The PIP Approach: Praise - Improve - Praise
Esther Lund Madsen teaching in London in April 1995
by Jenny Macmillan
Ability Development, Summer 1995
The name Esther Lund Madsen is surrounded by a certain aura amongst Suzuki teachers. A fine musician, a distinguished pianist and an eminent Suzuki piano teacher, Esther flew over from Denmark for two days of examining and three days of teaching in London in April. It was fascinating and inspiring to watch her teach. She is always very positive. She becomes totally involved with each child she teaches, and excited by what each child has achieved. She inspires the children to make the music come alive.
Her teaching technique is quite simple: praise - improve - praise. After hearing a child play a piece, she will praise some aspect of the performance. She may then ask Was it good? Can it be better? Of course, one can always play better. She then suggests an improvement and demonstrates it. The child must get ready - wait - look and listen (to demonstration) - play. The childís imitation of the demonstration is then duly praised. She may ask the child how he should practise - slowly and separately - and ask him to do it for her in the lesson.
Every practice and every lesson
Esther insists that at every practice and in every lesson all pupils - even teenagers and those in the most advanced repertoire books - should play at least the first line of each variation, which takes only 50 seconds for each hand. This is to warm up the fingers, to remind the fingers how to behave, to free the fingertips, and to be a better player. And when playing the variations, she says, always make them interesting, happy, joyful and musical - never dull or boring.
Esther suggests practising variations in different ways:
- change hands (one note in one hand, next note in other hand)
- mix variations (one note one variation, next note another variation)
- invent different rhythms
- play in different keys
- use your imagination to find different ways of practising them
Children who have progressed onto scales
should play all major and minor scales two octaves every day. They may be played:
- chromatically (C maj/C min, D flat maj/C sharp min, D maj/D min, etc)
- moving round circle of fifths (C maj/A min, G maj/E min, D maj/B min, etc)
- starting at top of scale, going down and then up (C maj/C min, B maj/B min, B flat maj/B flat min, etc)
Children can invent different ways of practising scales.
Esther also recommends playing:
- one octave of a scale slowly and strongly
- two octaves at double speed a little softer
- three octaves at triple speed softer still
- four octaves at quadruple speed very soft
Above all, scales must be played beautifully, using the fingers well, making a big sound on each note. For faster scales, use smaller movements - lift the fingers less - but donít push from the surface of the key as that produces a flat tone quality. Make the fingers dance
Esther advises exercises by Hanon to develop control. These are to be practised in a variety of ways:
- in different rhythms
These ideas may be developed so, for instance, one hand is legato, the other staccato for one bar, then the hands change over for the next bar.
Listen - wait - take - move
Estherís teaching philosophy is based on four concepts - listen, wait, take and move.
- Listen to the sound - listen for a singing tone.
- Wait before starting to play - hear the first note in your head.
- Wait a little on the first note of a piece.
- When playing a scale passage up and down (eg in Short Story), wait at the top - enjoy the view from the top of the mountain before coming down.
- End phrases carefully - breathe - wait.
- Take the tone with your fingertips for a good big sound, especially the first note of a piece.
- Make a bigger sound by listening more and taking more.
- Move naturally with the music. Donít sit like a statue, donít play only with the fingers. Use the whole body, feel free to move around.
- For a more interesting performance, be alive.
- There are three directions of movement - in/out, up/down, and along the keyboard. Esther demonstrated exercises for freedom and flexibility both away from and at the piano. Interestingly, Esther is still teaching walking in for repeated notes (eg Twinkle theme and variations), for um-cha-cha basses and for Alberti basses - ie horizontal circular movements. This is different from Mrs Kataoka who, in Brussels at Easter 1994, was teaching down/up movements for repeated notes and chords and for slurs - ie vertical circles - but not horizontal circles.
Esther says Itís not fun to practise - itís hard work - then itís interesting. Donít practise in the same way every day - find new ways of practising - use your imagination
. She says one cannot play well fast until one can play well slowly. Practise fast sections slowly. Every day practise a short section (a page, or two lines) very slowly. When practising slowly, move the fingertips more to make a bigger tone. Exaggerate everything - touch, dynamics, etc - so that nothing is hidden. Then all the weeds come up. Throw them out, and get every little detail right
. Practise slowly
for perfect control.
Esther told us that one of the finest concert pianists ever, Rubinstein, played his concert pieces very slowly on the day of a concert. Every day he practised a little very slowly.
Esther likes to question her pupils. For instance:
- Is the accompaniment or the melody more important? A beautiful accompaniment will lift the melody and make the melody more beautiful.
- Are rests or notes more important? Rests must be played forte not piano, ie clearly.
- Is forte hard or soft? Real fortissimo is a very good soft sound.
She says Donít just play the piano - make music - tell a story. Donít be too nice - thatís boring
. Students were exhorted to play with love - make the piano sing - make every note come alive
Esther claims that children with a musical background will function better as adults whatever their job or profession. Suzuki philosophy is about teaching the whole child.