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.




The best way to schedule your piano practise

Tight practise schedules create stress

Relaxed piano students do better, learn faster & often just ‘get’ things that other students struggle to achieve. The way practise slots are scheduled at home have a huge impact on how relaxed a student is at the piano and a very tight schedule can create stress, where none exists.

My years of working with parents has taught me that parents & students of all ages often just don’t realise this, and talking about it helps them understand, and make changes.

A few thoughts about scheduling practise

  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 student 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.
  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. On busy days, a little is better than nothing. Play, rather than practise, if there’s no time. Even a 2 minutes of a piece you enjoy.
  7. 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.

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 quick easy fix for focus issues

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.

 

 

15 easy steps for students, to a really effective piano class

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 :

  1. Arrive at class on time. Leave home budgeting time for traffic jams and other delays, so you walk in relaxed. You will learn better.
  2. Take all your books to class – that includes your homework book & theory book. Check you’ve not left your books on the piano keyboard at home before you leave for class.
  3. Practise.
  4. Carry your reading glasses/spectacles with you.
  5. Attend class or remember to reschedule if you need to miss. Else you will not get a make-up class.
  6. Leave a little extra time in your daily schedule so there’s time when you need flex or  just want to relax a little in between. Practise needs to be done with a relaxed frame of mind to be really effective.
  7. Practise – don’t just play. Practise daily.
  8. Play games or enroll in a sports class for exercise. Getting enough physical activity improves focus.
  9. Pack all your books up after class and make sure you take them home.
  10. Read your homework  book when you practise and follow your teacher’s instructions.
  11. Set a practise schedule with a choice of 2 or 3 practise slots, so you can change your practise time to suit your moods
  12. PRACTISE
  13. Play for your family, and participate in student concerts whenever you get an opportunity.
  14. Play a little to relax even on busy days.
  15. Did I say practise daily? Yes, that’s the most important thing to do.
Prraaacctise!

😀

 

How to assess your own piano playing

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

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.

  • Make notes

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.

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 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.

  1. The surprising power of quantity by Elissa Milne
  2. Which promotes greater learning – higher standards or lower standards  by Dr Noa Kageyama

 

 

 

Teaching my first Skype piano class

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 :

  1. It restricts the teacher’s ability to demonstrate playing technique and correct the student when there’s wrong technique, posture, etc.
  2. Playing duets, which students really enjoy, can be a problem if there’s a time lag.
  3. Introducing off the bench activities with children require a little bit of effort and innovation.
  4. Connectivity  or set-up issues can result in a longer than planned class.
  5. Young students need parents around to manage the set-up & be around so that there are no distractions.
  6. Both the teacher & the student need to be very organised. With stationery, books & all material required for the class on hand.
  7. Teachers may need to email homework assignments to avoid confusion.
  8. 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 :

  1. 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.
  2. Introducing the fun element was a challenge at first. Off-the bench activities needed to be replaced by fun, at-the-bench activities.
  3. 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.

Parent education during piano class

Why I spend 15 minutes of piano class talking to new piano parents

It’s sometime now, since I’ve been doing this with parents of my young beginners. Parents sit in on class or I talk to them on the phone during class, so their child is aware of what we discuss. We talk about :

  • Piano practise scheduling.
  • How the practise homework addresses the students learning style.
  • Piano teaching methods in general and  my teaching approach specifically.
  • How movement, breaks & activities are used during piano class to help fidgety children learn to sit still at the piano. More on this below in Teaching fidgety kids to sit still.’
  • How parents should handle movement & breaks during practise at home, so it remains beneficial and doesn’t sabotage discipline during home piano practise.
  • Why it’s normal for young piano students to be irregular with home piano practise, unless they get the help they need. That young students simply don’t have the ability to schedule practise & adhere to a schedule.

I’m writing about it, because it has made a huge difference to the quality of support that my students and I receive from their parents. The simple truth is this – Students who last out in piano are invariably the ones whose parents get involved.

 

What parent involvement means

Children and teenagers usually don’t practise on their own, because they have difficulty scheduling their activities.  Each child has a different personality, so the extent of parent support a student needs varies.

Here’s what parent support usually means for most young piano students :

  1. Setting a daily practise schedule. More on this below, in ‘What a relaxed practise schedule means.’
  2. Reminding your child to practise.
  3. Listening to your child play.
  4. Being around daily, or as often as possible, at practise time & peeping into the practise room to listen.
  5. Making sure your child to reads the homework book.
  6. Being there to provide moral support when your child has taken on a challenging piece (through choice) and finds it difficult working alone.
  7. Being as consistent as you can with your involvement in piano practise.
  8. Showing appreciation. More on this below in ‘Noticing those small (but BIG) achievements.’

