When I was a young student, my teacher insisted I first learn each hand separately and only then play both hands together. I found this more than a little frustrating. I always felt I had to start all over again when I put my hands together; all of the proceeding work with hands separate was a waste. Eventually in a pique of rebelliousness I quit playing with my hands separately, except for when I was asked to do so in a lesson.

I have often wondered about where the notion of learning each hand separately originated. I can picture a scenario like this: JS Bach tells CPE Bach he should pay extra attention to the right hand passage he continuously mis-plays. CPE tells his student he should play the right hand a couple times to fix a problem. Beethoven then tells his student Czerny that his right hand is very sloppy and he needs to fix it before the next lesson or he will use the ruler. Finally Czerny tells everybody to practice each hand separately.

So let’s break the cycle. The piano is a two handed instrument requiring a constant partnership between the hands. A good sight reader doesn’t run through each hand before playing, he just plays both hands immediately.

Now before you completely write me off as a crank, I will allow brief hands separate work but only in the interest of clarification of technical details and fingering. After that put them together!

Andrew Remillard

For the last year and some months, I’ve been giving piano lessons to a young boy who is apparently very attention deprived in his everyday life. I came to this conclusion pretty quickly; at his “trial lesson” actually. This little boy had a mind of his own! He’d find everything he could to get himself distracted, he’d make strange squealing and squawking sounds whenever he played a piano key, he’d mock me counting beats, he’d talk back to me, he’d do things he was told not to do just out of spite, when I corrected him he’d say he didn’t do it wrong, and well, that’s just a general overview of all this little boy has done.

Sometimes I sit in lessons and repeat directions for him to get his hands ready to play over and over while he sits there in outward resistance and then 5 minutes later; he finally gives in and gets his hands ready. That should take 5 seconds, not five minutes! Almost every week it is the same thing in one variation or another. I am not sure which is harder; teaching this little boy or doing a triathlon! Certainly, much endurance is needed. Well over a year later, we are still only ¾ of the way through the Faber Piano Adventures Primer Level books. I am sure I have moved him along in them more than he has deserved too! And in case you’re wondering, he is not much better if his mother or babysitter is in the room.

By now, you’re probably asking me why I don’t just give up on this little boy. I have asked myself that same question for a long time… well, since I started teaching him. Something just keeps me going though. Part of me never wants to give up on anybody. I am kind of stubborn like that and I hold a lot of hope and a lot of faith that things will always get better or at least I will learn something great through it all. Part of me says “hey, it’s income!” What teacher doesn’t want a steady student filling a half hour of their week? And yet another part of me wonders if there is some way I could make some kind of difference in his life. This is the most compelling reason I stick with teaching my little misbehaved wonder. There has got to be SOMETHING that I can do for him. Well, I haven’t quite found that something yet, but I have realized that sometimes I just need to settle for the tiny little somethings that pop up once in a blue moon.

One thing I have learned is that my little friend suddenly gets really quiet and focused when he is given theory assignments to do right there in pianos lessons. I quit assigning them to be done at home this past summer because I realized this was what he was mostly interested in and now we do all his theory together right there on the piano bench. These have ended up being the most teachable moments. He still acts a little goofy, but most of his attention gets focused on getting correct answers and following the directions on the page. Oh how I wish he would follow MY directions! We’ll get there though. Baby steps, right?

That one little breakthrough just feeds my hope that more and bigger breakthroughs will come. Until then, call me crazy, but I think I’ll keep teaching this little guy. Maybe someday I’ll be writing an article about what a great scientist or engineer he has become. Maybe I’ll be bragging about something wonderful he’s done with music! Well, I won’t get ahead of myself, but you know what I mean.

I have found two meanings for this rule, one practical and one life changing.

First the practical. Left to our own devises we will start our work at the beginning and work our way to the end. Cognitive science explains some of the phenomenon we experience with this approach. The two primary challenges we encounter involve issues of interference and recency. Interference occurs when new or old material will block or interfere with recall. Sometimes the new material is similar enough to the old material as to create a conflicted memory. (This happens a lot in music!) Recency is the principle that we remember the most recent event better than older events. If we start at the beginning and play to the end we will remember the beginning well because it is the beginning and had our clearest focus; and the end almost as well because it is recent. But the middle is some kind of vague muddle of notes we know we played but have no idea what we did.

If you begin at the end and work backwards toward the beginning; first leaning the last measure and then the next to last measure, playing both; and then adding another measure and so on; each measure has a chance to be the beginning. Your retention of the middle is greatly enhanced.

