Homegrown Technique and Teaching Practices

A number of studies suggest that even at tertiary level, pedagogical practices in teaching the piano, and also other instruments, are often based on “personal experience” rather than defendable scientific analysis (Gaunt 2007, p. 207; also Zhukov, cited in Daniel, 2005, p. 40). Gaunt, an oboist, has claimed that teaching technique is based on strong “anecdotal” opinions with little scientific grounding; the common practice of pedagogues transmitting “obsolete hypotheses which remain credible only through their being upheld through many generations” (2004, pp. 325-326). To further complicate the issue, Purser notes a “professional isolation”, encouraging a culture of “secret trade” and “home grown systems” (2005, p. 296). Hattie believes that, as pedagogy is largely hidden, shrouded in subjectivity and loyalty to one’s teachers, a philosophy of “everything goes” can result (2008, p. 1). As an example of this outlook, such experts as Brandfonbrener are sceptical that any movement could be definitively wrong or right (cited in Allen, et al., 1994).

 A growing pedagogical literature suggests that this tradition has created ill-informed teachers and students, with pedagogy often an unevaluated mix of healthy and potentially harmful information. As Mark states, “No teacher would knowingly teach harmful movements. But too few teachers understand the principles of efficient movement and some ways of moving that are dangerous to our health are firmly established in traditional pedagogy” (2003, pp. 2, 143).

Some teachers exhibit a concerning denial of any relationship between pedagogy and injury, with such statements as these: “Sometimes excessive claims are made about the number of people who have allegedly been “crippled” as pianists owing to irrational teaching or methods of practice. The main trouble is that too many people have striven not merely to play the piano… but actually to become pianists. Because of this there have been many disappointments and ruined lives. But true catastrophes befalling genuinely gifted pianists are not so very frequent (one recalls the cases of Schumann or Scriabin). But the large numbers of ordinary, uninspired folk who play the piano are not at all the victims of unscientific teaching or practice methods, but simply normal cases resulting from the irrational use of energy”. (Goldenweiser, 2007, p. 65)

 Dawson idealistically considers that teachers have a basic understanding of anatomy, and if not, that “… most teachers can explain and demonstrate the elements of correct playing technique quite well in lay terms” (2008, p. 25). Fry is also optimistic, believing that the teacher “strives to teach a tension free, effortless technique where wasteful, uncontrolled excessive muscular effort is avoided” (1987, p. 39). Yet, as William Thompson identifies, many teachers may also have issues with PRMDs themselves (cited in Kreutz, Ginsborg & Williamon, 2009, p. 57; Allsop, 2010, p. 75). Giving support to this claim, a survey of young orchestral US musicians revealed that most had never discussed healthy technique or injury prevention with their teachers (Britsch, 2005, pp. 41-42).

 If the majority of pedagogues actively taught a coordinate, healthy technique, a reduction in the number of musicians’ injuries might be expected. However, as discussed in the Introduction, the numbers of injured musicians have not noticeably decreased since large-scale studies of musicians’ health began in the 1980s. This is substantiated by recent studies hazarding that 87% of professional musicians and 90% of student instrumentalists have experienced PRMDs at some stage (citing Zaza, Guptill & Golem, 2008, p. 307).

 Gaunt identifies that typically students have a meagre understanding of anatomy and physiology, and depend on their teacher who has often had “no training” in injury-preventive pedagogy (2010, p. 179). This tendency is particularly problematic if teachers do not have appropriate skills in diagnosing and development coordinate movement at the instrument.

