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Pupil playing Chopin, but can't do Grade 1 sight reading...


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#1 Bremmer

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Posted 14 October 2019 - 11:12

Oh boy,

I'm in France, and  I've just taken on a 15 year old French girl who according to both her and  her mum wants to be a 'pianist' - earn her living as such.

 

Her previous piano teacher has just retired, she's been with him for 10 years since age 5. Her Mum says she cannot find another piano teacher in the area, and I have been recommended by a fellow violinist.

 

I was been completely honest, I said that whilst in the past I have taught children successfully to grade 8 level piano,  I myself am not a pianist. I accompany my string pupils to Grade 8 including such things as movements of Brahms violin sonatas, so I can get by pretty well, but I do not really practise the piano unless I have to and then it's usually only accompaniments.

 

OK, Mum was happy with this, but did mention her daughter has a bit of difficulty sight reading on the piano. ( Don't we all ? ).

 

She was desperately looking for some help, on a temporary basis until her daughter starts working at school for her Baccalaureat with a speciality in music next year.

 

So, we met for the first time week before last. Understandably nervous, I let the girl familiarise herself with the piano, but before she'd touched it, I did just ask her to sing a Do ( C) if she thought she could . Adamant - 'Sorry, I don't sing'. So I asked her to name a few notes as I played them, which she did, so she's either got very good relative or perfect pitch.

She didn't play any scales, but went straight into a reasonable, musically played if somewhat scrappy rendition of a Chopin Nocturne, though I noticed that her end finger joints were often bent the wrong way, it wasn't very rhythmically stable and it fell apart in places. The fingering seemed to favour 4th and 5th fingers rather a lot too. She also only ever put the pedal flat to the floor so it was a bit of a jumbled mess.

 

Next I sat down at the piano with her and started probing a bit. Yes, she knew her sight reading needed work. I found something really easy, a grade 1 piece. Not a clue, no idea of what key it was in, she knows the notes or the rhythm, but not together, can't read 'vertically' to sight read both hands together and confuses bass and treble clef... oh dear. no idea of what Andante means either.

 

So, I had a bit of a heart to heart, during which time I discovered she has played a few scales but never starting on a black note, has never played arpeggios, listens to Youtube to help her learn pieces. Also her previous piano teacher always played pieces for her so she never had to really sight read. There's a real talent there, whether one can undo 10 years of damage remains to be seen :(

 

We've gone back to square one, she's doing piano duets with me, I have also suggested we will do some accompanying, I can play a violin or cello part with her and she has to keep going even if there are errors. I've pointed out her hand position, the need to use a degree of logic when fingering and the fact the pedal has a lot more to it than just standing on it.  We tried another Grade 1 sight reading test and it took her three goes to get it anywhere near right. Poor kid, I feel sorry for her, but she is game and understands that she has to do this and that it will take time. 

 

I've also mooted Grade 5 - the highest she can do without Grade 5 theory. She is up for it next year. I bought the music but I am sure the pieces look easier than about 25 years ago when I last taught piano ?? I have explained the circle of fifths, the need to look at the key signature and time signature and speed before having a go at a piece, the concept of relative majors and minors... the list is endless. 

 

Anyone suggest the best cheapest scale book with all scales in it ?


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#2 Norway

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Posted 14 October 2019 - 12:18

I suspect the previous teacher "retired" because his job was impossible and they were talking about piano as a career. I wouldn't necesssarily blame the previous teacher - he may have tried for years to get her to read music.

 

I'd be completely honest with them. Daughter needs to go back to the beginning and learn to read music. Ideas of becoming a professional pianist unlikely at this stage as so much ground to make up, so they may wish to rethink their plans. I'd forget grade exams for now, otherwise she'll just end up learning the pieces by rote again. Sounds like she needs learning, not testing.


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#3 Aquarelle

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Posted 14 October 2019 - 12:40

Bremmer I have been teaching piano in France for just over 30 years and your story is absolutely typical. It boils down to this. Really high flyers, the ones who become professional musicians and who have the right connections, live in one of the towns with a national conservatoire and are not short of money can get through a terrifyingly competitive system and come out on top. This is why French professional musicians are often very good indeed - particularly singers. And there are very very few private teachers in France.

