What young beginners learn in piano class

Brain gym in piano class

Playing the piano needs different parts of the brain to work together simultaneously.

Young piano students in their first year learn to :

  • Read written music and play the correct pitch & rhythm, at a steady pace with an appropriate tempo.
  • Play soft, loud, 46 brain-619060_640legato (joining the notes) or staccato (with notes detached).
  • Sing so they learn phrasing, and can identify mistakes in pitch.
  • Listen and hear what’s good and what needs to be worked on.
  • Accept correction even when their work is excellent. This is because standards of achievement need to move higher over time, for progress.
  • Practise on their own at home with parent support, growing more independent as they grow up.

Then, there’s the physical aspect of how to depress the piano keys, playing with relaxed shoulders, good posture & hand position, and fingers which are firm, not floppy.

Here’s a related post : A guide to buying a suitable piano bench


One of my adult students has been learning the piano for a little bit over a year. Here’s what she said to me yesterday.

Playing the piano has changed the way I think. I can’t really identify the difference, but I can feel it in the way I get things done.

I get feedback similar to this from parents of young children after a year or two of piano class. It’s the reason why many of my busy piano parents who started out just mildly interested in piano class later became extremely supportive of their child’s piano practise.


The role of the piano teacher with young beginners

A child’s first year at piano class sets the pace of his/her future learning. Quality piano teaching needs to be supported by daily practise at home.

The attitude of parents to home support for music education, and their understanding of what playing the piano involves matter a great deal.  The piano pieces at this level sound very easy, and parents new to music education can and often do make the mistake of underestimating the job of the piano teacher. 

  • Teachers who teach beginner level piano need a very secure knowledge of piano playing technique upto an advanced level. So that they teach good playing habits from the start and correct problems before they set in.
  • Piano class needs movement as young children often have difficulty sitting still. Rhythm exercises on the floor alternated with playing at the piano are great for young children. Piano teachers need to be physically fit with a high energy level.
  • Each child learns differently and piano teachers need a repertoire of varied teaching techniques and fun activities that will appeal to children with different learning styles.
  • Parent support at home is essential and teachers need to be able to work with parents and help them understand how to support their child at home.
  • Piano teachers need the ability to make piano class fun and yet keep the learning challenging enough for progress, all at the same time.
  • Piano teachers often need to teach children to think, explore ideas and ask questions. This is very important here in India where ideas on what is respect for teachers and large classroom sizes often make school teachers clamp down on questions.

Teaching beginner level piano is a challenging and exciting job. Piano teachers need to invest both time and money in learning and studying, to keep their teaching skills up-to-date, as learning styles of each new generation of children are different.

There’s a huge value to those early years in piano class, even for  the child for whom learning goes slow. For the average child, the best age to start preschool piano lessons is 4 years old and the best age to start regular piano class is 6 years old.

A guide to buying a suitable piano bench

This post talks about piano posture, what to consider when buying a piano bench & where the Indian student can find piano benches to suit different budgets. Plus an easy low-budget solution for a low piano bench.

Practising on a basic keyboard during the early years of piano class

Many Indian students buy basic 5-octave keyboards when they begin piano class, planning to save up and buy digital or acoustic pianos later. It’s not the best option, but this makes piano class possible for many families.

40 Piano hands crabby

Many students find playing the piano difficult due to wrong posture, resulting in crabby, badly shaped hands. Sitting at the wrong height is the most likely cause because many new piano families don’t have a suitable piano bench at home. They sometimes think that the student can ‘manage’ until the family sees enough commitment and feels it’s worth getting a piano bench.

 

40 Piano hands nice

A curved nicely shaped hand

The Indian family sees a piano exam as a measure of success. Sadly, doing well in an exam or otherwise, is very unlikely with poor posture and badly shaped hands. These students find it physically more difficult to play and they bang on the piano keys so hard, sometimes risking injury.

How to sit at the piano

Every beginner piano book has a diagram explaining good piano posture.

  • The correct height to sit at.
  • Sitting straight, forearm roughly parallel to the floor, with a nicely curved hand.
  • Sitting the right distance from the piano.
  • Using using only a part of the piano bench, leaving the back part of the bench free, so the thighs are not supported.

Your piano teacher will explain why this is important.

Buying a suitable piano bench

Learning good playing technique starts at beginner level, with using a suitable piano bench.

  • Sitting too low is often the root cause of a lot of hand and arm tension in beginner level students. They tend to bang on the piano and this can injure their hands.
  • Sitting at the wrong height – too high or too low can cause back, arm, wrist or hand pain.

Here’s what you need to look for when buying a piano bench :

  1. Adjustable height
  2. A firm cushion which is broad and wide enough.
  3. A steady base that will not rock when the pianist reaches for keys at the ends of the piano keyboard.

