In the pursuit of any art, the act of learning does not necessarily occur on a conscious plane. As a teacher, I aspire to create a learning environment that enables the gradual development of self-awareness, organization skills and effective practice tools. At the core, however, students who choose to study performance—whether it is a major, minor or an elective—do so because of their love of music. Teaching music should also aim to cultivate this love and not eliminate it in the process.
During the piano lesson, it is important to me that young pianists never lose sight of the relationship between technique and musicality, physical movements and sound: the ear guides the gesture. At the undergraduate level especially, the act of listening often needs to be strengthened in order to shape a phrase, bring out harmony, create a sound that fits the character, etc. I also encourage students to accompany singers, play chamber music, study scores, and listen to music they are unfamiliar with.
Young students are often unaware of the many layers of pianistic development that take place during the piano lesson, especially the less experienced. Reflecting on the development of my own technique, I find the learning process much easier to understand in retrospect than when actually going through it. If a student, say an undergraduate piano major, plays with a very tense wrist, I can demonstrate how to free up, assign specific technical exercises, but it most likely will take a few months (if not a year) before results become visible. Progress will have occurred subconsciously throughout those months. Learning should therefore be a direct process, with concrete applications rather than lecturing. During lessons, I try to achieve a balance between talking and playing, but in general, more playing and less talking provide the most successful results.
Nonetheless, students should feel able to speak up and express themselves during a lesson. When a student is shy and nods in agreement to everything, I encourage them to open up by asking questions: about the music (what do you think is happening in this passage? what is the emotion you are trying to convey here?), technical issues (how do you think we could improve this scale? do you remember any exercises we have done that could make it sound more even?), theory (what type of chord is this? why is it more dramatic than the previous one and where is it leading to? which key are we suddenly veering into?), or music history (do you know what was happening in Paris when Debussy wrote this set of pieces?). These questions aim to elicit a musical response and engage the student in the decisions that contribute to a successful, sincere interpretation. A sudden, loud diminished seventh chord only has meaning if it is intrinsic to the dramatic nature of a passage; similarly, knowing about the influence of Asian art and gamelan on French composers at the beginning of the 20th century is useful when one applies it to Debussy’s Estampes. In that sense, piano lessons fit into a larger scope of music courses which interact and work toward building in-depth musicianship.
Whether it uses actual words or not, teaching is always a dialogue. Every student comes with a different background, a different “story” when it comes to music, and requires different needs. Some will respond enthusiastically to the use of metaphors, others will not. Looking at my gestures and listening to the examples I give at the piano may be sufficient and immediate to some, while others will compel another method of communication. Student goals also differ from one to the other. For some, it will be to develop a bigger sound, or a wider palette of sound, through adapted repertoire; for others, it may be to familiarize themselves with the classical style, its corresponding phrasing and agogic.
In my studio, there are no “good” nor “bad” students. Clear signs of practice, commitment and motivation are my primary objectives in the assessment of a student. If these factors are absent at any point, it is also my role to try and understand the reason, and to keep a student engaged—perhaps by varying the pace of the lesson, the type of assignment, or repertoire choice.
Though the training is rigorous, and my expectations are high, I try to suggest rather than impose. Certain pieces may indeed be excellent pedagogical tools, but what is it that this student really wishes to play? As a teacher, my role is also to help a student achieve goals they have set for themselves, rather than goals I have established for them. In doing so, the joy of music that was present at the beginning has the space to breathe, evolve, and become even stronger throughout their musical development.
"Dr. Handelsman has a clear vision for her students and has the experience and expertise to help that student achieve what they want and what they need to become a professional, higher level musician. After one year, she fast tracked my transition from a solo performer to a collaborative pianist. Her knowledge in both solo and collaborative works leaves nothing to be desired and her clear instruction helped me understand how to be a better pianist and accompanist. With Dr. Handelsman's careful instruction, I was able to attend Carnegie Mellon in pursuit of a Masters in Collaborative Piano. I have used what she has taught me countless times and am thankful for studying under her."
Joe Stevens, M.M. in Collaborative Piano candidate at Carnegie Mellon University
"Dr. H gives constructive and clear criticism during lessons, and genuinely cares about her students as people. During my time with Dr. H, I adjusted my technique to be more comfortable and expressive, and she broadened my horizons by teaching pieces outside of my comfort zone. In addition, when the time came, she helped me plan and perfect my college piano audition. Above all else, she activated my ear and taught me to really listen to what I’m playing. This has completely changed my approach and definitely helps me be a better musician. Overall, Dr. H is a fantastic teacher, and I had lots of fun working with her as a private student."
Mackenzie Renner, B.A. candidate at University of Southern Maine
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