Every piano teacher has experienced the frustration of a student losing interest in a piece before he or she has mastered it. At worst, this becomes a pattern and the student rarely or never truly reaches mastery – sometimes even proficiency – before boredom or ennui sets in. In this post we’ll look at strategies for overcoming this common dilemma. This post is written for teachers, though students may find it helpful too.
Most people eventually get tired of listening to a piece of music, or at least need a long break before enjoying it again. But when we are not just listening to a piece, but practicing to master it, getting tired too soon can become a musical hazard!
This dilemma is less of a concern for beginners, who are usually practicing shorter pieces that can be quickly learned and superseded. That said, it can happen with some beginners (particularly adults) who are inclined towards more difficult music because they lack the patience or interest necessary to practice shorter pieces that will in time prepare them for more advanced and interesting literature.
There are at least three ways we can help students prolong their enthusiasm for practicing a piece. We can help them (1) increase their appreciation of it by enhancing their comprehension of relevant theory and/or history, (2) help them enhance their appreciation for the skills they are developing to play it, and (3) remind them to express themselves through it.
Enhance Comprehension of Theory and History
Though music is primarily a medium of emotion, the pleasure we take in it need not be just emotional. Musical pleasure can also be sensory (the beautiful tones and timbre of the piano and/or other instruments), kinesthetic (an exciting rhythm to which we can’t help but tap our foot or conduct an imaginary orchestra), and intellectual (via an understanding of a harmonic progression, counterpoint, or form).
Having a student lose interest in a piece is actually an opportunity to help them understand it more deeply. We might start with asking what they like (or liked) about the piece when they started to practice it. Was it the melody, a chord progression, a contrapuntal section, or simply the overall emotion or mood that the music inspired?
You may discover that many students, particularly at the beginning and intermediate levels and/or without a well-developed ear or understanding of theory, are only appreciating one or two aspects of the music. Here are some questions we might ask to stimulate deeper understanding and enjoyment:
What is most interesting or attractive about this melody? Why?
What emotion does this melody engender in you? Why do you think that is?
What do you think of this countermelody or contrapuntal section?
How does the shape of the melody lead the piece towards its emotional/musical climaxes? How could you shape the phrases to better bring these out?
Where are the cadences, and how do they relate to the melody?
Is there a chord or sequence of chords you find particularly moving, or that engender a specific mood or emotion? Let’s analyze the chord progression to discover why that is. (Here you can help students understand a basic function of harmony as a movement of tension and release, and as usually the most important overall contributor to “mood.”)
Why do you think the composer chose this chord versus a different chord that might work equally well (play a different chord that works with the chord tones of the melody)?
How could you play the accompaniment pattern of the harmonic progression to better communicate the composer’s intentions?
How does the piece’s overall rhythm (in pop music we might say “groove”) contribute to the overall effectiveness of the piece?
How important is the rhythm of the melody (“melodic rhythm”) for the effectiveness of the melody, versus the pitch sequence alone?
How does the harmonic rhythm – the movement and pace of change from chord to chord – add to the attractiveness or success of the piece?
How could you perform the rhythm more accurately or highlight aspects of it, such as a syncopated section, to highlight the rhythmic interest?
What is the form of this piece?
How does the form contribute to the effectiveness or beauty of the music?
How could you change your interpretation to help the listener more easily discern the piece’s structure?
Compositional Tools Employed
I strongly feel that introducing piano students to the basic tools of music composition can deepen their understanding and appreciation of everything they play. Even a layperson’s understanding of motives and a few tools for developing them, such as repetition, sequence and inversion, can help a student appreciate the genius of a composer and his or her music.
An unsung but important way to help a student connect more deeply to a piece is by having them learn about the history of its composition, including discovering more about the composer’s life. We could ask:
What was happening to the composer when this piece was written?
Was this piece commissioned by someone? Does it have a dedication? If so, who was this person in the composer’s life and how did their relationship inspire this piece?
What did the composer think about this piece? What have other composers or pianists said about this piece?
We can encourage students to listen to several outstanding recordings of the piece, comparing and analyzing different interpretations. A piece can often enjoy a second or even third life when the value of a musically intelligent interpretation is heard and appreciated.
Of course, encouraging students to prepare to perform the piece, whether at a studio recital or other venue, is another time-tested way to maintain interest and motivation!
Increase Appreciation of Developing Skills
Another essential way to sustain student interest in a piece is by helping them come to a deeper appreciation of their developing skills in playing it. This may be particularly useful when the above strategies are no longer effective.
Piano students often overlook how many skills are involved in playing even the most rudimentary of pieces, and may not even notice improvements in one or more skill sets as they practice it. For example, you could discuss their:
- Ability to shape a phrase
- Improved tone
- Rhythmic sensibilities and precision in executing challenging rhythms
- Technique that maintains a musical line or brings out a countermelody
- Improved ear that has helped them memorize it
Express Through the Music
Students sometimes default to mechanical playing and forget that the point is to express themselves through the medium of a composer’s music. If we neglect to express ourselves through the music we are playing, how can we maintain an interest in it for very long? When this happens, remind the student to consciously connect with whatever the music personally means for them, and to intentionally express their own being through it.
By helping students to better understand a piece, appreciate their skills in playing it, and intentionally express themselves through it, we will help them to attain greater levels of mastery at the piano.