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.


 

 

 

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

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.




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, will tell you a lot. 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. This is the 
area in which beginner & intermediate level piano students of any age
pay poor attention.

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 take a break from piano 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 2/3 classes a week. 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. It helps if one of these is a group class which includes music activities and work on rhythm. Piano playing will progress at a slow comfortable pace and your child will find it easy to cope.

Parent support for ‘regular piano class’

The term ‘regular piano class’ is how I describe 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.

A tribute to the Piano Mom’s

Children love to perform, but mostly do not like to practise. The first year of learning often goes slow, until their parents realise that daily practise is not going to happen, unless they (the parents) spend time with their kids and make it happen.

With my students, it’s almost always the Mom. It does not seem to matter what pressures she has – work, managing the home, looking after older family members – she still makes the effort. She’s around when her child practises, listening and appreciating good playing, and making sure her child knows she loves listening…..Sometimes, she even convinces her young child, that she can only truly relax when her child practises. So, i have children coming into class telling me they just have to play daily – cos their Mom needs it to relax!

She does this because, she understands that her child will gain some long term value from learning to play the piano – not just the achievement of learning to play, but the confidence and personality growth. She also understands, that eventually, her child will develop a passion for music, and will learn to play and practise without supervision.

Piano Mom works with the teacher, communicating with her regularly, when things don’t go smooth. She makes the effort, even when she and the teacher have differences of opinion, on what her child needs to progress. She works at understanding the teacher, and eventually finding a middle path.

It takes her anything between a month or a year of her child learning, to make her realise that she needs to put time aside, to support her child and she then, rearranges her schedule, to make this possible.

A heartfelt THANK YOU to you all – I really appreciate all the time and effort you put in..