Piano Pedal as a Crutch

Let me share my story when I was a teenager. I thoroughly practiced my favorite Chopin Fantasie Impromptu inside and out. I memorized it very well. Now it’s the recital season. I was very excited and nervous at the same time.  Now here is my turn, at my teacher’s annual student recital in California. Getting up on the stage, played the first octave chord, then…..

On the stage, my heart was pounding like locomotive train engine, my hands were sweating, my knees were shaking, I was rushing through the notes, and all the notes were so blurry that I could not hear anything!

The rest of my performance was a disaster…

Not sure if you have had a similar experience before. This type of disaster happened to me several times during my teenage years.

Back then, I was given an instruction as “Don’t rush the music on the stage.”

OK, but I still kept doing this “rushing” thing over and over again even after this incident. Something was not working for me.

Now I think back, I believe that I was lacking the habit of “step back and analyze” WHY I am rushing on the stage. Now I can think possible reasons WHY I rushed on the stage:

  • My heart was pounding
  • I get nervous every time I get on the stage
  • I was pushing piano pedal like driving a car, meaning I never took off the pedal for an entire page of the music. It was my crutch.

The third bullet is particularly important. I don’t know about you, but I used to hold onto pedal like a crutch.  It was my security blanket. I kept pushing it as if piano pedal was my savior from drowning myself. Actually, it is quite contrary. Holding onto the piano damper pedal all the way across the entire music (!) will definitely generate muddy, unpleasant sound. I was drowning the audience!

Then you may be thinking: “Then you can take pedal off time to time.“ Yes, pedal is provided for the enhancement of sound quality, not for the crutch to hold onto the entire music. 

It was all in my nerve.

In another word, I needed to control my nerve not to hold onto pedal.

It was all in my nerve.

I am not a psychologist, so I cannot explain what was the state of my mind at that time. That said, I can say one thing. In order to confidently perform piano on the stage, we need to work on our nerves, not just mechanics of notes, musicality, and finger positions. It is natural to get nervous on a stage. Everybody gets nervous on stage! It is natural for our heartbeat to get faster than usual. That said, how to control our nervousness on the stage is the biggest lesson.

When I practice for a performance, I imagine that I’m practicing in front of 50000 people out in the stadium (or big concert hall). I create my practice environment to get nervous at home. We all can do this. It is up to your imagination.

  • Pushing pedal like a crutch comes from nervousness.
  • Heartbeat nightmare comes from nervousness.
  • Knee shaking comes from nervousness.

Within the 3 points above, the only thing I seem to be able to control is the pedal.  At home,

  • I experiment playing the music without using pedal
  • I use a minimal pedal
  • I play music using pedal normally

By using imagination and working a music with options of pedal usage, my brain is programmed to cope with many choices, and it is sending a message to my foot.  Of course, the ultimate solution is to “listen” carefully to the sound I create on the stage. In order to do so, we may want to get rid of this “nerve” thing. It takes years of practice (at least for me) to get there.

That said, there are genius who can do this without even thinking about it! I will leave them at “Genius Blogs”, haha 😊

Controlling the damper pedal (foot) activity during daily practice can minimize some of the nervousness on the stage.

Just remember, damper pedal is not the crutch. 😊

Happy practicing!

Piano Practice Disguised

Occasionally I hear from my students “I practiced very hard!”.  Then I respond, “That’s great! Let’s hear what you’ve got!”

Sometimes I realize that there is not much progress from the last time I heard the same piece of music that student played.

Why?

Emiko Hori currently teaches piano at Mercer Island, WA.

I have to admit that do this to myself, too. Culprit can be that I am indulging myself during piano practice time, “Piano Practice Disguised”.  What this mean is that sometimes I enjoy playing my favorite piano piece but neglecting practicing.  Oh, but it’s so much fun! Simply playing piano.

However, “Playing” piano may be different from “Practicing” piano.

What is the definition of “Practicing”?  Play the music from the beginning to the end without stopping and be satisfied?  No.

“Practicing” means that we have to identify the weak spot(s) within a piece of music and work at it.

Yes, “Practicing” = “Working”.  It is a workout.

How can we identify weak spots?  Here are a few examples:

  • I always stumble on same technically challenging passage no matter how many times I play this same music
  • There is a particular measure which I don’t quite understand musically
  • I use different fingerings inconsistently on certain measure(s) every time I play
  • Balancing of sound between right hand and left hand is off; (1) teacher told me that is off (2) I can hear that is off (3) instinct tells me it physically doesn’t feel right
  • I blank out at the same measure all the time
  • I cannot play in desirable faster tempo throughout the piece
  • I cannot slow down a tempo throughout the piece; sounds out of control
  • … and so on

Some possible weak spots as above (and even more) need to be worked on. It is a workout. Just like we need to strengthen muscles (do yoga, weightlifting, running, stretching, bicycling, etc.). After all, piano practicing is quite a physical activity, if you noticed.

