Month: November 2012

Build a long-term relationship with your playing


This week I have been focusing on fixing my students’ technique, more precisely so the hand grip, the attack and the weight transfer. Then it got me thinking, how do I do to help my students understand doing such is of utmost importance in their playing?

The answer is simply: they are in for a long-term relationship with their playing.

Establishing a short-term relationship is like a piano student learning to play pieces for an exam or a competition and keep drilling on them, hoping for getting a result printed on an “official” paper, not caring about improving the technique and expressiveness in the playing whatsoever. That kind of playing does not last. S/he did not actually work on the playing, but rather, work on those pieces only. It is similar to a student rushing to cram in the information before a history exam, took the exam and forgot everything there is to it. Everyone when young has done this. Every teacher during the early stage of his/her career has helped students done this as well. It is nothing to be ashamed of. It is just life. We did not know better. But now we do. And we are in for good.

There had been times I was dissuaded enough that I tried to do something that was not for me, try to teach in a way that was not my desired way to teach. But that certainly did not last long, and I figured it out quite quickly. Those were the times I felt lost in my career. And because I did not feel that right in my teaching, I focused more on performance. I was shying myself away from being the kind of teacher I was inspired to be. I did not know how to be the kind of teacher I wanted to be. I was in that trial and error process, feeling in uncertainty my path through that dark tunnel of unknown alone to shape my way of teaching. It had taken me quite some years to build up to what has become of now. While I am certainly most proud of what I have achieved, I at the same time understand that I must continue to improve and go forward, with the hope of passing it on to my students, like what my teachers have done for me.

I believe a lot of piano teachers out there want to do the same thing like I do, educate their students and help them build a solid foundation of playing. But the reality sometimes dissuades them to do otherwise. I just want to say that we all are in this for good, so let us hang in here and work our ways through it, educate the community, the parents, and the students with our knowledge and expertise. We are the ones who know what are in for our students, aren’t we?

As for my students, here I am. I am here to help you build a long-term relationship with the piano and with your playing, helping you understand more about music, build a more solid foundation on piano technique, express yourselves more freely through your hands, communicate better with yourselves and your audience, and most of all, appreciate and love the music the way you want it to be.

It does not matter if you will only study with me for a day or a year or two. I am hoping to stay here for you, whenever you come back to me, or whenever you need my advice. That is what my old teacher has done for me, after all these years I finally see that happening to me. And the feeling and experience has been tremendous. So, thank you, Miss Grace for being there for me. You are not only a teacher on piano, but rather, a teacher on life. For that, I bow to you, I salute you. And I am aspired to do the same for my students as well. I also would like to take this opportunity to thank all the Teachers I have learnt from all these years, those real teachers who are not just in for the job and the money, but for the inspiration, education and the humanity.

I hope you all love the way you play, and love the music that surrounds you every single day, no matter how you play and what kind of music it is.

Teresa Wong

List of Articles on Piano Technique

My articles/videos about piano techniques: (I shall keep updating on this list)

Piano Technique I
Piano Technique II
Piano Technique III
Piano Technique IV
Piano Technique V
Piano Technique VI
鋼琴技巧 《一》
鋼琴技巧 《二》

My First Piano Technique Video
On Five-Fingers Exercise
On Wrists and Fingers
Piano Technique Video: Fingers- First Knuckle Support

Technique and Sitting Posture (Brahms’ 51 Exercises)
Brahms’ 51 Exercises (No. 10)
Brahms’ 51 Exercises (No.16a)
On Efficient Practice (Beethoven)

My Piano Method Book : Foreword (First Draft)
我的鋼琴書:前言 (中文版)

Piano Method Chart

Technique Exercises: Pros and Cons

Piano students and teachers in Hong Kong should be quite familiar with names such as Hanon and Czerny (and maybe even Burgmüller and Beyer), as these are the composers of the all-so-popular technique exercises that train our fingers to be “independent” and “strong”.

In my experience, I was trained when little (at graded levels) to work on many books of Czerny (Op.849, 599, 299 etc, and the last one 740, “School of Velocity”) and Hanon of course. I am not sure if I drilled on Burgmüller and Beyer but I most probably did. Later during my teenage years I was introduced to work on more “advanced” exercises such as Pischna’s “Technical Studies”, and much later during my undergraduate study, Brahms’ “51 Exercises”, Donhanyi’s “Essential Finger Exercises” (introduced by a fellow schoolmate to me during my summer study in Canada, but did not really work on it), Cortot’s “Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique”, and of course Chopin’s “Études”, which in my opinion (and I am sure most readers would agree) are not really exercises but concert pieces.

