Memorising music away from the piano during lessons

My biggest teaching challenge

My biggest teaching challenge for some time now, has been focus issues and getting beginner level students to make connections between related concepts being taught in piano class. Every year, I study and work on some aspect of piano playing, in an effort to improve the quality of my teaching, and of late, that’s been music theory. I’m working specifically to understand how I can bring my students attention to the theory in the pieces they learn, so theory is real and exciting to them.

For most students of music, theory is written. It’s for marks in an exam and students who have difficulty making connections with different aspects of music completely forget theory when they play their pieces.

Music theory should be something students write down in their music  manuscripts, because they already know it from playing their pieces.

Music theory IS about playing

I added a small time slot to my lesson plan, to teach piano pieces from written music differently and it was trial and error. I wasn’t always sure I was going about it in the right way. So when my student and I took a look at her grade 3 theory exam book last year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear her exclaim “But this is nothing by playing!” Because she’d already revised quite a bit of the syllabus while working on her piano pieces.

Teaching myself to memorise

I decided to test my ideas by learning a page of  new piece from memory. This was my weak area and I thought that finding music theory concepts in the piece would help me overcome my memorisation issues. I started with a Mazurka by Chopin, op 17, no 4, learning it as follows :

  1. Sit away from the piano with the written music and memorise the first 4 bars. If 4 is too hard, choose smaller sections – even going one bar at a time.
  2. Really think about the section – timing, notes, fingering, chord tones and non-chord tones.
  3. Play it at the piano without the book
  4. Repeat the process, until I could play it well enough, slow.
  5. Repeat this the next day, adding a couple of bars more, each time.
  6. Choose random sections and write them down from memory.

This was quite an effort for me at first, but it got easier with time and persistence. By the time I was done I could actually play a full page from memory, something I’d never been able to do before! I’m revisiting pieces I had learned earlier and trying to learn to play them without the book. Because I follow this process when teaching my students, I find that I memorise small pieces I’ve taught,  without actually working on them out of class.

Teaching backwards

This is my term for this way of teaching, because students first play, then write. 

  • Learning like this takes time, so I ask the student to select just a couple of bars, allowing just 10 minutes of class time for this.
  • Fitting it into a 1 hour class means taking this up in rotation with other topics.

Being ‘book-free’ makes students interested in clapping, intervals, chords and patterns, because that’s all that they have to work with. 

To other piano teachers who teach this way,  what do you do? And how do you fit it all in to a weekly piano class?

 

 

Taking responsibility for quality piano practise

Some of my most supportive piano parents initially went through phases when they got upset with feedback. Until they understood that the kind of goals both they and their child were aiming at needed a different kind of effort to what they had in mind.

Sometimes right sometimes wrong

‘It just happens sometimes’ That’s what many piano students say, when they get something right and I ask them how it happened. So is it just luck then? And if it is, how does a student replicate correct playing?

When working on a piece that’s still a work-in-process during class, I sometimes record the first playing. Then practise it with my student, and ask them to play it again at the end. And there’s a vast difference in the quality of the first and last playing. And that’s how quality practise works – there’s is a clear difference what’s been practised, no matter how small the difference is.

Just playing, just being a good student who tries, is not enough for progress. It’s definitely not enough, for the students who strive to improve and are clearly fixed on the goal of playing better.

 

Practise lessons from the diary of a housekeeper

My maid is on leave this month. She does a few small chores for me once a week, that make my life easier and give me some free time. I wasn’t successful at getting a replacement. I could say that I’ve had bad luck. But that’s not the case. Many of the other families she works for have got substitutes.

I haven’t. Because there’s payback to getting a substitute, that is not acceptable to me right now. I will need to be flexible with work time slots and adjust if the maid is late. I know from past experience, that anything from 30 minutes, to a couple of hours late, to not arriving at work at all, is the norm here.  While I might be lucky and get a maid who arrives on time, I’m not willing to take a chance on my daily routine disrupted.

So there’s something I’ve done, to be in the situation I’m in. It’s not luck. It didn’t just happen.

And because it’s my responsibility, I have the power to change the situation if I want. And that’s exactly what quality piano practise is about. Taking responsibility for results.

There’s payback either way, because right now, I have my daily work flow running smoothly, but I’m having to do a lot of extra chores that I would rather not do. And that’s another lesson – that there are no free rides. Not in life, nor in piano piano practise.

 

Work hard or work smart? A cause of parent teacher discord.

Piano students don’t know what they did that made their piece better, as at first, they play without conscious thought to how they practise. When a teacher works differently, using some practise technique, the student often forgets to use this technique at home, thinking it’s done and no longer needs attention. These students spend more time getting things done than necessary, getting some progress, but often not reaching standards of playing that they are capable of, because their practise just takes too long to fit it all in.

Young  students who are approaching intermediate level should be learning how to practise. They need it for progress, because their school and coaching class schedule simply does not support long hours of practise. And students who can’t fit practise into the time they have available often give up learning the piano.

Parents need to understand this, because we live in a culture that rewards hard work and there are parents who expect excellent feedback for long practise hours and get upset when it does not happen. Even when it’s contrary to what the student is being taught.

Not every parent understands the value of practise techniques until their child has tried it out and they can see the results. A piece that sounds wonderful and ready to most of my piano parents is often far from ready for performing. It takes year of listening for them to be able to accurately assess piano playing.

Breaking it down

The piano teacher can help the student see what made that good playing ‘happen’ by breaking it down in piano class, writing it out in the homework book and taking class videos for the student where needed.