A few years ago, while reviewing my repertory list I realized that I had learned about 1/3 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Into my silly head popped this notion that it would be a good thing to learn and play them all as preludes and postludes at my church. It took several years to complete this project of playing the entire set of sonatas sequentially. When I finally completed the project and had a chance to look back on my work and began to do it again, I had a profound sense of what the poet T. S. Elliot meant by:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Andrew Remillard

I say this as a lover of speed. I have worn out many metronomes in my life, not from throwing them out of frustration, but from use. I work meticulously to achieve my ambitious tempo goals and then exceed them by 10% to ensure ease. Yet all too often I get caught up on faster and forget there is more to music than speed. Many times there is a lot less music with more speed. Finding the balance between a tempo with brings life and one which crushes music is a constant struggle.

Andrew Remillard

Did you see that “p”? What does “senza sordino” mean? Did you see that accent? Some scores are full of performance instructions and others have no obvious markings. The details can include the obvious dynamic and expressive markings and also the much more subtle harmonic and melodic “markings”. Work to understand every word and symbol a composer uses and also look for the stuff “between the lines.” Every composer has a harmonic vocabulary which is unique to them. Harmony shows the ebb and flow of emotional tension. In order to understand the form and function of phrases you must start with the harmony; which chords contain the greatest emotional tension and where does that tension get released?

Andrew Remillard

Here is a new way to look at understanding human memory: the memory unit. I consider the basic functional memory unit to be the amount of material which can be played or studied six times and then played by memory the seventh.

This is based upon the limitations of the short term memory. These limitations are 10 – 15 seconds and 5 – 7 “chunks”. A chunk is a single idea which can be made of many individual bits of information. A one octave C major scale can be looked at as either 8 chunks, where each note requires a new idea. Or a single chunk, the entire scale being conceived as a single idea which contains all of the note and fingering information.

The short term memory only lasts about 10 – 15 seconds before information is dumped. If the memory is re-heard (read: rehearsal) within this time limitation and the content can begin to be moved intact into the long term memory.

This is a critical point. I once had a student tell me that they always got lost in a particular passage in the middle of a rather long phrase. They had attempted to memorize this passage working in sections which exceeded the capacity of their short term memory and the information was not moved intact to the long term memory. They simply had no idea of what was in the middle of the phrase.

I know this sounds rather technical and mechanical, however, our brains are chemical machines and consequently do have a predictable pattern of behavior at a certain level. Try this experiment: Select one measure of music, play it 6 times, close the music and play it again. If you are successful, you stayed within the contents of the short term memory. If not, either you played really slow, taking longer than 15 seconds, or didn’t group the notes into any chunk or pattern. Next expand to a two measure passage, and then three and four measures. At some point you will reach your limit; that is your memory unit.

Andrew Remillard

The only way to eat an elephant is also the only way you can learn a 30 minute concerto: one bite at a time, any more and you will choke on it.

Andrew Remillard

Though there are some artists who regularly bounced around on their benches, I don’t think this is a mannerism suitable for most players. Your playing levers (arms, wrists, hands, and fingers) need a stable fulcrum in order to operate with maximum efficiency. Moving around reduces the stability of the primary fulcrum (the torso) and can be spatially disorienting. I think the best models for our students are not the young stars who emote and gyrate as they play but rather the really old timers who sit with great repose and make the least extraneous effort.

Andrew Remillard


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This is the second installment of Sarah’s wonderful words of wisdom.

The Best Advice I’ve Ever Been Given
(Or… What Every Potential Music Major Should Know)
By Sarah Flanagan

“Majoring in music is a marathon – not a sprint!”

This isn’t rocket science, but when Andrew told me this, it geared me up for the years of majoring in music that I was about to face back in 2002. Before college I felt like I could do just about anything with only a little bit of work. Once I started though, I felt like I couldn’t do ANYTHING without a LOT of work. My how perceptions change when you are in the heat of the battle, but remembering that it is a marathon and not a sprint gave me the gumption to suck up the difficulties and hold out for the end. Few runners run a marathon to come in first place, because there is only one first place to be given out. But all marathoners run to finish the race and finishing such a great distance makes you a marathoner. Not finishing just makes you a runner. I was so happy to finish my musical marathon and thankful for this wonderful piece of advice.

My freshman class started the year with over 50 music majors. By the end of 4 years of college, I believe only 30 were left. I was proud to be one of them.

