When traditional piano teaching methods fail

The problem with focus

I started out teaching my piano students the ‘Read, then play’ method, because this is how I was taught. An increase every year, in the number of young students with focus issues prompted me to consider other ways of teaching, and I started experimenting.

My goal was to see if another way of approaching piano teaching could get my students to be super-attentive. But before that I needed to be very clear as to what the real issue with each child was. Knowing my students well, here’s a list of the possibilities I considered :

  1. Poor English language comprehension
  2. Difficulty understanding musical ideas and concepts like up/down, high/low
  3. Motor coordination issues due to lack of adequate physical activity
  4. Poor eyesight and an inability to see notes rising and falling
  5. Difficulties focusing due to excessive creativity and thinking about too many ideas at one time
  6. Selective focus – where students would focus only when it was clear to them that the topic was relevant to what THEY wanted to learn.

So much effort at getting my students to focus was a clear sign that using only the “Read-then-play’ was not working with my current batch of piano students.

A starting point

I can say with confidence, that for many Mumbai students education means learning pre-written answers, rather than thinking and answering questions. Some schools do manage to provide quality education despite large class sizes, but there are schools that teach the syllabus so erratically that it’s done mostly at the year end, in a rush. This way, even parents willing to support education at home are left wondering how to go about it.

The result is, a lot of kids have difficulty answering questions. The issue could be either poor language comprehension or undeveloped reasoning skills. And that’s where I started. I changed the way I teach theory, with a few students.

Just so you understand, here’s an example of a question from a Grade 1 theory book that a lot of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai kids have had difficulty with. “Draw a note on each line in the staff below.”

The students who struggled with this were kids who were familiar with line and space notes and who knew what a staff was. I ‘ve taught a lot of kids like this over many years of teaching.

The sad truth is that retention of music theory is poor because it is taught in a way that students simply don't understand it's relevance to piano playing and therefore, students often switch off mentally.

It’s the same with scales and aural awareness (feeling rhythm, singing, etc.) To the average student, it’s just a way to get marks in an exam. Students who play by ear have extremely well developed aural skills, but suffer because they often are poor at sight-reading.

Experiments with teaching ‘BACKWARDS’

  1. My students had to watch me play their piece, or a section of it and understand the chord structure, the key of the piece, scalic passages and use of non-chord tones by watching me play.
  2. Then, having learned to play it the piece, they had to write it down in their manuscripts.

I did a test run of this with some adult students and a couple of younger students (age 9 to 12) and my students got very very excited about it. The students in question were clapping, singing and counting in an effort to learn to play. Attention to playing technique improved, and the key of the piece, the scale and triads suddenly became important as it made memorising easy.

Most students were quite willing to write out their playing, but some needed a step by step approach and a little guidance.

Time management in class

Lesson planning suddenly became more complex, because there was so much to do.

  • My students have sight-reading targets, and some are on the second round of ‘The 10 Easy Piece Challenge .’
  • All my students learn some music with the ‘Read, then play ‘ method and will continue to do so.
  • And now  in addition to the above, some are simultaneously learning ‘Backwards.’ This means that we work simultaneously on rhythm, pitch, playing scales and triads, plus I teach them the theory that helps them put it down in writing.

It’s still at an experimental stage. My lesson plan needs to have lots of alternatives, so that it’s flexible enough to suit individual learning needs.

The upside is that students are excited and animated to an extent that surprises me.  I am now able to actually pinpoint student-specific difficulties with focus, and work at them better. Most of my students attend a 1 hour class once a week, and  fitting it all in and still getting time to talk about practise issues is a huge challenge for me.

Could using both ‘Read-then-play’ and the ‘Teaching Backwards’ method simultaneously in piano class, give me a way around focus issues, and help my students a higher level of competence in piano playing at an earlier level of learning?

How to assess your own piano playing

A guide for intermediate to advanced piano students who have learned their piece and want to be able to assess the quality of their playing on their own, with guidance from their teacher.

  • Getting rid of mistakes

    You should have learned your piece correct from the very first. However, it is likely that you still have some weak spots where you falter, when under pressure.

