Respect and Effective Learning in Piano Class

Would you study Geography to prepare for History paper?

This is exactly what a couple of my students did, and the parents were upset. Really upset! That their child was so irresponsible and did not take the trouble to check what was scheduled before revising.

Something similar happens frequently with piano practise at home and piano parents often don’t understand the subject. So they think things are going well, when they might not be.

Students sometimes spend quite a bit of time at the piano experimenting with new stuff, or playing through pieces they enjoy. This is wonderful as it means the student it exploring and enjoying the instrument and this is necessary. Continue reading

The pot-stirrer

I could let the dal cook and not give it a look,

Let it stick to the base of the pot.

Then skim off the top, throw the burned part out,

And not worry about the waste, if what’s left suits my taste.

But the bottom of the pot holds the flavour,

That makes the dal taste divine.

And looking away is more labour,

Because scrubbing away the burn takes time.

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Continue reading

Pleeease dirty the mat!

A message to all our visitors. It’s about the floor mat that slants diagonally across our doorway during the monsoon, kept that way so everyone has to walk over it to enter our living room.

Sometimes visitors see that it’s clean and try not to dirty it, trailing all dust and the wet from the rains into our home! The funniest is those who can’t bear to see it slant across the grid of our floor tiles and feel compelled to take the trouble to straighten it out!

This poem is for them 🙂


You can step on the mat that lies across my floor.

Wipe your feet as you enter the door.

Don’t try to save me the washing,

‘Cos all it does is increase my mopping. Continue reading

The Illusion Of Education – literacy in rural India

A lot of children in Navi Mumbai who attend English-medium schools have difficulty with English language comprehension and with thinking. I recently wrote a post Remedial teaching in piano lessons to highlight this issue.

Here’s a post by Untravesty, with detailed information about the quality of education in India and real issues that need to be addressed – The illusion of education literacy in rural India.

Un-Travesty.

What if I tell you that India has the world’s largest youth population? What if I also tell you that less than half of our students in class 8th can solve a class four division problem and barely 47% of children in grade 5 can read a grade 2 level text? Our students have been caught in the clutches of our government’s ignorance. Someone once rightly said that most ignorance is “vincible ignorance”. We don’t know because we don’t want to know and people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed. To secure India’s future, providing a better education to India’s youth is imperative.

I believe only education fundamentally can change our current scenario. It can help make people independent because all the wealth in the world cannot help our people unless they are not taught to help themselves. All they need is moral and…

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Remedial teaching in piano lessons

The changing face of piano lessons

My early years as a piano teacher were about teaching music. My young students got music concepts easily. They ran rings around me those first few years, until I had enough teaching experience. Because they could remember what was taught even without practise and I’d get fooled into thinking they’d done their work!

They were flexible thinkers and asked questions when they couldn’t understand. I had a few students with learning issues later, and I wrote a post about them –  ‘Coping with the overscheduled child in piano class’.  But mostly, it was just about teaching music.

It’s so very different these days, as a lot of beginner level piano teachers now need to be skilled in remedial  teaching. Because the percentage of children who struggle with learning and comprehension grows each year. Teachers in different parts of the world often notice the same trend. Continue reading

The missing link in piano practise at home

Apply apply, no reply?

If you’re the piano student who listens, follows instructions and basically does what your teacher asks you to, and are getting nowhere, then this post is for you.

A student like this came to his piano lesson the other day. He’d been practising at home, but it really didn’t sound like it, as not much had been accomplished during that time.

Just one practise session at class and there was a difference in the quality of his practise. In terms of his posture, hand shape, playing gently rather than banging on the keys, and playing smoothly. A section with mistakes that had been corrected in the last piano lesson was still troubling him and we worked on it slowly and carefully and he played it correctly in pretty much one go.

So what happened differently at piano lessons?

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The difference was that in piano lessons, I listened, observed and gave him some feedback. He did not just repeat, playing the same thing again and again, the way he does at home.

Instead, he played, I assessed his playing and he thought about it. THEN, he played again.

Did he actually follow my practise instructions?

All, except for the big one – to think and assess in between repetitions. And that was what got him stuck in actually practising errors again and again.

The mistake piano students practising at home often make is focusing on the ‘playing’ part of piano practise, forgetting the ‘aural’ and ‘mental’ activity that is needed before repetition.

Another factor to consider

Why is the aural and mental activity so hard for some piano students to ‘get’, and so easy for others? This is a question I constantly ask myself, in an effort to get through to my students, and here’s some part of the problem…

For many beginner piano students, the only exposure they have to piano music is at piano lessons. Many of my new students don’t even listen to music daily, or listen to an extremely limited variety of music.

And that’s a HUGE factor, because these students often learn in a very bookish way and the ‘feeling rhythm’ or ‘hearing/singing pitch in their minds’, so important for progress, is neglected.

Sadly, students and parents often don’t understand that the piano is learning a new language, and needs language exposure/listening to music to learn. That it’s not always about practise or being ‘good’ and working, but about a learning environment that supports music and makes time for regular and disciplined practise at home.


