Aiming low = reaching high?

Blog pic Why aiming low can lead to reaching highThe 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 sucess 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




Coping with the over-scheduled child in piano class

This is the child who never has a week-day at home after school… who does not get enough unstructured play time, that is necessary, for a child of his/her age.

This child has lot of hobby classes, and yet, never spends time on any hobby just for fun, only when there’s homework. This child is learning to just do what is required for each hobby class, and does not explore ideas of his/her own.

This is a child does not read at home – who goes for a reading class….who does not just put music on and dance madly, like we did – he goes for dance class…who cannot just stay home and draw for the pleasure of it – she goes to art class.This child, cannot just explore one hobby class at a time, until one of them fits…..he has to do them all – from age 5 onwards.

This child may grow to be an 8 year old, who has difficulty answering a question, if it differs from what he/she is thinking about….. often does not listen to what is being asked….. memorises very quickly and does everything by rote.

I can see what’s happening, because I’m sometimes struggling to help children learn. I talk to parents, and find, that they’re quite comfortable with their child’s hectic schedule, until things start to go wrong….until both the piano teacher and the child’s school teacher have the same problem – because the child – who has absolutely no learning disabilities, is still having difficulty learning!

My talking – about choosing 1 hobby (even if it means stopping piano class) and 1 sport activity to focus on, often falls on deaf ears, and I now know how it goes.

So, I’m doing what I can to change how I teach, writing progress reports in the homework book, with the occasional email, and finally, when I reach a point where all efforts have failed, I’m talking to parents because their child’s reaching a point where I can’t actually go on teaching…where, if I don’t let the student go, I’m at the risk of losing both my patience and my temper… And evidently, this is what was needed…..a wake up call!! An article worth a read : The truth about piano lessons

2 Options and the extremely indisciplined piano student

Children (5 to 10 yrs old) who are extremely indisciplined and disruptive in piano class, are almost always the same at home.  And yet, these are invariably children, whose parents are making a steady and constant effort to instill discipline, and, obviously not succeeding.

So, piano teachers have a choice :


Option 1 : Do teachers simply tell the parent to discipline the child  – knowing the parent is already trying and not succeeding?

As a teacher who interacts regularly with parents, I usually have a fair idea of what the child is like at home and find that asking the parent to handle extreme indiscipline results in the child being told he or she is badly behaved. Since these children usually have learned how to push their parents to breaking point, this sometimes results in shouting and very rarely, beating the child. And both of these just make a child more difficult.


Option 2 : Should teachers talk to the parent and see how both the parent and the teacher can both change our teaching and parenting techniques, and work together to get the child to change

This means that the teacher is looking at a child, who is naughty,  lacking in discipline, sometimes moody and bad tempered or cranky, or even attention seeking in a negative way, and saying  “The child is not the problem – it is just that I the teacher, and the parents, have not yet found a teaching and parenting technique, that works on this child”

This is hard for both the teacher and the parent, because, actually, we have both done nothing wrong. However, if both of us just stick to our existing ways of functioning, which have obviously had no effect on the child, the child is likely to continue being indisciplined and may even get worse.

Why the teacher finds it hard : The teacher sees the child just once a week, so in a way it should be easier for her to be patient. It should, but it isn’t always. There are times when all the students on a particular day come to class and argue, throw, tantrums, sulk, and refuse to learn – any teacher will relate to this. And since discipline is part of piano teaching, it has to be dealt with.

Parents find it hard, because they never get a break!

Parents will often find that their parenting technique, which works on getting one child to be very well behaved, has the exact opposite effect on the other child. And yet, the parents are the biggest influence on a child .. much much more than any teacher can hope to be. So, the parent still has a choice :


  • To continue using the same parenting techniques on both children, and accept that one child is just plain difficult


  • To accept that the indisciplined child simply needs a different kind of parenting, and try to experiment and learn what works

I see progress, and I see change, with the many many open-minded parents who interact with me, and are taking the time to give their children what they need, in order that  they learn better. It’s not always easy for the parents, or for me the teacher (since we both often have different ideas and sometimes strongly disagree with each other on how to discipline the child – though we both agree that discipline is needed). But, since we persevere, we eventually find some common ground and are able to work together to make a difference.





Talking to distracted kids in piano class

Piano teaching needs to be different, when creative, musical and intelligent children between 5 to 7 have serious difficulties paying attention.

The biggest difficulty a teacher faces, is getting the child to focus and think while playing the piano. So i find, i need to constantly ask questions, to be sure the child is thinking and not just doing everything by rote. Once the child’s focused, understanding is not a problem at all.

The problem starts right there, with asking questions, because the child is not paying attention at all……This is what worked.

  • Ask short simple questions to direct the child’s attention
  • Ask the child to repeat the question
  • Remember, the question has to sound exciting to the child


Whisper the question, instead of speaking it

Young children get quite entertained and interested, when the teacher whispers instead of talking (occasionally) as they think there’s something more going on.

For example : When asking the child to point out the G clef sign produced no results, i whispered, and got an immediate answer whispered back.


Ask a question using a simple rhythm and clap each syllable and ask the child to repeat it back

  • Keep repeating, until the child gets the rhythm right
  • By then, the child will be very very interested and is paying attention
  • Then ask the child to answer the question


Vary the volume of your speaking voice, using different volumes for different questions

  • Tell the child to answer by copying your tone or voice
  • Always start by alternating between soft and medium volume – they love this and get very amused and animated
  • Starting very loud, can scare some children, but a surprise loud voice, when they’re already laughing and entertained, makes them very very interested and makes them laugh even more.

All the changes i’ve made during class are being supported by very interested mother’s, who’ve been re-arranging their work schedules, to get time with their kids, and are helping them to focus at home, while practising.

To all my Teachers

Thank you,

For teaching me with love and patience. For believing in me on the days that I did not believe in myself. For giving me confidence to try even when it meant risking failure. For picking me up after a fall, and teaching me how to accept failure and move on.

Thank you also, to those of you who went out of your way to make things difficult for me. I look back and realise that I needed the obstacles you threw in my path – either by chance or by design, to make me realise that I had the ability to go over some of them on my own. And to learn to go around at those I couldn’t go over.

I feel blessed to have been taught by you all.