Looking back at those technical exercises I did, I would say they had been useful in various ways. For instance, I worked on so many Czerny exercises that my fingers were comparatively fast in executing running passages with much clarity already when young. Hanon wise, I did not know until much later that the exercises were supposed to be transposed and practiced in all different keys obviously without teacher’s explanation (she probably
did not know that herself either) so I always practiced all the exercises given in C major only. They were probably good for developing the so-called “finger independence” at the early stage of my training as well. Later during my undergraduate years I picked some of the exercises and used them for weight transfer practice, incorporating arm movement into finger works. It was then when I found with the same exercises one could use them for training of different/specific techniques, only on the condition that one knew how and what to do with them.

Other than these obvious and familiar exercises, I also made up some exercises to work on the weight transfer and different arm movements, based on what I read in the books by Bernstein and Sandor. For weight transfer, I used some weight straps wrapped around my wrists to emphasize and feel the weight under my fingers. I would make up some exercises based on the pieces I was working on in order to improve my technique at the same time get more familiar with the pieces. These were the exercises that I did in the past years.

For me, practicing technical exercises can be beneficial, as long as one knows what techniques s/he is working on and how to implement them in the exercises as well as in real playing, that is the repertoire. Otherwise, if one practices these exercises mindlessly without understanding what s/he is doing, one can easily strain his/her hands or even develop long-term injury in the hands/arms. As always, mindful practice is the key to enhance one’s playing and bring it to the next new level.

Teresa Wong

P.S. If any readers would like me to elaborate on how to work on specific exercises/techniques, please do let me know.

Read more of my articles about piano techniques on:
On Five-Fingers Exercise
On Wrists and Fingers
Technique and Sitting Posture (Brahms’ 51 Exercises)
Brahms’ 51 Exercises (No. 10)
Brahms’ 51 Exercises (No.16a)

Piano Playing: Art or Science ?

A couple months ago I joined a coffee making event, in which coffee lovers shared their enthusiasm as well as knowledge about coffee making and tasting. One topic they discussed was whether coffee making was science or art. Naturally I reflected on this and related this idea to that in piano playing: is it art or science?

Same as what we concluded on about coffee making, piano playing (or music making in general) is both – a combination of art and science. Certainly, there are many levels of coffee making just as those in piano playing. One can appreciate instant coffee like one enjoys pop music. Others might have preference on the origin of the coffee beans such as Guatemala over Yirgachaffe just like Mozart over Rachmaninov. Or one can be more refined and control each step of coffee making process with various apparatus (chemex, siphon, aeropress etc.), with much precision (timing, temperature) and technique: these steps and skills would directly control how the results (i.e. subtlety of various taste) turn out, which can be significantly different depending on the technique of the barista. Same is true for a pianist who is able to control and express the littlest details and subtlest changes in nuance, tone and musicality, with different levels of technical demand, artistic expression and life experience developed.

There remains a constant argument: what comes first, technique or musicality? It is that kind of question similar to “chicken or egg”. The technique part is the science of piano playing whilst musicality the art. Both cannot exist without each other. If technique is the sole element in piano playing there needs not be human but robots performing in Carnegie Hall. Yet musicality cannot be expressed fully and freely without the support of technical skills either, an essential tool without which musicality cannot even begin to exist let alone articulated. The two elements co-exist and are interdependent of each other.

As a teacher, I certainly have to take the balance and shape the two elements in a student’s playing. Some focus too much on executing perfectly and thus lose sense of musicality and fluidity while others are too concerned with the mood and feelings yet become too sloppy in their techniques and execution. Either way is an imbalance of focus; one has to work on both aspects, which go hand in hand with and even complement each other, so that as one grows the other also progresses.

Some students (and parents) say they just want (their children) to have fun and enjoy music, so me as the teacher need not be so serious about having them getting the precise technique properly understood and executed. The truth is, if there is no technique supporting the playing, there would be no fun at all, as the students would encounter lots of problem expressing themselves and enjoying the playing that even countless hours of practice would not help. And so yes, I am talking about the first knuckles, the hand grip, the wrist, the weight transfer, the arm movement, as well as the solid execution of scales and arpeggios to begin with. These are just some of the basics and fundamental aspects that students should pay close attention to, at whatever levels they might be, as long as they have never fixed these before. With these basics, students can start to truly have fun, enjoy their playing and express themselves at their hearts’ desire.

In the next post, I shall discuss about the various technique exercises on their pros and cons and their application.

Teresa Wong

Teresa Wong: Scarlatti Sonata K.466

November 12, 2012

Teresa Wong plays D. Scarlatti’s Sonata in F minor, K.466.

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Note: For better viewing experience, please click on the post’s title and have the video mostly or fully loaded before you start watching it.