Piano practise : The idea of ‘practising’ learning

The light-bulb moment

April 2019 was a month of breakthroughs in piano class. Some of my students had been struggling with things that should have been easy for them, and it took them months to reach that light-bulb moment when everything just fell into place.

A solution so simple and easy to understand, and yet, something that these particular students could only understand after a lot of struggle.

The practise of LEARNING.

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Because I know that success will follow

A letter to the piano student who fears failure and therefore just won’t try.

 


Dear Student, I’m asking you to make an effort.

I’m not asking you to succeed, but to just go through the motions to start with.

Because I know that success will follow.

Because I know, that someday you’ll move on and be independent in learning music. Continue reading

That wonderful feeling

That wonderful feeling that you don’t know enough.

It’s what keeps you wanting to study and learn.
To strive to always be better today than you were yesterday.

That feeling that you never fit in.

Because you don’t live by rules imposed by the outside.
You’ve got an internal compass of your own and you’ve learned it’s wise to trust it.
And be comfortable with who you are. Continue reading

The 10 Easy Piece Challenge

Reading about The 30 Piece Challenge and The 40 Piece Challenge got me thinking. I tested this out by starting my own sight-reading challenge and realised it was worth it.

I felt that 30 or 40 pieces a year would to just too much for the average Indian piano student, given the school plus coaching class schedule that young children here have. So, I gave my students another challenge.

The 10 Easy Piece Challenge

  1. Learn 10 new easy pieces every 3 months.
  2. Bring them to class done, and spend just 5 minutes of class time identifying weak spots and how to work on them.
  3. Get them done to the playing standards set by your teacher – more on this below
  4. Submit recordings or they will be recorded in piano class.

 

Selecting pieces for the challenge

Most Mumbai students beyond late elementary level learn between 5 to 10 pieces a year and this reduces to 4 or 5 pieces a year as they move on to intermediate and advanced levels. They learn a new piece for an exam, concert or competition and that’s about it.

The average student stops learning new music when piano class stops, because he/she simply doesn’t know how. Learning so little music means that students only learn pieces which are at the top of their ability and very rarely get work done on their own without their teacher – even easy pieces. So, the pieces selected should be :

  • Well within the student’s ability to learn, with a few small challenges
  • Varied enough to address different kinds of articulation, speeds & mood

 

The reason for variable playing standards for each student

The goal is to help each student get a little better than they were before, and to set standards that take the student forward in steps small enough, that it’s easy. So that learning new pieces is relaxing and enjoyable.

For example :

  • Playing gently is the goal for students who bang and play with bad hand shape – working on dynamics is minimal and will be focused on later.
  • Students who are poor readers get very easy repertoire, until their reading skills get stronger

 

My students now learn much more repertoire than before & it’s been going well.

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.