I do not know why I had never thought of this before. Removing the music rack on my Baldwin grand during an afternoon of teaching. Many concert artists do it. If music is memorized and the music rack is not needed, that large piece of wood can easily be slid off the piano; opening up the sound even more. Most of my students do not have the space in our town’s colonial era houses to hold even the smallest of grand pianos, so part of the magic of each lesson in the studio is playing on an instrument that produces a big sound. I forget that this is part of the lesson experience, until a student makes an impromptu compliment about how nice it is to play the piano here.
It was September, the beginning of everything new again, in studio lessons. Returning students reviewed their memory lists, but now they were a grade older and year wiser, tanned from summer sun and limbs stretched out from growth spurts, even though they were warned in June that they “are not allowed to grow taller than their teacher.” And indeed, their review pieces had a new spark of energy. September also means, the very first lesson for some. How exciting! I can never truly predict how the first lesson will go…there are so many ways to introduce the piano to students that I have a dozen or more narratives at the ready. But this student, a 5 year old, beginning school and piano lessons at the same time, with all the world before him, needed to know, immediately, how sound is made. Even with careful preparation of standing on the bench to get a glimpse of hammers and felt and dampers wasn’t enough. He had to see ALL of them. So, for the first time ever in my teaching, it occurred to me to remove the music stand.
We spent the remainder of this first half-hour lesson charting the length of the strings and pitch of sound. Using colored felt-tip markers, we drew the harp shape of all 236 strings in decreasing shortness to illustrate sound, low to high.
With little time to put the music rack back in place between student lessons, I left it off for the entire afternoon. And then I left if off for the entire week. Most of my students started the new piano year by reviewing memory work, so having a music rack wasn’t a necessity. But what emerged from this one small change in our environment, sparked curiosity and creativity for everyone.
One student started to improvise on the actual strings inside the piano, because they were now open to feel. This led to a discussion of John Cage, the concept of prepared piano pieces and the handing out of a piece by composer Emma Lou Diemer that includes plucking of the actual strings as part of the composition. What a twist in lessons for this newly minted 5th grader.
Other students renewed their interest in using the pedals…all three of them…because they could now see the repercussion of the damper, una-corda and sostenuto feet levers. We were all starting pieces from John William’s sound score of Harry Potter movies for Halloween…what better way to talk about re-creating the magic and smoke and unpredictable world of Hogwarts in music than asking students to mark in their own pedaling using all three options.
And then there were my seniors, getting ready to send audition tapes with their college applications. What better way to allow them to wallow in their sound up close, as they repeated and worked toward better recordings of their playing? The music was no longer about them. It was about the SOUND. It focused them and they played their best.
A month later, we are all immersed in new pieces, preparing for Halloween and getting reacquainted with technical scale work, theory papers and pushing through practice of hard spots. But I hope the wonder of the piano for these students, with 10,000 moving parts, never goes away.