Taking responsibility for quality piano practise

Some of my most supportive piano parents initially went through phases when they got upset with feedback. Until they understood that the kind of goals both they and their child were aiming at needed a different kind of effort to what they had in mind.

Sometimes right sometimes wrong

‘It just happens sometimes’ That’s what many piano students say, when they get something right and I ask them how it happened. So is it just luck then? And if it is, how does a student replicate correct playing?

When working on a piece that’s still a work-in-process during class, I sometimes record the first playing. Then practise it with my student, and ask them to play it again at the end. And there’s a vast difference in the quality of the first and last playing. And that’s how quality practise works – there’s is a clear difference what’s been practised, no matter how small the difference is.

Just playing, just being a good student who tries, is not enough for progress. It’s definitely not enough, for the students who strive to improve and are clearly fixed on the goal of playing better.

 

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 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 a chance on my daily routine disrupted.

So there’s something I’ve done, to be in the situation I’m in. It’s not luck. It didn’t just happen.

And because it’s my responsibility, I have the power to change the situation if I want. And that’s exactly what quality piano practise is about. Taking responsibility for results.

There’s payback either way, because right now, I have my daily work flow running smoothly, but I’m having to do a lot of extra chores that I would rather not do. And that’s another lesson – that there are no free rides. Not in life, nor in piano piano practise.

 

Work hard or work smart? A cause of parent teacher discord.

Piano students don’t know what they did that made their piece better, as at first, they play without conscious thought to how they practise. When a teacher works differently, using some practise technique, the student often forgets to use this technique at home, thinking it’s done and no longer needs attention. These students spend more time getting things done than necessary, getting some progress, but often not reaching standards of playing that they are capable of, because their practise just takes too long to fit it all in.

Young  students who are approaching intermediate level should be learning how to practise. They need it for progress, because their school and coaching class schedule simply does not support long hours of practise. And students who can’t fit practise into the time they have available often give up learning the piano.

Parents need to understand this, because we live in a culture that rewards hard work and there are parents who expect excellent feedback for long practise hours and get upset when it does not happen. Even when it’s contrary to what the student is being taught.

Not every parent understands the value of practise techniques until their child has tried it out and they can see the results. A piece that sounds wonderful and ready to most of my piano parents is often far from ready for performing. It takes year of listening for them to be able to accurately assess piano playing.

Breaking it down

The piano teacher can help the student see what made that good playing ‘happen’ by breaking it down in piano class, writing it out in the homework book and taking class videos for the student where needed.

Young children often need parent support, to get them to read the homework book, and look at videos, because children take time to understand the relevance of a practise technique. And mostly, because young piano students just want to play. Reading homework assignments is often quite unimportant to them.

Getting parent support for this kind of practise for my students usually starts with getting parents to understand and to be willing to try. And then, finding a way that helps busy parents who want to be involved,  work this in with their schedule.

It’s quite a thrill to see results. Shorter practise hours and more effective practise. Students taking responsibility for their piano practise, and having that attitude overflow into other areas of their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 weekly, will tell you a lot, because 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, and this is the area which beginner piano students of any age pay poor attention to. 
This is why even intermediate piano students often need parent support.

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 stop 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 classes a week, out of which one is a group class – 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. This does not lead to much progress, but it will keep your child playing the piano. There’s a very high possibility that your child will find some music that appeals and will keep playing.

 

Parent support for ‘regular piano class’

When I talk about regular piano class I refer to a 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 teacher’s  don’t expect all kids to have developed musical skills. But knowing my students well and talking to parents makes me realise it’s not just piano where thinking is the problem.

 

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 a week of poor practise, these students can now remember what was done earlier and can quickly demonstrate it.

 

 

When traditional piano teaching methods fail

The problem with focus

I started out teaching my piano students the ‘Read, then play’ method, because this is how I was taught. An increase every year, in the number of young students with focus issues prompted me to consider other ways of teaching, and I started experimenting.