What parent support means as kids grow up

  1. Being around once or twice a week during practise time.
  2. Reminding your child to practise, using practise charts if needed, so you know that practise has been done in your absence.
  3. Checking the homework book & talking to the teacher once in a way, so you know what’s going on.
  4. Discussing your childs goals with the piano teacher, so that the goals set are reasonable given the level of your child’s studies & other hobbies. Goals in terms of the number of pieces learned, playing for concerts or piano exams. So that it’s easy to assess progress.
  5. Talking to the teacher now & then about the level of enthusiasm & commitment your child has and any other activities or situations that put your child under pressure. So, the piano teacher knows when to push your child harder, and when to give him/her a little leeway.

 

Teaching fidgety kids to sit still

“Sit still! Be serious! And play!”

This is what many piano parents are saying to their young kids at home, in an effort to get practise done. And it’s just quite crazy, because, it’s normal for young kids to have shorter attention spans, and to fidget. It also goes against what they’re learning in piano class, which is

“Play is an integral part of learning”

Many of us piano teachers are letting the child’s idea of fun determine what goes on in class, creating off-the-stool piano activities that include movement to teach musical concepts.  

Some parents understand the advantage of this teaching approach immediately and others take time to understand, but irrespective, all have questions. Because sadly, learning through fun is a very new concept. So teachers need to take time to explain.

We’re talking in piano class, about the value of play, and about fact that the average Navi Mumbai child today gets much much less than the recommended physical activity he/she needs to grow and develop. Talking about the fact that children need to play and move to develop good motor coordination seems to make parents realise it’s importance.

 

What a  relaxed practise schedule means

  • 2 or 3 small practise slots at different times rather than one single block of time
  • An extra slot, so there’s leeway, for when your child needs a change in routine
  • Practise slots should have free time before & after because children often take time to reach the piano, and sometimes enjoy playing & want to stay longer

 

Noticing those small (but BIG) achievements

This is the most important issue that I’ve faced with new piano parents. Every child has different difficulties, and what seems easy to an adult, may be really really hard for a young child. A lot of times, piano class is repetition.

Piano teacher’s work for years, correcting the same weak spot at every class. It may be sitting still long enough to practise a piece well, bad hand position, banging the keys, an inability to play slow, or to play on time. Parents getting the same feedback class after class, need to know that this is how it goes in piano class. It’s quite normal.

It’s not that their child is lazy or inattentive, but that it’s difficult for a child to remember and to work on his/her weak spot at home, when there’s no teacher around. It’s good when parents remind their child, but only if it’s once in a way. Too much, and children feel they’re being chased or nagged and it takes the joy out of practise. What really works is positive reinforcement. Record the student when there’s a successful attempt at home, show it to the rest of the family later, and bring it to piano class.

Sometimes, the improvements are so small, that parents simply can’t see them. And yet these tiny steps forward are so BIG, because the young piano student has had to really try hard, and they deserve praise. It’s why piano teachers take the trouble to point out small improvements. And take the time, to explain to parents, why they’re such huge steps forward.

Here’s a related post  ‘Teaching parents the value of struggle and how it’s helping’

 

My Piano Mom’s (and some Piano Dad’s) help make their kids see that learning something new and challenging is fun. They also make teaching their kids a joyful and rewarding time for me, and I see them as an immense support to the learning process.

 

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.

Can you Learn On Your Own?

Is piano class effective (for young children age 5/6)

  • Does the student understand concepts, patterns and ideas, and recognize them when they occur in a new piece?
  • Does the student know what good practise is, and how to do this at home?

There’s a quick and easy way to judge whether a student is doing well in piano class. And that is whether the student can learn new easy pieces independently from the very first.

Young beginner students who understand and learn, generally start coming to class within a month or two, having learned an new easy piece on their own. Students with learning difficulties, poor exposure to education or discipline issues take longer. However, even with these students, there will be visible signs of comprehension and a slow growth in learning independence over time.

 

Is it a lack of musical ability or talent?

An inability to learn independently is nothing to do with lack of musical talent, as many parents think. The vast majority of students (even those that parents think have no talent,) develop musicality, when they get the following :

  1. A teaching approach that meets the students level of musical growth and works gradually, from their level upwards
  2. Exposure to listening to music daily
  3. Parents support with piano practise (the level of support needed by each child is different, but all need help with creating a routine and time for practise.)

