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Building the fundamentals
#2629977 04/04/17 05:24 AM
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What are considered the fundamentals of piano playing? The building blocks that, when mastered well right from the start, support and help advance the player to higher levels. Also, what the suggested activities to build these fundamentals and the reasons why they are considered essential?

For example, with my limited knowledge, I consider these the fundamentals:
1) Rhythm:
Reason: Because it's the pulse of the music, to make playing even
How: learning to count beats while playing, maybe playing the metronome

2) Note reading:
Reason: Learning to read notes makes learning new pieces faster
How: trying to play without looking at the keyboard, sight-reading practice

And many more...I'm asking because while I see a lot of useful advice for learners, it's often fuzzy WHY a certain thing should be done, as well as HOW to go about doing it. For example, my teachers made me do junior Hanon exercises and arpeggios but without explaining the reasons why they just seem to me like a big waste of time. I couldn't tell if my playing had improved or not from doing arpeggios or Hanon. But once I realized what a certain exercise was trying to teach me, it changed my approach to tackling the material for the better.

By the way, I know doing scales and arpeggios are beneficial, but I still don't fully understand why crazy

Looking forward to learning from your contributions smile

Last edited by marimorimo; 04/04/17 05:25 AM.

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Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630040 04/04/17 10:06 AM
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The MTNA (Music Teachers National Association, USA) came up with the essential skills list cited below. The list starts with the two items you mentioned.

Many items on the list seem to me to be more for advanced students, not beginners. It is still interesting to see what a committee of teachers decided on. A new beginner might view these as long term goals, perhaps taking 5 to 10 years or more.

It is just a list, and not my list, so please save any criticisms for the MTNA, not me.

from
http://www.mtna.org/publications/american-music-teacher/essentials-skills-series/essential-skills/

* Ability to internalize basic rhythms and pulse
* Ability to read-musical literacy

* Ability to perform with physical ease and technical 
efficiency
* Ability to hear the notes on the page (audiation)

* Ability to work creatively-improvise, compose, harmonize and play by ear
* Ability to understand basic elements of theory, form harmony, etc.

* Ability to respond to the interpretive elements of the composition to express the emotional character of the music
* Ability to conceptualize and transfer musical ideas

* Ability to work independently and to problem-solve
* Ability to perform comfortably individually and with others in a variety of settings

Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630041 04/04/17 10:06 AM
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Scales and arpeggios - and chords, since they are often all taught together - are helpful in many ways:

-They are the building blocks of a lot of music, and especially piano music. Arpeggios are everywhere, so learning to play them makes it easier when you encounter them in a piece. Scales also are encountered in music, but often in part, and less frequently complete scales unless you play Baroque and Classical era.

- If you can play a scale in a certain key, then it is easier to learn to play pieces in that key

- Scales teach us fundamentals in fingering choices based on the ergonomics of our hands. While fingering can be highly individual in a given passage, knowing the standard choices helps so it's not reinventing the wheel with each piece.

- Arpeggios help stretch the hands and the fingers apart to aid in the flexibility necessary for playing pieces with stretches in them

- Scales, arpeggios, and any repetitive exercise like Hanon, can help you focus on technique without the distractions of trying to be expressive in a piece of music, and the repetitive nature frees the mind to focus on how it feels to play, where the excess tension is, etc. This can then translate directly to a piece where there is a troublesome passage with a similar pattern

- They help you visualize the keyboard by being able to "see" the pattern you care going to play in advance. As you increase from one 8va, to 2, 3 & 4, this allows you to "see" or visualize ahead to longer passages which you will encounter in advanced music.

- They help with sight reading. If you can identify a portion of music you are playing as a scale, chord or arpeggio, then you don't have to "read" that, you simply recognize the pattern, like we recognize words. We don't "read" words, we remember the pattern. If it's an unfamiliar word, then we "read" them, and the same goes for sight reading music.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Scales, chords & arpeggios are a means to an end, and not usually an end itself. And this is just one aspect of fundamentals. Other fundamentals include technique, how to play musically, how to build up different abilities like playing hands together and other aspects that require coordination.

