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. Professionalising music education is achieved with evidenced innovation, creativity and dedication.

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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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 pupil 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 pupils, 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. Technique is not separated from the music per se just as music is not separated from the rest of culture, past and present.

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. 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.

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. 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 pupil 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 pupil plays well is as important as the correction of any errors. A pupil may also play a great mistake, which is unintentional and may well sound better than what was on the page in the original score. Pupils should always be encouraged to feel good about themselves, for this is the receptor for musical growth and going forward on their musical path. 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 pupil to explore musically.

Teaching the pupil

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 pupils 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’s performing skills should directly feed in to the teaching skills and pupils 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 pupil whilst they are playing, particularly an advanced level pupil can very much help to express nuance and musical subtleties. The tutor should have a reflective attitude and be open to new ideas harnessed to increased musicianship skills, especially when setting a pupil’s pace of learning and structure to that learning, how to practise, and issues a pupil 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 pupils enjoy taking Graded exams and describe a good mark such as a distinction as one of their proudest moments, while other pupils like to use the exam syllabus to measure their level of musical progression without actually sitting an exam, yet other pupils purely learn for pleasure and see no contradiction between technique acquisition and playing simply for fun; other pupils 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 pupil 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 pupils, 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 pupils pay for and that time has to be given sacrificially: balancing the twin activities of teacher and musician has to somehow be achieved.

Performance qualifications

Moreover, holding Licentiate piano performance diplomas from UK major examining boards develops and informs one’s own teaching. 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 pupil’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 pupil 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.

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 pupils on all levels and looks forward to helping more prospective pupils whatever their pianistic level or ability in the coming months and years. Duration and frequency of lessons are flexible.

Dr Michael Spacie LRSM, LTCL, LTCL, LLCM, LLCM, DipABRSM, ALCM, LVCM(Hons), FLCM, FVCM(Hons), FVCM(Hons), FNCM, FNCM, FNCM, DASM(ICMusA), LNCM, LMusNCM, AMusNCM, ANCM, BA(Mus), MMus, PhD(Mus).