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Piano Technique was a myth.
When I was younger I did not understand and believe much in technique. I thought, as probably influenced and taught by various teachers, that technique came naturally, that I just needed to practice more and did not have to work specifically to get it. Yet gradually I found even with hours of practice, my technique did not improve much. I then started to wonder if there was a problem with my practice. One should be able to play better when s/he practiced a lot, right? At first I did not know how to improve my technique. Naturally I asked my teachers. None of them gave me the answer I needed. Some of them just told me to practice more, while the others made it sound like some kind of fable or natural talent, that either you got it or not. Nonetheless, I did not believe so and desperately wanted to improve my technique so that I would not feel fatigue playing difficult repertoire for hours.
I set off my journey to find out the truth.
I was a bookworm, so I went to school libraries to find the books I needed. There were indeed countless books about this topic. I cannot say I had read most of them, but I did have a scan or quick read-through of a lot of them. I found most of them boring and empty.
With much persistence I found two books: Bernstein’s “With Your Own Two Hands” and Gyorgy Sandor’s “On Piano Playing”.
These are the two greatest books that have helped me the most in improving my technique, which has been completely transformed ever since.
I am not saying I have the best technique in the world, but I want to share with my students and readers what I have learnt and I hope this will help you too.
Having good technique gives you much ease in your piano playing and musical expression.
It grants you freedom.
And feeling free at the piano is one tremendous feeling.
Reading this book is important. But so is trying the techniques out.
Knock yourselves out with the methods here! You will find improving your technique is more than just drilling hanon and czerny mindlessly. Who says you cannot have fun while being serious at the same time?
Before we start playing, in piano lessons or practice, we need to have the right mindset. Only under such condition can a student learn and improve.
Now then, what is the right mindset? First and foremost, you have to have the positive learning attitude. That is, you are here to learn and improve. You want to play better. Respect your teacher and yourself. Trust your teacher’s guidance and try your best to follow. Whether in lesson or practice, you are there for yourself to better your own playing, but not for your teacher, parents, or friends.
Second, focus. Focus on your teacher’s instruction and your own playing. It is very important to stay focus during lesson and practice. Without focus, you are merely moving your fingers across the keyboard. So, focus, listen and play.
Third, be confident and have faith in yourself and your playing. If you keep thinking that you cannot improve, you will never improve. Trust yourself that you can play better. From this attitude, face the problems you encounter in the piece and find the right method to solve them. Never think practice is boring or it is a chore. If you think that way, it stays that way in your head. Think practice is interesting and it helps you improve. Indeed, practice is so much fun! For me it is a problem-solving musical activity, it is like you are reading a detective story and trying to solve the case by using the bits and pieces of the evidence; the rest of it is right there for you to find.
Don’t believe me that practice are fun? Try think of it that way before you start your next practice session. Prepare yourself with such positive and fun attitude. Walk to your piano confidently. Start you practice full of hope. You are the music detective trying to solve the case in this piano piece! You will find it a completely different practice that you have never experienced before. (more on growth mindset vs fixed mindset)
P.S. It works only if you believe it works!
April 13, 2010.
Latest Update: March 25, 2019.
Here are some of the most common questions I always get from enquiries. I feel I should answer them here for quick reference. More would be added gradually.
Q1. How old should my child start taking piano lessons?
I would say usually no younger than age 4. It is very hard for a child to sit quite still and concentrate through even a 30-minute lesson every week. It is also difficult for him/her to be able to understand the teacher’s direction, react to it and perform it. It takes time for a child at such a young age to adapt to such a new learning concept, but it is a very good training. It requires much patience from the child, the parents and the teacher, especially during the first six months. The progress might be slow and minimal during the first year, depending on the learning mode and maturity of each student. Do not expect a child to play something very fancy quickly at the beginning: quite on the contrary, we should take time to build a solid foundation of piano playing and musical concept right from the start. Naturally the fancy things will come later.
Q2. How long is a lesson for my child?
I suggest for young beginners, a 30-minute lesson every week to start with. As said before, a child cannot sit still and concentrate for more than 30 minutes (as a matter of fact, even adult’s concentration span is less than 30 minutes!). But a 30-minute lesson goes by really fast (I like it when a student tells me with a disappointed face, “wow, are we finished? I want to play more!”, than when a student feels bored and refuses to play, wishing the lesson can finish earlier.)
