I was excited to find out that a veteran piano teacher (Dorothy Chia, Forte Music Training and Singapore Piano Teachers Meetup) has organised a brunch with Dr Azariah Tan today. Foremost in my mind was to get Dr Tan’s autograph for his album, Azariah Tan plays Chopin
which his parents gave me soon after it was released in late 2016. And to congratulate him on being awarded the NUS Outstanding Young Alumni Award 2017. I did not expect, but am so privileged to end up seated next to him!
As an introduction to today’s event, we are told that this intimate gathering is a precursor to another event scheduled for May. Dr Tan also said he would like to get to know the present local music situation better, as he has just returned to Singapore for good after being based in Michigan for the last few years. Among those present are a writer for The A List magazine, a monthly guide to arts and culture in Singapore, available free at more than 200 places islandwide, including all public libraries (where I get my copies). She and a colleague recently conducted an email interview with Dr Tan (to appear in next month’s issue), so today was the first time they met face-to-face.
The session was very informal, beginning with the organiser’s question: How true is the statement that “the best feeling is when there’s nothing in the brain”, as expounded by a student of hers? Have piano lessons become therapy sessions of sorts? This brings forth a lively discussion on the number of piano students who only practise half an hour before the lesson (some not even that).
Dr Tan recounts that he has also had a wide range of students in Michigan; and this also spurs his wish to understand the challenges local teachers are facing in Singapore. He worked with Randy and Nancy Faber as a clinician teaching students according to the Faber Piano Method at the Faber Piano Institute, which is in the same town as the University of Michigan. The Faber Piano Adventures are not only about learning to play music but to imagine and express music, with a fun element; this is so important because learning takes place when there’s fun! Some parents may think having fun is wasting time, but this is totally not true. Examples are pieces that imitate the clock (repetitive movements), or sudden forte or stray notes.
Good teachers, therefore, are of paramount importance. Also important is the chemistry between teacher and student. For instance, Dr Tan himself decided on a career in music when he was 11 years old partly because he enjoyed the humour in his piano teacher, though he had started lessons at the age of 4 (and had to be prodded by his parents to practise at times).
Then, there are teachers who feel demoralised and others who would like to stay updated and try new ideas. The present generation of ‘durians’ (prickly on the outside but soft on the inside) and ‘strawberries’ have to be constantly praised and motivated. Students these days are also getting lazy about practising, so what the Faber Piano Method advocates is to introduce adventures and feelings into every piece; eg. imagery or something that is happening, then the children would become enthusiastic.
What does Dr Tan think about students (sometimes it’s even the parents) who think all they need is to learn/practise the scales and three pieces required for the exams? Well, perhaps the only saving grace is that at least they have been exposed to (a little) appreciation for music and the arts. Here again, good teachers are key – it is important to make every lesson different, and change the activity related to the piece in concentrating on the different aspects llike techniques, phrasing, textures and colours. A good teacher would guide students through the practising process by going through the pieces.
How is this done?
- Break down all their blocks and handling one block at a time.
- Fingering is important. Wrong fingering will damage the hands (eg weird fingering or uncomfortable fingering). There are usually 2, 3 or 4 different possible fingerings for the same passage, so what is needed is to try and see which one the student likes best.
- Something that is difficult to play with one hand can be split between the two hands. The fingering can be rearranged so that it’s easier and musically it can be better too. Sometimes composers want certain things but usually rearrangement is possible. Sometimes composers write certain things for a specific reason, for eg the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – awkward shifts of the hands could mean that the pianist can’t focus on the melodic line.
- If anything feels uncomfortable, it will not get the best out of the pianist. This works differently for different people. At this point, Dr Tan shared that it is so good that Prof Logan (his teacher at the University of Michigan) worked on fingering on every piece to make it better!
- Many pianists incur injuries because things are not always done in the most efficient ways because sometimes they are forcing things together. Dr Tan has come across many such pianists in his career. Hence, he reiterates: If something is uncomfortable, there is always a better way.
- People who work on the nitty-gritty – like fingering – are a rare breed; they have a different type of psychology.
- Much also depends on the age of the students: how able or willing are they to communicate to their teachers on how it feels and why certain parts don’t feel so good.
- Doing things in steps: for eg, how to make music out of scales? Scales could be played from forte to piano; scales are running notes and beautiful melodies. Imagine the hands and arms flying! This is also where body positioning comes in.
One question that came up was: Is it advisable for students to participate in competitions? Dr Tan’s response is: talk to the parents. From his experience, competitions are very demanding and emotionally draining too. The first step is for the student to get used to playing for friends and family and enjoy the experience. He also gave little snippets of how he warms up before a performance (such as whooshing up scales in the left hand, conducting the music, certain gestures – easier to do when alone – in the way music is played, to illustrate things, the movement, the focus on the eventual sound rather than the technique (which of course must have been pre-worked out), focus on shaping the line, having a very clear idea of the exact ideal sound in the head what the piece is like, how to shape the phrases (and how technical limitation will affect the sound produced).
All too soon, two hours have passsed and the session has to come to an end. I look forward to more such sessions, and am especially curious about the upcoming event in May.