A quick easy fix for focus issues

When thinking is an effort at age 8 to 13

These children come to piano class and learn the theory and technique that’s necessary to play a piece. Then the piece starts to sound good to them as it’s kind of put together from beginning to end. So, they then start to practise by repetition, mind shut to such an extent, that they have totally forgotten the theory and technique (though they play correctly). They’re totally blank and can’t answer basic theory questions. They can’t even recall what was taught earlier – even simple basic stuff.

When I first started teaching in Andheri (Mumbai), my first batch of students did not practise. They had such excellent memories that they could and did in the beginning, fool me into thinking they’d done their work. Until I learned to understand their abilities and assess their work accordingly.

I mainly taught in Bandra (Mumbai) from 2011 to 2015, but took on a few students in Khargar off and on. I had a few students in Bandra who could not think and I wrote a post about it ‘Coping with the over-scheduled child in piano class’

I still have a couple of students in Bandra, but I teach full-time in Khargar. Teachers in different parts of the world are seeing an increasing number of students who can’t think and reason. If it were just piano class, it would be fine, because piano teacher’s  don’t expect all kids to have developed musical skills. But knowing my students well and talking to parents makes me realise it’s not just piano where thinking is the problem.


Lessons from the monsoon madness

This year in July, all my 9 year olds and one 12 year old had a mental shutdown. I was teaching to blank faces from students who, until now, had been progressing well. They’re beginners who have been with me for about a year.

My students who could sit perfectly still earlier, were fidgeting and needed lots of off the bench activities. They were fidgety at home too, and talking to their Mum’s made me realise that the unusually heavy monsoon took away their play time, so they had no activity.

I asked one student’s parents to enrol their child in a hobby class with sports activity  and there was a noticeable change within a few weeks. It got better with all of my students as the monsoon eased and they were able to get back to physical activity – regular play or sports classes.


A quick fix to get your child thinking – in and out of piano class

Just get children moving. If your child’s play time does not have enough physical activity, then a sports related hobby class or  a 1 hour walk 3 days a week works fine.

I’m really amazed that something so simple worked! 

That even during a week of poor practise, these students can now remember what was done earlier and can quickly demonstrate it.



15 easy steps to a really effective piano class


  1. Arrive at class on time. Leave home budgeting time for traffic jams and other delays, so you walk in relaxed. You will learn better.
  2. Take all your books to class – that includes your homework book & theory book. Check you’ve not left your books on the piano keyboard at home before you leave for class.
  3. Practise.
  4. Carry your reading glasses/spectacles with you.
  5. Attend class or remember to reschedule if you need to miss. Else you will not get a make-up class.
  6. Leave a little extra time in your daily schedule so there’s time when you need flex or  just want to relax a little in between. Practise needs to be done with a relaxed frame of mind to be really effective.
  7. Practise – don’t just play. Practise daily.
  8. Play games or enroll in a sports class for exercise. Getting enough physical activity improves focus.
  9. Pack all your books up after class and make sure you take them home.
  10. Read your homework  book when you practise and follow your teacher’s instructions.
  11. Set a practise schedule with a choice of 2 or 3 practise slots, so you can change your practise time to suit your moods
  13. Play for your family, and participate in student concerts whenever you get an opportunity.
  14. Play a little to relax even on busy days.
  15. Did I say practise daily? Yes, that’s the most important thing to do. Prraaacctise!



This class called ‘Piano class’

‘Piano class here in Navi Mumbai encompasses a wide variety of different kinds of classes, and teachers who actually teach the piano have to deal with a lot of misconceptions.

What a piano is

Many parents think that the toy keyboard is a piano. They think a Casio is an instrument – kind of like the way people refer to a  Xerox machine instead of a photocopying machine. ‘Casio’ is used to refer to keyboards of any brand, digital pianos and acoustic pianos (the big Casio). So, piano class is a very wide term, that encompasses all of these classes, which have different levels of difficulty and commitment.

The exam focus

Parents who don’t know much about piano playing can be very keen on piano examinations, as it helps them assess their child’s progress. Trinity College London is a huge name here, so piano exams get focus. Unfortunately, this means that parents and students often only pay attention to piano practise when an exam is looming, or when an exam piece is being done. There are many parents who are thrilled with their child learning just 4 pieces a year, as long as the exam results are good.

Piano students often have little or no opportunities to perform & they need to be flexible and able to adjust to playing on a keyboard to participate in local events. I was really thrilled to discover the ‘Music Liberation Union (MLU)’.  MLU consists of a group of individuals who are passionate about music & have been promoting music in Navi Mumbai. They provide musicians and students a platform to perform as well as discuss music, & they welcome music from different genres. You can find them on Facebook.

Talent does not need hard work

Parents who have seen pianists playing think it’s easy, because the pianist makes it seem so. They also seem to associate the term ‘easy’ with talent, and think that piano teaching is easy because the teacher has talent. My experience has been, that parents undervalue the job of a piano teacher until they actually witness piano class in action. This prompted me to write a post ‘What do piano teachers DO?

My piano parents, who understand and are committed to supporting piano practise at home,  are sometimes taken aback by the level of thinking & maturity required of their child, and the challenges of learning the piano. Having parents sit-in on piano class when they can, makes them want to provide more support to home practise.

Work hard and you’ll succeed

A parent whose child plays the piano a lot daily, feels justified in expecting excellent feedback from piano teachers, and can get very angry when this does not happen, because the child is ‘playing’ but is not ‘practising’. It’s a very common cause of parent-teacher discord, and I’ve learned to explain my assessments, and what practise is. So parents & children have some say in the standards by which they want to be assessed.

Sometimes, an appreciation of hard work for it’s own sake, can make parents expect long practise hours and feel their child is not doing enough. When in actuality, the student, with shorter practise sessions & breaks in between, is taking care to follow homework instructions, and is actually doing very very well.

A lack of understanding about what piano class is, and the level of difficulty of the subject, often is a barrier to learning, so parents and students need to have expectations of piano class that match their commitment.

Teaching the piano to beginners is much more challenging today, because a lot of children don’t get enough exercise and play needed for their development. And this is resulting in a lot more kids who can’t sit still ( as compared to other kids of their age), as well as issues with hand coordination.

Building a rapport with parents and students, and helping them understand what goes on leads to really fast progress in the long run. Here’s a related post ‘Parent education during piano class’




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.