Searching for God Knows What

Searching for God Knows What (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my students taught me a lesson last week.

The lesson

We had finished a piece by Kabalevsky, moving on to a waltz by Shostakovich. This was my student’s first lesson on the new piece.

New piece

Page 1 has no accidentals. But it does have tricky spots. I thought circling those places in the music would make it easier for my student to see the differences and learn the piece better right away (rather than undoing learned mistakes).

The waltz has 2 partial scales at first, then changes to a whole step plus a third. I had circled notes 2 and 3 (the third) when introducing the piece.

Page 2 has accidentals. They looked navigable to me, since they were spaced out among white keys.

There is one spot in particular that requires a hand position change and playing an accidental. I am not looking at the score, but it’s something like A, B, C in the right hand played with 3, 4, 5. The next phrase begins on the E-flat above with 2, continuing with F and G (3, 4).

During the introductory lesson, my student played E-flat, E-natural (not F) often enough that I circled the E-flat and F.

I need to figure this out

My circles didn’t work out. Instead of helping my student focus, they caused brain freeze. I need to find a positive way to help her.

What happened

The E-flat to F on page 2 was the biggest problem, or at least the one that taught me something.

My student has become a lot better at finishing a phrase, then lifting her hand to move to a new place on the keyboard. (Until recently, she would switch fingers while holding the last note of a phrase. That way, she could end on the finger nearest to the new spot and feel “safe,” never leaving the keyboard.)

Almost every time this phrase came along, my student played E-flat followed by E-natural.

After a few tries, I initiated a discussion about how she thought about the phrase, moving her hand, etc. It was an attempt on my part to find out what was going on.

During our discussion, I tried the change between the two phrases myself. My intention was not to demonstrate how to play, but to see how we approached the switch differently.

My student said, along the way, “I’m trying not to play E-natural!”

That got my attention. Red flag. She was trying not to do something. That left way too many choices for where to go next.

I discovered that I have thought of changes in range on the keyboard as changes in hand position for several years now. When I moved to the E-flat, my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers were already in the new position.

After my brief experiment on the keyboard, I asked her to play the passage again. She finished the first phrase, picked up her hand, and made it to the E-flat. No problem. But her 3rd finger was searching around! E-natural? No, not that one…

Now she understands how to find a new hand position! I had assumed that she knew. It turns out that she needed a separate step explained to her.


If you want to find out what is really going on with another person, the door must remain open. If we hadn’t talked about that passage, I wouldn’t have noticed and she wouldn’t have made the progress she did.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


“Goal-oriented Practice: How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer” gives every musician a fresh perspective!

My book frees up time to learn more music, memorize, or do something else entirely!

“Goal-oriented Practice” is also available in print!

Goal-oriented Practice

sold in 8 countries!

Review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

Back to top