The question you've asked is huge and it is what piano teachers learn about when seeking their pedagogy degrees, and what they continue to learn afterward.

I understand the desire to know why, and perhaps your teacher should only assign exercises that pertain to things you are encountering in your current repertoire to make it easier to see the "why". But the need to know why to everything will frankly slow you down. At some point, you have to trust that your teacher does know how to go about this, and that the why will be self-evident in time.


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Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630042 04/04/17 10:07 AM
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My boss isn't looking - an opportunity to waffle on... smile

Our hands are used to working as grasping instruments, the thumb opposing our fingers and our last three fingers designed to support the index finger. Advanced piano playing requires that not only do we need to use our hands independently of each other but also each of our fingers. Our anatomy is not ideally geared for this but by developing the brain it's possible to overcome most of the anatomical shortcomings.

Baroque music, especially Bach, relies heavily on polyphony. This is an ideal platform because the brain itself is required to grow in order to follow, let alone play, two or more melodies at once. Further, Bach revolutionised fingering for the instrument, making heavy use of the thumb, finger substitution, walking longer fingers over shorter ones, sliding from black keys to white, etc.

One of the first duties when learning a new piece is to establish the fingering. While we are developing our fingers and good fingering principles we need to examine prescribed fingering given by editors, not to copy their fingerings but to understand the need for them and how they address the underlying problem. There are many ways of learning good fingering principles and gaining control of these unwieldy extremities. There is no better way, once we've developed sufficient technique, than progressing through the inventions and sinfonias of Bach.

Scarlatti, a keyboard proponent quite probably the equal of Bach and Handel at the instrument, wrote over five hundred sonatas, largely for his pupil, Princess Maria Barbara, and each targeting specific keyboard techniques. His music transfers very well onto the modern piano because it is keyboard based. For the pianist, it is Bach and Scarlatti that are the twin pillars of the Baroque era and the foundation of keyboard skill.

It is unlikely that any advanced pianist, in any genre, has not studied Bach.

As the piano began to take over from the harpsichord the composers of the day were able to write for the greater sustain of the instrument and the requirement for arm technique over finger dexterity. The Baroque style, reams of quavers and semiquavers, gave way to more diverse rhythmic groups, greater dynamic variety and a predominant legato. The earlier instruments were limited dynamically to a more even tone but while an even tone is acceptable an uneven tone is not. The dynamic possibilities of the modern piano must be controlled not just to avoid an uneven tone but to use a tone matching the natural dynamic contour of the melody.

The keyboard music of the classical composers, particularly Haydn, Clementi, Mozart and Beethoven, developed piano playing to a new height and developed homophonic writing, melody and accompaniment introduced by CPE Bach that is difficult to realise on an instrument without dynamic control. They introduce a wealth of accompaniment styles and rhythmic variety.

Beethoven and Schubert form the bridge to the Romantic era, writing melodies in smaller forms and with ever greater chromaticism, rhythmic variety and extended pianistic accompaniments. Beethoven took piano technique to a level beyond normal human limits, reserved for the gifted few. A pianistic parallel, perhaps, of the sub four-minute mile.

Unable to surpass Beethoven's extended structures the Romantics developed shorter forms and introduced greater variety within them in terms of rhythm and harmony. Chopin and Liszt took piano technique close to its pinnacle. They took standard accompaniments well beyond the octave, often divided them between the hands, and extended the harmonic language, paving the way for atonality.

The music of the tonal period, from Baroque to Romantic, provides the foundations and the gamut of piano techniques and human emotions. There is no genre that provides as broad or as deep a training ground for all forms of music. It is a universal language that modern composers are unable to surpass.
_________________________________

Why scales? They are excellent ear training!

Scales form the backbone of all tonal music and scalar extracts pervade the canon so as long as a varied repertoire is tackled there is ample opportunity to practise scales except that, hidden inside music with rhythmic accents and multiple voices, it is easy to miss uneven notes.