Young children often need parent support, to get them to read the homework book, and look at videos, because children take time to understand the relevance of a practise technique. And mostly, because young piano students just want to play. Reading homework assignments is often quite unimportant to them.

Getting parent support for this kind of practise for my students usually starts with getting parents to understand and to be willing to try. And then, finding a way that helps busy parents who want to be involved,  work this in with their schedule.

It’s quite a thrill to see results. Shorter practise hours and more effective practise. Students taking responsibility for their piano practise, and having that attitude overflow into other areas of their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parent support in piano class

The need for parent support

Parent support for piano practise with young piano students is a huge issue. With teachers, because they know the likelihood of any student actually progressing beyond the beginner level depends on this. Even the musically talented student.

For piano parents it’s time and commitment and something more for them to add to their already busy schedules.

As I write this post, I’ve been teaching the piano for roughly 15 years. During all of these years, I’ve had less than a handful of students who practised without parent support. Learning the piano is very challenging for children of any age and my experience has been that the child who sticks almost always is the child who has parent support.

Taking the ‘lonely’ out of piano practise

For most children the biggest issue during the first couple of years is getting into a routine and making practise a part of their daily lives. The piano can be a lonely instrument and children who don’t have company often don’t practise. Children need a parent around – initially to remind them to read the homework book and practise accordingly, to listen and  mostly so they have company. 

Children who have opportunities to perform and belong to schools or communities where music is encouraged tend to be more motivated. As are children who have friends who play an instrument. Participation in group classes or concerts arranged by the piano teacher is important as this provides performance opportunities and helps students make ‘piano friends.’

That hardworking child who practises WRONG

If you’re a parent with a child who loves practising the piano, who practises daily and keeps getting poor feedback, then this paragraph is for you. It’s quite possible, that you can’t understand why – because you hear playing that sounds good to you, you can see how sincere your child is and how much effort your child puts in.

Taking a look at the homework book weekly, will tell you a lot, because you will find :

  1. Homework assignments not done
  2. Section practise requested by the teacher is not done
  3. Your child ‘plays’ taking very long to work on something, when all was needed is to use the practise techniques outlined by the teacher and spend less effort achieving the same result.

Children who enjoy practise often get so lost doing practise homework they enjoy, they forget to read the homework book. They practise what they like and what they remember and simply forget the rest.

Learning 'how to practise' is important for progress, and this is the area which beginner piano students of any age pay poor attention to. 
This is why even intermediate piano students often need parent support.

For parents who need a class where children work without support..

If you are a piano parent  with a student who does not practise regularly (and by practise, I mean doing the homework that the piano teacher has assigned) and this goes on for sometime, it’s worth looking at the kind of class you’ve enrolled your child in.

Piano teachers generally ask these students to stop class and enrol again when they’re ready to practise, because a regular piano class  simply does not work with erratic practise.

What your child needs is a different kind of class, with more frequency – maybe 2 classes a week, out of which one is a group class – a class which is mostly a  ‘practise’ class, where there’s a lot of repetition. New topics need to be introduced very slowly, so that erratic practise works. This does not lead to much progress, but it will keep your child playing the piano. There’s a very high possibility that your child will find some music that appeals and will keep playing.

 

Parent support for ‘regular piano class’

When I talk about regular piano class I refer to a class that teaches piano playing techniques, reading written music, how music theory goes into playing, the chord approach to piano playing & how to practise.

This is a lot to do in a 1 or 1&1/2 hour weekly class, and daily practise and completing homework assignments is essential. This almost always needs some level of parent support and involvement.

It’s not forever, as children grow up habituated to regular practise – with the resources to organise their practise, and use practise techniques to make their practise more effective. This usually happens between the ages of 14 to 16, depending on the personality of the student and the kind of goals the student has chosen to work towards.

To all you piano parents who are making the time to support your child, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Children gradually learn independence until they finally take responsibility for their own goals.

Do we need exams at kindergarten level?

 

A need for a survey at kindergarten level

– What is the percentage of parents who rely solely on schools to provide educational activities for their preschool children?

– Do students getting quality education in average schools have more support at home? What is the percentage of parents that support education at home? What activities do the successful parents do, to support discipline and learning at home?

– How can schools guide parents of children who speak another language at home, as regards after school education support? Do all schools provide enough guidance to these parents? And if they do, what is the percentage of  parents who feel it’s important enough to implement them?

How do parents know that their children are getting a minimum quality of education?

The EducationWorld India School Rankings 2016 recently conducted a survey of schools which I read in the Education Times and my first thought was, is there any authority checking up on the quality of education in the lowest ranked schools.

 

Do children enter the first standard of school, adequately prepared?

A lot of 10 year olds today can’t write a simple sentence without grammatical errors and can’t read a paragraph of easy text fluently. If they do well in school, it’s because they learn pre-written answers.

My teacher friends tell me that students who can’t speak, write and understand english (at the level appropriate after completing Kindergarten) are being enrolled in the 1st standard. Because there are no exams and all students pass irrespective of the knowledge they have.

 

So, how do parents know that their children are getting quality education at kindergarten level?

Kindergarten is the base for a child’s future education. The subject matter is easy, but teaching at this level is the most challenging. Teachers need to be very skilled and teaching techniques can and do have a huge impact on a child’s ability with language, which in turn affects comprehension, understanding and confidence in the later years.

A clear cut method of evaluating progress, and keeping children back until they have the knowledge they need, to move on to the next level make sense. What is the point of promoting a child to the next class, when the child is not ready?

 

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
  12. PRACTISE
  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’