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.




Taking responsibility for quality piano practise . . . in 8 easy steps

Quite a few of my most supportive piano parents  went through phases when they got upset with feedback. They had children who played the piano daily and yet, achieved very little. Parents new to piano music often can’t hear the difference between good and poor playing.  It’s important then, to have parents attend piano class and to listen to what effective piano practise sounds like.

‘Correct playing happens. . . Some of the time’

That’s what many piano students say, when they get something right. When students are asked how they got it right ‘some of the time’ they often say it’s luck.

If it’s luck, then the power to play well does not belong to the student, but to chance. Students often don’t realise that they play daily, disregarding their teachers instructions. They end up spending more time at the piano than than they need to, often working very very hard for small gains. These students work hard, but not smart. They don’t  understand that there’s value in learning piano practise techniques.

Students need to play the piano, as well as practise.  It takes them time to understand that there's a difference & to learn to practise  right.

Practise lessons from the diary of a housekeeper

My maid is on leave this month. She does a few small chores for me once a week, that make my life easier and give me some free time. I wasn’t successful at getting a replacement. I could say that I’ve had bad luck. But that’s not the case. Many of the other families she works for have got substitutes.

I haven’t because I chose not to do this.

Because there’s payback to getting a substitute, that is not acceptable to me right now. I will need to be flexible with work time slots and adjust if the maid is late. I know from past experience, that anything from 30 minutes, to a couple of hours late, to not arriving at work at all, is the norm here.  While I might be lucky and get a maid who arrives on time, I’m not willing to take the chance of my daily routine disrupted.

Taking responsibility, means that the power to change things rests within me.

I can change my situation by making different choices

 

Taking responsibility for luck

If we say that piano practise was effective because of luck, we need to ask ourselves whether that luck just happened by chance or whether the way practise was done created conditions that brought about that luck? Can the piano student change the way he or she practises, so that practise brings clarity, and the student is able to see what made it effective? And so, take responsibility for that luck and for making it happen again and again?

Here are some ideas on how to do that.

8 Steps to help students ‘practise’ during practise time

  1. Read what’s written in the homework book and follow instructions. Young children often need their parents around at first, until reading the homwork book becomes a habit.
  2. Record small sections of practise done in class and take a look at it at home, before you practise.
  3. Divide your piano homework into 3 practise sections, practising each section during a different time slot, with breaks between slots.
  4. Schedule an extra slot, so that you have a little flex in your schedule.
  5. Practise 5  days a week and schedule  2 non-consecutive days away from the piano. Students who take a weekly practise holiday are relaxed and therefore more creative at practise time.
  6. Play slow and correct rather than quick with errors. Play right from the very first.
  7. Record your practise, listen to it and evaluate what you did. This will help you improve.
  8. Do what your teacher has asked you to do, then put aside your homework book and play what U want to.

What are the strategies that help you practise effectively? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

 

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 to a really effective piano class

 

  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 Navi Mumbai encompasses a wide variety of different kinds of classes, and teachers who actually teach the piano have to deal with a lot of misconceptions.

What a piano is

Many parents think that the toy keyboard is a piano. They think a Casio is an instrument – kind of like the way people refer to a  Xerox machine instead of a photocopying machine. ‘Casio’ is used to refer to keyboards of any brand, digital pianos and acoustic pianos (the big Casio). So, piano class is a very wide term, that encompasses all of these classes, which have different levels of difficulty and commitment.

The exam focus

Parents who don’t know much about piano playing can be very keen on piano examinations, as it helps them assess their child’s progress. Trinity College London is a huge name here, so piano exams get focus. Unfortunately, this means that parents and students often only pay attention to piano practise when an exam is looming, or when an exam piece is being done. There are many parents who are thrilled with their child learning just 4 pieces a year, as long as the exam results are good.

Piano students often have little or no opportunities to perform & they need to be flexible and able to adjust to playing on a keyboard to participate in local events. I was really thrilled to discover the ‘Music Liberation Union (MLU)’.  MLU consists of a group of individuals who are passionate about music & have been promoting music in Navi Mumbai. They provide musicians and students a platform to perform as well as discuss music, & they welcome music from different genres. You can find them on Facebook.