Listen to a recording of your performance and then listen to recordings by different pianists until your ear can hear any differences in time, pitch and the harmony. This will help you hear and correct any errors in your playing such as wrong pitch and note values.

Also, listen to variations in articulation and tone production and figure out what suits your piece.

  • Use the metronome to listen

Students can make the mistake of playing erratic rhythms, and think this is interpretation. They need to understand how pianists interpret a piece while keeping the sense of style, tempo and mood that is required of the piece and the period it comes from. A metronome can be a help when listening to variations in tempo.

  • Listen to hear different parts

Listen to reputed pianists play. Listen to small sections, listen separately to individual parts in a section, until your ear can hear them.

Isolate a part or a layer of the music that you wish to work on, and listen to hear that layer well.

  • Listen for the rests

Rests, pauses and spaces in the music are a very important part of it, and one many students ignore. Listen for silences and feel the mood that they generate.  They need to become important to you.

  • Mark weak areas on the score

It might be a good idea to make small notes on the score, or mark areas where you need to check your playing, so that you don’t forget them during practise time.

  • Practise

Practise is different from playing. Yes, you need to play your piece and you also need to play it often enough. The mistake many students make however, is playing the piece through again and again, thinking it will improve their weak areas, and it doesn’t. That’s what practise is for.

  • Work with small sections

If you are ‘practising’ and still not getting results, you may need a smaller section. Working small will help you listen better. It helps to focus on one single weak area at a time.

  • Make notes

Write down the questions you have about any aspect of playing and performing your piece so that you remember them. Talk to your teacher about your ideas when you go to piano class.

Listen Listen and LISTEN.  That’s the key to being able to teach yourself to play better.

Aiming low = reaching high?

Blog pic Why aiming low can lead to reaching high

The tried and tested path to success

“Aim higher than you want to reach. You may miss your target, but you will still reach your original goal”

This way of thinking has worked very well for me and many of my  piano students who wanted success easy. Who wanted to do just barely enough that was required to play their pieces well, who fell short when they played for an audience and then realised they needed to aim higher.

But it’s not working with my batch of new students, whether they’re young children, teens or adults.

The hard work required just does not happen  in the first year of piano class and students often get disheartened. Because everything is so far out of reach.

 

How my practise goals made me evaluate my teaching goals

I started out last year, in  April 2015 with My Personal Sight-reading Challenge. I’m a piano teacher by profession and I face a difficulty that all piano teachers face, which is getting time to practise.

Practising the piano is very necessary, if teachers want to improve the quality of their teaching. And yet we spend so much time  teaching, planning lessons and reading up on how to communicate effectively. We study teaching techniques and are involved in a host of other activities that are necessary to manage our teaching studios.

I started out my sight-reading challenge last year, with the goal of making a small commitment to myself  to play everyday, and it worked. You can read about it in The impact of 100 minutes of practise

I realized that having a very small goal that was achievable in a short period of time, got me going to the piano many times a day, and got me learning a lot more pieces than I usually do. And this made me think about what goals I set for myself, when I’m teaching my students.

 

The value of quantity

A few of my students took The 10 easy piece challenge. They learned 10 easy pieces upto set achievement levels, we recorded them and uploaded them online. Achievement levels set depended on the student’s weak area, and many of these were way below ‘performance’ level (the level of playing at which a student has mastered the piece).

The students were thrilled because they got good feedback at piano class. It was fairly easy for them and therefore getting piano practise done was not too hard a task for their parents.

These students suddenly moved from being the ones who did not get anything done, to the ones who were doing exceedingly well, and their parents were very proud of them. Their parents would motivate them by reminding them of how capable they were and they’re excited about piano class.

Progress was not always a straight line, and there were regular slips. Mostly though, it’s moving forward, and some students are now trying to do 10 more pieces.

Having a small easy goal makes students pay attention to their weak spots in new pieces, so that they don’t make the same mistake there.

The steps they take forward are very small. So small, that I need to point them out so parents notice them.

What makes them important, is that the student is taking them independently, without my help.

