7 Scheduling Tips for Relaxed Piano Practise

The piano practise conflict.

Many diligent students who practise daily get stuck and don’t do well. Here’s what often happens to them.

Practising daily = Discipline,

Discipline = Rigid practise routines = Practise as a duty rather than a joy,

Practise without joy = Stress and tension which causes tight hands and shoulders, leading to bad playing technique.

It’s the exact opposite of the piano teachers goal, which is for the student to be relaxed and creative during piano practise time.

 

Scheduling for creative practise

The way piano practise is scheduled matters. My years of teaching and talking about how good practise scheduling  helps students practise creatively, has taught me that parents & students of all ages often just don’t realise this.

  • Cultural attitudes here in India that value hard work can often make parents praise piano students who slog unnecessarily. Even when this slogging creates stress and bad technique and the student bangs on the piano keys, sometimes leading to pain and injury.
  • Many new to piano playing can’t hear the difference between banging and playing the right way.
  • Many are ignorant about repetitive stress injury and why good playing technique is important. And I’ve seen a few foolish students who felt playing through injury was a sign of passion for music and was a badge of honour.

The truth is, relaxed piano students do better, learn faster & often just ‘get’ things that other students struggle to achieve. And the way practise is scheduled is important as it has a huge impact on whether a piano student plays out of duty or for joy.

Here’s 7 Scheduling Tips that make daily piano practise relaxed, creative and effective

  1. 2 or 3 small practise slots are better than a single slot  because students are more attentive after a break.
  2. Schedule longer slots than required. Students need time to relax between activities and may come to the piano late, then get so involved that they want to stay and play longer.
  3. Schedule an extra slot, so piano students have a choice when they’re not in the mood at the same time each day
  4. Creativity grows from having time and mental space, and piano students sometimes need to sit around, idle before and after practise time. This time helps their mind absorb any innovative or creative moments during their practise, and retain it for the next session.
  5. Piano students need to explore their instrument on their own, outside of what is taught in class. It’s not wasting time, but rather, it’s a student using knowledge gained in piano class & piano practise, to explore his/her innate ability. It’s wonderful when this happens!
  6. Schedule practise holidays : One or two days each week (not consecutive days). Plus  3 consecutive days each month.
  7. On busy days, a little is better than nothing. Play, rather than practise, if there’s no time. Even 2 minutes with a section of a piece you enjoy.
  8. Don’t just schedule practise, make time to PLAY. Play your favourite pieces at the end of the day. Or play a line of music you like – just a minute in between some other activity. Play to relax, because that’s what learning the piano is about.

 

The importance of the practise holiday

Practise holidays are essential and diligent students often come back from practise breaks, playing better. Scheduling the break tells the student that there’s some leeway in their routine. And gives students days when they can just ‘BE’ and use practise time to do  something different without guilt. These breaks in the practise routine are very important for creativity.

Piano practise is a very solitary occupation and practise holidays let the student have a little leeway and choose their routine. As do the scheduling suggestions in points above.

It’s that element of choice that brings freedom, creativity and passion to discipline of daily practise.

 

Preschool piano teaching with WunderKeys

WunderKeys is a Preschool Piano Program for children between 3 to 5 years of age. It gets  children familiar with the piano keyboard, and helps them to develop skills they will need later, when they complete the course and move on to a beginner piano method book.

 

My first experience with WunderKeys

I started teaching WunderKeys with just one student and was amazed at how exciting she found the stories in the lesson book.

The rhymes and math songs are practised in spoken English and counting from 1 to 10. They also help the student develop 4 important skills which are essential for students of music:

  1. Rhythm – singing and dancing in time to accompaniment
  2. Pitch – singing the correct tune
  3. Finger dexterity – the finger exercises with the rhymes are designed specially for this
  4. Identification of different fingers – each finger is a different ‘friend’ from the lesson book. Kids love the finger friends, so they find it easy to identify different fingers

My student liked the pattern recognition exercises, but loved to create her own original pattern and then copy it. Her favourite activity by far was the card games. She did not realise she was practising counting and memorisation when we did these at the end of class.

The student-teacher piano duets teach young piano students to play with 2 or 3 fingers at a time. It’s a game to the student. To the piano teacher, it’s an exercise that helps the student get familiar with the pattern of black and white keys on the piano keyboard.

 

What’s different about WunderKeys?

Unlike a lot of other pre-school piano courses, this course is designed for solo teaching (one student at a time) and teachers can teach at the students pace, repeating activities until the student has learned them well.