If you’re buying a new piano bench, the most reasonably priced options seems to be the  Gewa 130010 Deluxe Piano Bench. It’s available at a more budget friendly price, though it will still cost more than a basic 5-octave keyboard. It’s adjustable and I like that it has a minimum height of 52cms (20.5 inches) – low enough to suit all ages, and no storage as this makes it lighter to move around.

The Nomad adjustable keyboard bench is a lower budget temporary option. The seat is too narrow to suit as the student grows up, but it’s very affordable for keyboard students with lower budgets.

In case you’re looking for something different, there’s a wide range of piano benches available at amazon.in.

If you need a keyboard stand for your basic non-weighted keyboard, look at an  X-type keyboard stand.

Here’s an easy solution to a slightly low piano bench

wp-1504796176908.

Layer on a couple of floor mats to increase the height of a piano bench that’s slightly low

I do this in class, with very young students, rather than have to keep adjusting the height of the bench for them. Thick rubber based synthetic floor mats, or yoga mats work well.

 

We have a keyboard at home – why should we buy a piano? is a post that explains the difference between basic keyboards and digital & acoustic pianos, without getting too technical.

I hope this post has helped you, if you’re enrolling in piano lessons for the first time. Set up right at home, practise daily and pay attention when your teacher guides you and you’ll find that learning the piano gives you great joy.

Good luck!

 

Anita E Kohli is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.in.

Practise is, a reminder for piano students

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.

Piano practise is :

  1. correctly shaped hands
  2. different from playing a piece
  3. repetition
  4. good posture
  5. short slots with breaks in between
  6. playing gently without banging on the keys
  7. playing correctly from the very first
  8. paying attention to what you do
  9. thinking and problem solving
  10. making something better than it used to be

Practise is fun, challenging & hard work, all the same time.

A step-wise approach to mindful piano practise

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Play SLOW and CORRECT rather than fast and with errors.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Follow your teachers instructions, reading your homework book before you practise, so that you do section work as instructed.
  7. 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.

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!

😀

 

This class called ‘Piano class’

Piano class here in Khargar, Navi Mumbai, encompasses a wide variety of different kinds of classes and parents new to music and piano class get confused.

Read here, about the 4 common misconceptions that piano teachers here struggle with and about why keyboard teachers who don’t play the piano should consider joining piano class.

1) The confusion about what piano is

Many parents think that the toy keyboard is a piano and ‘Casio’ is used to refer to keyboards of any brand, digital pianos and acoustic pianos (the big Casio).

Here’s a post that explains the difference between the acoustic piano, digital piano and the electronic keyboard without getting too technical : We have a keyboard at home, why should we buy a piano

2) The exam book is the lesson book & repertoire is not required

Parents and students know Trinity College London  and want exams. They’re content with just 4 pieces a year and are often unable to connect music theory to the pieces they play.

Getting parents and students to understand the need for repertoire used to be a struggle. I found that I needed to talk to my beginner level piano students, explaining the need for learning repertoire and why I don’t use the exam book as my lesson book. My piano teaching fees now include the cost of books, so that there’s no unplanned expenditure on books. 

3) Beginner level piano teaching is easy and should cost less

Piano parents generally undervalue the job of the piano teacher who teaches young beginners, until they actually sit in on piano class.

Here’s a few common perceptions about beginner level piano teaching :

–  Teaching younger students requires less knowledge.

–  Children can go to a qualified teacher later, when we’re sure they’re practising.

There is a lack of understanding that high quality beginner level teaching will stimulate student interest, creativity and musical understanding in young students. So, parents willing to pay reasonable fees for intermediate level teaching, often want beginner level class to be very very low budget.

A teacher needs to be qualified & experienced enough to produce results, in order to  break this mindset and attract the kind of student families that value music education.

Here’s a related post : What young beginners learn in piano class

4) Attending class without practise regularly is fine

Solo piano class (one student at a time) lends itself to flexible teaching. Each student gets taught differently, depending on the students learning style and goals, however some level of regular practise is essential, so that the teacher can continue to teach.

Asking a non-practising students to take a break, and return when they’re ready to commit to practise makes sense. Students can use this break to attend a group class – either choir, rhythm or group piano class, and return to solo piano class later. 

The demand for piano class, and lack of supply

When I first started teaching here in Khargar, there was very little interest in any kind of  piano class, and huge demand for light holiday classes to teach children to play on tiny toy keyboards.

That’s changing, and I’m seeing a lot of interest in piano class, and a growing number of student families who are looking for quality teaching. Many of the teachers here only play keyboards (with the left hand playing chord inversions, using different rhythms) and don’t play the piano at all. There’s a gap in supply with just a few piano teachers in Navi Mumbai. So there’s scope for growth, for those teachers who are willing to invest in furthering their music education.

Links to related articles :

‘The way forward’ and interesting article by Karl Lutchmayer, concert pianist & lecturer, where he talks about making music concerts more accessible to the general public, and a  lack of trained music teachers in India.

What do piano teachers ‘DO’?  is a look into the work schedule of a piano teacher, outside of piano class time.

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.

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

 

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.”