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

I can sing my own song

I can sing my own song while the music plays loud,

I can sing my own song, of this I am proud.

I can sign loud & clear though it might hurt your ears,

Cos I’m singing a song that’s not playing!

You must understand that it’s not my fault,

You must understand, you must know what’s the cause.

It’s what I was taught in my aural training –

To hold my tune while someone else is singing.

The music plays loud but I hear the song,

That matches my current emotion.

I sing it out loud till I let it all out,

And feel like a different person.

I sing out loud when I need a release,

From the daily routine of cooking meals.

I’m wailing away while the dinner gets done,

And you walk in wondering what is wrong!

I sing my own song even when it’s all wrong,

Cos it’s not on the CD that I put on!

You hear me wailing and think I’m ailing

And that I might need to visit the doctor.


To my husband 🙂

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.

Kitchen waste composting at home

My first lot of kitchen waste composting was a success. I ran into problems with my second lot during Step 3 and found a solution to this stage – a fully sealed Soil Factory. All my kitchen waste goes into a composting bin, and I’ve found one single Raddiwalla in Khargar , who takes almost all kinds of paper, plastic, plastic bags & metal waste. Most only take specific kinds of material and nobody here collects for recycling.

We now have one full bin of dry garbage which goes out once or twice a month without recycling. Read on to know how I chose my method of composting, my failure and finally my success. Continue reading

A guide to buying a suitable piano bench

This post talks about piano posture, what to consider when buying a piano bench & where the Indian student can find piano benches to suit different budgets. Plus an easy low-budget solution for a low piano bench.

Practising on a basic keyboard during the early years of piano class

Many Indian students buy basic 5-octave keyboards when they begin piano class, planning to save up and buy digital or acoustic pianos later. It’s not the best option, but this makes piano class possible for many families.

40 Piano hands crabby

Many students find playing the piano difficult due to wrong posture, resulting in crabby, badly shaped hands. Sitting at the wrong height is the most likely cause because many new piano families don’t have a suitable piano bench at home. They sometimes think that the student can ‘manage’ until the family sees enough commitment and feels it’s worth getting a piano bench.

 

40 Piano hands nice

A curved nicely shaped hand

The Indian family sees a piano exam as a measure of success. Sadly, doing well in an exam or otherwise, is very unlikely with poor posture and badly shaped hands. These students find it physically more difficult to play and they bang on the piano keys so hard, sometimes risking injury.

How to sit at the piano

Every beginner piano book has a diagram explaining good piano posture.

  • The correct height to sit at.
  • Sitting straight, forearm roughly parallel to the floor, with a nicely curved hand.
  • Sitting the right distance from the piano.
  • Using using only a part of the piano bench, leaving the back part of the bench free, so the thighs are not supported.

Your piano teacher will explain why this is important.

Buying a suitable piano bench

Learning good playing technique starts at beginner level, with using a suitable piano bench.

  • Sitting too low is often the root cause of a lot of hand and arm tension in beginner level students. They tend to bang on the piano and this can injure their hands.
  • Sitting at the wrong height – too high or too low can cause back, arm, wrist or hand pain.

Here’s what you need to look for when buying a piano bench :

  1. Adjustable height
  2. A firm cushion which is broad and wide enough.
  3. A steady base that will not rock when the pianist reaches for keys at the ends of the piano keyboard.

If you’re buying a new piano bench, the most reasonably priced options seems to be the  Gewa 130010 Deluxe Piano Bench. It’s available at a more budget friendly price, though it will still cost more than a basic 5-octave keyboard. It’s adjustable and I like that it has a minimum height of 52cms (20.5 inches) – low enough to suit all ages, and no storage as this makes it lighter to move around.

The Nomad adjustable keyboard bench is a lower budget temporary option. The seat is too narrow to suit as the student grows up, but it’s very affordable for keyboard students with lower budgets.

In case you’re looking for something different, there’s a wide range of piano benches available at amazon.in.

If you need a keyboard stand for your basic non-weighted keyboard, look at an  X-type keyboard stand.

Here’s an easy solution to a slightly low piano bench

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Layer on a couple of floor mats to increase the height of a piano bench that’s slightly low

I do this in class, with very young students, rather than have to keep adjusting the height of the bench for them. Thick rubber based synthetic floor mats, or yoga mats work well.

 

We have a keyboard at home – why should we buy a piano? is a post that explains the difference between basic keyboards and digital & acoustic pianos, without getting too technical.

I hope this post has helped you, if you’re enrolling in piano lessons for the first time. Set up right at home, practise daily and pay attention when your teacher guides you and you’ll find that learning the piano gives you great joy.

Good luck!

 

Anita E Kohli is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.in.

Practise is, a reminder for piano students

Here’s a reminder for beginner piano students. A list of all the things they need to keep in mind, so they get the most out of their practise time.

