Tag: how to teach piano

The importance of flexible wrists in piano playing

One common issue piano beginners have is maintaining flexible wrists during their piano playing. In fact, this issue can even be found in many experienced piano players. 

It’s easy to tell students to “relax the wrists”, but it seems difficult for them to do so, even when they really try to. I would point out that most of the time the problem arises not from the wrists but actually the forearms. 

Lots of piano players come to me and say that they get tired easily when they play, and when I point out if that’s their forearms that give up first, they are surprised to learn how I know exactly that’s their problem. 

Many piano students were not taught right from the start that they use the whole body to play the piano, no matter how easy the music is. They tense their bodies, their shoulders and arms, and solely focus on training their fingers to play accurately (the note pitches of) whatever pieces they’re given to practice on. 

Learning to use the whole arm to play one single note is the first piano technique exercise I give to my students, whether they are beginners or advanced players (if they have technical issues). In my Technique Transformation Piano Exercise Book, the single-note exercise is the first exercise I introduce to anyone who wants to transform their piano technique. The exercise is super simple – the purpose is to focus on the correct way of using arm weight (instead of forcing fingers hard into the keys). It’s important for any piano players to learn to feel how their bodies are acting during their playing, how to incorporate the different parts of their bodies and in particularly of their arms, even in simple exercise like this. 

Most piano players focus on the execution of the notes, and neglect the release of them. When I invite students to pay more attention to the release of notes and the relaxation of their bodies, they find it surprising that they were actually really tense without them recognizing it. Just like there are execution and release of notes, there are tension and relaxation of the bodies and arms during our piano playing. If we’re tense all the time, we get tired very easily. If you have tension issues in your playing (you can’t play fast notes or execute them clearly, or simply cannot play louder chords), tr to pay attention to your wrists and forearms, see if they are actually pretty tense. Try to make a point to relax them every time after you play a big chord or a fast passage (also notice if your shoulders are shrugged up-lower them down), and see how that feels after a passage or two. You might be surprised that relaxation is the key to better piano playing. 

Enrol in our Piano Technique Transformation Course for Performers (Part I)

Piano Technique Transformation Course

This course is designed to drastically transform your piano technique forever for the better. With the aid of videos and exercise book, you will be able to not only learn at your pace but also practice efficiently to improve your piano playing in a short period of time

Course includes:

My technique exercise book (pdf copy): “Technique Transformation Piano Exercise Book” (USD$25 value)

Section 1: Demonstration videos on various techniques with reference to Gyorgy Sandor’s “On Piano Playing” (USD$150 value);

Section 2: Demonstration videos on ALL exercises from technique book (30 exercises) (USD$250 value).

Practice Makes Better

We’ve all heard of the phrase, “practice makes perfect”. I sure have, and held onto it for a really long time.

Being a professional musician means that you have to practice hard and long to perfect a piece. But more often than not, “perfection” can become a negative word.

What do I mean by that? Isn’t it what we should strive for, perfection?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t practice hard to know our music so well that we can recite it in our sleep (or maybe dream about it! – I know I have). I actually tried memorizing a piece backward – from the end back to the beginning – to test myself if I knew it well enough for my performance. But maybe that’s a bit too much? I wonder.

Anyway, my point is, sometimes we should focus on the process rather than the result, especially when you as a student – a beginner – or someone who’s just picked up the instrument again after years of hiatus. Who’s a beginner you might ask? Anyone who has less than 5 continuous years’ experience at the instrument would I consider a beginner. And if one didn’t really spend that much time practicing and playing in their years of learning, one could still be a beginner after even 10 years of lessons. A lot of times, we need to plan and achieve small goals, and in terms of the big picture, the many achievement of small goals eventually lead to one big success.

I believe in “practice makes better”. I do want my students to become better at the piano, there’s no doubt about it. But after the many years of teaching and observation, I find that those who focus too much of how well they can play at that moment often lose sight of how well they can become in the future, provided that they keep putting effort and time into their lessons and practice. Unfortunately, those who feel they are not getting better in their playing are those who lose confidence and interest, and eventually, give up on the whole music journey.

