improving as a teacher, Performances, Practicing, Reading Notation, Teaching Piano

Teaching Tip: Achieving Fluency

Have you ever had a student play a piece with frequent hesitations throughout, even though you know they can play much better than that?  This phenomenon can occur with all ages/levels of students.  Why does this happen?  What is going on when this happens?  This article will examine possible causes of and solutions for a lack of fluency.

A lack of fluency could be caused by a number of things:

  1. A lack of the proper technique required for the executing the piece;
  2. A lack of familiarity of the notes of the piece;
  3. A tempo that is too fast for the student’s ability at that moment; or,
  4. A lack of mentally “chunking” the information on the page properly.  The analogy I use to refer to Number 4 is that the students feels like they are wearing horse blinders, or are mentally experiencing tunnel vision.

It is fairly easy to tell when Number 1 (lack of technique) is the cause of a lack of fluency: the student will be making inefficient gestures when trying to execute the passage.  Number 2 (lack of familiarity with the notes) and 3 (tempo that is too fast) are fairly self-explanatory, essentially boiling down to a lack of practice.  Number 4 (the presence of horse blinders or tunnel vision) is the one I’d like to discuss today.  It’s a less obvious fix than the others and deserves some discussion.

How do you know if a student is experiencing tunnel vision?

  • You know they can play the piece better than that!  Perhaps you’ve actually heard them play the piece better before too.
  • The student know s/he can play the piece much better than that.
  • You’ve eliminated Numbers 1, 2, and 3 from the list above: you know they have the chops to play the piece, you know they know enough to play the notes well and can tell the student’s been practicing, and you feel that the tempo the student chose is appropriate.  When technique and practice is not the problem, then it must be a problem in how the student is perceiving the music — process of elimination.
  • The student seems to be focusing on only one or two notes at a time, instead of thinking about the big picture.

How to help the student remove their blinders and break out of tunnel vision:

  1. First, explain to the student that you suspect s/he is wearing blinders and/or experiencing tunnel vision.
  2. Encourage and help them see the big picture.  Examine the music together to look for the overall shape of the melodic line, any patterns in the music, and any larger “chunks” of information they can create for the brain.  Mark these elements in the music together with a pencil.  Rather than focusing on only one note at a time in the line, encourage the student to allow their eyes to scan the whole line freely as needed, both ahead and behind.
  3. Ask the student to play the piece again.
  4. Evaluate: Was it a more fluent performance?   Did it “feel” better now that the blinders are off?  The student should feel a sense of ease and pride as they play the piece more fluently than before!
I’d like to address “chunking” in greater depth in a future article…so stay tuned!

Photo Credits:

viennacafe | CC 2.0

Pimlico Badger | CC 2.0

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9 thoughts on “Teaching Tip: Achieving Fluency”

  1. (5) Sometimes the piece is just too hard – you have to admit defeat and leave that one for another time. I always let the student know, though, that no time working on a piece is ever wasted and that it will help with the next one.

    1. I completely agree. My initial draft of this post included a sentence about that the student should be working on an appropriately leveled piece in order for these fluent tips to apply, but I omitted it because I felt that was covered by Numbers 1 and 2: lack of familiarity with the notes (for example, maybe the student is only familiar with the notes between Bass F and Treble G, and the piece has the student playing around Bass C and Treble C) or lack of technique required (perhaps the student does not have the technique to play blocked triads yet, although a piece requires it).

  2. I have a student who hesitates between notes because he is afraid to hit the wrong notes. He knows the notes but he sits there looking at the paper and back at his fingers about five times to make sure he has the right ones, all the time wiggling the right fingers. So I sit there saying, “Yes, that’s right. Just go for it!”

    1. Great post! I’ve been trying to work quite a bit on #4 in the past month, with my adult students especially. Sometimes I think students focus too much on the minutia and not enough on the musical picture. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details, even a student knows a piece pretty well! That’s when I like to take a break and focus on “creating music.” I like the idea of encouraging a student to scan a line as needed while playing – it’s something I think I do without really being aware of it. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. My, oh my. I’ve encountered this phenomenon many times. After discussing the “hiccups” or “stop signs” with the students, I’ve had some who’ve understood the “road map” (form), major sections, phrases, and such, but are still unable to play without the annoying hesitation. When all else has failed, I have them play what occurs only on the 1st beat of every measure, forcing them to look ahead and change up the perspective. Then, we add another beat to help fill in the gaps. So, now their focusing intently on beats 1 and 3 perhaps. We continue to fill in the gaps (or as I like to say, “connect the dots” …literally!) until they are more comfortable. I’ve been able to get many a student over their hiccups and out of the rut this way! Blinders off! Away we go…

  4. I’d have to add that I can’t say enough for the benefits of slow practice. The idea is to play the piece at a slow enough tempo (metronome if necessary) that you can COMFORTABLY play all the notes. Regardless of the piece, there is a tempo for every piece — possibly a (ridiculously) slow tempo — where this is achievable. This has two effects: A) you practice playing all the notes correctly, and B) (and the importance of this is very under-appreciated in my opinion) you get used to FEELING IN COMPLETE CONTROL of all the notes. Gradually you speed it up (one metronome click a day, perhaps). As you SLOWLY increase the speed this way, you simultaneously bring with you command of all the notes, AND the FEELING of being in control. It is terrible to practice a piece at a speed where you have it barely under control — that way you practice the FEELING of being BARELY UNDER CONTROL — hardly what you want in a concert situation. (I have some idea what I’m talking about, having performed for example at the Kennedy Center.) This is not what most students want to hear, we in the U.S. being accustomed to instant rice and the hope of ‘instant mastery’. But the most profound Truths are so often paradoxical: to achieve speed, SLOW DOWN!

  5. I frequently stress this to my students. Sometimes we spend the entire lesson on one song because I cannot get them to practice slowly and stay in control of the piece. Any idea how to motivate? I feel as though I’ve tried everything and am drawing a blank. I want my students to love the piano and have fun learning, but I struggle with the fact that many of them do not follow the practicing guidelines I set. I’ve even tried not giving as much work and being very specific…alas…it’s not working.

    1. It sounds to me like your students are struggling with playing in time with a steady pulse. Could that be causing the lack of fluency? I’d give them some rhythm flashcards to practice tapping and counting at home. Find ways to build their awareness of steady pulse. Help them be able to choose a slow tempo, or other times choose a faster tempo. As this foundation is set, it will become easier for them to maintain an inner pulse as they play pieces on the piano. Playing the teaching duet parts is another great help to developing a good sense of rhythm.

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