Developing Functional Pianists

We all know we should be teaching things besides repertoire. Theory, sight reading, accompanying, practical ear training, harmonization, and chamber music. But who has time, right?

Maybe its because we love that moment when a student finally makes a beautiful phrase in their Chopin nocturne, or learns to perform Baroque trills with élan. And so we focus on that. We do enough theory for them to pass the exams necessary for their performance festivals, but, beyond that?

Well, we hope that they’re naturally good sight readers (some of us were). Perhaps they are part of a religious or vernacular music-making tradition where they’ve picked that up the skill of playing by ear. We often assume (wrongly, in most cases) that a student who is a good soloist can also collaborate effectively.

And, if you’re like me, you feel guilty that you’re not getting to these more functional aspects of musicianship. In a 30 or 60-minute lesson there just isn’t time, right?

My own journey involves arriving as college freshman, with no sight reading skills. What had I been doing in almost 10 years of lessons? Working on Beethoven sonatas and Chopin waltzes, sure, but…

Of course deeply musical performances of solo repertoire are profoundly important. We would never want to deprive our students the joy of playing a Mozart sonata, a Bach invention, or a Debussy prelude in our drive to develop more practical skills. And yet…

If the makeup of your studio is anything like mine, you’ve got those couple of students who are naturally good sight readers. These few students often perform like crazy, accompanying their school and church choirs, offering to play for their fellow high school students on solo competitions and the like. Or you’ve got that one student who naturally plays by ear and has the attention (and affection) of their peers as they casually play the latest tune from the radio or their favorite musical. And yet we don’t often hone these skills, turning our good sight readers into great sight readers. And, even more damning, we don’t teach our students who are not naturally good sight readers how to develop this important skill.

Commenting on the state of sight reading in 1916, Algernon Lindo wrote, “As a rule, the standard of sight-reading amongst students, amateur or professional, is not very high, but those who are not gifted in this respect can derive some comfort from the fact that it is possible, given a little natural ability, for almost any intelligent student to arrive at a standard of competence by steady and continuous practice on a certain well-defined lines.” (The Art of Accompanying, 6)

So, a hundred years later and still faced with the same problem, how do we become better at developing the functional skills of our students? How do we manage to find the time to teach sight reading and harmonization and other associated skills?

First, we must change our own perceptions of the relative importance of these functional skills. Many of us love playing the standard repertoire, so that’s what we teach. Some of us have embraced popular styles as an important motivational tool with our students, bribing them with Disney tunes if they finish a certain number of more standard pieces. But what about the students whose true passion is in collaboration? Or how about the budding composer, for who ear training and harmonization might be the key to unlocking their musical personality? Or the student for whom sight reading would open a world of possibilities, either in their religious, school, or family contexts, to receive validation and encouragement as a musician? Often, we won’t know these areas of interest until we spend the time in lessons to introduce students to these ideas.

Second, we must commit a small, but consistent portion of lesson and practice time to these skills. 3-5 minutes a week in lesson and 3-5 minutes a day in practice might seem like either not enough time (for the student working on advanced repertoire) or not nearly enough time (for the struggling music reader), but the consistency over time is essential, whether we’re focusing on ear training, harmonization, or sight reading.

Third, we must familiarize ourselves with the available resources for functional musicianship development. One of the points of this blog is offer resources I’ve used in teaching these skills, books and websites and ideas derived from master classes that you can interpolate in your own teaching.

Fourth, we must model these skills in our own lives. I had a mentor in college who asserted that if we instructed our students about certain values and they later found out that we weren’t living by those same values, all our words were in vain.  We often talk about the need for piano teachers to keep developing their technique, to continue their study of new repertoire and the like. But, are we consistently developing our abilities to sight read or play by ear? Some of us sight read or improvise regularly in our religious contexts or because we accompany community or professional chorus. If you don’t have such contexts, you may have to hunt for opportunities to develop your score reading, for example. But you must. We can’t in good conscience ask our students to things we ourselves aren’t doing.

And so, this blog. Each week, I will delve into an area (or a small section of an area) of functional musicianship and how we can do a better job of incorporating it into our curriculum. The comments on these posts are open and I’m interested in hearing what other resources and ideas you may have.

Here’s to creating a generation of pianists who sight read well, have well-trained ears, collaborate well with other musicians, demonstrate harmonization skills, AND make offer beautiful interpretations of the solo repertoire.