Brenda Dillon

Recently, recreational music making (RMM) trailblazer Brenda Dillon generously spoke with me for over two hours. In this middle part of our conversation, we spoke about common questions that adult piano students have, issues related to teaching and learning creativity, and how to improve music reading skills and keyboard technique. Read Part 1 of our conversation.

How would you answer this very common question that many adult piano students ask: how long does it take to learn the piano?

Good question, isn’t it? I always told them it depends on the commitment they choose to make and the practice they do. I think adults ultimately make their own choices.

What are some specific questions that you have asked, or that you think teachers of adults generally should ask, of adults when they begin lessons?

I discuss the time commitment. I don’t say you have to practice an hour a day or you can’t do this. Instead I say, here’s what we’re going to learn. This is what you’re going to have the joy of learning and the fun of learning.

I think I know the answer that you’re going to give to this next question, but is it important for adults to master every repertoire piece they learn? Say they’re in a class or even working through a method. Is it important for them to master every piece? Should they try to master at least some pieces? And what strategies can adults who quickly tire of pieces use to boost their motivation to at least bring some of their repertoire to a higher level?

That’s a good question. Well, certainly in my classes, we did not master all of the music that we might be studying during that time. Now, some students did, because that was their goal, and they spent the time to do that. But had I insisted that we couldn’t move forward until every student could do everything, I wouldn’t have had classes. So I’m not so intent on that. I’m more intent on, are they playing music they really like? Sometimes they would choose Broadway hits. Sometimes they would choose hymns. Sometimes they would choose classical. Then we took different pieces in each of those books and I, again, focused on concepts. We talked about what makes this piece worth learning? Typically, my students wanted only to learn familiar things, like Johnny Cash’s I Walked the Line or things from musicals. But I found I could introduce other kinds of music that wasn’t necessarily familiar. One of the things I learned early on was to play the piece for them, before they saw the score, and then we would talk about everything that they heard. And I’m not talking about all-out ear training, I’m just talking about observations, and especially after they got good on chords. That worked pretty well.

That’s great. Do you have any opinions about digital instruments for adults who are thinking of purchasing one? Are there specific manufacturers that you like or that you think should be avoided? Are there specific features you think are important or not so important?

When I was teaching, I thought Yamaha, Roland and Kawai were fine digital instruments. Now there’s some digital pianos coming along now that my friends are just raving about. For acoustic instruments, what I encouraged my adult piano students to do, if they started taking the class and they didn’t have an instrument, I said rent or buy the best your pocketbook can afford.

I’ll tell you though what had a lot of influence, instead of recitals, we had what I called the “RMM Players’ Club,” and we met at a Steinway hall in the community where I was teaching the classes. They loved going there. It was just a huge treat. First of all, it was all 13 classes getting to be with each other, and that was a fun experience. And then we’d always have something special planned. And then they had time to go around and play all those instruments. Most of them couldn’t afford a lot of those instruments, but it sure opened their eyes to how something could sound.

Say an adult starts with a digital piano. Is there a point when practicing on an acoustic piano becomes important for progress? And is there a way of defining when that might be?

Back in the day, I was a clinician for the Roland Corporation, an educational clinician, and actually got to go to Japan. I saw how they were designing those digital pianos; they were sampling Steinway grands. And it’s not a bad piano sound; I have a Roland digital piano behind me right now. There just is a difference in acoustic instruments.

How can piano teachers be more creative in teaching itself, and can you suggest one or two specific approaches or strategies for teachers to be more creative in their own teaching?

I think when you’re teaching repertoire, think about all of the musicianship activities you can pull from that repertoire. How about: what portion of it can be harmonized? Can you just have the right hand doing whatever the theme is, and the left hand doing chords that aren’t necessarily written by Mozart or Bach? I got those concepts when I was growing up from my hometown teacher, and when I look back at that I think: she did not leave any stone unturned. We sight-read, we harmonized, we transposed. I think about all of that, and I don’t know that all piano teachers do that.

More specifically about creativity, I’m going to ask about arranging, composing, and improvising. How have you taught arranging to adults?

Only in trying to get them to think in terms of what they might do for a different left hand, chords.

But you did mention that you’ve taught students to read from lead sheets, which in my broader definition is arranging: reading a lead sheet and creating your own part.

Exactly. One is taking the repertoire piece and seeing what you can do differently with the left hand, and the other is taking the melody on the lead sheet and playing chords in different ways. I feel like if I could go back in time, I would study jazz. Because I even went to the University of North Texas for two of my degrees and they have a phenomenal jazz program. Well, there was no time to take advantage of that – or I didn’t take advantage of that. So I was called a jazzer in a closet. I never came out.