Depending on the progress, students usually proceed to 45-minute lessons after 2-3 months. Young beginners may even take longer time to go through the 30-minute lesson period (e.g. 4-6 months). Most importantly, we want your child to enjoy the piano lessons but not to detest them. However, some brilliant students who are fast learners would even take 1-hour lessons when 45-minute lessons are not enough to go through everything.
Some students who are siblings would take an extra lesson together for theory and composition. It is a wonderful thing to do so since they can learn more with less cost and time. There are many ways to improve and progress on piano playing away from the piano, and this is one of them.
Students of grade 8 and above must take 1-hour lesson every week. Some would take 1-and-a-half-hour lessons if resource and time are allowed.
Q3. Do you teach adults?
Yes, I do teach adults, from absolute beginners from scratch to diploma-level students. If you have never learnt playing the piano, start NOW! You have probably heard the old saying, “late is better than never”. It is true. Have you ever regretted that you never had the chance to learn playing the piano when you were little? Or you have stopped playing because of study, work or simply too many other things to learn or do? Do not think, “oh, but I am much older now, I cannot compare with the young children who start learning from early age!” Why do you think you have to compare yourself to them? You are you, you have your strong points and individuality. And you know what? Adults have their advantages in learning the piano. First of all, it is YOU who want to take lessons, not your parents. That is why you are here reading this. Second of all, adults know much better than kids, right? (Well, not in that tone as you think). But you have learnt much more during these years, you can process datas quicker, you can associate different materials easier, your hands and feet can coordinate better, you can read and understand faster, etc, etc. So start today, start now. Do not even hesitate for another second. Because, before you know it, it would be another month, another year, and another decade past, and you still have not started playing the piano.
For adult beginners, I suggest you start with 45-minute lessons first. Depending on the progress, you would proceed to 1-hour lessons when appropriate. Adult students with some experience should take 1-hour lessons weekly.
Q4. What do you teach in a lesson?
This is a simple question with a complicated answer. Although I have a teaching philosophy and methodology, I do not teach every student the same way. Every student is different and unique. I have to understand the way that is most effective for him or her to learn easily and efficiently in an enjoyable manner. Of course, sometimes there would be obstacles and difficulties in playing and students just have to deal with them, tackle them, and move on.
In general, I teach the classical repertoire as the mainstream but add music of various styles and genres (e.g. jazz, pop, musical etc.) to it on the side. I focus on building a solid foundation of piano technique and musical knowledge pertinent to a beautiful and individual playing. I also emphasize developing a good sight-reading ability and improvisation skill; these are the most neglected, ignored and underrated capacities so far among teaching nowadays, yet they are crucial for piano playing that lasts for a lifetime. For every student, I have a personal and detailed learning progress report. I make yearly plans for each student of what techniques and repertoire they have to learn and what goals they have to achieve (e.g. performances, competitions, exams). I review my reports frequently and communicate with the students and/or their parents regularly.
Q5. Can I buy an electric keyboard instead of a piano?
I understand the concerns behind buying a piano: one, buying a keyboard is much cheaper; two, you are not sure if you or your child is serious about piano playing or how long you will be staying in Hong Kong; three, Hong Kong’s homes are way too small to even fit in an upright piano! Yes, I understand all of these, but I do not suggest buying an electric keyboard. If all you want is to be able to play some music on a keyboard, an electric one would suffice to perform such trick. However, if you want to “play the piano”, then you need a real piano! The action of a piano is totally different from an electric keyboard (in fact I do not see any action there in the latter but an electric one) and it thus requires a special kind of technique and touch to play it and produce the diverse and beautiful nuances from it. The sound of a piano produced is also unique of its own that that of an electric keyboard cannot compare (the “grand piano” sound from a keyboard is so fake!). The technique required to play an electric keyboard is limited and therefore much simpler. Students should definitely buy a piano as soon as possible. And for those who haven’t bought an instrument and are considering about getting one, I suggest buying a good quality second-hand piano when there is a limited budget. You only have to be very careful about finding a piano company that you can trust. Even the so-called “new” pianos sold at some prestigious piano companies are not that well-maintained. You should ask your teacher or someone who knows piano to check it for you if possible.
For the parents are not sure if their young children are serious about learning the piano, I suggest you rent a well-maintained piano from a local piano company. You can use a decent quality piano at a lower cost. And when you like to buy it, the rental fee paid can be deducted from the selling price as well.