There’s value to quantity, that is, to learning more repertoire. It’s the only way for piano students to really master their instrument. Here are a couple of very interesting posts that every teacher, piano parent and student should read.

  1. The surprising power of quantity by Elissa Milne
  2. Which promotes greater learning – higher standards or lower standards  by Dr Noa Kageyama

 

 

 

Teaching my first Skype piano class

I have just 2 piano students in Bandra, 2 hours away from where I live and I needed a break from the long commute for a little while. I was on leave in April and taught just 2 in-studio classes (alternate weeks) there in the month of May.

It was holiday time, and one of my students, a 9 year old boy,  was home with lots of time to practise. So we did a ‘Video class’ in April, and we tried a couple of ‘Skype Lessons’ in May.

Why I’m offering students (optional) Skype classes

I’ve always been very hesitant about anything other than ‘in-studio’ classes, because the medium restricts the teacher’s ability to demonstrate playing technique and correct the student when there’s wrong technique, posture, etc. Playing duets, which students really enjoy, can be a problem if there’s a time lag. Introducing off the bench activities require a little bit of effort and innovation – it’s something I really need to work on. We had connectivity issues at one class that took a few minutes of class time at the first class, but the second class went fine.

After teaching two skype classes, I still see that it’s not the same as teaching in-studio. However, there are some benefits to online teaching that I overlooked. They’re  benefits that in-studio teaching does not have, and they’re huge!

How Skype lesson can help, and why parents should consider taking them once in a way

  • Keeping attendance regular : My students reschedule class quite often, because they’re running late due to work commitments (adult students or parents) . The student is available and at home at class time, but will not reach class in good time.  I reschedule every class, to another day, but there’s a problem. If the break between classes is too long, practise quality goes down, and if the break is too short and the student does not get enough time to practise.  Having a Skype class can take care of this. My student’s practise was not just regular, it was excellent! Possibly because this is a student who loves technology.
  • Super Attentiveness : He (my student) listened very carefully to what I was saying, or demonstrating. I think the online medium made him pay more attention to visual and auditory clues. He’s usually a very interested and cooperative student, and yet I was amazed at just how much more focused he was during the class. He was like this at both classes, but the second class went better, because his Mum helped him with the set-up, so it was quick, and without delays.
  • Posture : I was able to see what actually happens at home, and correct my student when he sat too low. Often students have technical issues, because they don’t follow the teachers instructions at home (though they do in class) and there’s nothing like seeing what actually happens when they play at home.

Skype teaching needs a slightly different skill set to in-studio teaching. It’s a new medium for me, so I really need to work on how to improve my ability to demonstrate and teach playing technique through this medium. I also need to work more on introducing the fun element to online teaching, as it needs different kinds of games and challenges, to what I do in-studio.

I still like teaching in-studio, and will continue to teach that way. However, I’m excited about online teaching, as a supplement to regular in-studio classes. The benefits made me interested enough that I’m working on trying to learn new skills to improve my online teaching skills.

Experiments with writing a music theory book

A lack of interest?

My piano student just could not identify note names on the music staff. I tried everything – repetition of the same notes in theory at each lesson, teaching many pieces with the same set of notes and practise writing notes at home. Nothing worked.

It was the same with high and low notes. We’d covered this in class, but she could not hear the difference.But we had a breakthrough recently. She attended piano class with my WunderKeys” student and realised that a child 5 years younger than her can identify high and low notes. And suddenly, she can hear the difference. 

I realize  that it’s the same with theory. This student did not seem to understand that theory or ear training was relevant, and connected to playing the piano, until she could see that other students got it. And only then, did it become important enough to remember.

This student is almost at the end of the  John Schaum Pre-A lesson book and plays pieces from  Alfred’s Fun book – level 1B.  She takes time with the first landmark note in any new piece, and is fine  after that, but only if I keep reminding her to think of steps and skips. She know what they are, and has no learning disability. She used to forget to wear her reading glasses to class earlier and now, she no longer has a number.

It’s just that she shuts down for theory, so learning a new piece goes slow. The theory books available in the market go too slow for her, and she gets bored with too much repetition of the same thing, because she’s a bright kid.