Scales deal with adjacent notes, arpeggios with wider intervals. Each deal with a variety of white to black relationships (so you don't need to practise arpeggios in F, C and G majors AND A, D and E minors - one of the six is sufficient).

Scales, played one hand at a time, leave the notes naked and any unevenness of time or tone can be identified much more easily - as long as the ear is paying close attention - and by micro adjustments made in the brain the fingers can appear to sound even, with or without accents. Frequently, and of much less importance, the hands can be played together so that any absence of synchronisation, particularly at the outer reaches of the keyboard in four octave scales, can be heard more clearly. Playing at intervals of a third, sixth, octave, tenth and double octave deal with both physical coordination and listening skills.

Listening carefully also attunes our ear to the diatonic scale making our listening and understanding of the movement of tonal music more clear.
__________________________________

Hanon and Czerny?

Just my opinion but Hanon is based on a flawed principle - that of making the fingers equally strong and agile. This is ridiculous and counter to nature. Chopin's method was to train the fingers to sound even. Those that already have sufficient technique can still use Hanon for exercise and quantity but using it (or indeed scales) to acquire technique is not a good idea. Technique comes from pieces, technical drills are to exercise them once acquired or may be used to target skills that repertoire exposes a lack of if the skill to create exercises out of repertoire hasn't been sufficiently developed.

Czerny's studies are a bit like learning everything you need to know just in case you come across it in real music. What was missing in Czerny's day was the huge volume of music written for the instrument that we have today. We also know that 'just in time' training is an ideal way acquiring skills or knowledge and creating studies out of repertoire meets this need. If you know what Czerny's studies deal with you can prescribe them where needed but good luck acquiring that knowledge!
____________________________________

The fundamentals? Again, opinion but:

- playing by ear, from memory, from the score and from the imagination;
- memorising either from the score or aurally;
- ability to play without having to look at the hands or the keyboard;
- reading staff notation and hearing it in your head;
- enjoying practice as much as playing;
- building an arsenal of practice techniques and knowing when to use them;
- and finding new ways to make practise more efficient for you;
_____________________________________

Piano playing is an intellectual pursuit in the guise of a physical skill. All such skills, piano, chess, martial arts, drawing, creative writing, etc, need time and daily exercise. Without regular activity the skills deteriorate. It's not like riding a bike. Pieces learnt can be absorbed into motor memory but the learning process cannot.

There is no progress that isn't made by developing or exercising a variety of skills a little bit each day and sleeping on it. You can't cram it like knowledge. Technique is acquired slowly and manifests itself as new synapses in the brain. Use it or lose it.



Richard
Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630043 04/04/17 10:10 AM
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You have a good start with rhythm and note reading.
Originally Posted by marimorimo
................
1) Rhythm:
Reason: Because it's the pulse of the music, to make playing even
How: learning to count beats while playing, maybe playing the metronome
............................
One quibble, here: A sense of the pulse of the music is not the same as the rhythm. The rhythm can be quite complex, whereas pulse is the underlying steady beat suggested by the time signature.

Control of dynamics is a fundamental skill, imo. Voicing, i.e. bringing out the melody line (if there is one) is a fundamental skill. Voicing is the ability to play one hand (or one finger) louder than the other, where appropriate.

As to why scales/arpeggios are important:
(1) They help you hear and "feel" the tones and triads that are the building blocks of much or Western music.
(2) Once you can do scales and arpeggios without having to think too much about how to play them, you can practice quite a few of the other "fundamentals" with them: play loud in one hand, soft in the other.
(3) Play with differing pulses, for example 1 2 3 1 2 3.....
(4) Play with differing rhythms, for example an eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes.
Of course you can and should practice all of these with the pieces you're learning, but this is one of the uses of scales and arpeggios that is often neglected. (BTW, I would add doing the I-IV-V-I chord progressions to scales and arpeggios. You come across these triads over and over again in music.)

You are so right about how knowing why you are practicing something helps you in your task. When my teacher assigned Hanon exercises, she said the purpose is not to build speed or to have them become mindless exercises. Play them smoothly and evenly. Listen to them, she said.