“Question: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time!”

I think this is actually a proverb of some sort that Andrew likes to pass on to students. Without actually looking it up, I might guess it was originally from Africa or someplace exotic like that. I can just imagine sticking a fork into the tough hide of an elephant and imagine how long it would take to just chew one piece of elephant, let alone eat the whole beast. What an overwhelming task without even considering how it might taste!

What Andrew was referring to were the elephants in our piano practice though. Our elephants can be difficult passages, extremely long and involved pieces, our struggle to make ends meet, or anything we feel overwhelmed with at any given time. We all have elephants we need to get past and if we don’t realize the right way to get past them, we might just find ourselves trampled by them.

I have learned that big and difficult things take time, effort and patience, but they are well worth it in the end. The elephant is not impossible to eat! If I take a bite at a time and take those bites regularly, I know I can overcome it. The added benefit is that much patience and perseverance is learned in doing so.

“…Wisdom is found in those who take advice.” Prov. 13:10

What words of wisdom were given to you along your musician’s journey? Which wise words remain important parts of your life even today? I can think of so many more wise words from so many other people in my life. I’m thankful I have them and I am thankful now as a teacher I can pass them along.

Today’s and tommorow’s posts are from guest blogger Sarah Flanagan. I have known Sarah for about 10 years. Her success as a musician, teacher, and most importantly a person has made me very proud to play a small part in her life.

The Best Advice I’ve Ever Been Given
(Or… What Every Potential Music Major Should Know)
By Sarah Flanagan

My name is Sarah Flanagan and I am a former student of Andrew’s.
I took piano lessons from him during the summers revolving around the beginning of my college career. Actually, I came to Andrew to bring me up to speed right before college and then whenever I was home from college I continued with lessons. The summer before freshmen year my new college teacher gave me an assignment to start a Chopin prelude, a Debussy prelude a Beethoven sonata, and a Bach prelude and fugue. I was psyched about the pieces but totally trembling inside too. I needed to be whipped into shape in order to survive my freshmen year and Andrew gave me the tools and advice needed to make it through.

Fast forward almost 11 years and I am now a certified piano teacher with a degree in Keyboard Pedagogy from Cedarville University in Ohio (2006). I keep myself busy with a full studio of piano students, accompanying for the Village Voices choir, accompanying soloists, and playing piano for church. I have just recently finished my term being Secretary of the Downers Grove Music Club. Previously, I had been Vice President of the Downers Grove Music Club and Membership Chairperson for ISMTA Naperville Chapter. Aside from music, I also enjoy gardening, exercising, cooking, organizing women’s meetings for church, and taking care of my husband and dog.

I sometimes think about all of these things I do and positions I have held and wonder what they all really mean. I am certainly not as decorated as many of the teachers out there. Though I do what I can, I very much understand that there are higher degrees to be obtained and loftier positions to be held. When I think deeper into the places I find myself in life though, I think back to the people who have helped me get there. I haven’t achieved the highest degree, but the degree I DO have would be deficient if I had never taken the little golden nuggets of wisdom that many teachers and supporters have given along the way. I could hold more prestigious positions, but the positions I have held mean nothing if I haven’t learned something from the people I deal with in the various organizations I’ve been a part of. I could have twice as many students, but the students I have now would learn nothing if I hadn’t learned some things myself.

All along the way I have been given pieces of advice and pieces of encouragement that have stuck with me and have kept me patient, sane, grounded, calm, and steadfast in my musician’s journey. I’d like to share a couple simple pieces of advice that my former teacher shared with me several years back that have helped me along my way (which includes college and beyond). You may even want to pass these along to your own students who are making their way to college this year.

“Learn to say ‘No’ because many opportunities will arise and you can’t do everything, but you need to be able to choose what things are most important to you and go with them.”

Andrew told me this the summer before I went off to college. I attribute it to my success as a music major. He was right! I couldn’t do everything that presented itself to me. My piano professor expected me to practice daily at least 2 hours BEFORE I did my regular homework. I was left with very little free time at the end of the day, and so I ended up saying “no” to a lot of things in order to focus on doing the things I wanted to do the most. Admittedly, a lot of times I ended up using that free time to relax and enjoy time with friends. And that was ok. I could do the things I wanted to do because I learned to say “no.”

Required reading in one of my pedagogy classes junior year ended up being a book called “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud. I highly recommend this book as it speaks more in depth on this subject. It’s a good read for musician or non-musician alike.