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20 February 2018

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Vertical Tennis - A Common Problem of Beginner Piano Students

It has been the case, many times in the past, that I have taken over a student when they wanted to change teacher. Often this came with accompanying bad habits. Even with students that started from the very beginning with me, it could be easy to let bad habits start developing if they were not kept in check.

One of the main things I come across is a student's tendency to always look at their hands. This is a natural reaction when first starting out on the piano, but if left unchecked will lead to problems later, not least an inability to sight read music fluently. Even if the student is watching the music in between notes, this constant nodding up and down between hand and page becomes a bit like watching vertical tennis. 

Invariably, such students make mistakes precisely at the moment they are looking down at their hands or at least, hesitate at that moment and to be honest, a hesitation in music is a mistake. To overcome this habit, I have often hovered a sheet of paper just above their hands so that they cannot see them and to their surprise, they often play better when hands are not visible.

But what about when you have large leaps of hand position. Surely you need to see where you are jumping  to. Not necessarily. Can you find your mouth with a spoon lifted from a bowl? I rest my case. If we repeat any muscular action enough times, we can reproduce it accurately without thought or visual aids. Try it out. find a piece of music that you need to move your hand position and repeat the jump enough times so that you could do it with your eyes closed. At first, it is likely to be a bit messy if you are not used to doing this, but with time and perseverance accuracy will improve.

Related to this is the worst thing ever invented for beginner students - note stickers. They not only don't encourage students to learn the positions of the notes, but also actively encourage them to look down, rather than up at  the page.

Then there is writing the letter names on the music. OK, this will make the student look up more, but they will be at a disadvantage in the future with regard to sight reading skills. Very often, this also encourages the student to concentrate on just the pitch of the note at the expense of rhythm, which leads me to my last moan for the day.

Playing without a sense of pulse. Even when learning a new piece, however complicated or easy, there should always  be a steady beat. This may be a very slow beat as you are tackling a particularly demanding passage, but a beat should nonetheless be there. This will eliminate hesitations later, speed being achieved gradually with metronome only after you can play in time at a slower pace. If you can't play a piece in time without hesitation - you're playing too fast.

I would be interested in your thoughts on some of these bad habits. Do you identify with any of these, do you have any more things you think should be included - leave them in the comments below. 

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