Memorising music away from the piano during lessons

My biggest teaching challenge

My biggest teaching challenge for some time now, has been focus issues and getting beginner level students to make connections between related concepts being taught in piano class. Every year, I study and work on some aspect of piano playing, in an effort to improve the quality of my teaching, and of late, that’s been music theory. I’m working specifically to understand how I can bring my students attention to the theory in the pieces they learn, so theory is real and exciting to them.

For most students of music, theory is written. It’s for marks in an exam and students who have difficulty making connections with different aspects of music completely forget theory when they play their pieces.

Music theory should be something students write down in their music  manuscripts, because they already know it from playing their pieces.

Music theory IS about playing

I added a small time slot to my lesson plan, to teach piano pieces from written music differently and it was trial and error. I wasn’t always sure I was going about it in the right way. So when my student and I took a look at her grade 3 theory exam book last year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear her exclaim “But this is nothing by playing!” Because she’d already revised quite a bit of the syllabus while working on her piano pieces.

Teaching myself to memorise

I decided to test my ideas by learning a page of  new piece from memory. This was my weak area and I thought that finding music theory concepts in the piece would help me overcome my memorisation issues. I started with a Mazurka by Chopin, op 17, no 4, learning it as follows :

  1. Sit away from the piano with the written music and memorise the first 4 bars. If 4 is too hard, choose smaller sections – even going one bar at a time.
  2. Really think about the section – timing, notes, fingering, chord tones and non-chord tones.
  3. Play it at the piano without the book
  4. Repeat the process, until I could play it well enough, slow.
  5. Repeat this the next day, adding a couple of bars more, each time.
  6. Choose random sections and write them down from memory.

This was quite an effort for me at first, but it got easier with time and persistence. By the time I was done I could actually play a full page from memory, something I’d never been able to do before! I’m revisiting pieces I had learned earlier and trying to learn to play them without the book. Because I follow this process when teaching my students, I find that I memorise small pieces I’ve taught,  without actually working on them out of class.

Teaching backwards

This is my term for this way of teaching, because students first play, then write. 

  • Learning like this takes time, so I ask the student to select just a couple of bars, allowing just 10 minutes of class time for this.
  • Fitting it into a 1 hour class means taking this up in rotation with other topics.

Being ‘book-free’ makes students interested in clapping, intervals, chords and patterns, because that’s all that they have to work with. 

To other piano teachers who teach this way,  what do you do? And how do you fit it all in to a weekly piano class?

 

 

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’

 

 

 

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?

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.

Experiments with writing a music theory book

A lack of interest?

My piano student just could not identify note names on the music staff. I tried everything – repetition of the same notes in theory at each lesson, teaching many pieces with the same set of notes and practise writing notes at home. Nothing worked.

It was the same with high and low notes. We’d covered this in class, but she could not hear the difference.But we had a breakthrough recently. She attended piano class with my WunderKeys” student and realised that a child 5 years younger than her can identify high and low notes. And suddenly, she can hear the difference. 

I realize  that it’s the same with theory. This student did not seem to understand that theory or ear training was relevant, and connected to playing the piano, until she could see that other students got it. And only then, did it become important enough to remember.

This student is almost at the end of the  John Schaum Pre-A lesson book and plays pieces from  Alfred’s Fun book – level 1B.  She takes time with the first landmark note in any new piece, and is fine  after that, but only if I keep reminding her to think of steps and skips. She know what they are, and has no learning disability. She used to forget to wear her reading glasses to class earlier and now, she no longer has a number.

It’s just that she shuts down for theory, so learning a new piece goes slow. The theory books available in the market go too slow for her, and she gets bored with too much repetition of the same thing, because she’s a bright kid.

 

What I needed in a theory book

I needed a theory method book, that went fast, and that revised pitch, scales, steps, skips and chords. She’s been taught all this, and just needed a revision that made sense to her. I like books which are plain, with less graphics and colours  because I find kids who have no learning disabilities focus and think much better when the page is simple and plain.

I also like books that ask a lot of questions. Because, children learn by rote in many schools in Mumbai, and get rewarded when their answers are exactly what the teacher dictated in class. There’s a large percentage of children who need to be taught to think independently, and it’s getting bigger every year.

 

My first attempt at writing a theory book

I’ve written a theory book for my student, and this weeks lesson with theory went well. It’s not completely done, so I’ll be writing and re-writing it as we go along, depending on what she wants to learn, and the feedback I get from her.  I’m hoping that this book will lead her on to the Grade 1 theory exam.

So far, we’ve tried the first exercise out at her lesson this week, and the approach seemed to work.

Can you LOYO?

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

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

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

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

Is it a lack of musical ability or talent?

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

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

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

 

What independent playing means at beginner level

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

At this age, learning  1,2,3 of the above mostly correct with a new piece and trying to do the balance would indicate comprehension, interest and growing independence.

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

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

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

Can you LOYO (Learn on your own?)

 

 

When focus is a problem in piano class

A brief glimpse of the teacher’s struggle

The piano teacher points to a note and asks the student to name it. The student answers  correct, if you consider that he/she is looking at a note somewhere else, and answering. And it’s the same with written instructions like ‘Name the first note at the top left of the page.’

The teacher needs to ask this child to point out the note he/she is talking about, and will then see that her student knows everything but is just not paying attention, so is looking in the wrong place and answering. There’s a lot more kids like this in recent years.

 

The first year of piano class

This student had difficulty paying attention from the very first class and it took the teacher a few classes to figure out the problem. He/she needed very patient teaching, lots of questions, asked in different ways, so it got his/her attention.

Practise at home needed parent support and a daily home routine was very essential, and things improved. The student was doing very well, both at school and at piano class, until  a month of busy, when the daily home routine fell into disarray.

 

Is it ADD

One might say that this student has some symptoms of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), only that there’s nothing wrong with this child. Apart from the fact that he/she needs the amount of parent time, play time, plus a routine and structure to the day, that most children of my generation had on a regular basis, because it was the way things were done then.

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

 

Looking at the child in piano class

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

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

These students are talented, bright and interested, and often so enthusiastic about playing that they come to class with a brain working on overtime with lots of different ideas. Starting piano class listening to music made a big big difference, and helped these kids focus better.

 

The role of music in creating a mood.

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

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

  1. Wake up time – play upbeat music 15 minutes before scheduled wake up time
  2. Bed time – play quiet music before bed time

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

Today’s busy lifestyle and lack of family time puts kids under pressure. There are many working parents, who manage to find a balance, but there are a lot who don’t. A lot more children as compared to earlier, are being brought up by maids, while their parents are away at work. It’s putting pressure on children and it’s something we need to think about.

 

Related Articles :

This is your brain on music

What is ADD

ADDitude magazine for help with ADHD

How routine helps children