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?

 

 

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.

 

 

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

 

 

 

Parent education during piano class

Why spend 15 minutes of piano class with new students on parent education…?

It’s sometime now, since I’ve been doing this. Explaining piano practise and any difficulties that the student has, and how I’m teaching to get beyond them. Explaining piano teaching methods in general and  my teaching approach specifically.

I talk a little about it when prospective students and their parents come to meet me, so parents know what to expect. I call up working parents who don’t make it to class, either during class time, or the next day, when just writing in the homework book won’t do.

I’m writing about it, because it has made a huge difference to the quality of support that my students and I receive from their parents. The simple truth is this – Students who last out in piano are invariably the ones whose parents get involved.

 

What parent involvement means

Children and teenagers usually don’t practise on their own, because they have difficulty scheduling studies, piano practise and play. So, at the start, parents involvement means scheduling practise and reminding children to practise.

It means being around at practise time, because piano practise is a very solitary hobby and children usually need company. Just knowing that someone’s around and will pop in now and then to sit and listen to something, or remind the student to read the homework book and follow practise instructions for a difficult section make the difference.

Later, as the child gets older, and used to learning the piano, parent involvement changes. This is when parents need to get their child to study and practise independently, using study and practise charts to help their child keep track of progress.

Parents who provide the structure and encouragement, and downplay their role and let their kids enjoy their achievement, often end up have kids who learn to love piano practise, and who go to the piano to have fun and to de-stress when they’re tired or need a break from studies.

Years of talking to parents made me realise that parents often just don’t know what good practise is, and sometimes correct their child for doing something that I, the teacher, have instructed their child to do when practising, in order to make practise fun. So, here are some of the things we (the parents & I) discuss in those 15 minutes.

 

Making the child’s distraction a teaching tool

“Sit still! Be serious! And play!”

This is what many piano parents are saying to their young kids at home, in an effort to get practise done. And it’s just quite crazy, because, it’s normal for young kids to have shorter attention spans, and to fidget. It also goes against what they’re learning in piano class, which is “Play is a part of learning”

Many of us piano teachers are letting the child’s idea of fun determine what goes on in class. We’re creating off-the-stool piano activities that include movement to teach musical concepts, and we’re allowing students a ‘walk around’ or ‘dance’ or ‘chat’  break, when they need to move or tell stories. We’re assigning homework with breaks and/or activity and need parents to understand that this is what good practise looks like, for young and energetic kids, who often don’t get enough exercise in their daily routine.

Piano parents sitting in on class, see that their child is allowed movement, and see that the teacher is using this to teach a musical concept and often have questions. Some parents understand the advantage of this teaching approach immediately and others take time to understand, but irrespective, all have questions. Because sadly, learning through fun is a very new concept. So teachers need to take time to explain.

We’re talking in piano class, about the value of play, and about fact that the average Navi Mumbai child today gets much much less than the recommended physical activity he/she needs to grow and develop. Talking about the fact that children need to play and move to develop good motor coordination seems to make parents realise it’s importance.

 

Managing breaks during home piano practise

Young children practise better when practise time is shorter, with breaks in between. Parents often have difficulties just getting their child to go to the piano, and just writing out instructions in the homework book is not enough. Plus with some kids, there’s a risk of breaks getting extended and sabotaging practise.

Teacher’s need to understand what happens at practise time at home. Some kids practise better early in the day or just after school, while others are more attentive at the end of the day. With some kids, repeated reminders to practise are quite normal – and do not indicate a lack of interest – this is something parents need to understand.

Parent’s often don’t realise the importance of blocking extra time for practise, so there’s leeway for students to delay, run around, or just try out their own stuff at the piano. Teachers have loads of ideas of their own, and all that they’ve learned from other parents, so talking about practise helps.

 

Noticing those small (but BIG) achievements

This is the most important issue that I’ve faced with new piano parents. Every child has different difficulties, and what seems easy to an adult, may be really really hard for a young child. A lot of times, piano class is repetition. Piano teacher’s work for years, correcting the same weak spot at every class. It may be sitting still long enough to practise a piece well, bad hand position, banging the keys, an inability to play slow, or to play on time. Parents getting the same feedback class after class, need to know that this is how it goes in piano class. It’s quite normal.

It’s not that their child is lazy or inattentive, but that it’s difficult for a child to remember and to work on his/her weak spot at home, when there’s no teacher around. It’s good when parents remind their child, but only if it’s once in a way. Too much, and children feel they’re being chased or nagged and it takes the joy out of practise. What really works is positive reinforcement. Record the student when there’s a successful attempt at home, show it to the rest of the family later, and bring it to piano class.

Sometimes, the improvements are so small, that parents simply can’t see them. And yet these tiny steps forward are so BIG, because the young piano student has had to really try hard, and they deserve praise. It’s why piano teachers take the trouble to point out small improvements. And take the time, to explain to parents, why they’re such huge steps forward.

