Learning WAY beyond his level

A 14-year-old student brought a copy of Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 9 #2 to the lesson last week and asked if he could learn it. He said he was prepared and willing to take the whole year. You’ll have surmised by now that this is beyond what I think (know?) he can do. It’s probably 3 grades harder than both his reading and technical ability.

In the past I would have lovingly and gently suggested we wait a while, but this time I swallowed hard and said, “Sure.” Here’s why.

He had a rough first decade of life. Besides his mom, I was the only constant in his life. Like any normal kid, he had to be reminded and nagged to practice all these years but he loves music and he and his mom stuck with it.

Last year something clicked. He kept digging up, buying, and listening to more and more music – mostly popular genres – and working hard. He made tremendous progress, even with just a keyboard to practice one – an instrument that has hampered the development of a good technique.

The surprise last week was that he now wants to do all this difficult classical music. This Nocturne is a demo on his keyboard. His copy of the music is in a very small font (I swear it’s not just my age talking here) and the pages are tissue-thin. I’ll have to get him another copy.

So – the first 4 bars – a chord progression that recurs throughout the piece. He has the piece in his ears – so it’s a matter of breaking the music down into the main elements – melody, bass line and chords – then learning them alone and in every possible combination. I’m kind of dreading getting to the last page but at 4 bars a week this can be put off for some time. Actually – just thinking out loud here – a good idea might be to use that LONG RH repeated 4-note figure as a technical exercise – starting today.

I have to say, too, that something else played into my positive response. One of ┬ámy readers has shared a bit of his musical journey with me – after a hiatus of more than 3 decades he returned to the piano and took a whole year to learn one piece (another Chopin Nocturne) – memorizing, enjoying, and never tiring of it. Now he’s on to another piece. That’s inspiration.

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About LaDona's Music Studio

Musician, pianist, teacher, blogger.
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9 Responses to Learning WAY beyond his level

  1. fame1444 says:

    And here I was thinking I was the only one this happened to! How do you plan to keep your interest up during this process?

  2. Really interested to read this as I currently have 3 students learning a Chopin Prelude- one started piano a few months ago (teenager) and is making amazing progress – taking UK grade 1 this Christmas- but the piece is way above him- but like your student, he turned up with it and said he wanted to learn it… we’re doing a couple of bars a week. He will play it. Another is an adult learner in his late 50s who started lessons with me 4 years ago- he’s taking grade 5 (UK) this Christmas- again- too difficult- but he loves it so much and is making good progress. Finally another adult who took grade 8 about 20 years ago. She has no arm weight- solely plays with fingers,so we’re having to re-learn how to play the piano… she too is determined to succeed with the prelude….

    non- Chopin- new student- taking A level music and desperately needs coaching to get through it…. has never learned theory, piano, been encouraged to listen to music (so we are packing it in in lessons which have only just started last week. She is already up to grade 4 theory, and has decided she will. get to grade 8 (top grade in UK before diplomas etc) in 2 years. I’m putting her in for pre grade 1 exam at same time as the above students- her motivation is amazing. In a week she has listened to 4 classical symphonies (studying Beethoven so needs something to compare with) and a Shostakovitch symphony as well as all the other tasks I set her, She will get through it. I think we underestimate our students’ desire to succeed sometimes. Many of my young students take an exam and to the surprise of their parents enjoy the experience so much they can’t wait to take another one! It’s a wonderful method to keep them wanting to practise as I always say they have to have learned at least x pieces and y studies etc before I will let them move to another grade as I want them to experience as much playing and development as possible and not just work to take exams (however much they love them!!!!)

  3. Thank you Catherine. It’s so good to hear of your students who are at a similar place. You’re right – we often DO underestimate what they can do. In the interest of making sure they know something REALLY well, we coddle and inhibit progress.
    Hmmmm – they LOVE taking exams? Fabulous! Again – I’ve probably underestimated potential enjoyment of exams here. Maybe another blog topic…

  4. Joe Head says:

    Your student reminds me of someone I know. I’m glad you’re letting him tackle this. It’s hard to put into words the bond or connection I have felt with a composer [In my case, Chopin and Beethoven] while finally learning to play one of their compositions the way it was originally intended to be played. A sort of “mystic, sweet communion” in the words of an old hymn. He’s chosen a great nocturne to ‘chew his teeth on.’ Please feel free to pass along my story to him for added encouragement. I’m rooting for him!!

  5. Orlia says:

    I have actually, on one occasion, assigned a late beginner-level student a piece in a different league than what he normally played to bump up his motivation (slogging through a lesson book that I knew he shouldn’t have trouble with due to “uninteresting” music therein). At first I tried asking him what he wanted to play, thinking I would supplement with a simplified arrangement of a video game, pop, or TV theme song, but to no avail. I then showed up with a copy of “Minuet in G” from the Anna Magdalena Bach notebook, and three months later it wasn’t perfect, but his reading and musicianship had skyrocketed! He, like a younger version of me, needed to feel like there was a point to the practicing, that he could play “real music” (his words).

    • Mmm – “uninteresting music” – some methods are bad for this. All the colour and teacher notes and glitz and co-ordinated flashcards don’t make up for poor music. And it’s interesting how Bach is the “real music” for your student! This is probably something we can do more often, I’m thinking. Thank you for sharing, Orlia.

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