Even from the beginning, the pieces in most modern piano method books require the student to move around the keyboard quite a bit. Older piano methods (at least, the ones that utilize the Middle C reading approach) require the student to stay around the middle of the piano during the entire first level, or even further in some cases. I’m glad modern methods require the student to move around the keyboard, because this because it helps student become familiar and comfortable with the whole keyboard from day one instead of inadvertently teaching the student that anything away from the middle of the piano is “hard.”
I’ve had parents notice and comment on this difference between older and newer methods. They are surprised when their student needs to use the whole keyboard at their first lesson, because when they took lessons as a child, they remember playing around Middle C and never venturing to the extreme ends of the keyboard.
As an example: The first four pieces in the Primer Level of the Faber Lesson Book require the student to play a simple pattern on the black key group of 2 or 3, and then to repeat the pattern twice, moving up an octave each time. Other pieces throughout the series require students to play notes up or down an octave, especially at the end of the piece. Other method books take a similar approach.
Often, to the student, making those leaps across the piano is the most challenging aspect of a piece. They sometimes need to stop to think about where their hand needs to go. Even if they know where their hand needs to go, they still might take some extra time searching the keyboard with their fingers to put the correct finger on the correct key. This, of course, disrupts the rhythm of the piece.
How can we help students solve this problem?
When solving even the simplest of problems with students during the lesson, my goal is always to teach them concepts that they can carry with them to move advanced music later in their studies.
When it comes to leaps across the keyboard, it breaks down to this: Let the mind lead the eye, and the eye lead the fingers. When a leap is made incorrectly or inefficiently, usually, one of those two steps went wrong.
- “Let the mind lead the eye…” — This means that the student must first know where they are moving to. If they have to figure out the name of the note every time they reach the area, they will obviously have to stop to do so. During practice, the student must learn and make it clear in their mind: where are they coming from, and where they are going to. For example, I’ll ask the student where they are before the move (the answer could be: “finger 3 on B” or “the D major five-finger position”) and then where they are going to (for example, “I need to move to finger 3 on C”). A good approach is to “practice the moves” — meaning, go through the piece without playing, moving the hands to the correct places as needed throughout the piece. This makes the moves clear to the student and helps them learn where they need to move to.
- “…let the eye lead the fingers.” — Once the student has learned where they need to move to, they will be able to let the eye lead the fingers when they are “in the moment” playing the piece. If the student tries to do the opposite (i.e., lead with the fingers), you will see the student searching the keyboard with their fingers instead of moving directly to the correct place. I tell students to imagine they have laser vision, and to bore a hole through the key they need to move to when the time comes.
Students are always amazed at how quickly their hand can move the correct place when they have prepared the mind in advance and are looking at the destination!
To emphasize this further, sometimes I will play a scale on the piano for my student with an octave added between each note of the scale, as a demonstration. As long as the mind is prepared and the eye is looking at the destination, your hand can leap across the keyboard as quickly as you need it to!
So often, playing a piece effectively is about “being ready” mentally before the event. In the case of moving across the keyboard, this is especially true.