Piano practise is :

  1. correctly shaped hands
  2. different from playing a piece
  3. repetition
  4. good posture
  5. short slots with breaks in between
  6. playing gently without banging on the keys
  7. playing correctly from the very first
  8. paying attention to what you do
  9. thinking and problem solving
  10. making something better than it used to be

Practise is fun, challenging & hard work, all the same time.

A step-wise approach to mindful piano practise

Practising the piano is different from playing.

Practise often involves playing just small sections of your piece, using specific techniques learned in piano class, to get lots of improvement using less time. Students need to ‘practise’ as well as ‘play’ their pieces daily.

Students often just play through their pieces, thinking they’re practising. Piano practise should be a time of attention to detail and focus, but so often ends up being mindless repetition. This often leads to breakdowns & insecure playing during piano performances. Many many young students who say they panic and are therefore unable to perform, actually have the ability to perform well, when they use the right tools to practise effectively. 

Here’s a check-list, to help piano students make mindfulness a part of their practise.

  1. Mark out the theory in a copy of your piece – notice chords, scales, inversions, repeated sections, sequences. Look at non-chord tones and get out your theory book, figuring out what kinds of non-chord tones your piece has.
  2. Read hands together as far as possible. Each teacher has a different approach, and one size does not fit all. I teach my students to learn pieces, reading them hands together from the very first, because I feel that it helps them develop better coordination in the long run. Students who are not used to this, make the switch quite comfortably, once they started practising paying attention to theory (as in point 1).
  3. Play SLOW and CORRECT rather than fast and with errors.
  4. Pay attention to the instructions your teacher gives you on playing technique. Posture, the height & kind of piano stool you use, relaxed shoulders, hand shape, whether you should play with your finger, hand, wrist or arm matter. The speed at which you depress the keys matter. The point of the depression of the piano key, at which the hammer hits the strings matter.
  5. When practising a section again and again, take your hand off the piano and take a short break between repetitions. This forces your brain to get involved, because then, you need to re-figure out hand position, fingering, and all of the thinking you did before you played.
  6. Follow your teachers instructions, reading your homework book before you practise, so that you do section work as instructed.
  7. TRY what your teacher has asked you to do sincerely, before taking a call on whether it’s necessary or not. Students with very set ideas and with mental blocks about how things should be done take time to learn new ways of doing things, so they need to keep at it a while before their ways of thinking allow them to benefit from a new way of practise.

 

Misconceptions on injury while playing the piano

There’s a misconception with some students and parents – particularly those from families new to music, that overpractise and injury is a part of the creative process. That hard work is a goal in itself. That practising long hours is to be rewarded, even when the student practises mindlessly, and is actually risking injury because teacher instructions on playing technique are not followed. That hand pain is good as it is a sign of hard work.

I’m always horrified when I get student families that think this way. Changing this mindset was hard and sometimes impossible when I first started teaching in Khargar, Navi Mumbai, and most of my students were beginners. It’s getting easier now, because my newer students have an opportunity to  hear students who have been with me longer, play for them.

Effective playing technique protects your hand from injury. If you experience pain when playing, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t repeat that action. Stop & think about whether you’re following your teacher’s instruction about playing.  Take your problem to your piano teacher at the next class.

Remember that the key to quality playing is to learn slow, with the correct playing technique. Using your hands in the most effective way, keeps your joints and muscles free from undue effort and this will help you with playing fast, and lasting out in long pieces.

Move from intermediate level to more challenging repertoire, having learned how to make your practise effective. If you’ve learned what your teacher taught you well, you will be able to do this mostly on your own with pieces or passages that are well within your ability, by the time you reach the advanced level.

Book Review : The Art of Piano Fingering

18986566_10155382987668792_172304223_oThe Art of Piano Fingering by Rami Bar-Niv is a wonderfully detailed exploration of piano fingering. It’s become my textbook for when I get stuck with fingering and need to study it in relation to playing technique, hand size and the kind of effect that a passage of piano music requires the pianist to produce.

Rami Bar-Niv is one of Israel’s most acclaimed pianists. He’s a composer and has performed and taught all over the world, giving masterclasses, lectures, workshops and private lessons.

His book starts with the basics of fingering and covers scales, chords and the basics of hand position,  so that piano students can follow it easily. Much of the book deals with advanced fingering. It’s written clearly and concise, so that a student can learn and understand advanced fingering and related playing technique.

And yet detailed enough that it will help the professional, both pianist and teacher. 

  • There’s alternative fingering for different sized hands, for varied effects & articulation.
  • Really interesting discussions on playing technique, focusing on the use of the hand & wrist, with photographs that are very clear and easy to follow.
  • Some sections have finger exercises to help with practising different fingering.
  • Lots of actual examples of advanced level fingering from pieces!

‘The Art of  Piano Fingering’ is on my reading list right now, and it’s going to be there for a long time. Because it’s a book I want to take my time with, so I can explore the ideas I find and understand them well. It’s available in hardcopy and you can get it here.

If you’re looking to really understand and study piano fingering, this is the book for you.