I always remember this one adult student, who was (and still is) very passionate about piano playing. He had only a few years of training with me but he showed a lot of promise right from the start. All other adult students were in awe of what he could play in a very short time. Most of all, he had fun and showed a lot of confidence in his playing. At times his performance was not on par, but he didn’t feel bad about it. One subpar performance didn’t deter him from keep going; instead, he moved on and kept doing better in the next performance. Even when he was working overseas, he told me how he would look for a piano to practice. Eventually, he decided to give up on his job and devoted himself into music. Now he works at a music conservatory and competes internationally.

One special thing about him is not about how well he plays or how devoted he is into piano, but rather that he always keeps a good spirit about his playing and doesn’t focus on one slip or two. I believe it’s his positive attitude that keeps him moving forward and progress immensely.

Obviously not everyone wants to become a professional pianist, and I don’t actually care about that. What I truly care about is that my students, no matter young or mature, beginner or advanced, enjoy their playing, their practice, their lessons, and above all, respect that they have their own special journey in music; that sometimes they progress quickly, and other times they would get stuck and feel lost. The only way to move on is to keep going. It’s okay to take a break, but after rest, it’s time to stand up and continue the journey, because, this journey is super beautiful, and it is so worth it.

Teresa Wong

P.S. I just want to say a special “thank you” to whoever is reading this. This journey for me has been great, a lot of ups and downs, has taken me to so many places in the world and met so many people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. I feel honored to have you read this, follow me, taken/taking lessons from me (as a student, a teacher, or as a parent, in person or online), read/bought my books, watched me videos. No matter what the future brings, I know I have shared with you in all honesty and that I have done something good..

Training Piano Teachers

Lately I have been preoccupied with training piano teachers on my online teaching platform and one-to-one private consultation basis.

I find it very fulfilling and satisfying to train piano teachers (and music teachers) to become successful in their teaching career. After years of my own training and teaching students in the area of piano performance, I realized how important it was to help piano teachers to become better in the way they understand and teach music/piano. I personally can only teach that many students privately; but if I could train others to teach well, we would have a lot more wonderful piano teachers out there to educate, inspire and encourage students to learn, enjoy and flourish in their music journey.

The first thing I want to get piano teachers understand is that they need to get themselves “out there”, especially when they are new in their teaching career. What that means is that they need to find their own channels to promote their teaching. It can be a blog, a Facebook page, or a YouTube channel. It is important for the teachers to share their thoughts, knowledge and experience on piano teaching and performing. It is a great way for the teachers to not only let new students know about their availability, but also to educate and connect with current students outside their lessons.

Another thing about training new teachers is to show them that there is a huge difference between learning to play piano and learning to teach piano. Surely there are some similarities between the two, but knowing how to play doesn’t mean one knows how to teach. There certainly is a lot to learn when it comes to the art of teaching. Other than all the music books I have studied throughout the years, I have also educated myself by reading a lot of books on communication and psychology. Learning how to communicate with students (and parents), encourage them and inspire them to learn and succeed, and above all, understand each student’s personality and their strength and take advantage of that knowledge in one’s teaching are all very powerful tools for a successful piano teacher.

Before I teach my piano teachers anything, I always ask them this question, “why do you teach?”. I want them to really think and feel deeply, and understand the reason they want to start their teaching career. For me, I was inspired by a couple of the most amazing piano teachers during my formative years: their passion in piano, their expertise in teaching, as well as their compassion for students (which I truly cherish till this day). They showed me how a real teacher could dramatically change a life for the better.

A real teacher is inspiring, caring, and respectable. I hope I am one and I can train many more in years to come.

Teresa Wong

Five Steps to Effective Piano Practice

How do we practice effectively to improve our piano playing and perform well in concerts and exams?

Here is a simple guideline anyone can follow in every piano practice session.

