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Handedness in piano playing biological principles of education

American Music Teacher , June-July, 2006 by Linda Minasian

It is quite amazing that, at least to my knowledge, no studies or research have yet been done regarding the handedness of piano students, a study that can show whether approaches to teaching a left-handed child will be more beneficial to the child`s progress in piano playing.

At one point, I had seven left-handed piano students: ambitious, intelligent and all with a wonderful sense of humor. The remaining 20-some students in my studio consisted of right-handed pupils. Being right-handed myself, I needed to understand the fascinating brain function of my left-handed students to help them achieve the best results in their studies, without imposing the same learning techniques used for the right-handed students. More importantly, I needed to bring out their strengths: their superior memory, their ability to see the whole concept at once, their courage to always take up the most difficult challenges and their sense of perfectionism, among others.

The one similarity that all seven students shared was the difficulty feeling a steady beat and understanding the concept of rhythm. Of course, rhythm is a difficult issue for all students: young and old, beginner or advanced, or in individual or group lessons. However, it took me a few months to make a connection and realize that all seven, who were beginning students at the time, truly struggled through the concept, much more than the others. Keeping a steady beat seemed to be very difficult. Playing or clapping with the metronome was almost impossible. After speaking with their parents, I found that some had quit their dance lessons prior to taking up piano, specifically because they were unable to keep a beat or coordinate the dance moves with the rhythm of the music.

The frustration on their faces initiated my quest for some answers. It was apparent that using the same teaching methods as I did for right-handed students did not provide the same results. My research led to some behavioral studies and then to the causes for handedness, which, in turn, led to the dominance and the specific function of the brain hemispheres. The left hemisphere, dominant in the right-handed person, is strong in logical reasoning and counting; whereas the right hemisphere, dominant in the left-handed person, is strong in creativity and artistry.

Keeping track of time and sequencing one thing after another is left-brain thinking, and not suitable for left-hand-ed students. I learned not to ask students to try to feel the pulse; using the metronome is also not recommended. Not only is the sound painful to the supersensitive ears of left-handed children, but it is meaningless. Instead, have them close their eyes, relax and listen as you play through the piece a few times. Ask students to visualize themselves walking to the beat of the music. Then ask them to literally walk around to the beat as you play. Then, ask them to repeat what they heard on the piano.

I was determined to make rhythm second nature to these left-handed students. Without cutting down on other activities, our main focus and concentration became rhythm. Knowing that patience, more attention and a different approach was required, made the lessons much more enjoyable. Also, the pacing of the lesson time was now predetermined. I knew, for example, that a rhythmic game that usually takes five minutes of lesson time can take up to 20 minutes, if not more, with the left-handed child. I learned, for example, not to use counting. Instead, I improvised with colorful beads, using different shapes and sizes to demonstrate rhythmic values.

The frustration was replaced with fun rhythmic assignments and games, and both my students and I gained a healthy sense of accomplishment. All seven are now lower-advanced students and rhythm "experts." Rhythm and meter have now become second nature to them, as I had planned, and I don`t believe even one remembers the early frustrations with counting.

In Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World, Jeffrey Freed writes, "The best curriculum for the right-brained (left-handed) child includes hands-on and experiential activities." (1) Piano playing is a hands-on activity and requires creativity and imagination, all of which are strong points in left-handed children. Later in the book, it is recommended that music, and more specifically piano playing, can dramatically affect the left-handed child`s spatial-temporal reasoning. Gordon Shaw, at the University of California, Irvine, explains, "When playing the piano, you are seeing how patterns work in space and time." For example, his ongoing research shows that within only a few months, students who take piano lessons score 34 percent above average on reasoning skill tests.

However, we need to apply a different teaching technique for left-handed students to better suit their learning style. Through the years, I have experimented with several approaches and the following methods have led to positive results.

* One way to expand the student`s interpretive expression is by having her write a story about the piece, starting with a title (if it`s not program music), then sentences for each phrase, sometimes even words for each note or chord. I tried the same with my left-handed students, nothing happened. Although they all possess vivid imaginations, they responded with a surprised, "What do you mean?" or "I can`t think of a story." Instead, ask them to draw a picture or simple sketches and they will gladly comply. Their greatest virtue is drawing and creating, not writing and talking, according to Linda Silverman, the pioneer of the Visual Spatial Learner concept. Remember that they may be naturals at art, music or problem solving, but not in story telling. Coloring is also extremely effective when teaching musical phrases and expression. Not only does it make the written music beautiful and fun to look at, but is immensely beneficial for both right- and left-handed students.


WB Popular Movie Hits Piano Library , Level Five

American Music Teacher , Dec, 2004 by Amy Greer

WB Popular Movie Hits Piano Library (w/MIDI and CD), Level Five, arranged by Gail Lew, Eugenie Rocherolle and Tom Roed. Belwin-Mills Publishing Corp./Warner Bros. Publications (15800 N. W. 48th Ave, Miami, FL 33014), 2004. 45 pp., $13.95. Late intermediate.

In the attitude of fairness, I must confess, I was a teenager who liked to play popular music. I am a great fan of American standards. I play "cocktail" piano with some frequency; I include Gershwin and ragtime on programs of more "serious" piano music; and I have played more musical theater than I care to admit.

But in an equal measure of honesty, I must say I am not a teacher who likes to teach popular music. However, I do find myself on occasion teaching such music to unruly teenagers who seem unwilling to learn anything else. This collection is not for such a student.

It became increasingly clear to me as I played through this music with the orchestrated accompaniment track CD cranked loud on my stereo (and having, I must admit, an awfully good time) that I would never actually teach this music to any student. After all, students who can handle the advanced technique and complicated rhythms presented here should be practicing Beethoven sonatas and the like, not movie themes. However, for the highly motivated advanced student--the kind that practices religiously, plays for choirs at school and is thinking about majoring in music--playing as many different kinds of music as possible is important. After all, while I have never yet been hired to play the "Trout Quintet," I have been hired to play for plenty of choirs that sing Broadway show tunes. Being able to negotiate popular music, with all of its peculiarities of harmonies and rhythms, has proven to be a valuable skill. Sending such students home with a book like WB Popular Movie Hits and instructing them t o read through this music with the accompaniment track, gives students experience sight reading this style and trains them to listen carefully to stay with the accompaniment track.

The book contains eleven songs from recent movies and comes with orchestrated accompaniment tracks on both a MIDI disk and a CD. The arrangements vary somewhat in difficulty, with the two trickiest being the ones from two Harry Potter movies. Those also are the least pop-like in style; perhaps that explains the difficult spots in reading through them. Some songs work for piano solo better than others. I was disappointed because my personal favorite song among the group, Because You Loved Me, I thought translated the least well as a piano solo. Others, like The Prayer, worked quite nicely.

Teachers, if your students can play this level of music, don`t teach movie themes; assign Chopin or something similar. But if you want to help make them marketable in the world of music, send them home to read through collections like this. Reviewed by Amy Greer, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Music Teachers National Association, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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