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.

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.

 

 

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.

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

 

 

 

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.

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

When parent support turns into spoon-feeding

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

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

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

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

 

The changing face of family time?

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

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

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

I honestly don’t know.  

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

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

Talking about the value of struggle in piano class

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Why the teacher praises small achievements

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Questions parents of young beginner piano students need to ask

Here’s a list of 8 questions that come up over the course of piano teaching. I’m addressing these answer’s specifically to the parents of my new beginner students.

1) Does my teaching approach suit the parent and child? Do the parent, student and teacher have the same goals?

Parents and students goals change over time, so these are questions I constantly asks myself. Because the teaching styles of different teachers are different, and there may come a time when the student needs a change.

I keep parents involved with what’s happening in piano class through comments in the homework book, emails and phone calls where necessary. When children give trouble or go through difficult phases relating to learning, I rely a lot on parent support, and this helps both me and the student, as it has a very very positive impact on learning.

Parents of young children who don’t wish to be involved in piano class and want their child’s learning to happen without any involvement at home, definitely need a teacher with a different approach.

2) How quick does the class progress?

This depends entirely on whether your child practises regularly or not. Children who practise get taught something new, and children who don’t practise, mostly revise work they’ve forgotten.

3) Should I correct my child’s practise mistakes?

The answer to this is a big big NO. Your child needs, from the first, to listen and correct his/her own mistakes. You may however help, by asking questions to make your child listen and think. For example :

“Did you play correct? Can you play it again, it sounds so good!” Your 5 year old child might say it was correct, even when it was wrong, but will play a second time and will automatically be paying more attention – is more likely to hear a mistake, and stop and correct it. Teacher’s correct mistakes and explain in class, so your child will learn to hear mistakes fairly quickly.

This approach eventually leads to really good – and independent learning.

4) What do I do when my child practises regularly, with great enthusiasm and committment, but practises WRONG?

Here’s when you need to talk to me – preferable on the phone, so your child can’t hear, and we can talk about what needs to be done to remedy this. I write instructions in the homework book, which you can help your young child read and follow, and will take up any special learning issues your child has.

5) Why do we need targets or goals?

Parents pay a fee in expectation that their child will learn, and the teacher spends valuable time on a student with the same hope. Setting targets helps the parent, student and teacher work towards a common end. The purpose of the target is not to put pressure on the student, and I say this very very emphatically!

Rather, it is to ensure that progress in piano class happens with absolutely no pressure, so the young student thinks of piano playing as a fun and relaxing thing to do.

6) Why does the parent need to be ‘around’ to implement practise. Can’t they just tell their child to ‘go practise’ or ‘get practise done’?

The piano is a very lonely instrument, unlike the violin or guitar, where students have more opportunities to play in groups. Young children whose parents implement practise by saying ‘play for me’ because -’ I love to hear you’ or ‘I find listening to you fun or relaxing’ usually have children who grow to love the routine of piano practise.

They develop a routine, because their parents taught them this, by being around every day. It surprises me, that even working mother’s are able to make time to do this..until I realise, it’s not just because they enjoy their child playing, though that’s a part of it.

More, it’s because they realise there’s long term value to their child’s musical development, and are willing to put in the regular effort that is necessary to help their child learn.

7) My child gets some things well and struggle with some others

Piano playing is a lot of learning. It takes time to work on a piece and get it right. Sometimes, children work very hard and it still takes time. If the homework book shows that 50% of your child’s work is good – your child is doing well.

As the level of difficulty increases, the pieces get harder, and your child grows up, results take more time. This is when your child and I the teacher, need your help – to reinforce the idea that even good students struggle.

In fact, the life of a pianist is a constant effort to be better – because learning never ends. What your child is now learning, is enjoy learning. To be confident in the face of a struggle – the struggle to learn. To be mature in the face of adversity, and to keep trying, even when things get tough. It is very true, that piano students learn skills in piano class that help them get through life.

8) Why is my child’s progress so slow?