Q6. Do you teach at students’ homes?
My answer is NO. I strongly suggest students take their lessons at my place, for: 1. I have all my teaching materials and equipment here; 2. Students concentrate and learn much better at my place; 3. I don’t have time to travel to students’ places.
Q7. Can I take a trial lesson?
Yes, you can. I am flexible on this issue. I call this an “evaluation lesson”. Although I do not think you can see how I teach and how you or your child learn in one lesson, I think a trial lesson is good for us to meet and know each other a little before we venture into a long-term teacher-student relationship. In the trial lesson, we first share about our beliefs and goals for your/your child’s piano learning, then I assess the potential student’s playing and conduct a mini-lesson.
The trial lesson fee is the same as the fee for one regular lesson.
Note: All new students are required to take a trial lesson before I officially take them in as my students. (updated July 12,2011)
Q8. What is a consultation session?
A consultation session is a session in which we focus on solving specific problems regarding student’s playing or teaching. Examples are selected technique training, advices on exam pieces, preparation for diploma exams, etc. Such consultation is an one-off session, while a trial lesson is suitable for students who wish to take further lessons from me in a regular basis.
In case of any discrepancy between the Chinese translation and the original English text, the English text shall prevail.
Whenever I receive emails of concerned parents stating that their children seem to be losing interest in playing the piano, I always wonder, “Did I enjoy playing the piano when I was young?”
I started playing the piano when I was around 5. I could not recall if it was my own wish to play the piano (it has been a long time for me since age 5), but my elder brother had been taking piano lessons at a music center and it was only natural for me to do the same as well. I also could not remember if I liked to practice or not: I was a timid child at that stage, so I did as I was told to.
My Father was very serious about our music education. Not a musician himself, my Father loved to play the guitar while young. He also loved to listen to music, sometimes he would play records at home, from light classical to western pop. He was the one who took us to piano lessons two hours back and forth every week and taught us grade 5 music theory. He was also the one who taught us about discipline in our learning, that we needed to work hard on practicing our instruments.
My brothers and I loved to play piano duets together. They both learned to play the violin as well, so sometimes I would accompany them on the piano. My little brother and I were always eager to give each other aural training; it was of tremendous fun for both of us as we were able to go fast on everything and recognize the nature of an interval in a split second (blessed is our perfect pitch!). Our whole family would often go to classical music concerts together, to listen to solo piano or violin recitals, and local or foreign orchestras. I still recalled that we always had a nice dinner out before an eight-o-clock concert: we rarely went out for dinner so it was a big occasion for us all and sometimes, pizza for us kids!
I went through many piano exams throughout my student life. They were implemented on me when I was younger for sure, and I found them fairly bearable, possibly due to the fact that I did like (or not hate) music and playing the piano. I did go for some higher diplomas on my own later on. It seemed, such idea cast by others surrounding me, that the exam results were almost the only indications of one being a successful piano player or even person in Asia, only when I found out in the States and Europe that nobody had ever heard of or cared about these “letter-bearing” qualifications. As I mention many times in my post, I do not oppose the idea of taking exams, but they do not mean anything if one stops playing and practicing. Students who are taught to enjoy playing and making music are those who will stick to their lessons and are confident of themselves in their progress and performances.
So what is my point here? It is plain simple. First of all, if you want your children to love playing the piano, it would be much easier that you appreciate music yourself. You can create a musical environment for your children to submerge in, e.g. singing together, enjoying music at home (playing records or even just listening to the local classical music radio channel), going to concerts (especially the ones suitable for children), listening to their practice, holding mini-performances at home with family and friends as the audience etc. You can help your children understand that it is not just about playing the instrument, that you too think their music education is also important like their academic education, that it is enjoyable and with discipline, but not as a casual hobby or game that can be thrown away or stopped at any time, and they should take it as seriously as you do. Whether you like it or not, your children know what you think by how you act and speak. If you do not take your children’s piano practice seriously and always have other priorities over it, then your children would do the same too. If you think that exams are the most important elements in your children’s piano education instead of music learning and appreciation, then your children would definitely resent their lessons and practice. You are the ones who can help them find their ways to enjoy great music and wonderful piano playing.
Do your kids like playing the piano? I welcome any enquiry and discussion on this topic.