcome, the music can speak and the student experiences a greater awareness and musical satisfaction. Students should be enthusiastic about progressing, learning more music and aiming to do their best.

Spiritual path

Being a teacher-musician is not about playing at the biggest halls, or receiving the loudest or greatest applause or the best recognition. A teacher-musician has a larger and more meaningful contribution in many various ways. People don’t generally ask what type of pen was used to create a work of art or paintbrushes used to create a painting but the general aesthetic of the work is what is important and the manner of inner nourishment. The appreciating audience, public or person is not primarily concerned with technique, criteria, or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ expectations but the very essence of the way the artist has crafted and made the aesthetic which is felt and sometimes ineffable: the more greater the art but not necessarily the more complex the art, the more of a struggle it is to express in mere words. Something quite simple can have a profound effect on both player and listener. And, the standard or level of pianistic ability often has little to do with it either: an absolute beginner can produce something quite musical, profound and beautiful which is why Dr Michael Spacie enjoys teaching beginner pianists as much as any other level of musical ability right through to diploma level. He has enjoyed success with students on all levels and looks forward to helping more prospective students whatever their pianistic level or ability in the coming months and years. Duration and frequency of lessons are flexible.

Dr Michael Spacie LRSM (Piano Performance), LTCL (Piano Recital), LTCL (Piano Recital), LLCM (Piano Recital), LLCM (Piano Performance), DipABRSM (Piano Performance), ALCM (Piano Performance), LVCM(Hons) (Piano Performance), FLCM (Diploma in Music Literacy – Thesis (Music)), FVCM(Hons) (Musicology (by Dissertation)), FVCM(Hons) (Composition), FNCM (Research (by Thesis)), FNCM (Research (by Thesis)), FNCM (Diploma in Teaching Music), DASM(ICMusA) (Diploma of Advanced Studies in Music), LNCM (Composition), LMusNCM (Theory of Music), AMusNCM (Theory of Music), ANCM (Piano Teacher Diploma), BA(Music), MMus, PhD(Music).