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Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630048 04/04/17 10:24 AM
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If you take something like, say Mozart's K. 545 1st movement, it consists almost entirely of scales, arpeggios and broken chords. Mastering these gets you a long way not only technically but also in reading and memorizing the piece.

I recently experienced this myself. My teacher assigned Kuhlau op. 59 no. 1, which also has lots of scales and broken chords. I was able to learn and memorize this 5 page piece very quickly just by noticing which scales and chords are used.

Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630050 04/04/17 10:34 AM
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In terms of fundamentals, one must go back to the essence of music, which is to "move" someone in some way, i.e, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It can be as simple as moving oneself or to move a group of people.

To understand music so that one can manifest it, first, in one's own creative mind and then pass it through one's own physical body and then through the instrument, one must fully experience the story, feel it, and then relate it.

There had to be a connection between the music in one's imagination and what is being produced and heard. How does one develop such abilities? There are many, many ways. Scales, exercises, studies, melodies, pieces and such are there to train but are not fundamental.

For me, learning how to imagine and create flow came first from studying Tai Chi and dance for decades, and then I applied it to drawing and now piano. This was my route, but for others it may be much different. But the essence is the same: imagining, then feeling, and then creating, and then learning (listening) to one's creation and then creating something new.

No one can play like anyone else, but one can learn to play as oneself.

Re: Building the fundamentals
Morodiene #2630117 04/04/17 02:31 PM
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Originally Posted by Morodiene
Scales and arpeggios - and chords, since they are often all taught together - are helpful in many ways:

-They are the building blocks of a lot of music, and especially piano music. Arpeggios are everywhere, so learning to play them makes it easier when you encounter them in a piece. Scales also are encountered in music, but often in part, and less frequently complete scales unless you play Baroque and Classical era.

I definitely agree with all that. Especially if your main interest is classical music. (I won't presume to apply that to other genres, especially as my self-taught jazzer friend appears to do just fine - at least, in his own estimation wink - without a working scales & arpeggios technique).

As a kid, I used to begrudge the learning of scales & arpeggios, as time spent away from playing 'tunes'. And not only that, s & a are the only part of ABRSM exams which had to be played from memory, and that took up more time and put extra stress on my very limited grey cells. But though I did understand that a lot of music used them, I felt that I could just as well learn them when I encountered them in actual music. (After all, they aren't the multiplication tables.....). However, the Grade exams were part & parcel of learning piano, and s & a were part of the exams, so.....

Then, I discovered the world of music outside what my teacher was teaching me, and as my reading skills improved sufficiently, I started learning pieces on my own from volumes of borrowed scores. And discovered how my ability to play a lot of s & a from muscle memory without having to think about them paid huge dividends: I could easily sight-read through Schubert's Impromptus D899 Nos.2 & 4, for instance. One was just lots & lots of scales, the other lots & lots of (broken) arpeggios. All stuff I'd already played before, in similar guises. The same with Haydn and Mozart sonatas. Even a lot of Beethoven. And so on. I simply couldn't have sight-read, and certainly not learn, such a varied rep so easily without all those s & a drilled into my fingers. They are a lot more than 'technical exercises' for a classical pianist.
Quote
But the need to know why to everything will frankly slow you down. At some point, you have to trust that your teacher does know how to go about this, and that the why will be self-evident in time.

And this.

As a kid, I was curious by nature, but was brought up to learn everything my teachers taught me without question. They knew more than me. There was a method in their 'madness' wink . No point in me wasting my time - and theirs - questioning why this, why that.

And what I invariably found in learning piano was that everything I was taught had a purpose. Very often, the purpose wasn't evident until years later, when I was much further on in my learning, and suddenly, it clicked - so, that was why I had to learn to recognize sixths, or why I had to recognize four in a bar (and know it wasn't three or two), and then do that (to my mind, embarrassing) twiddly arm sweep in time to the music (i.e. beat time) when the examiner played it. Because that was how conductors conducted. But why would I need to learn that, when I had no intention of becoming a conductor? Then I found myself being asked to conduct the school choir, when our choirmaster had to go up to the organ loft and play the accompaniment to Hear My Prayer, because our organ scholar was taken ill. And I found myself waving my arms......