 

What I needed in a theory book

I needed a theory method book, that went fast, and that revised pitch, scales, steps, skips and chords. She’s been taught all this, and just needed a revision that made sense to her. I like books which are plain, with less graphics and colours  because I find kids who have no learning disabilities focus and think much better when the page is simple and plain.

I also like books that ask a lot of questions. Because, children learn by rote in many schools in Mumbai, and get rewarded when their answers are exactly what the teacher dictated in class. There’s a large percentage of children who need to be taught to think independently, and it’s getting bigger every year.

 

My first attempt at writing a theory book

I’ve written a theory book for my student, and this weeks lesson with theory went well. It’s not completely done, so I’ll be writing and re-writing it as we go along, depending on what she wants to learn, and the feedback I get from her.  I’m hoping that this book will lead her on to the Grade 1 theory exam.

So far, we’ve tried the first exercise out at her lesson this week, and the approach seemed to work.

The Power of Reading — colbybryant.com

In a matter of days, my daughter will have finished the first grade. She has, by all accounts, done exceptionally well this past year, testing at two grades above her age. To say I’m proud is too quaint of an expression for how I feel. This is, no doubt, partly due to her wonderful teacher, […]

via The Power of Reading — colbybryant.com

WunderKeys – a preschool piano course

ParadeSlide

WunderKeys is a Preschool Piano Program for children between 3 to 5 years of age. It gets  children familiar with the piano keyboard, and helps them to develop skills they will need later, when they complete the course and move on to a beginner piano method book.

 

My first experience with WunderKeys

I started teaching WunderKeys with just one student and was amazed at how exciting she found the stories in the lesson book.

The rhymes and math songs are practised in spoken English and counting from 1 to 10. They also help the student develop 4 important skills which are essential for students of music:

  1. Rhythm – singing and dancing in time to accompaniment
  2. Pitch – singing the correct tune
  3. Finger dexterity – the finger exercises with the rhymes are designed specially for this
  4. Identification of different fingers – each finger is a different ‘friend’ from the lesson book. Kids love the finger friends, so they find it easy to identify different fingers

My student liked the pattern recognition exercises, but loved to create her own original pattern and then copy it. Her favourite activity by far was the card games. She did not realise she was practising counting and memorisation when we did these at the end of class.

The student-teacher piano duets teach young piano students to play with 2 or 3 fingers at a time. It’s a game to the student. To the piano teacher, it’s an exercise that helps the student get familiar with the pattern of black and white keys on the piano keyboard.

 

What’s different about WunderKeys?

Unlike a lot of other pre-school piano courses, this course is designed for solo teaching (one student at a time) and teachers can teach at the students pace, repeating activities until the student has learned them well.

The story reading, songs and rhymes reinforce spoken English being taught at kindergarten level, and that’s why it’s particularly well suited to children who study in English medium schools but don’t have exposure to spoken English at home.

WunderKeys combines the fun of a group hobby class, with the learning focus that students can only get, with one-on-one teacher time.

 

Are you and your child ready for WunderKeys?

  1. Is your child 3 to 5 years old?
  2. Can your child understand simple instructions in English?
  3. Is your child comfortable speaking simple sentences in English?
  4. Does your child enjoy listening to music?
  5. Is your child interested in playing around on your keyboard / piano at home?
  6. Can the parent spend a few minutes a day with the homework?
  7. Can any family member play one song and one rhyme daily, for the student to listen to at home (mp3’s that can be played on a phone, computer or music system) ?

WunderKeys homework takes just a few minutes a day, so it’s not a problem for working parents. Children get used to the idea that daily homework is fun, and later, when they start beginner piano method books, daily piano practise is then easy to implement.

 

After a few months of class

My student’s initial shyness during the first few WunderKeys lessons disappeared and she began to talk a little more and ask for activities she liked. She was interested and attentive throughout the class, and would sing and dance with abandon.

It’s been sometime. My student is on WunderKeys Book 2 and likes to play the piano for 10 minutes at every class.

She comes to class because it’s a fun activity, while I teach her, because of the educational value of all the fun that’s WunderKeys