Friday, October 31, 2008

Our piano beginner

Fiona has now had four piano lessons. Her first two were with her 'regular teacher,' who has been Erin's piano teacher for the past 6 years, whom Fiona knows quite well. But her regular teacher travels a lot, and after two lessons she was to be overseas for 5 weeks. Fortunately (and it is unusual that it works out this way) there was a substitute teacher available, a fellow whom we all know a little bit because he teaches one of the advanced classes at the VSSM each summer. He is known for his flamboyant, scatter-brained personality and performing style and his passion for the piano. Some students find his quirkiness intimidating, but both Erin and Fiona find him funny and endearing. Erin has worked with him before at the VSSM, and for her working with him is a brilliant opportunity to work with a teacher who has taught and played a lot at and beyond her level. For Fiona the fit was less obvious. I'd only ever seen him work with advanced teens, and Fiona was so new to piano, it might have been the more logical choice to just skip her lessons for the month and get her back on track when her teacher returned. But I figured she's an easy-going kid -- and we'd give it a shot.

Well, she is thriving. Two lessons with one teacher, and two lessons with another with a rather different approach, and she is well on her way to building a strong foundation. She can easily go with the flow and fill in the gaps opened up by different teaching styles. The photo above is a random shot of her hands, in the middle of playing some little hands-together piece she taught herself yesterday. A month ago her wrists were down and all her distal finger joints were all collapsed. While she is loving rollicking through repertoire and teaching herself piece after piece ahead in her primer book (she finished her first primer in 2 weeks), she is also happy to do focused repetitive technique training. Her hand position and balance has improved so much in just a month. The photo above has nice neutral wrists and mosty curved fingers, even if they still sometimes collapse with lots of weight. She's about 90% of the way there.

The substitute teacher is wonderful in working with her strengths. When she came in and showed him how she could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in C with an Alberti bass accompaniment, he was impressed and appreciative. But then, rather than turning back to the current unit in the primer book, he challenged her to polish it up so that she could do it without any stumbles, and when he heard she'd been transposing into other keys, he suggested a couple of new keys to challenge herself with -- and incorporated this challenge into some of her primer pieces too.

And when she came back doing that well, he showed her how to work on sustaining a legato touch in the Alberti bass while lifting the other hand for repeated notes and suggested she try to master that, and try to play some of her finger exercises hands together with one hand legato and the other staccato. Erin was a very precocious beginner on piano too, but her teachers have never strayed far from the standard pedagogical sequence, and she'd been at piano for almost a year before being challenged to do "staccato against legato." Our substitute teacher's willingness to go with the flow and notch up the challenge for Fiona is amazing. She has three more lessons with him before returning to her regular teacher.

She really is anyone's dream piano student -- cute and smiley, keen, diligent, flexible, highly focused and driven, with incredible ability to lateralize (send different signals to left and right hands) , good note reading ability and phenemonal by-ear skills. Look out, piano world!


  1. Oh, hooray for flexible teachers who use a student's ability and interest as an advantage rather than a hindrance! Hooray for creative thinkers who are willing to stray from the beaten track but who still have the destination in mind. And hooray for Fiona in all her adorable precociousness!

  2. Because I so have no clue about music (unfortunately) most of your post might as well have been written in Chinese. Still, I understood enough to see how great Fiona is doing. That's wonderful! Also great that you found the perfect substitute teacher for her.


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