If we do not do workout properly during piano practicing time, obviously, we will not improve our musicianship. We cannot convey and deliver beautiful music for our audience. However, Piano “Practicing” (“workout”) doesn’t have to be lengthy. Once I determined that I need to work on 4 measures that I have technical challenges, I can plan my “Practice” time accordingly, say 15-20 minutes. Short, focused Practice to solve problems.

Are you “Indulging”, meaning is your Practicing disguised instead of actually “Practicing”?

Of course, we need to have fun time, too. Go ahead, play your favorite piece. But wait, if you want to improve your piano playing and want to play a variety of music, you cannot avoid “Practicing” / “workout”. 

Happy “Practicing”!

When is the best age to start piano lessons?

“When is the best age to start piano?”

I get this question a LOT from parents and prospective customers. Then my answer is usually “it depends”.

Obviously, you don’t want to start your 1 year old on piano. However, here are some prerequisites that my studio has:

* Child can read numbers 1 to 10
* Child can read alphabets A to Z
* Child can sit still for at least 15-20 minutes
* Child’s fingers can bend and handle the weight to push the keyboard all the way down

Emiko is currently teaching piano at her Mercer Island piano studio

If a potential client can meet these criteria above, I will take him/her.

Think about it. No matter how musically genius a child is, if he/she cannot physically handle piano keyboard, it will defeat the purpose of teaching it. Seriously, piano playing is much more physical activity than you may think.

For kids who cannot meet these criteria above, I recommend doing a lot of musical activities first.

*Listening to a variety of music at home (classical, jazz, pop, wrap, you name it)
*Go to live concert
*Dance with famous tunes on video / TV / movies, etc.
*Clap rhythm with famous tunes as well
*Sing! Singing doesn’t require finger muscle! It’ll be fun activity!

Ideal age to start piano would be somewhere between 5 to 8 years old. I myself started when I was 5 years old.

Occasionally, I have students who start a bit later, say 9 years old. They are actually not too old! Since physically equipped, established mature thinking, already had experience in social activities, these kids usually surpass younger one with a good care and attention.  So, please don’t discourage if your kids want to learn piano at 9, 10, 11, even older! Let them try it out and see if it is a good fit!

Let me share my story how I started piano. As a little girl growing up in Japan, I was extremely shy and not socially active. My kindergarten teacher told my mother that I should be doing some activities aside from school. One day, my mother asked me (actually I don’t remember this) that “Would you like to start ballet lesson or piano lesson? Either way, it will be fun for you.”  Well, If I said “ballet” at that time, I wouldn’t be teaching piano now!

Takeaway is that you’ll never know how / when / why you’ll meet piano. Hope you will have (or did already) a wonderful encounter with piano and have fun with it the rest of your life!

The Zen of Practicing Piano

When I was a little girl, I did not like practicing piano at all. It is tedious, boring, repetitive, and there are much more interesting activities tempted me such as watching TV, reading comic books, hanging out with friends. There also has been a time that I boycotted practicing piano entirely. “Why bother?”

Fast forward, number of years and months past. Now looking back those “golden” days, I often wonder why I was not serious about piano practicing. These days, our life gets in the way and we CANNOT practice even when we WANT to! Yes, my mentality has changed. Playing piano has become my passion these days. However, it is very frustrating sometime that I don’t have enough time to spend in front of the keyboard!

Looking back, I started to reflect on “Why?” “Why didn’t I enjoy practicing?” This reflection is just like a meditation. It is a soul search, deep diving into my root cause. No, it was not because of the music selection. No, it was not because of the teacher (I LOVED my piano teachers; husband and wife pair back in Tokyo, Japan).

After going through my soul search, some of the possibilities a can be the following:

  • I felt very comfortable playing piano music which I mastered and enjoyed playing them over and over. Rather than learning something completely new, I wanted to hang onto my old pieces to indulge myself 🙂
  • My teacher was emphasizing on perfecting mechanics of the playing such as finger movements, accuracy of fingerings, and accuracy of rhythms and such. I had a great foundation of rhythmical training such as 4/4 on left hand vs. 6/4 on right hand and so on. In other words, my piano playing was not coming from my heart. It was coming from my brain using metronome.
  • Annual Piano Student Recitals were rather boring. We could identify the progress of our skill levels but repertoire was practically same as last year, meaning different people are playing similar pieces every year…

By going through this list, there are moment of “Ahhh, I cannot do THAT as a teacher!” It is not my intention to condemn my previous teachers. I simply want to do better job than them! That said, I will share my strategies in other blog. Please stay tuned 🙂