Rather than lack of talent, an inability to learn independently would suggest either that the teaching approach is not working, or that the student does not get the kind of support he/she needs at home, that is necessary for daily piano practise and theory homework.

What independent playing means at beginner level

  1. Reading the notes (the pitch or alphabet names and depressing the correct key)
  2. Using the correct finger to depress the key
  3. Being able to clap and play with the correct time values
  4. Correct posture and hand shape (sit straight, at the correct height, with rounded fingers – as taught at class)
  5. Producing a nice tone (at beginner level this often means playing gently, without banging)

At this age, learning  1,2,3 of the above mostly correct with a new piece and trying to do the balance would indicate comprehension, interest and growing independence. My homework assignments often include instructions to my young beginner students to LOYO (learn on your own), in just a few months of piano class.

Piano class does not just teach a students to play. It strives to go beyond that and teach students how to teach themselves – to understand, learn how to practise, and then learn pieces independently, trying to get as much done, without the teacher’s help.

This frees class time, so that the piano teacher can move on, from just teaching the basics, to the teaching the student to understand the finer aspects of excellence in playing, and to gradually learning higher level music.

So, I’m asking all my students this very important question…

Can you LOYO? 

When focus is a problem in piano class

A brief glimpse of the teacher’s struggle

The piano teacher points to a note and asks the student to name it. The student answers wrong repeatedly. When this child is asked to point out the note he/she is talking about, it becomes clear that the student know his/her stuff, but is just not able to focus on where the teacher is pointing. It’s the same with verbal & written instructions.

Piano teachers are seeing a lot more children like this in recent years, more than ever before.

The first year of piano class

This student has difficulty paying attention from the very first class and it often takes the teacher a few classes to figure out the problem. What is required, is a lot of patience on the part of the piano teacher, as well as knowledge on how to approach a topic in different ways, to get this child’s attention.

Practise at home needs parent support and a daily home routine is very essential for this student to do well, both at school and at piano class.

 

Is it ADD

One might say that this student has some symptoms of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), only that there’s nothing wrong with this child.

All this child needs is a reasonable amount of time spend with his/her parents, play time, plus a routine and structure to the day – what his/her parents generation got because it’s the way things were then.

ADD and ADHD are real, and both teachers and parents need to be aware, to catch it. But  when all it takes to get these kids to be super attentive, is a regular dose of old style parenting, my feeling is that not ADD, but a lifestyle issue.

Looking at the child in piano class

Many teachers and parents can make the mistake of thinking it’s a discipline problem, and may try to change the child’s behaviour by scolding, lecturing, shouting and punishing. A piano teacher often gets parents, who have already reached that point at which this is starting to happen at home.

And this does not work. It beats the child up inside, because this child is usually very sweet, cooperative and willing to try, if someone takes the time to look deep enough. It’s important that the piano teacher is patient, and gives the student time to open up, and then figure out how to get the student to move forward.

  • These students are talented, bright and interested.
  • They’re often so enthusiastic about playing the piano, that they come to class with a brain working on overtime with lots of different ideas.

Starting piano class with quiet activities like listening to music, writing out notes or playing a favourite piece can help these students quiet down their thoughts so they can focus on one thing at a time.

 

The role of music in creating a mood.

Many of my young students are the first in their families to learn to play the piano and don’t have exposure to music at home. And that is a part of  the problem with focus in piano class, and I think, a way forward. Because listening to music is a wonderful way to deal with moods and emotion and is very therapeutic.

It’s pretty simple to make listening to music a part of a child’s daily routine, and help parents with 2 important tasks that most parents struggle with –

  1. Wake children up by playing upbeat music 15 minutes before their scheduled wake up time.
  2. Get rid of bed time blues by making it a time when parents & children listen to quiet music, while they go to sleep.

Children need to be able to play music on their own, and it’s worth investing in a reasonably priced music system that they can use.

 

Finding work life balance

Many busy parents seem to be able to balance work & family time, and give their children the time they need. But sadly, there are a lot who don’t. A lot more children as compared to earlier are being brought up by maids while their parents are away at work. It’s putting pressure on children and it’s something we need to think about.

 

Related Articles :

This is your brain on music

What is ADD

ADDitude magazine for help with ADHD

How routine helps children

 

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.