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Re: Building the fundamentals
bennevis #2630147 04/04/17 03:45 PM
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Originally Posted by bennevis
[...] or why I had to recognize four in a bar (and know it wasn't three or two), and then do that (to my mind, embarrassing) twiddly arm sweep in time to the music (i.e. beat time) when the examiner played it. Because that was how conductors conducted. But why would I need to learn that, when I had no intention of becoming a conductor? Then I found myself being asked to conduct the school choir, when our choirmaster had to go up to the organ loft and play the accompaniment to Hear My Prayer, because our organ scholar was taken ill. And I found myself waving my arms......


LOL! I've had many such experiences, and guess what, I now conduct my church choir. Never had a conducting class in my life (it wasn't required for voice majors in undergrad, nor pedagogy majors in grad school). But, I knew 2/4 and 6/8 and 4/4 and 3/4, and that got me by. Plus years of singing in a choir I picked up on a few things.

But nothing like trial by fire...I had to grin laugh


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Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630257 04/04/17 11:43 PM
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While I wouldn't question the usefulness of scales and arpeggios in general, my music taste is such that I often find myself needing to "unlearn" the conventional scale fingerings...I play practically no classical era music and much 20th century stuff. It is very rarely that I encounter basic scales in music and when I do I just practice them as needed. So I personally don't see much sense in drilling scales. To me scales have always been more a tool of understanding music. To me they are the fundamentals of music but not fundamentals of my piano playing.

I also feel different about asking and understanding why. I was never a "normal" child and could learn things only by understanding, not repetition or imitation. I still cannot learn by the latter means. This and my cognitive anomalies formed my brain and learning methods and thankfully I was not forced into something I could not be. The need to understand why is not the same as to question the usefulness of things you are being taught. For me it is just the basic building block of learning and without it my brain cannot function properly. Abstract thinking also came very early to me, maybe to compensate for some of the things missing from my brain. After one starts to develope such thinking it's difficult or impossible to undo it and go back to a childlike "blank slate" mind.

The seemingly random way I progressed as an adult also does not seem to slow me down. Instead I've had my worst slumps when in the past I have decided to try to change the way I work, following some very traditional methods. So to each their own. In the end what counts is the results, not the method imo.

Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630562 04/06/17 01:15 AM
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Original poster here. Thanks so much for your contributions smile
They gave me a lot to chew on, and gave me much-needed fuel for my piano practice sessions. Right now I'm working through theory in preparation for extensive work on chords. Do you think dabbling with fakebooks would help with that or would that go in the way of my piano training, which is largely classical?

As an adult I feel the need to learn the why behind anything I do--it helps me focus my energy on what needs to be done to achieve a certain goal. I feel it makes the learning process more streamlined. Mindless repetition worked when I was younger, but it no longer has the same effect now that I'm older.

A big thing I'm missing on is audiation. I've been trying to work with Solfeggio with my voice teacher for a few months now but it's slow-going (I admit lack of practice doesn't help either). I feel discouraged and demotivated because I'm largely tone-deaf. Not entirely, but probably close frown


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Re: Building the fundamentals
marimorimo #2630633 04/06/17 09:07 AM
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Playing from fake books is an excellent activity, especially if you're playing mostly classical. Music doesn't exist in a vacuum; the greater your general musicianship, the more you'll bring to whatever you're working on.

Sometimes the reasons aren't clear and aren't easily expressed. Many times the lessons learned from seeing the results are stronger and richer than explaining them first.

Mindless repetition doesn't work for anyone. The physical skills of playing don't need to be well developed until the concert platform beckons. Piano playing is an intellectual exercise. It's a question of getting the brain to engage, not the fingers, that makes the difference between easy and hard or music and noise.

For audiation you might start with three note melodies that you might find in a recorder tutor. When you can predict the sound of just three notes you can start increasing your compass.



Richard

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