How about improvising? Did you teach improvising?

I did a little bit of that, primarily on the black keys. And I used a lot of MIDI discs that came with the digital pianos.

Do you have any opinions about adult method books in general?

Just that I encourage teachers to carefully go through methods and see if the concepts are presented in the order that makes the most sense to them.

Are there specific adult methods that you’ve used that you particularly think are really good or that you’ve enjoyed?

I’m sure I used Hal Leonard. I’m sure I used Alfred with E.L. Lancaster and Gayle Kowalchyk. I’ve used some Faber. But I’m not the best one to speak to this because I ventured off a different path by developing my own materials and I haven’t looked at those methods in a long time.

What is your advice for adults who want to learn to read music in terms of practice strategies or specific approaches to reading?

Well, again, it comes down to slow practice at home. I learned in my RMM classes that we could sight-read together as a group. And the way I did it, I had two pianos side-by-side, and I would have two students seated at each keyboard and one standing behind. The person standing behind counted aloud. Well, that really made a difference in their reading. They didn’t stop, for one thing. You just didn’t stop because you had that counter keeping it going. Then, when they would finish – they wouldn’t be long pieces either, maybe eight to sixteen measures – they circled. The counter sat down and did the left hand, left hand moved to right hand, right hand stood up and counted, until everybody had done all three: left, right, and counted. That was very, very beneficial. They actually learned to sight-read. Because you know the devil is in the details, how many students stop every time there’s a mistake?

Yeah, yeah. Do you think that teaching intervallic reading is the best approach for adults learning to read, or are there other approaches you’ve used or would recommend?

Intervallic reading definitely was for me.

Do you think it’s okay for students to use mnemonics like “Every Good Boy Does Fine” to learn the notes on the staff, or can that become a crutch?

Well, what I’ve found is that students struggle to remember those: “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “All Cows Eat Grass” or whatever. And so in my Piano Fun books, I have the treble clef chant and bass clef chant, and set them with music:  “treble clef, five lines, name those notes: E, G, B, D, F,” and then, “What’s on the first line? Name that note,” etc. And then I did the same thing for the bass clef chant, and the music was fun, you could almost dance to it. In future classes they came in dancing, and they knew lines and spaces. I found this to be more successful than “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”

That’s neat. Do you have an opinion about when adult students should be introduced to reading non-C key signatures? In other words, do you think it’s important for students to read in different key signatures as soon as possible, or is it okay to just learn everything in C for quite a long time before reading other key signatures?

I guess because of the way I put my materials together, I kept them in C most of the time, but I find that once you start focusing on chords more, it moves you to other keys. And so I didn’t have an order of preference, but I found that if a student is secure in that five-finger pattern, or the scale that goes with each key, it wasn’t an issue. But I didn’t have a time when I thought it might be best.

Do you think that notating music, whether exercises or composing or whatever, is a useful strategy for students to learn to read better?

Well, the students who notate things do benefit from that. I didn’t require it, though.

Do you personally have any favorite technique or exercise-type books, either traditional ones or more contemporary?

I’ve used Hanon and Czerny. I don’t know that I could recommend the latest technique books.

What, in your experience, are one or two of the most common technique-related troubles that adults have and how have you addressed those?

One of the things that I learned real quickly is that some students’ fingers would wander. They wouldn’t stay in position, whatever five-finger position it was. And because of being in Texas and having Willy Nelson, we used to start humming “On The Road Again.” So I made it a joke, but I noticed that that was a real issue, those wandering fingers. I don’t know how much that’s exactly technique, but I do know that worked.

The other thing that was fascinating to me about having peers at the piano together practicing whatever concepts we were working on, is seeing an adult pick up another adult’s hand and move it to the right position. I didn’t have to say a word, they just took their hand and put it in the right place.

Going back to technique, I would have to say that a lot of their technical improvement in the class setting came from students who were playing well, or who played more musically, had a different touch or had rounded fingers. I noticed that when they heard the other student and watched their hands, they’d say “Why did that sound so good?”

How important have technical exercises such as Hanon and Czerny been in your RMM teaching? And do you have an opinion about using those kinds of exercises vs. avoiding them in favor of using repertoire to develop technique?

I grew up with Hanon and Czerny, so they are certainly a part of my background. But I did have an adult student in my private studio who had a Hanon book and she said, “This is what I’d like to study,” in other words that she play nothing but Hanon. I really wanted to shoot myself! I thought, could I ever have her pay me enough? So they play a part, but I’m partial to spending time on repertoire, if you really want to make me happy, which I guess is not the goal!

Continue with Part 3 of our conversation.

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