The missing link in piano practise at home is the listening, assessing and thinking

  • Self-assessment, so the student realises what needs correction. And so that the next repetition is better.
  • The student also needs to notice what went well, so that it can be remembered and built upon. This is how students gain confidence in their ability to teach themselves.

The problem here often is that the student thinks he/she is playing right and the focus needed for the ‘playing’ part of practise occupies the student fully. 

One very easy way for students to learn to ‘observe’ themselves and know what they actually did – rather than what they thought they did – is for them to record their practise.

Just once in a way is good enough. Even just once, at the first session of piano practise after their lesson, when the piano teacher’s guidance and assessment during lessons is still fresh.

Recording is just a tool to help students develop awareness. And they learn pretty quick once they know what to look for.


An important factor in effective piano teaching is the ability we piano teachers have to teach our students to teach themselves. This independence in learning to play the piano often flows into other areas of a piano student’s life, and it’s a joy to see.

Piano teaching : Why I moved to No-Make-Ups

No more Make-ups when students miss piano lessons

I recently switched from 100% Make-Ups for missed lessons, to No-Make-Ups with ‘Flex Slots’.  Each student who practises regularly qualifies for un-charged extra class time each month during my ‘Flex Slots’.

In this post, I discuss my decision to make this change and tell piano students and their families a little more about what piano teaching means. I hope this post helps other piano teachers who are starting out teaching in this locality, where the role of the piano teacher, and the role of the teaching community in general, is vastly underrated.  Continue reading

Minimising Piano Practise Disturbances

The set-up and placement of the piano at home may be the cause of disturbances during practise, or the cause of infrequent practise.

In most Indian homes, the piano is placed in the hall-cum-living room. Unlike with the violin or guitar, the pianist cannot just take his/her instrument to another room when there are guests. So learning to get quality practise done often means learning to manage disturbances.

Read on, to learn how to work minimise practise disturbances and work around them. Continue reading

The biggest practise mistake piano students make

Your piano teacher says you’re not doing well

This is a student who wants progress. He/she is an older student, teen or adult, who is not content to learn lots of beginner level repertoire. Who comes to class having put a lot of effort into what is currently being worked on. But this student isn’t doing well at all.

Because, daily practise of anything other than the latest new piece or concept is sketchy, this student hasn’t actually mastered any of what has been taught in earlier lessons.

Pull out ANY of the earlier pieces – pieces which have just been worked on  and it’s like starting from scratch. Because the idea of practising more than one or two pieces a day is alien to this student. 

Practise mistakes chart

If this poor practiser is an adult, then it’s often best to discontinue solo piano lessons, and ask the student to resume, when practise is possible. Another excellent alternative, is group piano lessons. Because having other students for company can motivate this adult to practise.

With older children and teens, what usually determines whether students stop or continue piano lessons is whether the parent gets involved, monitors the practise chart and makes sure homework is done.

The mistake parents often make here, is that they take over making the chart, and marking it. Parents, your role is to MONITOR. Your teen needs to prepare his/her own practise chart and your role is to keep an eye with daily checks at first, to ensure that practise is being done. What you are doing here is giving your teen a tool (the chart) and teaching him/her to use is – with supervision at first, gradually letting go until your teen just needs occasional checks.

This student will develop serious confidence issues if the piano teacher doesn’t get to the root of the problem. This often happens in reality, because this student often insists that practise is being done and teachers only get to the truth when they ask detailed questions, as many  of these students often forget to fill in their practise charts.

Solo piano lessons only work when students practise :

  • All homework with the required repetition,
  • Daily – 5 days a week with 2 non-consecutive breaks,
  • Using the practise method or technique that has been taught in piano class.

Students who do well often play pieces outside of their practise homework. They excel, because they explore music outside of their homework, just for fun. And that really, is where piano lessons should lead. It’s what motivates me to teach.


The biggest practise mistake a piano student can make is pretending that ‘not practising’ is ok and calling erratic and incomplete work practise. A student needs to be truthful to him/herself in order to progress in piano class.


 

 

 

That wonderful feeling

That wonderful feeling that you don’t know enough.

It’s what keeps you wanting to study and learn.
To strive to always be better today than you were yesterday.

That feeling that you never fit in.

Because you don’t live by rules imposed by the outside.
You’ve got an internal compass of your own and you’ve learned it’s wise to trust it.
And be comfortable with who you are. Continue reading

Setting clear and achievable goals in piano class

When goals change

A student enrolls for a piano exam aiming to do well, and practises as much as is needed to meet his/her goals. Until the examination fees are paid, after which practise starts to
deteriorate. It could be one of the following :19 directory-1495843_640

  1. The student wishes to work less and is happy with achieving less than originally planned.
  2. There’s a hearing gap (more on this below) and what the student thinks is great is likely to be mediocre or way below par.
  3. The student knows progress is poor but has tremendous faith in his/her piano teacher. And thinks the teacher will wave a magic wand and all will go well.