 

The rest of the world doesn't get much of a look in. Children can go to a local music school which might be a branch of one of the regional conservatoires, or might be run by the local council or might even be run by a local cultural association. I am afraid to say that in my experience none of these children get a decent musical education because the teachers are not trained teachers. I have yet to take on any French child from a French teacher who shows any signs of having received a thoroughly thought out musical education based on sound pedagogical practice. Most of them seem to have just had pieces thrown at them in any old order. Also instrumental teachers in France do not consider it to be their responsibility to teach the reading of music. This is learnt in  classes called "Formation Musicale" which is a kind of cross between theory and aural as we know it. this would account for your pupil having a good sense of absolute pitch because they rely on that rather than tonic solfa. The teaching of "reading" music being completely divorced from the instrument being learnt results, of course in a total inability to apply what is on the page to the instrument in question.

 

You are quite lucky to have got some Chopin! I have only ever had botched up or simplified versions of "La Lettre à Elise", Mozarts's Turkish March and a few nasty repetitive little jazz pieces. Pieces are learnt from memory and pupils are discouraged from looking at the music.

 

Scales and arpeggios  are in general not taught as they are thought to be too difficult - and as for the cycle of keys - well I have met French children who could recite from memory the order of the sharps and flats but had no idea what it meant or why they had  been asked to  learn it.

 

There are no nation wide standards and nothing like the ABRSM syllabus and exams. I started teaching here for a local association. The association got into financial difficulties and the Conseil Régionale offered to help out but only if we joined their so called  music scheme. I was informed that all my pupils would be restricted to half an hour lessons.  I had, as I still have, pupils doing half an hour, three quarters or an hour according to their level and some paired lessons. My pupils were also told that they would have to attend weekly Musical formation lessons. I was also told they would all be considered as beginners as they had never been assessed. At the time I had a large number or  ABRSM exam successes ranging from the Prep Test to Grade 6. The result was that I went self employed, all my pupils stayed with me and I now turn at about 30 per year.

 

This might help you to understand how your pupil got to be where she is. You will have somehow to break the vicious circle. I would simply suggest to her that she cannot possibly be a professional pianist, not even a good amateur if she can't read music and get her on your side psychologically so that she understands she has to learn to read. You could try the Denes Agay "Joy of First Classics." There are 2 books. I would work through as many pieces as possible insisting on the reading during the lessons. You will have to work out a system which she can accept as she won't want to go back to the beginning. I would be inclined to study the music without playing it, be sure that she understands the score before she puts hands on the keyboard and then not allow her to look at her hands.  Short passages  4 to 8 bars from different pieces might be better than doing a whole piece in one go as she will realize that she has to cope with different hand positions, keys and time signatures so it won't be just learning "baby " pieces, but  rather having a real aim. Also get her started on scales and arpeggios, using the cycle of fifths so that she sees the sense of it. Go very slowly. I have quite young  children who enjoy working scales and arpeggios and the fun thing is when they have played, for example, C major scale and arpeggio we then do the tonic-dominant-tonic chord progression and they love learning how to legato pedal the chords. It makes them feel grown up. Your pupil may have difficulty with hands together scales so again go very gently - I use keyboard  pictures of the scales and don't bother with a scale book before Grade 5.  

 

I would also suggest that you start her on a Grade 1 Theory book and whenever appropriate make her play the exercises when she has completed them.. Your big problem is that this girl has been taught to think that playing the piano is just a matter of wiggling your fingers over the right keys. She needs to understand how much more than that there is to this. You don't say if the child is English speaking but all my current pupils are French speakers but using English theory books (because there are no suitable French ones) is no problem. You just explain or write a translation in the book.

.

I hope this little bit of advice will help. Don't despair- I've  been there so I know it can be a long job. You will need lots of patience. Good  luck!


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#4 Bremmer

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Posted 14 October 2019 - 13:39

Thanks for the responses. Aquarelle - I know exactly what you mean, my French musicap friends are mostly rubbish at sight reading, and I have tried a couple of pianists out as accompanists -not a hope of playing violin sonatas unless they have the music for something like a year...

Anyway, after just two lessons, this girl is now definitely fully aware of how important it is to become a fluent reader of music. From my own experiences as a beginner, and having perfect pitch, I understand the problem as my first violin teacher also fell into the trap of playing pieces for me before I ever tried to read the music, with the result that I didn't actually need to read the music at all.

My teacher discovered this the day as a 9 ? year old I was put in the lead chair of one of the school orchestras ( a Primary school in Bromley ) but couldn't sight read the 1st violin part as I didn't know the piece we were playing. I was instantly demoted. I got grades 1,2,4 and 5 in less than two years, all distinctions but with lousy sight reading marks. I have told my pupil about my experiences so she knows I know what I am talking about.

 

I think she is prepared to for some hard work which I have told her may seem discouraging at first, she will need to take advice, to work together in lessons, and  to practice scales with a proper hand position and firm fingerwork - she has done some but obviously not recently.

