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 :
- 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.
- Really think about the section – timing, notes, fingering, chord tones and non-chord tones.
- Play it at the piano without the book
- Repeat the process, until I could play it well enough, slow.
- Repeat this the next day, adding a couple of bars more, each time.
- 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.
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?