The ‘hearing’ gap

I wrote about the ‘hearing gap’ in one of my earlier posts ‘Recording and Guided Self-Assessment in piano class’. This is the gap between what students hear when they play, and what the piano teachers hear when they listen to the same performance. It’s the reason why students often have very high expectations when it come to exams, and get extremely upset if their piano teacher’s assessment of their work falls short of their expectations.

A ‘hearing gap’ combined with a lack of clarity on the students current goal can be the start of student-teacher discord.


A way out

My experiments this year, with recording my students and getting them to do a guided self-assessment in piano class went really well. They made me realise that the key to good piano practise might lie in letting go of the outcome and focusing on the process.

  • Letting my students set their own goals.
  • Equipping my students with the tools to assess themselves.
  • Helping my students relate the quality of their practise to the outcome, which is the quality of their performances.
  • Making setting goals and reviewing them jointly with my student a regular part of piano class.

Assessment criteria and speaking in language students understand

49 application-2076445_640Most of my students want to do exams and they want really good marks. So I used the assessment criteria from the syllabus of Trinity College London as a start, explaining them to my students in simple terms that they could understand, and using recording, guided self-assessment and demonstrations of good and poor playing so they understood.

  • Were notes, timing, tempo, dynamics, phrasing and articulation correct?
  • Did the tune stand out enough, keeping the accompaniment in the background?
  • Did both hands depress the keys together in coordination?
  • Were the notes banged out or played with care, finesse and good hand shape?
  • Was their attention focused on playing correct or on making the audience ‘feel’ their pieces?

My regular weekly homework assignments now include a written qualitative assessment of previous weeks goals. Metronome targets are useful as they’re clear and specific.

A very important part of this exercise for me, is to help my students see those small but significant steps they’ve taken in the right direction. I’m realising that this might be the key to giving them the resilience to handle feedback on the goals they didn’t achieve.


Conclusion

Making goal-setting, review and assessment a joint exercise with my students is helping me teach them to make clearer connections between their practise and the quality of their performances, and take responsibility for their work.

It’s funny, that knowing they have the option of making a choice to work-less-achieve-less seems to make my students want to work harder.

I think that it’s them ‘owning’ their choices, as well as the outcome of their choices, that’s the key to getting work done.


Header Image Photo by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash. Other images from Pixabay

What young beginners learn in piano class

Brain gym in piano class

Playing the piano needs different parts of the brain to work together simultaneously.

Young piano students in their first year learn to :

  • Read written music and play the correct pitch & rhythm, at a steady pace with an appropriate tempo.
  • Play soft, loud, 46 brain-619060_640legato (joining the notes) or staccato (with notes detached).
  • Sing so they learn phrasing, and can identify mistakes in pitch.
  • Listen and hear what’s good and what needs to be worked on.
  • Accept correction even when their work is excellent. This is because standards of achievement need to move higher over time, for progress.
  • Practise on their own at home with parent support, growing more independent as they grow up.

Then, there’s the physical aspect of how to depress the piano keys, playing with relaxed shoulders, good posture & hand position, and fingers which are firm, not floppy.

Here’s a related post : A guide to buying a suitable piano bench


One of my adult students has been learning the piano for a little bit over a year. Here’s what she said to me yesterday.

Playing the piano has changed the way I think. I can’t really identify the difference, but I can feel it in the way I get things done.

I get feedback similar to this from parents of young children after a year or two of piano class. It’s the reason why many of my busy piano parents who started out just mildly interested in piano class later became extremely supportive of their child’s piano practise.


The role of the piano teacher with young beginners

A child’s first year at piano class sets the pace of his/her future learning. Quality piano teaching needs to be supported by daily practise at home.

The attitude of parents to home support for music education, and their understanding of what playing the piano involves matter a great deal.  The piano pieces at this level sound very easy, and parents new to music education can and often do make the mistake of underestimating the job of the piano teacher. 

  • Teachers who teach beginner level piano need a very secure knowledge of piano playing technique upto an advanced level. So that they teach good playing habits from the start and correct problems before they set in.
  • Piano class needs movement as young children often have difficulty sitting still. Rhythm exercises on the floor alternated with playing at the piano are great for young children. Piano teachers need to be physically fit with a high energy level.
  • Each child learns differently and piano teachers need a repertoire of varied teaching techniques and fun activities that will appeal to children with different learning styles.
  • Parent support at home is essential and teachers need to be able to work with parents and help them understand how to support their child at home.
  • Piano teachers need the ability to make piano class fun and yet keep the learning challenging enough for progress, all at the same time.
  • Piano teachers often need to teach children to think, explore ideas and ask questions. This is very important here in India where ideas on what is respect for teachers and large classroom sizes often make school teachers clamp down on questions.

Teaching beginner level piano is a challenging and exciting job. Piano teachers need to invest both time and money in learning and studying, to keep their teaching skills up-to-date, as learning styles of each new generation of children are different.

There’s a huge value to those early years in piano class, even for  the child for whom learning goes slow. For the average child, the best age to start preschool piano lessons is 4 years old and the best age to start regular piano class is 6 years old.