EAST VS. WEST PIANO TEACHING METHODS
Updated: Jun 4
After almost two years of zoom lessons and a ton of YouTube research on music and "how to" technical skills since returning to the piano in May 2020, I finally understand something basic and critical to my progress. Only it's two years late -- but not too late.
About six months ago I discovered Ilinca Vartic, an amazing young pianist from Moldova who in about 2011 started posting a wealth of totally gratis "how to" videos or vlogs (she calls them "tutorials") on YouTube. She teaches what she calls "The Russian School" of pianism, which at the time I had no clue about. I started with her video of a helpful upper body pre-practice physical warmup that I highly commend to anyone, and I use it every single day.
She named her online business pianocareeeracademy.com. The videos are uniformly informative, specific and practical, and very encouraging, in part because of Ilinca's happy, enthusiastic demeanor. I recently signed up to become a full-fledged annual member with access to another full set of informative videos and specific lessons for three levels of students -- and I'm extremely happy that I did!
It was during the past week as I got lost time and again pursuing a number of perhaps thousands of videos, (but yes, well organized, indexed, and relatively easy to navigate after a bit of time and attention, including printable scores of pieces she speaks of and teaches!), that I found a trustworthy, rational, and deeply personally-resonating approach to piano music and how to effectively and credibly create it. Until this time I had not realized the following about East vs. West piano teaching methods, and how they were so vastly different.
"This is actually one of the main differences between the Western and Russian piano schools: most Western methods (that I know of) start by teaching technique separately, and only when the basic movements are mastered, they start to be applied to pieces (mostly in a mechanical manner); then, in a few years, more complex topics start to be introduced (artistic concept, meaning, expression etc.). However, many students [and even teachers] never even reach this point - and in 70-80% of the cases, piano playing remains a 'mechanical' activity (these percentages are taken from my own experience of working with Western-trained students)."
I'm the perfect example of the Western or US teaching method. It was only after 20 months of lessons that my third and most recent teacher thought I was "ready" to take up the matter of phrasing, and commenced to teach it to me, and only a few months before that had helped me for the first time, learn how to bring out the melody line throughout with my right little finger, in the lovely Tchaikowsky piece, "Chanson Triste."
(Note the sincerity, sweet restraint, and lyrical simplicity of Nadia Reisenberg's interpretation which I prefer among the three featured pianists. This is because as a relatively new student to the piano, I find her interpretation the easiest to understand and follow, and I love the sound of her gorgeous piano! Moiseiwitsch has a wider dynamic and expressive range, to be sure. Check out the repeat of Section A where he takes a hair of a slower pace or incorporates more rubato?, and adds an unusual, not-in-the-score-I-have, but interesting, quick additional notes before the first chord of the coda.)
Why did all my teachers wait so long to stress the over-all view? Of course, I had learned various practice or "gesture" techniques such as how to move the fingers to smooth out thirds or how to place the notes in trills, but only my second teacher started me on analyzing the structure of my pieces, and this was never stressed or taught by my third teacher, a renown US concert pianist and internet piano teacher.
Thus, I had no clue how to connect the "how to" create some effect by mechanically playing the piano, with the piece I was playing. It took reading the below on Ilinca's video, to make this connection clear:
"Every gesture you make while playing should reflect the character of the music, its emotional and dramatic content’. Why is this necessary? Our pianistic gestures influence not only the quality of our sound and the character of the objectively heard music. They also create visual illusions, providing ‘back-up’ (or canceling) the dramatic content of the performed work. That’s why the purpose of the piano gesture is not only to enhance the quality and the character of the sound, but also to offer a convincing ‘visual support’ for the musical image you’re trying to communicate to the public." (emphasis added)
If I just listen to YouTube "experts" and imitate them, or just "do" without understanding the why of it, including the expressive character and genre of the music, then I am basically acting like a puppet or robot. I am convinced that I, and many other students, provide a compelling indictment of the US teaching method(s). (Nothing like Ilinca says was ever said to me during high school lessons in the late 1950s, either.)
To re-train my hands, arm, and wrist use to Ilinca's methods will take time. I've gone back to lesson one and will work my way up gradually, entertaining myself playing "early intermediate" Romantic Era pieces that I've secured in my modest repertoire. I'll also undertake to learn a few modest new ones in order to keep my motivation and interest up during my "pause" period as I search for and secure a new in-person piano teacher (more on that matter soon).
In the meantime, I'll keep researching various topics in Ilinca's membership videos, and urge any reader to take advantage of numerous gratis videos provided to the public by this gracious, generous and amazing Moldovian piano teacher.
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