Monday, May 16, 2011

How Hard Can It Be?

"My dad taught me early in my coaching career that football is an easy game, made complicated by coaches," Rex Ryan told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

I stopped mid-sip in my morning coffee to listen to the interview on the May 13th issue of Morning Edition. I mentally rewrote the sentence to something like this: "Piano playing is an easy skill, made complicated by teachers."

OK, not really easy, not very easy at all once we get to high level literature. However, it is quite possible that we teachers make it even more complicated.

Ryan, successful coach of the NY Jets, says that he approaches coaching by requiring the whole team to be in on sessions that involve defense, for example. While he does split the team for specific coaching, he always makes sure that every player understands every part of the strategy and the contribution of each part to the whole. Holistic coaching, you might say.

I like this idea. I like it a lot. While we know as teachers of young students that they don't always see the value of things we want them to learn, it is not a bad idea to consider when and why they need to learn them in the larger scheme of skill-building.

Let's take scales, for example. Yes, scales. Many years ago one of my friends asked me if I taught my young students scales. I said, no, I use other simple technical exercises first. "Oh," she said, "my teacher made me play scales right from the beginning." (Enter my default insecurity.) She followed it up with, "I hated that."

Right, because hands-together parallel motion scales are hard to play for most young children, and they don't know why they need to learn them when very little, if any, of their repertoire uses them. For that matter, hands-together parallel motion scales don't appear all that often in more mature literature. So right out of the gate, this child-now-adult hated piano lessons. It was too hard to do something that didn't make sense.

There are certainly easier ways to teach scales - hands alone, tetrachords, etc., etc. - but many students learn scales more quickly and easily at a later stage. Up until then, they can be working on musical skills like good legato, hand balancing and moving the thumb. These technical elements are central to good scale playing. When students mature a bit, they can add these elements to the other challenges of scale playing, thereby putting the parts into the whole.

I was reminded of how important it is to make skill-building simple while watching a clip of James Levine, noted Metropolitan Opera conductor and vocal coach, working with Placido Domingo, life-long tenor cum baritone of international renown. Domingo expressed a technical challenge for his voice, and Levine said every so kindly, "I'll show you how to make it easier."

Now that's good coaching.

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