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Tips - Piano for Life


John M. Zeigler, Ph.D and Nancy L. Ostromencki
Rio Rancho, NM  USA


iano for Life

Preparation for Music as a Career

Tips for Adult Piano Students

Piano Camps and Other Enrichment Opportunities




Preparation for Music as a Career

If a student is seriously considering music for a course of study in college and/or as a career, there are some things to think about. First, the decision to get serious about music must come before Senior year in high school; prospective colleges want to see a resume and portfolio of contests that the student has entered, listings of recitals and concerts the student has participated in, and a listing of all repertoire. Senior year in high school is spent auditioning for different colleges, and involves a lot of travel and time. All repertoire for college auditions needs to be learned during sophomore and junior years of high school. At the same time, the student should enter as many local and national contests as possible, as well as giving some solo recitals. It sounds intimidating but really isn't; the recitals would consist of the music to be performed at the competitions and at the college auditions. Full tuition scholarships in music are some of the most accessible; a good GPA is important, but in music it is far more important to have a full portfolio to present to the colleges.

A student should have learned the following repertoire prior to college if considering music as a major:

Two and Three Part Inventions
English and French Suites
Well Tempered Clavier Book I
Sonatas, at least one complete sonata from each period of Beethoven's composition styles should be learned, memorized and performed. A total of three complete sonatas
At least Five preludes, Three Etudes, One Nocturne
At least Three preludes, and Children's Corner
At least Three complete sonatas
At least Three compositions
Contemporary composers
Bartok, Barber, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Muczynski should all be familiar to an incoming freshman for college.
At least one concerto by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and a contemporary composer should be in the students repertoire list.
Chamber Music
The incoming freshman should have copies of programs where the student has participated in the chamber music performance.
The student should be familiar with the art of accompanying the different sections of the orchestra, as well as vocalists.
All Major and minor scales
Technique books by Hanon, Czerny, Brahms and Pischna should be fully learned and successfully accomplished by the incoming freshman.
An incoming student should know basic theory skills, including the construction of all major and minor scales, all intervals and their inversions, and basic understanding of primary chordal writing.

A student who decides senior year to get serious about music will find themselves up the proverbial creek without a paddle and stands little or no chance of obtaining a good scholarship to any good school for music. There is no way that all this material can be learned in one year. The learning of this music is a process that begins in fifth or sixth grade, even if the student is not totally decided to make the commitment to a college career in music. The student will be prepared and Senior year in high school can be a great deal of fun and travel. This is why I cringe when students want to take an entire summer off from piano. Summer is the ideal time to get a lot of material learned, memorized and ready to perform, so that the stress level when school is in progress will be a lot lower, especially when trying not to be a piano bench potato while doing sports and doing well in school.

It takes a commitment of hundreds of hours of time for the teacher, student, and parents to get a student fully prepared for college admissions auditions and the chance for generous scholarships. Senior year in high school is far too late to think about getting serious about music, if the student hopes to get a full tuition scholarship to any major school.

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Tips for Adult Piano Students

Most adult students are taking lessons because they want to enrich their lives, attain a personal goal, or perhaps fulfill a long-held dream. A lot of students do it for rest, relaxation and therapy from a stressful job. The result is that most adult students are highly motivated to learn. Your teacher should function in the role of a guide and support system as you discover which form of learning is best for you, and which music you might enjoy playing. If your teacher's methods and your way of learning don't fully mesh, don't give up. Simply find a teacher who works better for you.

The most important tip for adult students is to be patient with yourself. Give yourself the time to learn things and don't get too frustrated if these skills do not come as fast as the kid's do. The finger coordination is not that of 5 yr. olds and it will take a bit longer for this to settle in. Most particularly, don't expect to learn as fast as your 7 year old child; that expectation is unrealistic. Your advantage is the maturity to focus well on the task at hand and really to understand the musical language of the piece you are playing. Hence, chances are you will enjoy it more, even if your technique is slower to develop.