Talent does not need hard work

Parents who have seen pianists playing think it’s easy, because the pianist makes it seem so. They also seem to associate the term ‘easy’ with talent, and think that piano teaching is easy because the teacher has talent. My experience has been, that parents undervalue the job of a piano teacher until they actually witness piano class in action. This prompted me to write a post ‘What do piano teachers DO?

My piano parents, who understand and are committed to supporting piano practise at home,  are sometimes taken aback by the level of thinking & maturity required of their child, and the challenges of learning the piano. Having parents sit-in on piano class when they can, makes them want to provide more support to home practise.

Work hard and you’ll succeed

A parent whose child plays the piano a lot daily, feels justified in expecting excellent feedback from piano teachers, and can get very angry when this does not happen, because the child is ‘playing’ but is not ‘practising’. It’s a very common cause of parent-teacher discord, and I’ve learned to explain my assessments, and what practise is. So parents & children have some say in the standards by which they want to be assessed.

Sometimes, an appreciation of hard work for it’s own sake, can make parents expect long practise hours and feel their child is not doing enough. When in actuality, the student, with shorter practise sessions & breaks in between, is taking care to follow homework instructions, and is actually doing very very well.

A lack of understanding about what piano class is, and the level of difficulty of the subject, often is a barrier to learning, so parents and students need to have expectations of piano class that match their commitment.

Teaching the piano to beginners is much more challenging today, because a lot of children don’t get enough exercise and play needed for their development. And this is resulting in a lot more kids who can’t sit still ( as compared to other kids of their age), as well as issues with hand coordination.

Building a rapport with parents and students, and helping them understand what goes on leads to really fast progress in the long run. Here’s a related post ‘Parent education during piano class’

 

 

 

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 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 a small easy goal makes 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.

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 have just 2 piano students in Bandra, 2 hours away from where I live and I needed a break from the long commute for a little while. I was on leave in April and taught just 2 in-studio classes (alternate weeks) there in the month of May.

It was holiday time, and one of my students, a 9 year old boy,  was home with lots of time to practise. So we did a ‘Video class’ in April, and we tried a couple of ‘Skype Lessons’ in May.

Why I’m offering students (optional) Skype classes

I’ve always been very hesitant about anything other than ‘in-studio’ classes, because the medium restricts the teacher’s ability to demonstrate playing technique and correct the student when there’s wrong technique, posture, etc. Playing duets, which students really enjoy, can be a problem if there’s a time lag. Introducing off the bench activities require a little bit of effort and innovation – it’s something I really need to work on. We had connectivity issues at one class that took a few minutes of class time at the first class, but the second class went fine.

After teaching two skype classes, I still see that it’s not the same as teaching in-studio. However, there are some benefits to online teaching that I overlooked. They’re  benefits that in-studio teaching does not have, and they’re huge!

How Skype lesson can help, and why parents should consider taking them once in a way

  • Keeping attendance regular : My students reschedule class quite often, because they’re running late due to work commitments (adult students or parents) . The student is available and at home at class time, but will not reach class in good time.  I reschedule every class, to another day, 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 a Skype class can take care of this. My student’s practise was not just regular, it was excellent! Possibly because this is a student who loves technology.
  • Super Attentiveness : He (my student) 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.
  • Posture : I was able to see what actually happens at home, and correct my student when he sat too low. Often students have technical issues, because they don’t follow the teachers instructions at home (though they do in class) and there’s nothing like seeing what actually happens when they play at home.

Skype teaching needs a slightly different skill set to in-studio teaching. It’s a new medium for me, so I really need to work on how to improve my ability to demonstrate and teach playing technique through this medium. I also need to work more on introducing the fun element to online teaching, as it needs different kinds of games and challenges, to what I do in-studio.

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 made me interested enough that I’m working on trying to learn new skills to improve my online teaching skills.