Conversely, others argue against the benefits of studying anatomy. As one pianist posted: “For better or worse, knowing what muscles to use (or not to use) often doesn’t necessarily lead to knowing how to activate or (deactivate) them in a given activity. Instead, learning how to move in a particular way and remembering the sensation teaches us to coordinate the muscles properly”. (Ronstab, 2009a)

 While understanding anatomy does not presuppose good use, as Alexander’s experience with anatomists reflected, harmful instructions would be minimised through performers, students and teachers being informed in principles of coordinate motion. As Zaza notes, if a student knows that fingers are moved by muscles in the forearm, she may question being allocated independence exercises to “strengthen” finger muscles (1994, p. 5). Examples of uninformed pedagogy are prevalent in popular piano method books, such as exercises to give the “weaker” 4th and 5th fingers a “good workout” with fortissimo isolation exercises (Palmer, Manus, & Lethco, 1993b, pp. 1, 5, 15). Clearly, the teacher can “empower” or alternatively “damage” the student (Oltuski, 2009), depending on the quality of their training, and understanding of healthy pianism.

Extract from Learning and Teaching Healthy Piano Technique: Training as an Instructor in the Taubman Approach. Available through: http://www.theresemilanovic.com/phd-published/ Advance orders below cost price until Aug 31

Reference List:

Allen, J., Brandfonbrener, A., Lehrer, P., Magrath, J., McCray, M., Simon, A., et al. (1994). Harmful practices that cause injuries. Clavier, 33(1), 13-22.

Allsop, L., & Ackland, T. (2010). The prevalence of playing‐related musculoskeletal disorders in relation to piano players’ playing techniques and practising strategies. Music Performance Research, Special Issue Music and Health, 3(1), 61-78.

Britsch, L. (2005). Investigating performance-related problems of young musicians. Medical         Problems of Performing Artists, 20(1), 40-47.

Daniel, R. (2005). Challenging the orthodoxy: Alternative strategy for the tertiary teaching of piano. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.

Dawson, W. J. (2008). Fit as a fiddle: The musician’s guide to playing healthy. Lanham, MA: MENC: The National Association for Music Education in partnership with Rowman & Littlefield.

Fry, H. J. (1987). Prevalence of overuse (injury) syndrome in Australian music schools. British Journal of Industrial Medicine, 44(1), 35-40.

Gaunt, H. (2004). Breathing and the oboe: Playing, teaching and learning. British Journal of Music Education, 21(3), 313-328.

Gaunt, H. (2007). Learning and teaching breathing and oboe playing: Action research in a conservatoire. British Journal of Music Education, 24(02), 207-231.

Gaunt, H. (2010). One-to-one tuition in a conservatoire: The perceptions of instrumental and vocal students. Psychology of Music, 38(2), 178-208.

Goldenweiser, A. (2007). Advice from a pianist and teacher. In C. J. Barnes (Ed.), The Russian Piano School: Russian pianists and Moscow Conservatoire Professors on the art of the piano (pp. 53-67).

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Kreutz, G., Ginsborg, J., & Williamon, A. (2009). Health-promoting behaviours in conservatoire students. Psychology of Music, 37(1), 47-60.

Mark, T. (2003). What every pianist needs to know about the body: A manual for players of keyboard instruments: piano, organ, digital keyboard, harpsichord, clavichord. Chicago: GIA Publications.

Oltuski, I. (2009). Crafting the well-tempered pianist: Introducing the Taubman Approach.   Retrieved January 9, 2010, from http://blogcritics.org/music/article/crafting-the-well-tempered-pianist-introducing/

Palmer, W. A., Manus, M., & Lethco, A. V. (1993b). Prep course for the young beginner: Technic book level A. On Alfred’s Basic Piano Library [Score]. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred.

Purser, D. (2005). Performers as teachers: Exploring the teaching approaches of instrumental teachers in conservatoires. British Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 287-298.

Ronstab. (2009a). Re: Octaves & Chords: How Big Is My Hand Really? [Online forum comment]. Retrieved May 3, 2011 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ziwF61MvDA.

Ronstab. (2009b). Re: Scales: Correct Use of Rotation [Online forum comment]. Retrieved May 3, 2011 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xkc4Uz387kc

Zaza, C. (1994). Research-based prevention for musicians. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 9(1), 3-6.

Zaza, C., Charles, C., & Muszynski, A. (1998). The meaning of playing-related musculoskeletal disorders to classical musicians. Social Science & Medicine, 47(12), 2013-2023.


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