My goal was to see if another way of approaching piano teaching could get my students to be super-attentive. But before that I needed to be very clear as to what the real issue with each child was. Knowing my students well, here’s a list of the possibilities I considered :

  1. Poor English language comprehension
  2. Difficulty understanding musical ideas and concepts like up/down, high/low
  3. Motor coordination issues due to lack of adequate physical activity
  4. Poor eyesight and an inability to see notes rising and falling
  5. Difficulties focusing due to excessive creativity and thinking about too many ideas at one time
  6. Selective focus – where students would focus only when it was clear to them that the topic was relevant to what THEY wanted to learn.

So much effort at getting my students to focus was a clear sign that using only the “Read-then-play’ was not working with my current batch of piano students.

A starting point

I can say with confidence, that for many Mumbai students education means learning pre-written answers, rather than thinking and answering questions. Some schools do manage to provide quality education despite large class sizes, but there are schools that teach the syllabus so erratically that it’s done mostly at the year end, in a rush. This way, even parents willing to support education at home are left wondering how to go about it.

The result is, a lot of kids have difficulty answering questions. The issue could be either poor language comprehension or undeveloped reasoning skills. And that’s where I started. I changed the way I teach theory, with a few students.

Just so you understand, here’s an example of a question from a Grade 1 theory book that a lot of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai kids have had difficulty with. “Draw a note on each line in the staff below.”

The students who struggled with this were kids who were familiar with line and space notes and who knew what a staff was. I ‘ve taught a lot of kids like this over many years of teaching.

The sad truth is that retention of music theory is poor because it is taught in a way that students simply don't understand it's relevance to piano playing and therefore, students often switch off mentally.

It’s the same with scales and aural awareness (feeling rhythm, singing, etc.) To the average student, it’s just a way to get marks in an exam. Students who play by ear have extremely well developed aural skills, but suffer because they often are poor at sight-reading.

Experiments with teaching ‘BACKWARDS’

  1. My students had to watch me play their piece, or a section of it and understand the chord structure, the key of the piece, scalic passages and use of non-chord tones by watching me play.
  2. Then, having learned to play it the piece, they had to write it down in their manuscripts.

I did a test run of this with some adult students and a couple of younger students (age 9 to 12) and my students got very very excited about it. The students in question were clapping, singing and counting in an effort to learn to play. Attention to playing technique improved, and the key of the piece, the scale and triads suddenly became important as it made memorising easy.

Most students were quite willing to write out their playing, but some needed a step by step approach and a little guidance.

Time management in class

Lesson planning suddenly became more complex, because there was so much to do.

  • My students have sight-reading targets, and some are on the second round of ‘The 10 Easy Piece Challenge .’
  • All my students learn some music with the ‘Read, then play ‘ method and will continue to do so.
  • And now  in addition to the above, some are simultaneously learning ‘Backwards.’ This means that we work simultaneously on rhythm, pitch, playing scales and triads, plus I teach them the theory that helps them put it down in writing.

It’s still at an experimental stage. My lesson plan needs to have lots of alternatives, so that it’s flexible enough to suit individual learning needs.

The upside is that students are excited and animated to an extent that surprises me.  I am now able to actually pinpoint student-specific difficulties with focus, and work at them better. Most of my students attend a 1 hour class once a week, and  fitting it all in and still getting time to talk about practise issues is a huge challenge for me.

Could using both ‘Read-then-play’ and the ‘Teaching Backwards’ method simultaneously in piano class, give me a way around focus issues, and help my students a higher level of competence in piano playing at an earlier level of learning?

Aiming low = reaching high?

Blog pic Why aiming low can lead to reaching high

The tried and tested path to success

“Aim higher than you want to reach. You may miss your target, but you will still reach your original goal”

This way of thinking has worked very well for me and many of my  piano students who wanted success 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

 

 

 

Parent education during piano class

Why spend 15 minutes of piano class with new students on parent education…?

It’s sometime now, since I’ve been doing this. Explaining piano practise and any difficulties that the student has, and how I’m teaching to get beyond them. Explaining piano teaching methods in general and  my teaching approach specifically.

I talk a little about it when prospective students and their parents come to meet me, so parents know what to expect. I call up working parents who don’t make it to class, either during class time, or the next day, when just writing in the homework book won’t do.

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 studies, piano practise and play. So, at the start, parents involvement means scheduling practise and reminding children to practise.