There are many adult-oriented methods for learning to play. They all have their strengths. We find that most adult students prefer to chart their own course and choose their own music, at least to some extent. One method that does a good job of giving adults flexibility and choice is the Play by Choice Adult Piano Method by Fred Kern , published by Hal Leonard Publishing. One of the strengths of this method is that it approaches learning from a "many door" attitude, rather than telling adults that they must learn using only one approach to piano. For example, the Play by Choice book deals with note reading from different approaches and lets the adult student choose which one is most comfortable. Many of the rhythmic problems of initial cross coordination are dealt with by using the concept of finger taps away from the piano, on a computer desktop or table top, thereby removing the focus from wrong notes, but working on the different rhythmic problems and coordination problems before they are taken to the piano. Subsequent repertoire books in the series give adult students a substantial choice of what pieces they would like to learn. Before any repertoire is done, the student is taken through a series of warm-ups and prep. Exercises help prepare for the playing of the individual piece. The text part of this method is approached much like a college level book, not a "baby" book.

Our advice to adults for practice techniques is much the same as that we would give for children. Here, you have an advantage in that you are probably more focused and motivated than the average child student. It's best to try to practice when the kids are not around, so that you avoid interruption.

Learning to play piano is more than just playing the notes. There can be no better way to begin to speak to "language of music", as opposed simply to knowing the vocabulary, than to immerse yourself in it. If you are working on a piece, try to listen to a recording of it. You will gain the benefit of the understanding of a professional musician, as well as develop additional insight into how you perceive and might play the music. It is much easier to develop a feel for the music when you don't have to worry about playing all the notes correctly.

Piano Camps and Other Enrichment Opportunities

Several hundred "piano camps," where adults or children can go for a period of time for a complete immersion experience in the piano, exist throughout the world. These present wonderful opportunities for students of any age to  work on their skills, exchange experiences and insights with like-minded people, become energized with the enthusiasm of others, and benefit from the teaching of "experts." Several instrumental camps are well-known and of long standing (e.g. the one in Interlaken, MI); others are relatively new and may attract lesser-known staff.

Although piano camps can be valuable experiences, they are not for everyone. Keep in mind that piano camps are not simply another "summer camp" for children. Their focus on piano means that they differ rather fundamentally from a normal summer camp. You must ask yourself whether you or your child have the time and commitment to spend several weeks doing nothing but piano. 

Also consider whether a similar commitment of time to expanded lessons with your own private teacher might be a better investment of time and money, especially if you are a relatively new student of the piano. Any good teacher can help you make rapid progress in piano, if YOU are willing to work hard at lessons. Most teachers will give students an immersive course in piano at considerably less cost than that of a piano camp. If you are thinking about a piano camp, consider seriously whether your time and money could be better spent in more and better-prepared lessons with your teacher. You may not get the "experience" of a camp, but you should get the training at much lower cost.

If the "experience" of a piano camp appeals to you, then the next question is which one you should attend. Putting aside questions of location and cost, which are of varying importance to each individual, how can you choose among the different camps? We would advise finding out as much as you can by obtaining whatever written information you can about the camp. If the written information doesn't answer your questions, call the camp to ask them. Most private teachers will be able to give you their impressions of camps in the local area, at least. In your inquiries, try to get answers to the following questions:

  • How much time in the camp is spent actually learning (broadly construed) to better your playing? Some camps will tout gourmet meals and social activities, but spend little time at the piano
  • What kind and how many pianos can the camp make available for practice? It won't do you much good to attend the camp if it has 100 students and 3 clunker pianos to service all of them.
  • Who serves on the faculty of the camp? Are they well-known virtuoso pianists or teachers or just some high school kids working a summer job?
  • How much one-on-one instruction and counsel will you get from the advertised teaching staff? The staff might be "world-renowned," but if you never get to meet and work with them personally, you won't be very happy with the experience.
  • Does the camp provide training appropriate to your level and type of playing? If you're a beginning pianist, you probably won't benefit much from a camp which caters to people with advanced skills. Similarly, if you are a capable pianist, you won't want to be held back by a large contingent of beginners.
  • Will you both perform yourself and hear others perform? One of the great benefits of enrichment experiences like piano camps is the chance to perform in front of an appreciative and understanding audience. If your camp offers that chance, by all means, take advantage of it.
  • Does the camp focus entirely on piano or are other instrumentalist also present? A piano-only camp affords more focus, while a multi-instrument camp provides the potential opportunity for chamber music playing, a great experience for most pianists.
  • What will the rooming arrangements be? Some people need privacy to concentrate; others are gregarious sorts who will want to share a room. This may seem obvious, but some camps can't handle individual preferences on this important matter.

We think that immersion experiences can be very valuable for the committed student, irrespective of how such experiences are gained. If you are really committed, you'll have a great time spending a few weeks living, eating and breathing piano.

Page created: 9/7/96
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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