When we think of what students get the most excited about, probably the last thing that comes to mind is technique.
Students don’t usually jump for joy when given the task to practice scales or arpeggios, and this lack of enthusiasm can make an already difficult job even harder to accomplish.
But, technique is essential to the craft of making music on any instrument, and students must learn how to play their instrument correctly and with the most efficiency to express the music as clearly and effectively as possible.
What can we do as teachers to make sure our students are developing proper technique?
In every stage of learning, teachers can help their students focus on the skills that will help them get to the next technical level while staying engaged and inspired.
It is essential that proper technique is taught from the very beginning – not only so that the student learns to play correctly from the start, but also so that they get used to the element of technique in their daily practice and lessons.
When beginning to teach a student to play the piano, we must make sure they always play properly with their fingers, wrists and arms, always have correct posture, and that they try to watch the score without looking at the hands as much as possible.
One fun way to begin addressing proper technique is to demonstrate what playing looks and sounds like when done with bad technique and then contrasting it with good technique.
You can have the student try as well, and the silliness of it can help them remember!
Very early on, have the student master the pedal timing so that it is not an issue later with more complicated pieces.
Basic pedaling is frequently overlooked or just casually taught when it comes about in the method book, but if not taught correctly, it can completely throw off rhythms, articulations, and dynamics in more challenging passages.
Be as demonstrative as you can with how to execute the timing of the pedal and make sure the student knows how it works mechanically, so there isn’t any gap in the sound.
One of the most important late-beginner techniques involves putting the thumb under for scales and arpeggios.
If students can learn to use the muscles in their thumb without moving their wrists or arms when playing scales (even just one octave at first), then their technique will have a solid foundation upon which to build.
With these basic skills mastered, the intermediate-level techniques of multi-octave scales and arpeggios will be much more smoothly executed.
Intermediate-level technique is an extension of the beginning technique and should develop naturally out of it.
There are many new things for the student to learn, so it’s best not to focus on too much at once.
Perhaps start with multi-octave scales first, and then move on to arpeggios so as to not overload the student.
When possible, try to engage the student by asking him or her to determine what technique would work best in a situation by using logic.
A good example is scale and arpeggio fingerings: Why don’t we use thumbs on black notes in scales?
Why is it better to use thumbs and fifth-fingers on white notes and the longer fingers on black notes?
Have them figure out scale fingerings on their own and check their work.
This approach will help them feel more connected to the way they play, and not just that they are doing as they are told.
(Click below for an excellent piece especially crafted for the intermediate student.)
The intermediate level is a good time to start implementing metronome practice.
Work on using the metronome with the student in the lesson to make sure they know how to use it properly.
Try using different beats and subdivisions and have them count and subdivide out loud.
It’s worth taking time in lessons to teach this correctly, as it becomes essential in practicing more difficult pieces and rhythms.
The earlier students get used to doing this, the better!
Begin to incorporate etudes into your students’ repertoire.
In addition to the standard etudes, make sure to choose some fun etudes in different styles that develop specific techniques.
One of the best ways to keep all of this interesting is to turn technique practice into games, puzzles or challenges.
Have the student come up with their patterns to practice in addition to the exercises you assign to keep them engaged.
Leading to Advanced Technique
Once students have a firm grasp of the intermediate techniques of multi-octave scales and arpeggios, you can begin teaching them advanced scales (3rds, 6ths, 10ths) and arpeggios of inversions and seventh chords.
Different trill fingerings could also be developed at this point as well.
In a studio with multiple early-advanced students, have technique competitions for prizes.
With scales and arpeggios, you can set metronome markings goals to aim for, and the fastest and most accurate player wins!
Overall, start to make technique a focused part of every lesson, even if you don’t call it that explicitly.
You can practice scales and finger strengthening exercises without calling it technique, and if you can find ways to make it fun, then students will be more enthusiastic about doing what it takes to bring their technique to the next level.
About the Author: This article about developing excellent technique is by Carter McMullen from the Baltimore School of Music. You can read more about Carter and his work below.
Carter McMullen is a piano teacher at the Baltimore School of Music. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgia State University and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, both in Piano Performance. He continued his music studies at conservatories in Paris, France and London, England.
Carter maintains an active performing schedule including solo and chamber music, instrumental and vocal accompanying, and jazz. He toured South America three times with the Chase Educational Foundation, giving concerts and masterclasses in Argentina and Chile, and has performed in concerts in France, Italy, the UK, and the US. He regularly collaborates with performance students at the Peabody Institute.
In 2017, Carter founded the Union Square Chamber Music Society, and as Artistic Director, he organizes monthly salon concerts in which he regularly takes part as a performer.