Five Steps To Effective Piano Practice

1. Tone

Tone is the quality of sound, which is different from the volume of sound (when we talk about “dynamics”, the softness and loudness of sound, the piano and forte).

How do we achieve the different qualities of sound? By applying the right technique. Mastering the varieties in attack, touch and weight transfer is the key to a whole new world of sound. Therefore, working on gaining a solid technical control and variety in technical skills is of tremendous importance.

2. Elements

Sometimes my students say to me, “I don’t know what to do with the piece! I just keep playing it through to make it sound more smooth.” That is not a practice. That is simply playing through a piece.

Don’t know what to do? Find out what the important elements in the music piece are. What is going on in the melody? Listen to the different leaps between notes (“intervals“): a third is very different from a sixth or an octave, and a minor third is different from a major third. Pay attention to the subtle change in the melodic contour and show the nuance in your playing.

In the case of a fugue, where is the subject and what are the elements in the subject? Where are the beginning of the fugal entries in various voices? Are there any motives (melodic /rhythmic patterns) that recurs in the song in different voices/registers? And how about the tonalities? Are there any significant key changes? Or perhaps some special sounding chords (dissonance vs consonance)? It would be good for you to be able to identify the chord nature such as diminished /augmented /minor /major /dominant 7th/9th etc., but the first step is train your ears to differentiate the subtle nuance among different chords and harmony first.

One element many piano students neglect is rhythm. Really try to pay closer attention to execute the correct rhythm, for example, dotted rhythm is very differently than an even rhythm, and triplets or quintuplets need to be treated differently than regular eighths or sixteenths. If you can’t play them, clap them first. It’s about getting the rhythm in your body rather than at your fingers. Sometimes I ask my students to dance or tap to the music (of course I do that with them!) . It’s a fun way to practice and get the rhythm naturally easily.

3. Dynamics and phrasing

In general, it should be easy to show the dynamic changes and phrasing in your playing simply by following the markings on the score. But in order to give a more expressive performance, you need to interpret the piece yourself. Where is the beginning and ending of each phrase? After you have found the melodic sequences and the harmonic changes, what do you do to show them clearly to the audience? An expressive and musical playing can only be done by, on top of all the technical analysis, putting your heart and soul into the music, and that means feeling the music emotionally and physically. What do you feel about the rise and fall in the melody? Do you feel the difference between a rising minor third and a falling octave? How do you feel about them and what would you do to show them?

4. Articulation

Articulation expresses the more delicate nuance of individual notes while phrasing gives life and clarity to each musical phrase. Paying attention to articulate each note is like making effort at speaking every word so clearly, that your listener understand exactly what you want to express. And remember, it’s not just if it’s “legato” or “staccato”: there are many ways and combinations to “say” what you want at the piano!

5. Tempo

Having a steady tempo that you can control well under pressure is a major contribution to your success, whether it be in a performance, a competition or an exam. One thing any piano student should definitely pay attention to is establishing a steady pulse. Again, pulse is not the same as tempo, but without a steady pulse no one can hear exactly what your tempo is!

Sometimes it is wise to take the tempo down a few notches in order to present a well controlled and confident piano performance. And when it comes to a piece at a slow tempo, you might find playing it at a slightly more moving tempo helps the music flow along better. There is no hard or fast rule to the decision at tempo adjustment, certainly it’s best to express the music at its desirable speed (or marked tempo), but it is something a performer needs to think about from time to time. Moreover, even the “desirable speed” can be flexible in some cases (note: maybe not so much for standardized piano exams especially at graded levels): go listen to some recordings of the same piece (say a Beethoven sonata or Bach toccata) by different artists (or even same artist at different periods of his/her career), compare the tempi of the recordings, and you might be surprised just how different each artist’s approach is.

This is just a very general guideline to give you as a piano student some pointers on how to have a more effective piano practice session. But if you really pay attention to start following these few rules, you would be pleasantly surprised by the improvement you make at your piano playing!

Have fun at the piano!

Teresa Wong