It’s your child’s practise routine – or really, lack of it…..It often takes parents anything from 3 months to a year to realise that their young child needs help with practise – to schedule practise, and a daily routine, so that it’s not overly crowded with too many activities.

Children with very tight daily schedules get stressed and tend to learn very slow as a result. I’ve written about my overly scheduled students in ‘Coping with the over-scheduled child in piano class’

A warm welcome to all my new students and their parents – to the joy and the challenge of learning to play the piano.

Mixed feelings

May 2015 : Mixed feelings as I stop teaching in Bandra

I miss my lovely lot of students there and yet, I’m feeling the relief… now that I don’t have to do that crazy commute that took a good 5 hours out of each day.

I’m looking forward to taking on more students in Khargar, to getting time to make friends in my neighbourhood, and to time at home.

So for now, it’s goodbye to all my Bandra students and their very very supportive families. I wish you well.

 

2017 : Setting up in Khargar

It’s been a few years since I stopped teaching in Bandra. I have started teaching there again, but it’s just couple of students, as I work full time in Khargar, Navi Mumbai.

I don’t advertise, so setting up teaching the piano here in Khargar went slow and gave me time. I used it to study, practise and upgrade the quality of my teaching. And to make time to meet up with friends for chai.

🙂

I now run a small piano teaching studio in Khargar, Navi Mumbai and I plan for it to stay that way. Because this gives me time to focus on continuously improving the quality of my teaching. Staying small helps me do this, while getting time to have a relaxed home life, time with family and time for me.

Maintaining work life balance is a daily effort & sometimes a struggle, but it’s been going pretty good this year.

Recording and Guided Self-Assessment in piano in class

Getting piano students to practise

Get a group of piano teachers talking about what they struggle with, and students NOT practising is very likely to be a hot topic.

    • Erratic practise
    • Students ‘playing’ through pieces rather than ‘practising’ them, ignoring instructions in the homework book.
    • Practising making mistakes. Instead of using practise techniques to avoid them, to practise NOT making them.

Like every teacher, I’m constantly looking for remedies to lack of practise, and to poor practise, because what works with one batch of students might not work with another.

My first experiments with recording in piano class

I turned to the recorder on my cellphone in a desperate attempt to motivate a batch of students to practise – when all other methods failed. Audio or video recordings of any student who’d made great progress, emailed to my students & parents. And was surprised and quite thrilled with the results and the way it motivated my students!  

A remedy for the hearing gap

Piano students want progress, and are often unable to understand the quality of work that is required to achieve this. A review of my lessons this year made me realise that students just don’t hear what their teacher hears. This hearing gap is one of the reasons why students get upset with the critical evaluation that’s a part of every piano class.

This November 2017, I decided to put my cellphone recorder and a pile of unused file dividers (assessment cards) to use, to remedy this problem :

      • I recorded my student playing at piano class, and both of us (student and I) listened to the recording immediately.
      • We then discussed how the student would assess his/her playing and what the assessment criteria I’d set meant. 
      • We listened again, and my student and I both did separate assessments.
      • If my grading/comments differed with my student’s, I’d explain my reasons and the student was free to agree, or disagree if unconvinced, marking as he/she felt fit.

It was an eye opener : I was expecting to have to talk about work that my students marked higher than I did. What surprised me was that they did not register some really excellent progress. I had to explain and get them to listen again, to help them understand  how well they’d done!


I started experimenting with recording my piano students after reading a post from the blog of Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio –  The benefits of recording your piano lessons class.

Recording plus a Guided Student Self-Assessment in piano class is improving the quality of my students practise and making a very positive difference to the way they respond to feedback. It’s also changing the way I interact with my students and taking away a potential source of student-teacher conflict. So much, that now it’s a regular part of my piano lessons. 

Coping with the overscheduled child in piano class

This is the child who never has a week-day at home after school… who does not get enough unstructured play time, that is necessary, for a child of his/her age.

This child has lots of hobby classes, and yet, never spends time on any hobby just for fun, only when there’s homework. This child is learning to just do what is required for each hobby class, and does not explore ideas of his/her own.

