Technique is the number 1 topic which comes up when teachers open up and reveal the areas they’re insecure about teaching. If you’re not sure about your own technique and even less sure how to go about teaching it, you’re not alone.
Before we dive into the different areas of technique you need to teach, we have to get one thing straight:
Technique does not mean scales.
When I talk about technique, I’m describing the way we move our bodies to play our instrument. When we teach technique we are teaching our students to use their bodies efficiently to create the sounds they want to create. If your student has good technique, they will play without tension and will be able to express themselves musically.
Scales, on the other hand, are dealt with in the next lesson on technical exercises.
I mentioned in the last lesson that the metronome can be a hot-button issue among piano teachers. Well, technique is an even hotter one with many heated debates and impassioned opinions.
We’re not going to get into any of the different schools of technique here. Instead we’re going to start with the foundations which pretty much everyone agrees on and then dive into some more specifics that the majority of sound pedagogues also agree on.
The foundation of technique at the piano is the way we sit at it. Your student should:
If you get these things in place for your students in lessons and in their home practice room, you’ll have a great foundation to build technique from. When you look closely, 90% of the questions I see from teachers about fixing a specific technique issue such as collapsing fingertip joints, low wrists or flat fingers actually stem from a posture issue. Get the foundations right first.
We need to teach our piano students to perform each of these basic articulations musically and without tension:
The order in which these are taught gets into one of those debated areas that I mentioned, but more and more leading pedagogues are moving towards teaching non-legato playing first. This means that for the first portion of their studies students will be playing detached notes.
The benefit of teaching non-legato to beginners is that they learn to use their whole arm weight to depress each key. This leads to a technique that is free from tension in the long term. Some students who play legato straight away are fine but others will develop poor tone, collapsing fingertip joints, tense hands and many other problems besides. It is not worth the risk.
Playing without a legato technique may not come naturally to you in the beginning as you’ll want to shape the phrases and make your beginner students’ pieces sing. I recommend practising all of their pieces with this non-legato technique so that you can demonstrate it effectively.
I believe in teaching pedalling as early as possible in a student’s journey. This fosters comfort and ease with using the pedal and opens up a whole world of musical possibilities which would otherwise be closed off from beginner students.
In the initial stages, students can play pieces and improvisations (such as those based on the pentatonic scale) where the pedal can be left down throughout. This does not require any special pedalling technique but it does allow them to experience the resonance and beauty that the pedal can bring out.
Legato pedalling (or ‘overlapping pedalling’) is the type that most of us use in our playing a majority of the time.
Training students to perform this action well can take many weeks, but it is worth teaching in detail rather than leaving it up to the student to muddle their way to the finished result.
I prefer to teach students to blend the notes more than they eventually will rather than lifting too early. It is easier for them to gradually pull the motion back earlier than to move it in the other direction. I teach them to do this with a basic series of chords at first but you can follow this same sequence with any exercise or piece.
Many teachers do this with a scale at first but the movements are the same. Walk your students through this slowly and practice enough in the lesson and they will learn to use legato pedalling far earlier in their studies and reading progression than you might have expected.
Many young students will be too small to reach the pedals yet. Students age 8 and over may be able to reach by sitting right at the front of the bench or half-standing. This is sufficient for playing pieces where the pedal is left down for the whole piece and the goal is simply to experience the sound of the pedal. You may, therefore, be able to wait for these students to be able to fully reach the pedals in order to teach them proper pedalling technique.
If you’re going to be teaching many younger students, however, you should consider investing in a pedal extender.
These devices allow young students to learn effective pedalling technique sooner. Without them, most 4-year-olds would be waiting until their 6th year of study to get to use the pedal!