Here’s a related post  ‘Teaching parents the value of struggle and how it’s helping’

 

My Piano Mom’s (and some Piano Dad’s) help make their kids see that learning something new and challenging is fun. They also make teaching their kids a joyful and rewarding time for me, and I see them as an immense support to the learning process.

 

 

 

Piano Practise Charts and independence in practise

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Regular piano practise usually happens because of parent support, and then, teachers need to teach students to move on and learn to practise independently. This happens very slowly, and takes years with very many students, but detailed practise charts speed up the process, and give parents a way of keeping track of piano practise when they’re not around.

Some of my piano parents use detailed weekly charts like this, to keep track of studies too, and it’s very very effective, as students become teenagers, and want to take responsibility for their own activities and have less parents supervision.

It’s my hardworking ‘Piano Mom’s‘ who take the initial responsibility of getting their child to write out the practise chart. Over time, their children learn to remember, and do it themselves, because, when children ask for something out of the ordinary, or want some extra time with friends, parents usually take a look at their child’s practise and study charts, before okaying it.

Detailed practise and study charts help students develop independence in piano practise and studies and take responsibility for their own education.

 

 

 

When focus is a problem in piano class

A brief glimpse of the teacher’s struggle

The piano teacher points to a note and asks the student to name it. The student answers  correct, if you consider that he/she is looking at a note somewhere else, and answering. And it’s the same with written instructions like ‘Name the first note at the top left of the page.’

The teacher needs to ask this child to point out the note he/she is talking about, and will then see that her student knows everything but is just not paying attention, so is looking in the wrong place and answering. There’s a lot more kids like this in recent years.

 

The first year of piano class

This student had difficulty paying attention from the very first class and it took the teacher a few classes to figure out the problem. He/she needed very patient teaching, lots of questions, asked in different ways, so it got his/her attention.

Practise at home needed parent support and a daily home routine was very essential, and things improved. The student was doing very well, both at school and at piano class, until  a month of busy, when the daily home routine fell into disarray.

 

Is it ADD

One might say that this student has some symptoms of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), only that there’s nothing wrong with this child. Apart from the fact that he/she needs the amount of parent time, play time, plus a routine and structure to the day, that most children of my generation had on a regular basis, because it was the way things were done then.

ADD and ADHD are real, and both teachers and parents need to be aware, to catch it. But  when all it takes to get these kids to be super attentive, is a regular dose of old style parenting, my feeling is that not ADD, but a lifestyle issue.

 

Looking at the child in piano class

Many teachers and parents can make the mistake of thinking it’s a discipline problem, and may try to change the child’s behaviour by scolding, lecturing, shouting and punishing. A piano teacher often gets parents, who have already reached that point at which this is starting to happen at home.

And this does not work. It beats the child up inside, because this child is usually very sweet, cooperative and willing to try, if someone takes the time to look deep enough. It’s important that the piano teacher is patient, and gives the student time to open up, and then figure out how to get the student to move forward.

These students are talented, bright and interested, and often so enthusiastic about playing that they come to class with a brain working on overtime with lots of different ideas. Starting piano class listening to music made a big big difference, and helped these kids focus better.

 

The role of music in creating a mood.

Many of my young students are the first in their families to learn to play the piano and don’t have exposure to music at home. And that is a part of  the problem with focus in piano class, and I think, a way forward. Because listening to music is a wonderful way to deal with moods and emotion and is very therapeutic.

It’s pretty simple to make listening to music a part of a child’s daily routine, and help parents with 2 important tasks that most parents struggle with –

  1. Wake up time – play upbeat music 15 minutes before scheduled wake up time
  2. Bed time – play quiet music before bed time

Children also need to be able to play music on their own, and it’s worth investing in a reasonably priced music system.

Today’s busy lifestyle and lack of family time puts kids under pressure. There are many working parents, who manage to find a balance, but there are a lot who don’t. A lot more children as compared to earlier, are being brought up by maids, while their parents are away at work. It’s putting pressure on children and it’s something we need to think about.

 

Related Articles :

This is your brain on music

What is ADD

ADDitude magazine for help with ADHD

How routine helps children

 

When piano class is a battle of wills with teenage students

Students attend piano class without practise, and class time is wasted redoing old work. There’s just so much to fit in, in that weekly piano lesson that teachers often find it difficult to cope.

The teenage student is a particular challenge, because this is often the age when parent support with practise simply does not work, because teenagers want to be independent.

And the piano teacher often ends up lecturing and being very very strict with students, in a futile effort to teach them that practise is compulsory.

I’ve written a guest post on timtopham.com, with some stress free, easy steps piano teachers can take, to get teens to practise.

Here it is : “When piano class is a battle of wills with that teenage boy.”