The story reading, songs and rhymes reinforce spoken English being taught at kindergarten level, and that’s why it’s particularly well suited to children who study in English medium schools but don’t have exposure to spoken English at home.

WunderKeys combines the fun of a group hobby class, with the learning focus that students can only get, with one-on-one teacher time.

 

Are you and your child ready for WunderKeys?

  1. Is your child 3 to 5 years old?
  2. Can your child understand simple instructions in English?
  3. Is your child comfortable speaking simple sentences in English?
  4. Does your child enjoy listening to music?
  5. Is your child interested in playing around on your keyboard / piano at home?
  6. Can the parent spend a few minutes a day with the homework?
  7. Can any family member play one song and one rhyme daily, for the student to listen to at home (mp3’s that can be played on a phone, computer or music system) ?

WunderKeys homework takes just a few minutes a day, so it’s not a problem for working parents. Children get used to the idea that daily homework is fun, and later, when they start beginner piano method books, daily piano practise is then easy to implement.

 

After a few months of class

My student’s initial shyness during the first few WunderKeys lessons disappeared and she began to talk a little more and ask for activities she liked. She was interested and attentive throughout the class, and would sing and dance with abandon.

It’s been sometime. My student is on WunderKeys Book 2 and likes to play the piano for 10 minutes at every class.

She comes to class because it’s a fun activity, while I teach her, because of the educational value of all the fun that’s WunderKeys

 

What do piano teachers ‘DO’?

“You teach the piano?  That’s wonderful!  What do you do with the rest of your time?”

Many piano teachers hear variations of this. From friends, relatives and even parents of new students, who think piano teaching happens just at class time. They see the joy that a teacher feels when students do well, and don’t seem to see what goes into helping a student get there.

So, for families who are totally new to music education and piano playing, here’s what piano teacher’s do outside of that once-a-week piano class.

Continue reading

When piano class is a battle of wills with teenage students

Teenage boys in piano class

Consider the musically-talented teenage boy who is learning the piano because he loves to play. He’s enthusiastic, but there’s just one problem. He does not want to practise daily, and has little or no interest in anything that leads up to good playing: note reading, theory, practice techniques, piano technique or interpretation. All he has going for him is raw talent.

He has a lot to learn, and it’s all new to him, so he often has difficulty remembering all of the finer details that are taught in piano class. He’s at an age where he’s slowly growing into his own personality and has not yet learned how to be responsible for himself.

At times, piano class risks becoming a battle of wills. He attends class regularly without practising, knowing that practise is compulsory, and routinely gets scolded for this. This makes him feel disheartened and he slowly loses interest…

Read the rest of my post on timtopham.com,  “When piano class is a battle of wills with that teenage boy.”

Is piano class fun?

My answer to that is Yes and No.

Yes

Because young children learn rhythm and scales while doing a lot of fun activities. Every young child has heard do, re, mi, etc, in ‘The Sound of Music,’ so learning to play scales is exciting for the young piano student (see What practising scales is good for). Students get a huge boost, when their teacher tells them that their practise has been well done.

Children who get the support they need at home, and whose parents work with the piano teacher (see Why parents should talk to the piano teacher about practise issues before the class starts) enjoy the challenge of trying something that’s new and a bit of a challenge.

No

Because the young piano student often wants to progress quick or learn repertoire that older or more advanced students children play, and this means diligent practise. Children tend to associate fun with quick fixes and things that are easy to do & the average child just won’t practise regularly without parent support at home.

A young piano student does a lot of things that need effort :

  • Hand coordination often needs focus and effort.
  • Learning to relax the hand while playing may need regular practise & attention to hand position & playing gently. This is difficult for students of all ages, but especially so for young children who may have tension when using their hands for other activities too. For example, pressing the pencil very very hard while writing in their school books.
  • Daily practise needs a regular after-school routine and all children need help with this
  • Piano students have to listen, think & pay attention while practising. They need to be able to answer questions asked in different ways at each class.
The last is something many children struggle with during the first year of piano class. Because many children have learned to answer questions by memorising pre-written answers in school, and don't have enough activities like reading & playing language games with friends or family, that make up for the lack in school.

Parents play a very important role in providing the kind of support a child needs to practise well at home. Each child is different in their levels of independence and the kind of goals they have, so the level of parent support required varies from child to child.

Questions parents of young beginner piano students need to ask

Here’s a list of 8 questions that come up over the course of piano teaching. I’m addressing these answer’s specifically to the parents of my new beginner students.

1) Does my teaching approach suit the parent and child? Do the parent, student and teacher have the same goals?

