As spirited as a gigue, as exacting as a metronome, Jane Tan has launched a national career as a music guru: Twenty-five years of teaching piano at Towson State University have bloomed into "The Well Prepared Pianist" series of instruction books for students and music teachers. The first 14 books of the series have won critical acclaim and fans throughout the music world.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Ms. Tan came to the Peabody Conservatory in 1964 on a Fulbright scholarship to study with pianist Leon Fleisher.
In 1967, an automobile injury brought numbness to several of her fingers and an end to her career as a concert pianist; for years she could not even perform simple household chores without pain. However, her disability helped develop many of the piano-teaching techniques in "The Well Prepared Pianist." No longer able to demonstrate principles by playing them, she analyzed music goals and instructional problems until she could explain everything verbally.
Ms. Tan, 52, is married to industrial engineer Leon Tan. The couple have two daughters: Kim is at Harvard Law School, and Gina is in the honors program at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Q: What does it mean to be a well-prepared pianist?
A: Music has to be internalized. A split second before my fingers touch the piano, I can already hear the piece in my mind, feel it in my hands, feel the motion in my body. That is what gives one a total control of the instrument.
If you play only by feel, you say "Ah, that's wrong!" You play it again and say, "Ah, that's wrong!" It's a never-ending problem. But if you internalize everything ahead of time, you can predict not only exactly what you're going to play, but also what sound, what pitch, what combination of keys. You can even predict the exact color, because you can feel it in your fingers before you go to the piano.
Q: How do most students learn?
A: [In most methods] the goal is to display a child in the shortest possible time; we want to turn out instant pianists. We're in such a big hurry to teach a child a particular piece, we never teach them the groundwork they need. Instead we are programming children to play like parrots.
Here's an example of what can happen: A student forgets how his performance piece goes because he hasn't practiced in a while. All of a sudden he can't play the piano because he can't find his way around the keyboard. This is like someone who used to recite a particular poem very well. He forgets the poem, and all of a sudden, can't read or write anything else because he spent all his time learning by rote rather than learning the basics of reading and writing.
Q: What's different about your approach?
A: There's a logical way to teach music and piano to the point where we develop all phases of playing: the mind, the ears, the eyes, the hands and the body. Most teachers plunge right into a new piece. [In my system] every piece has a reading preliminary and questions guide. The students have to learn how to analyze the music. By the time they actually play a piece, it is already familiar to them.
Children have to learn the goal they are trying to reach and the responsibility to reach that goal. This discipline of thinking in logical steps, the patience that goes with it, and the fact of always working with a goal will carry them through all walks in life.
Q: How much should students practice?
A: I never tell a student how long to practice. If you do, they practice until that time and then quit. If you don't tell them a time, they will practice until they finish practicing. I say, "Practice until you reach your goal."
Q: What role should parents play?
A: They should be very lavish in telling the child how much they appreciate his work. And they should listen when the child is ready for them to listen. Many parents make the mistake of criticizing children when a practice session is bad. That leads to resentment.
Let the practice be bad. Let a child go to a lesson and have a bad lesson. Children need to learn the outcome of a good lesson and the outcome of a bad lesson. They have to learn what they must do in order to always have good lessons.
Q: You teach, compose music, give workshops, run a household and still find time to work on "The Well Prepared Pianist" series. How do you fit it all in?
A: My father taught me to manage my time. I learned no matter how little time I have, I can always find time to do something if I sit down and budget it properly.
We want our children to do many things: We want them in basketball, baseball, soccer; we want them to do ballet and piano and still have time to play. All this can be done, but they have to be taught how.
Never deny children time with friends simply because they have to practice. Teach them to manage their time.
Q: What is your relationship with your students?
A: My students are like my children: I would go to bat for them at any time, but I am also very firm. I would not be afraid of losing a student simply because I am too honest with him. The test of a relationship with students is whether one has the courage to say what one needs to say for the students' good. That, I think, is the best way of loving them.