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 :
- Poor English language comprehension
- Difficulty understanding musical ideas and concepts like up/down, high/low
- Motor coordination issues due to lack of adequate physical activity
- Poor eyesight and an inability to see notes rising and falling
- Difficulties focusing due to excessive creativity and thinking about too many ideas at one time
- 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’
- 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.
- 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?