Parents and students goals change over time, so these are questions I constantly asks myself. Because the teaching styles of different teachers are different, and there may come a time when the student needs a change.

I keep parents involved with what’s happening in piano class through comments in the homework book, emails and phone calls where necessary. When children give trouble or go through difficult phases relating to learning, I rely a lot on parent support, and this helps both me and the student, as it has a very very positive impact on learning.

Parents of young children who don’t wish to be involved in piano class and want their child’s learning to happen without any involvement at home, definitely need a teacher with a different approach.

2) How quick does the class progress?

This depends entirely on whether your child practises regularly or not. Children who practise get taught something new, and children who don’t practise, mostly revise work they’ve forgotten.

3) Should I correct my child’s practise mistakes?

The answer to this is a big big NO. Your child needs, from the first, to listen and correct his/her own mistakes. You may however help, by asking questions to make your child listen and think. For example :

“Did you play correct? Can you play it again, it sounds so good!” Your 5 year old child might say it was correct, even when it was wrong, but will play a second time and will automatically be paying more attention – is more likely to hear a mistake, and stop and correct it. Teacher’s correct mistakes and explain in class, so your child will learn to hear mistakes fairly quickly.

This approach eventually leads to really good – and independent learning.

4) What do I do when my child practises regularly, with great enthusiasm and committment, but practises WRONG?

Here’s when you need to talk to me – preferable on the phone, so your child can’t hear, and we can talk about what needs to be done to remedy this. I write instructions in the homework book, which you can help your young child read and follow, and will take up any special learning issues your child has.

5) Why do we need targets or goals?

Parents pay a fee in expectation that their child will learn, and the teacher spends valuable time on a student with the same hope. Setting targets helps the parent, student and teacher work towards a common end. The purpose of the target is not to put pressure on the student, and I say this very very emphatically!

Rather, it is to ensure that progress in piano class happens with absolutely no pressure, so the young student thinks of piano playing as a fun and relaxing thing to do.

6) Why does the parent need to be ‘around’ to implement practise. Can’t they just tell their child to ‘go practise’ or ‘get practise done’?

The piano is a very lonely instrument, unlike the violin or guitar, where students have more opportunities to play in groups. Young children whose parents implement practise by saying ‘play for me’ because -’ I love to hear you’ or ‘I find listening to you fun or relaxing’ usually have children who grow to love the routine of piano practise.

They develop a routine, because their parents taught them this, by being around every day. It surprises me, that even working mother’s are able to make time to do this..until I realise, it’s not just because they enjoy their child playing, though that’s a part of it.

More, it’s because they realise there’s long term value to their child’s musical development, and are willing to put in the regular effort that is necessary to help their child learn.

7) My child gets some things well and struggle with some others

Piano playing is a lot of learning. It takes time to work on a piece and get it right. Sometimes, children work very hard and it still takes time. If the homework book shows that 50% of your child’s work is good – your child is doing well.

As the level of difficulty increases, the pieces get harder, and your child grows up, results take more time. This is when your child and I the teacher, need your help – to reinforce the idea that even good students struggle.

In fact, the life of a pianist is a constant effort to be better – because learning never ends. What your child is now learning, is enjoy learning. To be confident in the face of a struggle – the struggle to learn. To be mature in the face of adversity, and to keep trying, even when things get tough. It is very true, that piano students learn skills in piano class that help them get through life.

8) Why is my child’s progress so slow?

It’s your child’s practise routine – or really, lack of it…..It often takes parents anything from 3 months to a year to realise that their young child needs help with practise – to schedule practise, and a daily routine, so that it’s not overly crowded with too many activities.

Children with very tight daily schedules get stressed and tend to learn very slow as a result. I’ve written about my overly scheduled students in ‘Coping with the over-scheduled child in piano class’

A warm welcome to all my new students and their parents – to the joy and the challenge of learning to play the piano.

Recording and Guided Self-Assessment in piano in class

Getting piano students to practise

Get a group of piano teachers talking about what they struggle with, and students NOT practising is very likely to be a hot topic.

    • Erratic practise
    • Students ‘playing’ through pieces rather than ‘practising’ them, ignoring instructions in the homework book.
    • Practising making mistakes. Instead of using practise techniques to avoid them, to practise NOT making them.

Like every teacher, I’m constantly looking for remedies to lack of practise, and to poor practise, because what works with one batch of students might not work with another.

My first experiments with recording in piano class

I turned to the recorder on my cellphone in a desperate attempt to motivate a batch of students to practise – when all other methods failed. Audio or video recordings of any student who’d made great progress, emailed to my students & parents. And was surprised and quite thrilled with the results and the way it motivated my students!  

