Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Take the Bait, and Get the Hook

My fall studio recital will include versions of these pieces:
Ode to Joy - Beethoven
Für Elise - Beethoven
Canon in D - Pachelbel
Solfeggietto - C.P.E.  Bach
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
When I'm 64 - Lennon and McCartney

Most teachers can count on students falling in like, if not love, with the pieces listed above.  They are known as hook pieces, the pieces that hook students so strongly that they work against odds to master them.  They are even more enticing if the teacher says, "I don't think you are ready to tackle this piece." This declaration guarantees months of dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah-deeee  filling the studio.

But, wait a minute - Lennon, McCartney? Have they been around long enough to be on the list of time-tested composers? Is "When I'm 64" now an old chestnut in the piano repertoire?

I can't give you a factual response to this hypothetical question, but John and Paul's music is vibrant and interesting to today's young students.  The same is true of the early music of Billy Joel - "Piano Man" and "Just the Way You Are" -  which will also be on the program. I'm glad to continue their legacies in some small way.

There will also be a waltz by Oscar Peterson ("I never played anything like this before", says student), Blue Rondo by Dave Brubeck, and an old 18th century American piano duet that caught the imagination of another young student.  I also spent two years listening to every possible version of the score of "The Phantom of the Opera" played by an obsessed student who later became quite accomplished at classical repertoire. We are so lucky as piano teachers to have a vast repertoire of potential hook pieces for our students.

We can also learn about our students through the pieces that grab their attention.  First, that there are pieces that have something innately addictive or entertaining or communicative.  Für Elise is definitely one of them.  Beginning students can be happy playing the opening phrase over and over and over again, never getting to the drum-like bass part or the fleeting arpeggios that happen later in the piece.  They are hooked from the start.  They will play this piece in all kinds of versions before tackling the "real" Für Elise, which they will probably never stop playing.

Second, never assume that you know what students will like.  The student playing Blue Rondo also chose the Chopin Prelude in c minor, whose giant chords couldn't be more different from Brubeck's rapid-fire, off-meter patterns.

Third, sometimes we may need to step out of the traditional step-by-step process and throw the student a real challenge.  I have fought against this in the past, only to be thwarted by the eager student determined to prove me wrong.  Every now and then a student jumps levels for no apparent reason and succeeds. Some of my most accomplished pianists have done this, despite the little pedagogy teacher in my brain saying, "Keep your students on a steady track of learning."  Some just jump the rails.

Suzanne Guy, inspirational teacher and author, reminds us that our students can learn anything with the right guidance. Pay attention to what your students are asking for, even if it seems out of sequence or somehow wrong.  You can probably find a way to make it work, even if the student learns only the melody or one section of a piece.  They offer you the bait, and you find the hook.

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