I am often told that I am harsh, unfair and judgmental toward piano teachers. It is true. While many teachers may have much to teach regarding the artistry of playing the piano, it is also true that many of them do not know what they are doing mechanically. The body is a machine with levers, pulleys, rubber bands, torque and fulcrums. We learn about these things in Physics and Biology classes and it is too bad that our educational system doesn’t use Physical Education class to combine it all together. It is also too bad that our teachers only know what they are taught and do not seek answers to problems other than relying on what they were taught: practice more, relax, work on finger exercises, build strength and endurance, you have no talent or, they just keep taking the students’ money. Often, the cure for technical inefficiency or various syndromes is an adjustment to our movement but that is rarely addressed because a teacher only knows what they were taught and often that is practice more, relax, work on finger exercises, build strength and endurance. I have a friend who can’t play tremolos because he tries to play them from his fingers. If he played them from his elbow, they would be instantly effortless. But, what do I know, his teacher told him to practice more and build strength.
I may not be able to pick up and move an 800 pound boulder across my yard but, with a crowbar and another rock, I could make a fulcrum and inch it over. Better yet, if I can nudge it up onto a dolly with wheels, I can then easily roll it over. My strength and endurance doesn’t change, but how I use the laws of physics can make all the difference.
I took lessons from one of my area’s leading concert pianists with the sole intention of improving my technique. He was one of those virtuoso pianists who simply moved properly. He had an ergonomic technique and didn’t know how or why he could play with great ease. He called it talent. Students flocked to him hoping to become as good as he but he didn’t know how to help his students find their true potential. Many of his lessons were spent with him playing hoping his students would imitate him but, the actual movement of playing is invisible and shared by several muscles many teachers are oblivious to because they don’t know they exist. We think it is the fingers that play the piano but, it is first and foremost the arm. The unenlightened teacher focuses on the fingers, which have no muscles BTW.
This teacher has long since died and his daughter has taken over teaching. I had the opportunity to work with one of her students and his technique was dangerously close to crippling him. Sadly, he only wanted a magic lesson so he could play well and didn’t want to put in the work of relearning how to move. There was nothing I could do for him. In order to relearn how to play one must abandon all previously learned movements and start over, which many pianists are not willing to do.
This kind of teacher may be fine for the student who just wants a taste of music, learn a little theory or be able to plunk out some notes for themselves but, a teacher’s ignorance can stifle a student’s progress, enthusiasm and even set them up for eventual injury. Mediocrity is not related to talent, it is a symptom of teachers who don’t know about the physics of movement and our skeletal system.
You would not take your car in for an inspection only for the mechanic to tell you your brakes or tires are going bad but you can get a few more months out of them. Well, actually people do. That mechanic is putting your life and everyone you share the road with in danger because you probably won’t come back in in a few months. Sure, you are saving a few bucks today but at what cost in the future? If your brakes are bad, get them fixed, don’t drive more. Driving more won’t fix them. If you technique is bad, get it fixed, don’t practice more. Repeating improper movement only hard-wires it into the brain.
A piano teacher who does not understand that a student is using the wrong muscles or how to teach them to use the correct muscles is setting them up for problems or a career of mediocrity. Every technical problem has an ergonomic solution, and it isn’t “practice more.” If walking knock-kneed causes knee pain, the solution isn’t to walk more, it is to walk correctly. If your pinky and ring finger feel weak and in-coordinate, you don’t need to strengthen them, you only need an adjustment to your forearm alignment.
I have had all the wrong teachers and although they made me who I am today, they set me up to be crippled with pain and to struggle with a mediocre technique. It has taken me years to relearn how to move but I am now pain free and syndrome-less because I stopped fighting the laws of physics and started using them. Although I have much more work to do, my technique has improved significantly.