A remedy for the hearing gap

Piano students want progress, and are often unable to understand the quality of work that is required to achieve this. A review of my lessons this year made me realise that students just don’t hear what their teacher hears. This hearing gap is one of the reasons why students get upset with the critical evaluation that’s a part of every piano class.

This November 2017, I decided to put my cellphone recorder and a pile of unused file dividers (assessment cards) to use, to remedy this problem :

      • I recorded my student playing at piano class, and both of us (student and I) listened to the recording immediately.
      • We then discussed how the student would assess his/her playing and what the assessment criteria I’d set meant. 
      • We listened again, and my student and I both did separate assessments.
      • If my grading/comments differed with my student’s, I’d explain my reasons and the student was free to agree, or disagree if unconvinced, marking as he/she felt fit.

It was an eye opener : I was expecting to have to talk about work that my students marked higher than I did. What surprised me was that they did not register some really excellent progress. I had to explain and get them to listen again, to help them understand  how well they’d done!


I started experimenting with recording my piano students after reading a post from the blog of Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio –  The benefits of recording your piano lessons class.

Recording plus a Guided Student Self-Assessment in piano class is improving the quality of my students practise and making a very positive difference to the way they respond to feedback. It’s also changing the way I interact with my students and taking away a potential source of student-teacher conflict. So much, that now it’s a regular part of my piano lessons. 

Coping with the overscheduled 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 lots 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!

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!!

We have a keyboard at home – why should we buy a piano?

Digital Piano with X Stand

Non-weighted keyboard

Many students in Mumbai & Navi Mumbai start off in piano class, with a basic 5 or 7 octave keyboard to practise on at home, realise they need a piano & then invest in a digital or an acoustic piano as soon as their budget permits.

There are 2 important reasons why piano teachers always recommend students buy an acoustic piano :

  1.  Weighted keys
  2. Responsiveness to touch, with a a capacity to produce variations in tone. 

How key weight affects playing technique

Students who practise on an instrument with weighted keys learn to keep their shoulders, arms & hands in a relaxed position while playing.

The weight of the keys allows them to do this, as the keys are heavy enough, that they can transfer the weight of their arm (this is done in varying degrees, depending on the tonal effect required) to the piano keyboard.

Students who go for piano class and practise on non-weighted keyboards often struggle to adjust. They realise very quickly that their playing technique is being affected by practising on an instrument that is so very different from the piano, that it hinders their learning. And they start budgeting to buy a piano.

Acoustic vs Digital upright pianos

Digital pianos have weighted keys. The degree and quality of the key weight as compared to an acoustic piano vary with different models & budgets. Digital pianos have the following advantages over acoustic pianos :

Yamaha Clavinova Piano

Digital Piano

  1. Digital pianos are budget friendly – you can get a reasonably good digital piano at Rs70,000/- to Rs 1,50,000/- approximately (Refer * below), depending on the quality, brand & functionality you choose.
  2. Headphones for practise. This is really great in small homes.
  3. Recording to MIDI or recording audio directly to a USB or computer, without background noise.
  4. They don’t need regular tuning the way an acoustic piano does, and don’t get affected by temperature fluctuations. It is advisable however, to keep them away from moisture and the direct heat of the sun.
  5. Easy & reasonably priced dismantling, moving and re-assembling. This is an advantage for families who live on rent & have to move every couple of years.

There’s one major disadvantage to having a digital piano, and that is that the responsiveness of the instrument to touch & the capacity to produce variations in tone is limited. So, piano students who wish to move beyond Grade 4/5, & eventually to advanced level pieces, need acoustic pianos to practise on. 

The cost of buying an acoustic piano

  1. You can get a very basic level acoustic piano  Rs 2,50,000/- budget (Refer * below). An instrument with reasonably good tonal quality suited for an advanced level student costs between Rs 4 to 5 lakhs.

    Acoustic Piano

    Acoustic Piano

  2. Acoustic pianos need to be tuned 3 times a year. If you live in a smaller town, check whether there are piano tuners available in your locality & what they charge. And whether they will be regular with appointments, because that can be an issue. Check out whether your piano dealer offers a service contract for piano tuning.
  3. You will need to install a de-humidifier to keep the inside of your piano free of moisture during the monsoon. Price & buy this when you buy your piano.

I hope this post is clear and helps you make a decision on which instrument to buy. Good luck!

*  Images (excluding the header image) are provided by Furtados Music, Jer Mahal, Dhobitalao. Approximate budgets are based on their showroom prices as on May 2017.