WD: You have been teaching piano to students of all ages and levels for the past 20 years, and have gained the reputation of being an extremely effective teacher. What is the most important aspect in a teacher’s background that someone should look for in selecting an instructor either for themselves or their child?
DA: An effective teacher should be experienced, have a degree in piano performance or pedagogy, be patient, able to address various learning styles and cultivate a love of music and learning at the piano. They should also be active in their fields in terms of keeping up their own pianistic skills, performing on some level, attending lectures and workshops, attending concerts (not just of piano music) and keeping abreast of the new developments in the field of piano pedagogy.
WD: How do you actually begin a youngster and what age is the ideal age to begin a student?
DA: I acquaint the student with the instrument and show how the entire body is involved in playing the piano from correct sitting position to describing the various levers of the mechanism; torso, upper arm, forearm and fingers. All play an important role in playing the instrument. I focus on a developing a kinesthetic awareness of the body and what it feels like to use coordinate motions.
In terms of age, some youngsters cannot sit at the piano for very long so very short lessons might be useful for instance 15 minutes or so. Therefore, it is completely individual. Also, it is important that you change activities during the lessons. In other words, have a student play a piece or portion of a piece and then review note-reading or listen to a segment of a piece of music. I think it is important to acquaint the youngster to various aspects of music and music study from the very beginning. It is of no
benefit to challenge a youngster’s concentration. It breeds boredom and lack of interest.
WD: Could you talk more about developing an awareness of how the body works and how you teach that to someone.
DA: I call it kinesthetic awareness since we often remember what it feels like to do something with a natural motion. I make analogies with motions that you use in everyday life and have students practice these motions at home such as opening a door to sense forearm rotation, throwing a very large beach ball or raking leaves to sense the upper arm and so forth. Piano teachers should be able to tell when and where a student is experiencing excess tension and be able to remedy it.
WD: Which areas are lacking in most teaching?
DA: There can be many aspects from a basic understanding of music, notation, reading, rhythm, how the body works in relation to the piano in addition to more subtle areas of technique, such as tone production, a sense of style, and conveying musical meaning. These can be addressed, but the teacher must be willing to accept the challenge and be relentless in the pursuit of eradicating these flaws.
For instance, if a student lacks the ability to read music and does not have the proper hand-eye coordination, I assign short works that are comprised of 5-finger patterns to help the student in this regard. Oftentimes these will be looked upon as “below their level,” but in order to accomplish this it is necessary to carefully select material appropriate to a student’s needs. Many of the Bartok Mikrokosmos are excellent for this as are other works.
If a student has not developed a good sense of rhythm, then I have them react to the rhythm in their body. For instance, one can actually feel the March rhythm of the Bach March in D from the Anna Magdalena Notebook by playing and marching in place! This gets the rhythm and meter in the body. The metronome cannot accomplish this but it has other uses such as cultivating a steady tempo. I would also have a student listen to recorded music and conduct to it. This does not have to be piano music,
and as a matter of fact, it is probably advantageous to listen to orchestral music that expresses a clear meter for this purpose. Haydn Symphonies work great! If a student is uncomfortable or lacks ease in playing, then we examine the relationship of the body to the instrument and I assign exercises as described earlier.
WD: What is your view of the role of the parent in the piano lessons?
DA: The role of the parent is crucial in the development of their child. The youngster should not be left to his/her own resources in the practice sessions at home. I write specific instructions in a notebook to which the student and parent will refer during the week. The quality of practice time is more important than the quantity. Parents are often reluctant to help or oversee the students if they themselves have not studied or cannot read music. However a parent can learn the basics of what a good practice
session entails by sitting in on some of the lessons. Frequently, they see their role as simply “reminding” the student to practice. More importantly, a parent should be able to listen to some of the weekly practice sessions, even if not sitting by the student to see that the student is following the strategies outlined in the notebook. Some parents like to sit in all of the lessons and have observed me teaching and after some time are able to make some very subtle comments about piano playing. It is quite amazing! Also, making a video of the lessons is also a good idea so that a student can refer to the video at home. This is also a great tool. I do not think it is necessary to video every single lesson but at least one or two per month would be good.
WD: What are some of the main differences in teaching adults and youngsters?
DA: Adults usually come to the piano with much enthusiasm and many have the time and possess the necessary discipline to make progress. They are not overbooked with extracurricular activities at school and often have a clearer focus. However, many come with the expectation that their physical and intellectual capabilities are going to progress concurrently. Often this is not the case. Many adults need more time to get their mechanism free and to operate naturally. Therefore, more time needs to be
spent on using the body in a most efficient manner. Also, the teacher must select material that is going to help the student be “at one” with the instrument. The teacher must be intuitive, knowledgeable and inventive since not two adults are exactly alike as is the case with youngsters.
WD: Has piano teaching undergone changes in the last say, 100 years and are these changes are for the
better or worse?
DA: That is a great question and I think there have been changes for the better and for the worse. In terms of the positive, I think the medical profession and well-known teachers who have examined the relationship of the body to playing the piano have made an enormous contribution.
Many pianists have endured playing injuries and teachers have advocated practices that actually are not only counterproductive but injurious such as isolating the fingers, doing finger stretching exercises and so forth. Most piano teachers have come to the realization that the fingers do not only play the piano but the entire body is involved, and this needs to be addressed. It is similar to walking since we walk with our entire body not just our feet. The medical profession has also made an important contribution
not only in diagnosing problems, but in offering solutions. Many physicians either know piano teachers or can refer someone who works from a holistic standpoint.
Medical professionals and physical therapists also encourage stretching exercises before one plays the piano. They believe that pianists are in a sense athletes and need a significant ‘warming-up” before playing the instrument. I do not know what I feel about this although it makes perfect sense. I know pianists who have never done this sort of thing and have exceptional and fluid techniques. This is only part of the equation since piano playing is not only physical but mental and people definitely differ in
their abilities and coordination.
The negative aspect of piano teaching I would say is that students are introduced to great music in too superficial a fashion. Years ago, the lesson was over when the points were covered and teachers did notwork to the ticking of a clock. This is, in a sense, unavoidable where people have so many commitments. Also, students should be encouraged to listen to fine music. That is also lacking, developing a sense of style so everything one plays does not sound the same. The best way to do this is to listen, listen, listen! Music is an aural art therefore when we listen to a Haydn Symphony or String Quartet, this will give us
a sense of style when we attempt a Haydn Piano Sonata. Listening to other genres of music should be an important part of the “music lesson.” That is the key; our piano lessons should often be “music lessons.” This is how it often was many years ago. The instructor can inspire the student though listening!
WD: What do you think is the future of piano teaching and its role in our society and culture?
DA: I think it is positive and very important. The arts itself continue to be an important part of our culture. More people are recognizing the value of music study and how it enhances skills in other areas. I think however, that it should also be thought of as an art and a re-creative process where eventually the focus is on being an interpreter or “mediator” between great composers and an audience. Pianists are re -creative artists, as are other musicians, and I think that in itself is a great mission, privilege and
WD: Thank you Professor Alfano for you time!
DA: My pleasure!