  • Piano practise
  • Studying & reading up on music, piano playing, psychology & teaching techniques
  • Preparing exercises and teaching material to suit different learning needs
  • Listening to music and attending concerts
  • Attending piano workshops teachers meetings conducted by examining boards
  • The actual business of running a piano studio – planning lessons, class scheduling, buying books for students, communicating with parents and students, planning repertoire, and a host of other stuff
  • Organising opportunities for students to perform and attending rehearsals and student performances at concerts or piano workshops
  • Processing examination forms, pre-exam piano trials and accompanying students to piano exams.

Another reason why I ask my piano parents to sit in on class now & then . .

New piano parents often understand what the profession is about only after their child joins piano class. When parents sit in on class now & then see the effort, knowledge and patience that is required, for the piano teacher to teach effectively, and help their child with  practise, learning, & discipline issues that crop up from time to time.

Over time, they realise that piano class in general and the teaching method in particular, has had a positive effect on their child’s personality. These same parents have got to know their child’s piano teacher well and then, they have another question.

Just how do you get the time to fit all the things you do into your busy teaching day ?

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.”

Teaching parents the value of struggle – and how it’s helping

When parent support turns into spoon-feeding

Young beginner level piano students need their parents to be involved,

  1. So they practise daily
  2. Read their homework book, understand, and following instructions.
  3. Develop independence as they grow older and learn to practise on their own.

Unfortunately, parents often use this time to show their child what is correct, instead of reminding them or helping them – to read, understand their homework & do their own thinking.

I think it’s because the parent focuses on the short term goal of playing a particular piece well, not thinking about the more important goal – the young student learning how to learn a piece on his/her own.

 

The changing face of family time?

Children here in Navi Mumbai often learn by memorising pre-written answers in schools, but it’s always been that way in India.  Yet, the earlier generation – the parents – did not have the same difficulties thinking  reasoning that a lot of the current generation of children have.

  • I look around here and see that a surprising number of families don’t  have routines that involve reading to & with their kids from a very young age. Reading story books to develop & support a child’s language skills, curiosity & imagination.
  • It’s common to see parents keeping babies busy by sitting them in front of the television. Older kids glued to  games on cellphones & tablets, don’t go down to play. Or play less. So they miss out on physical activity that helps them develop their motor & spatial abilities, plus they miss out on interaction with other kids.

Is the fast pace of todays life eating into time parents spend talking & playing with their young children? Is it just the pace of life or a change in values or a lack of understanding that the most important thing that a child needs is time with his/her parents?  

I honestly don’t know.  

What I do know is that it’s very common for todays child who has no learning disabilities, to be slow at reasoning. 

Piano class has to address these issues, because playing the piano requires a combination of different skills, all from the very first class. Hand coordination, reading, finding the correct note on the piano keyboard & playing to a steady beat – all simultaneously.

Talking about the value of struggle in piano class

I encourage piano parents of my young students to sit in on class and we talk about how I teach, so that my young students learn to teach themselves. We talk about why it’s important to be patient in piano class as well as during piano practise time, and let a child take time figuring things out. 

Parents sitting in on piano class are able to see how asking leading questions, rather than providing answers helps their child work things out. In the long run, they see the confidence this gives their child.

They see the effort their child puts in & realise the importance of their role in fostering thinking during home practise. And they also realise that the patience it takes to guide a child this way comes only from understanding that independent thinking is necessary to gain knowledge.

Over time, their childs initial struggle to learn & understand becomes a challenge. A challenge that is exciting & that is fun.

The first few months with my young beginners go very very slow and then suddenly, they’re learning so quick that I have to struggle to fit things in. That lesson planning becomes a challenge. And that’s when I know it was worth it.

Here’s an interesting article ‘The upside of failure – the downside of success – and how to keep improving, no matter what’

 

What your piano fees pay for

Parents often think that piano teaching is just a 1 hour class once a week for the teacher.

Here’s a print from a brochure I keep handy, for parents of all new students to read….It helps parents see that the piano teaching is a ‘profession’ as well as a vocation for the teacher – as opposed to being a ‘hobby’ for the teacher…..and therefore, contributes to better teacher-parent relationships.

Your fees pay for :

  • My  academic degrees, diplomas, and work experience
  • The cost of my ongoing education –  attending master-classes  & workshops on piano playing and teaching. I study piano playing, music theory, teaching techniques and psychology. It’s a continuous and life-long effort, as there’s so much to learn.
  • The cost of time spent on planning your child’s lesson.
  • The cost of teaching materials and reference books that are necessary for piano class.
  • The wear and tear on my piano – a teacher’s piano’s gets used a lot more, and therefore, gets worn out and needs replacement sooner than a student’s piano. Plus there’s the regular cost of tuning and repairs.
  • The class itself – my time as well as the cost of the infrastructure needed to maintain a class
  • The cost and time involved in my trips to buy books
  • The costs I incur, to attend workshops relating to Trinity, ABRSM and any other piano examination boards.

