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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Play SLOW and CORRECT rather than fast and with errors.
- 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.
- 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.
- Follow your teachers instructions, reading your homework book before you practise, so that you do section work as instructed.
- 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.
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 teachers don't expect all kids to have developed musical skills. But I knew my students well and talking to parents makes me realise that it was not just piano class where this happened.
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 the weeks of poor practise, these students could remember what was done earlier and could demonstrate it and explain it to me.
Sometimes piano teachers have those days. And we need to decide whether to have a good laugh or scream at the walls after our students leave. I’ve decided to laugh at all the crazy things my piano students do.
So, here’s a to do list for my piano students :
A guide for intermediate to advanced piano students who have learned their piece and want to be able to assess the quality of their playing on their own, with guidance from their teacher.
Getting rid of mistakes
You should have learned your piece correct from the very first. However, it is likely that you still have some weak spots where you falter, when under pressure.
Listen to a recording of your performance and then listen to recordings by different pianists until your ear can hear any differences in time, pitch and the harmony. This will help you hear and correct any errors in your playing such as wrong pitch and note values.
Also, listen to variations in articulation and tone production and figure out what suits your piece.
Use the metronome to help you listen
Students can make the mistake of playing erratic rhythms, and think this is interpretation. They need to understand how pianists interpret a piece while keeping the sense of style, tempo and mood that is required of the piece and the period it comes from. A metronome can be a help when listening to variations in tempo.
Listen to hear different parts
Listen to reputed pianists play. Listen to small sections, listen separately to individual parts in a section, until your ear can hear them.
Isolate a part or a layer of the music that you wish to work on, and listen to hear that layer well.
Listen for the rests
Rests, pauses and spaces in the music are a very important part of it, and one many students ignore. Listen for silences and feel the mood that they generate. They need to become important to you.
Mark weak areas on the score
It might be a good idea to make small notes on the score, or mark areas where you need to check your playing, so that you don’t forget them during practise time.
Practise is different from playing. Yes, you need to play your piece and you also need to play it often enough. The mistake many students make however, is playing the piece through again and again, thinking it will improve their weak areas, and it doesn’t. That’s what practise is for.
Work with small sections
If you are ‘practising’ and still not getting results, you may need a smaller section. Working small will help you listen better. It helps to focus on one single weak area at a time.
Write down the questions you have about any aspect of playing and performing your piece so that you remember them. Talk to your teacher about your ideas when you go to piano class.
Listen Listen and LISTEN. That’s the key to being able to teach yourself to play better.
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 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 small easy goals make 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. That makes achievement is possible.
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.
- The surprising power of quantity by Elissa Milne
- Which promotes greater learning – higher standards or lower standards by Dr Noa Kageyama
I first tried online piano teaching with my Bandra students. It’s 2 hours away from where I live and during the monsoon this can extend to upto 3 hours at peak time, due to water logging, traffic jams & rail break-downs. I visit there once a week and teach a couple of students while I’m there.
I needed a break from the long commute for a little while and one of my students, a 9 year old boy, tried online lessons via Skype. The first class took longer than planned due to set-up & connectivity issues, but the next was great! I was surprised to see benefits to online teaching that had not occurred to me until I tried it.
Online teaching is usually the less preferred option because :
- It restricts the teacher’s ability to demonstrate playing technique and correct the student when there’s wrong technique, posture, etc.
- Playing duets, which students really enjoy, can be a problem if there’s a time lag.
- Introducing off the bench activities with children require a little bit of effort and innovation.
- Connectivity or set-up issues can result in a longer than planned class.
- Young students need parents around to manage the set-up & be around so that there are no distractions.
- Both the teacher & the student need to be very organised. With stationery, books & all material required for the class on hand.
- Teachers may need to email homework assignments to avoid confusion.
- It suits self-motivated older students or adults who are regular with practise.
The difference in the impact of the medium (online vs in-studio class) made me feel quite out of my comfort zone for the first few classes and I had to put in quite some effort to change my teaching style to suit online teaching. I could see the benefits to online teaching that did not occur to me until I tried it. They’re benefits that in-studio teaching does not have, and they’re huge!
Here’s a list of the benefits to online piano lessons :
- Keeping attendance regular : My students reschedule class quite often, because there’s no adult to bring them to class. I have a 100% make-up policy, but there’s a problem. If the break between classes is too long, practise quality goes down, and if the break is too short and the student does not get enough time to practise. Having an online class can take care of this.
- Kids find the online medium exciting : My student was very interested in anything with technology. So practise (with parent support) was not just regular, it was excellent!
- Super Attentiveness : He listened very carefully to what I was saying, or demonstrating. I think the online medium made him pay more attention to visual and auditory clues. He’s usually a very interested and cooperative student, and yet I was amazed at just how much more focused he was during the class. He was like this at both classes, but the second class went better, because his Mum helped him with the set-up, so it was quick, and without delays.
- I was able to see the way my student sits at home. I saw bad posture, an inappropriate piano stool, height & distance from the keyboard.
Learning new ways
Online teaching needs a slightly different skill set to in-studio teaching. I had to plan my lesson very differently, and work on the following :
- Explaining & demonstrating in this medium needed new skills & a flexible set-up, so that I could take my camera closer to the piano or away, as needed.
- Introducing the fun element was a challenge at first. Off-the bench activities needed to be replaced by fun, at-the-bench activities.
- I needed parent help for a ‘run around’ break so my student could get rid of excess energy. To ensure that the run ended with my student back at the piano stool, and not running to another activity!
Combination (in-studio plus online) lessons
I still like teaching in-studio, and will continue to teach that way. However, I’m excited about online teaching, as a supplement to regular in-studio classes. The benefits at my first few online classes made me interested enough to learn new skills to improve my online teaching skills.