This is a child does not read at home – who goes for a reading class….who does not just put music on and dance madly, like we did – he goes for dance class…who cannot just stay home and draw for the pleasure of it – she goes to art class.This child, cannot just explore one hobby class at a time, until one of them fits…..he has to do them all – from age 5 onwards.

This child may grow to be an 8 year old, who has difficulty answering a question, if it differs from what he/she is thinking about….. often does not listen to what is being asked….. memorises very quickly and does everything by rote.

I can see what’s happening, because I’m sometimes struggling to help children learn. I talk to parents, and find, that they’re quite comfortable with their child’s hectic schedule, until things start to go wrong….until both the piano teacher and the child’s school teacher have the same problem – because the child – who has absolutely no learning disabilities, is still having difficulty learning!

Talking – about choosing 1 hobby (even if it means stopping piano class) and 1 sport activity to focus on, often falls on deaf ears, and I now know how it goes.

So, I’m doing what I can to change how I teach, writing progress reports in the homework book, with the occasional email, and finally, when I reach a point where all efforts have failed, I’m talking to parents because their child’s reaching a point where I can’t actually go on teaching…where, if I don’t let the student go, I’m at the risk of losing both my patience and my temper.

And evidently, this is what was needed…..a wake up call!!

7 things you need to commit to before you start piano class

There are so many different kinds of classes – all called ‘Piano Class’ and parents have no real way of knowing exactly what they are getting into, until their child is enrolled.

Teachers always talk to the parent before they take on a new student – i know i do, because the ‘Piano Class’ that I and many other teacher’s like me teach, is the road to developing a long term love and passion for music and piano playing. It involves a committment – from the student, parent and teacher, towards working together, to help the child learn.

So, parents here’s a brief guide to what the teacher expects :

  • That you have a piano at home, with a height-adjustable bench
  • Regular attendance, and arriving on time, for piano class (with the required books and with the students reading glasses!)
  • Daily practise – a young student starts with a few minutes a day, and builds this up
  • That you organise your child’s schedule so they get time at home – to relax, listen to music and spend time with their parents – I’ve recently seen very many stressed children – stressed, because they’re too busy with too many hobby classes and their parents too busy with their work, to get time to spend together as a family.
  • Supportive parents – who make sure that daily practise is done, in a positive way – by being around, listening to their child, praising small improvements
  • Making the time for student concerts
  • Making time to communicate with the teacher regularly (on the phone, at class or via email – whatever’s possible) and sit in on class when required
  • Committing to progress – it is essential that your child learns something new at each class, and that you work with the teacher to ensure that this happens

A Piano Class like this, is for parents who are willing to spend time helping their kids learn and helping the teacher get to know their child, so she can teach better.

Here are a couple of very interesting blogs by Elissa Milne that will help you understand better, what ‘Piano Class’ is about

10 things you should do before your child begins piano class

15 things you need to know about supporting your child learning to play the piano

 

 

 

 

2 minutes and 2 steps to Creative Piano Practise

….for piano students to make their practise spontaneous, yet regular and fun.

So, students, this is how it works :

  • Select a small section from a piece you like (a line or a phrase of music) – change the section every week
  • Play it for 2 minutes, when you take a break from some other activity (for example after studying, dinner, or tidying up your stuff at home) both with and without the book

After some time of doing this daily, students find that they really really want to play the piano as soon as they finish their studies or their chores. They start using piano playing to relax and to express their moods and emotions and therefore, piano playing becomes a need – not just something they have to do as homework.

 

Piano practise becomes more spontaneous and students tend to remember practise ideas they’ve been taught, and also use ideas of their own – simply because they’re so focused on playing something they enjoy well. They also often, WANT to play, when they’re tired or when studies get heavy, because it helps them relax and de-stress and therefore study better and quicker.

 

The 2 minutes are done separately from the regular practise homework, so to the student, it’s just having fun. It often it makes students want to  restructure their daily practise schedule – to allow flexibility, so they can play because they feel like it, rather than because it’s time for piano practise to be done.