Teacher’s please feel free to use this – either as is, or with modifications that you think necessary.. here’s the link that made me realise the importance of educating parents about fees Where does my tuition go

Learning goals change over time and piano parents need to expect it

“But my child achieved this level of playing and learning last year, and you said it was excellent….this year you say it’s not good enough.”

This is something many piano teachers will hear from parents, and it can be the cause of a lot of discord when parents want progress in piano class, but don’t realise how this impacts their child’s learning goals.

Goals escalate slowly over time .. from very small easily achievable goals, to goals which need more work, focus and independent learning.

 

Why the teacher praises small achievements

A child who is just starting to grasp something, needs to be able to spot even small signs of improvement. These small achievements are what motivate the child to go on working at the same piece day after day. This is what helps the child develop a sense of confidence, and enjoy learning.

A goal achieved means that your child has moved forward, along a long long road to being a pianist.

 

When the teacher starts to want more : and achievement is not so easy

The students has achieved a level of competence in the goal set and now needs to look and doing something more. The teacher now expects a certain level of competence in some basic concepts and needs to communicate to parents, that their child has grown and is now ready to move on and therefore the goals are higher, and a little harder to achieve.

Children often need parent support, at this stage, to understand that everything takes more time, and needs more work than earlier, but it's not because they're doing poorly, but because they're capable of moving on to a higher level of learning.

I realise it’s important to talk to parents about the relationship between escalating goals and escalating achievement. Because not all parents think about it, and sometimes parents can get upset, when they the mistake of thinking that their child’s doing poorly.

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.

What practising scales is good for..

7 reasons why scales are an essential part of learning to play the piano….

  1. Understanding the ‘key’ of a piece of music
  2. Exercising each and every finger
  3. Developing strength and agility of the fingers
  4. Hand coordination
  5. Playing scales in different ways can be used to improve rhythmic ability
  6. Developing a good tone
  7. Developing focus – since students need to concentrate when they play scales

Young students usually love scales, as they’ve heard them sung in the musical “The Sound of Music” and are therefore keen on learning to play them. Older students often find them challenging, therefore enjoy practising them.

Playing scales daily require a lot of discipline and committment – something most young children don’t have, and parents who see the value of scale playing, usually step in and see that it’s done. When children see that they’re playing their scales well, and that they’re easy (because of daily practise) they start enjoying them.

4 reasons why your family’s lucky if you’re a lousy cook

Some of my women friends are stuck. They’re amazing cooks & they were just so good at it, that other family members stopped taking turns with cooking. They loved cooking & took pains to cater to differing tastes, by cooking a wide variety of dishes at every meal.

It’s hitting them hard as they get older & their priorities change. They want time to spend with their extended family & often struggle to get time to meet up with their friends. Because running their home, looking after older family members & producing fabulous meals daily takes all the time they have.

They’re talking about it when we meet & realising that their being so good at cooking has made their family fussy. They now want to unlearn their amazing cooking skills & learn from women with cooking skills like mine!

If you are like me, and your cooking skills range from lousy on a bad day, to basic on a good one, don’t feel bad. Here’s 4 reasons why your family is lucky :

  • No one will be terribly overweight, because they’re not likely to overeat.
  • Everyone will learn the true meaning of the first line of Serenity Prayer “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Your family will eventually learn to eat the few things you can cook that are edible. After many years, they’ll have gone so used to your cooking, that they’ll have lowered their standards and  will even insist that you’re the most amazing cook!
  • A lot more gets done at home, because you have the time. Because you can cook what you find easy, because there will be no special requests – for snacks, deserts or just about anything else…if dal (pulses), sabji (veggies) & a couple of chicken dishes are all you can cook that’s edible, everyone will be thrilled to eat it everyday!
  • You’re always smiling when you have guests over – because you can enjoy spending time with them. Everyone will be really thrilled if you don’t put yourself out to cook for them and will even try to hint broadly saying “Don’t worry to cook dear, let’s all go out for lunch, or order in. We know you’re busy and will just be tired if you have to do a lot of cooking!”

 

I’m saying no to the requests I’ve had for cooking classes.  The truth is, all I have to do is ‘try’ to cook well and that’s enough for things to go terrible wrong….so I don’t think I can teach it. It’s just a natural talent!

😀