It means being around at practise time, because piano practise is a very solitary hobby and children usually need company. Just knowing that someone’s around and will pop in now and then to sit and listen to something, or remind the student to read the homework book and follow practise instructions for a difficult section make the difference.

Later, as the child gets older, and used to learning the piano, parent involvement changes. This is when parents need to get their child to study and practise independently, using study and practise charts to help their child keep track of progress.

Parents who provide the structure and encouragement, and downplay their role and let their kids enjoy their achievement, often end up have kids who learn to love piano practise, and who go to the piano to have fun and to de-stress when they’re tired or need a break from studies.

Years of talking to parents made me realise that parents often just don’t know what good practise is, and sometimes correct their child for doing something that I, the teacher, have instructed their child to do when practising, in order to make practise fun. So, here are some of the things we (the parents & I) discuss in those 15 minutes.

 

Making the child’s distraction a teaching tool

“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 a part of learning”

Many of us piano teachers are letting the child’s idea of fun determine what goes on in class. We’re creating off-the-stool piano activities that include movement to teach musical concepts, and we’re allowing students a ‘walk around’ or ‘dance’ or ‘chat’  break, when they need to move or tell stories. We’re assigning homework with breaks and/or activity and need parents to understand that this is what good practise looks like, for young and energetic kids, who often don’t get enough exercise in their daily routine.

Piano parents sitting in on class, see that their child is allowed movement, and see that the teacher is using this to teach a musical concept and often have questions. 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.

 

Managing breaks during home piano practise

Young children practise better when practise time is shorter, with breaks in between. Parents often have difficulties just getting their child to go to the piano, and just writing out instructions in the homework book is not enough. Plus with some kids, there’s a risk of breaks getting extended and sabotaging practise.

Teacher’s need to understand what happens at practise time at home. Some kids practise better early in the day or just after school, while others are more attentive at the end of the day. With some kids, repeated reminders to practise are quite normal – and do not indicate a lack of interest – this is something parents need to understand.

Parent’s often don’t realise the importance of blocking extra time for practise, so there’s leeway for students to delay, run around, or just try out their own stuff at the piano. Teachers have loads of ideas of their own, and all that they’ve learned from other parents, so talking about practise helps.

 

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. Thirty  or forty pieces a year seemed too much for the Mumbai piano student to cope with. So I tested this out by starting my own sight-reading challenge and realised it was worth it.

This challenge is for the Mumbai and Navi Mumbai piano student, who has lots to study and coaching classes to attend in addition to school. It’s easy, workable and fun!

What you need to know, if you’re taking on the 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
  4. Write them in “The Challenge Book”

The results will be uploaded to soundcloud and facebook and emailed to all students/parents.

 

Why easy pieces?

Most Mumbai students beyond late elementary level learn between 5 to 10 pieces a year and this reduces as they move on to intermediate and advanced levels. They play as long as they have an exam, concert or competition to work towards, but very few students continue playing the piano once they’ve stopped piano class.

Learning so little music every year usually means that new pieces are a struggle for many students. Students often struggle to learn even easy new pieces on their own, because they did not learn how to bring pieces up to standard on their own – because all this was done by their piano teacher.

So, this challenge focuses on easy pieces, with just a little bit of difficulty that addresses an idea or a technique that the student needs to work on.

 

The reason for variable playing standards for each student

Students with (naturally) very tight hands and shoulders, transfer students and young beginners who bang on the piano, intermediate students who’ve been playing without a teacher and have learned bad playing habits, all have different learning needs.

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.

So, the standards are graded gradually. 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

 

How piano friends are helping each other

One student took on the challenge and came to class with 3 pieces done in a week (mostly done with a few rough spots here and there.) And entered her pieces in the register, which is available for all the students to look at. And that was enough to get the others started.

All my students meet each other at group class once in a way, and play for each other. I also ask students to arrive early or stay late to overlap classes, so that they hear each other play, and over time, they become piano friends. So, if one starts playing well, the other gets quite thrilled and goes home and practises.

It was quite a struggle getting the first student to start and it’s early days yet. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping it goes well 🙂