Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Developing the Complete Pianist

Developing the complete pianist: a study of the importance of a whole-brain approach to piano teaching
, by Sally Chappell
Chappell, Sally. 1999. “Developing the Complete Pianist: A Study of the Importance of a Whole-Brain Approach to Piano Teaching.” British Journal of Music Education 16(3). 253-262.

The article begins with a short survey of current research into instrumental lessons. Going through relevant literature on the subject, Chappell notes that much emphasis is placed on technical work during these lessons. Especially for beginners, a huge emphasis is placed on notation, allowing for little development of musicianship. As well, physical tension can result from verbally orientated and teacher-led lessons; this can result in the lack of a clear mental image of what is being played.

Chappell looks at how the brain functions of why this type of teaching is not as beneficial. Each hemisphere of the brain is responsible for different functions. Briefly, the left is responsible for rational thinking and logical behaviour (notation, analysis, technique in musical terms) while the right is responsible for non-verbal activities, the intuitive and holistic (processing patterns, creativity, and formal outlines in music). But instead of emphasizing the split brain aspect of music, research emphasizes the development of both hemispheres to carry out a single task. The need for this is especially emphasized when looking at the development of the brain in young children; they need to be provided with opportunities and stimulation in order to develop a full range of mental ability. Thus musical training should incorporate not only technical work but stimulate creativity.

In the remainder of the article, Chappell considers how to develop this whole brained approach in teaching. Three approaches, internalising, improvising, and memorising are three “neglected” right-hemisphere skills. There are three major benefits of internalising music. It reduces physical tension for the pianist, gives increased focus to the ear in music-making, and leads to greater depth of expression. All these result in an increase in the role of the right-hemisphere. The benefits of improvisation include an increased awareness and clearer understanding of what was actually on printed music, and the development of a problem-solving approach to playing. Researchers also have found that students who improvised developed a more independent and discovery-led method of learning, often finding their own solutions to technical problems in performance. As well, linking back to internalism, improvisation places the ear in a central position and allows students to use intuition to develop a sense of freedom in their playing. Memorization also is a key right-brain process. There are several types, namely, visual, kinaesthetic, aural, and analytical; all of these should be combined in the learning and memorizing process.

The implications of such a teaching approach often would most likely involve a redefinition of teacher’s learning strategies. Many lessons currently are teacher-orientated, relieving students of the sense of responsibility and making them reliant on the teacher. In student-centered lessons, there is likely to be less verbal instruction on the part of the teacher, and a greater emphasis on practical demonstration and focused listening. As well, teachers need to develop curriculum with a broader base and better balance between technical and musical sides; lessons should use a variety of approaches to develop a student’s musical skills. With respect to the pupil, the new appraoach places the development of listening skills at its center and so links brain, body, and emotions. Positive benefits for the pupils in the studies demonstrated increased self-motivation, more interest and enjoyment in the instrument, and even helped in decreasing anxiety levels.

The author concludes by noting that this approach has enormous potential, but still requires further research into the specific content of lessons and teaching styles employed.

For me, this article made very relevant points. I remember when I first took piano lessons, my teacher had the “standard” approach the article warned against – much technique and note-reading work combined with very little creative aspects. As a result, I was uncomfortable improvising, or even considering the thought. When I realized this, and the reason why, I began to force myself to play by ear. I found that even though it was extremely difficult at first, I was able to improve my ability in this regard.

The article states that a child’s brain develops very quickly when they are young. With respect to teaching young children, I find that they have very little inhibition. I like to give my young students, especially, simple improvisation exercises depending on their pianistic level. For example, I ask them to pick three different notes on the piano and play them in various combinations, at different octaves and at different dynamic levels. Within this exercise, there are boundaries, but still much room to be creative. I find that all too often, older pianists are nervous at being asked to improvise, or they say they cannot. This is not the case with younger children.

I found the memorization section of the article useful and interesting as well. Memorizing music as a child was a tactile process for me. However, as I grew older, and my repertoire became longer and more difficult, I was forced to discover other methods of memorizing. I increasingly became reliant on mental memory and metal practise. Also, I was conscious of being somewhat analytical in my approach more so than ever before. Memorization is a key aspect of performance on many instruments, and the importance of developing strategies to successfully accomplish it should not be underestimated.

One last thought – for me, Walter Gieseking’s statement summed up many aspects of the article. He said: “by unceasingly listening with the ‘inner ear’... to a composition, [a pianist’s] capability of comprehending it will develop to so great an extent that he finally will grasp it in all its detail and will be in a position to interpret this masterwork in all its greatest perfection.” This is so true!

1 comment:

Liane James said...

It sounds like this was a very interesting article filled with useful points to ponder. My early training was also based on the standard mode of teaching; certainly improvisation was something that was never discussed. There is no denying that experience with improvisation can have many benefits for performing musicians. I wish I had been introduced to this at an early age before developing that self-consciousness that so interferes with successful improvisation. By the time I was working with a teacher who felt this skill important, any attempt left me feeling very uncomfortable and quite concerned with getting it ‘right’ – although intellectually I know that there is no ‘right answer’. As I’ve become more aware of this issue, I’ve become determined not to transfer mind sets like this to students. Any of us with young students should consider exploring alternate ways of teaching.