In one week she had worked out the first page of a Martinu Polka - in A getting the notes right but no staccato, missed a few ties etc. I didn't play it to her beforehand -  so she can read music. She is a French speaker, but with other French speaking pupils I've had they have done ABRSM exams including Grade 5  theory.

I don't formally work through the theory grades with my pupils, they learn it as they learn the instrument, only actually taking Grade 5. 

I won't let X loose on the Grade 5 pieces until she is getting somewhere with the other requirements, though I may later work through the pieces she isn't going to do on the quiet. Meantime, I have things like Bach Chorales which I can use, or maybe Christmas carols, trying to get her to 'see' chords and intervals, plus a wealth of short ABRSM low violin grade pieces where the piano part is not difficult as well as other piano pieces. Most of what she has is around Grade 8 level. I've said she can still play these as well of course, but that we need to work on simpler stuff to get her reading better. Lots and lots of sight reading - but with a kindly approach.

 

I intend to send her off each week with something simple to go away and learn on her own without recourse to finding a recording, so she gets little 'successes'. To start with we won't be trying to 'perfect ' pieces as quantity is definitely more important to get the experience she needs.

 

It's sad for her because she genuinely has potential and musicality but has been short changed on her first 10 years of lessons - I can only assume through poor teaching. She had done everything I asked of her from lesson 1 to lesson 2 so I doubt she's ever been someone who just didn't work.. 


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#5 Aquarelle

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Posted 14 October 2019 - 14:11

That sounds really promising Bremmer. I'm quite sure she will make excellent progress with you! I liked your story of Bromley! It must have been mortifying!  Apart from anything else it reminded me of many a teenage cycle ride through Bromley - light years ago! All the best and let us know how your pupil progresses.


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#6 jenny

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Posted 14 October 2019 - 14:27

I had a similar experience last year (but in the UK) with a 14 year old boy who told me in his consultation lesson that he wanted to be a concert pianist. Or possibly a composer. He could play quite complex pieces, mostly learned from YouTube, but couldn't read music and had no knowledge of theory.

He agreed to go back to basics and I worked really hard to help him, but in the end he found it all too difficult and decided to learn guitar instead. It was a real eye-opener for me, but I guess this kind of thing is happening more and more often for teachers. 


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#7 Norway

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Posted 14 October 2019 - 14:47

Similar to a boy I was teaching a few years ago. Speed of playing his one party piece (learnt from Youtube) so incredible that I doubted whether I was going to be good enough to teach him. I encouraged him to learn more things from Youtube, while starting him from scratch with note reading, explaining the importance of doing so. He did about a term with me, and was constantly bringing in new (very difficult) pieces to lessons which were way beyond his reading ability (I suspect to avoid having to do last week's piece which he hadn't practised). Then he left, and went to another (even more traditional) piano teacher for about a term, and then he left that teacher. He had won a local talent competition, which probably gave him the message that it was all about talent and not application. (Deep sigh!)


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#8 mel2

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Posted 14 October 2019 - 18:53

I had one as well - formidable player of complex pieces and wonderful 'composer' of his own classic-inspired music, but couldn't read a note.
He came to me for a little over a year and got much better - we got as far as Faber popular classics 2 and several levels of Piano Safari sight-reading cards so he achieved a degree of competence. It would have taken ages to be able get to the level he could play by ear, so it was frustrating for him.
Eventually he he asked just to do theory with me, as he was choosing to do A level music. We got half way through Blitz grade 3, loads of aural and Kodaly before he took a break to revise for GCSEs and that was the last I heard from his family.
I expect he's started A -level by now. I had severe misgivings about him doing it because when I did it, a decent performance standard was expected, as well as fluent reading, but he breezily assured me that was not a requirement. I looked up the college syllabus and would love to know how he's coping but will contain my curiosity.
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#9 Bremmer

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Posted 28 October 2019 - 07:24

A little update.

Poor kid, she's working really hard, lots of new music, duets in lessons, trying to 'see' chords, I explained about intervals ( never been taught that ) she's learning that the key of a piece of music is not B flat but either Fa majeur or Ré mineur, the knowledge gaps are horrendous. 

Last week I talked about pedalling, as she seems to just stick the pedal down at the same time as her hands, obviously having to release before the next chord or harmony change. All very mushy with clear gaps. Her previous teacher had never taught her to pedal !!! Anyway, a short explanation and C major ascending  triads pedalled properly and she soon got the hang of it. Of course she will revert the minute she plays anything difficult but now she knows what to listen for and how to do it, also the possibility of half pedalling.

 

I've asked her to have a go at playing Fur Elise without looking at her hands, she's like Rowf from the Muppets at the moment. 


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