A step-wise approach to mindful piano practise

Practising the piano is different from playing.

Practise often involves playing just small sections of your piece, using specific techniques learned in piano class, to get lots of improvement using less time. Students need to ‘practise’ as well as ‘play’ their pieces daily.

Students often just play through their pieces, thinking they’re practising. Piano practise should be a time of attention to detail and focus, but so often ends up being mindless repetition. This often leads to breakdowns & insecure playing during piano performances. Many many young students who say they panic and are therefore unable to perform, actually have the ability to perform well, when they use the right tools to practise effectively. 

Here’s a check-list, to help piano students make mindfulness a part of their practise.

  1. Mark out the theory in a copy of your piece – notice chords, scales, inversions, repeated sections, sequences. Look at non-chord tones and get out your theory book, figuring out what kinds of non-chord tones your piece has.
  2. Read hands together as far as possible. Each teacher has a different approach, and one size does not fit all. I teach my students to learn pieces, reading them hands together from the very first, because I feel that it helps them develop better coordination in the long run. Students who are not used to this, make the switch quite comfortably, once they started practising paying attention to theory (as in point 1).
  3. Play SLOW and CORRECT rather than fast and with errors.
  4. Pay attention to the instructions your teacher gives you on playing technique. Posture, the height & kind of piano stool you use, relaxed shoulders, hand shape, whether you should play with your finger, hand, wrist or arm matter. The speed at which you depress the keys matter. The point of the depression of the piano key, at which the hammer hits the strings matter.
  5. When practising a section again and again, take your hand off the piano and take a short break between repetitions. This forces your brain to get involved, because then, you need to re-figure out hand position, fingering, and all of the thinking you did before you played.
  6. Follow your teachers instructions, reading your homework book before you practise, so that you do section work as instructed.
  7. TRY what your teacher has asked you to do sincerely, before taking a call on whether it’s necessary or not. Students with very set ideas and with mental blocks about how things should be done take time to learn new ways of doing things, so they need to keep at it a while before their ways of thinking allow them to benefit from a new way of practise.

 

Misconceptions on injury while playing the piano

There’s a misconception with some students and parents – particularly those from families new to music, that overpractise and injury is a part of the creative process. That hard work is a goal in itself. That practising long hours is to be rewarded, even when the student practises mindlessly, and is actually risking injury because teacher instructions on playing technique are not followed. That hand pain is good as it is a sign of hard work.

I’m always horrified when I get student families that think this way. Changing this mindset was hard and sometimes impossible when I first started teaching in Khargar, Navi Mumbai, and most of my students were beginners. It’s getting easier now, because my newer students have an opportunity to  hear students who have been with me longer, play for them.

Effective playing technique protects your hand from injury. If you experience pain when playing, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t repeat that action. Stop & think about whether you’re following your teacher’s instruction about playing.  Take your problem to your piano teacher at the next class.

Remember that the key to quality playing is to learn slow, with the correct playing technique. Using your hands in the most effective way, keeps your joints and muscles free from undue effort and this will help you with playing fast, and lasting out in long pieces.

Move from intermediate level to more challenging repertoire, having learned how to make your practise effective. If you’ve learned what your teacher taught you well, you will be able to do this mostly on your own with pieces or passages that are well within your ability, by the time you reach the advanced level.

How to assess your own piano playing

A guide for intermediate to advanced piano students who have learned their piece and want to be able to assess the quality of their playing on their own, with guidance from their teacher.

  • Getting rid of mistakes

    You should have learned your piece correct from the very first. However, it is likely that you still have some weak spots where you falter, when under pressure.

Listen to a recording of your performance and then listen to recordings by different pianists until your ear can hear any differences in time, pitch and the harmony. This will help you hear and correct any errors in your playing such as wrong pitch and note values.

Also, listen to variations in articulation and tone production and figure out what suits your piece.

  • Use the metronome to help you listen

Students can make the mistake of playing erratic rhythms, and think this is interpretation. They need to understand how pianists interpret a piece while keeping the sense of style, tempo and mood that is required of the piece and the period it comes from. A metronome can be a help when listening to variations in tempo.

  • Listen to hear different parts

Listen to reputed pianists play. Listen to small sections, listen separately to individual parts in a section, until your ear can hear them.

Isolate a part or a layer of the music that you wish to work on, and listen to hear that layer well.

  • Listen for the rests

Rests, pauses and spaces in the music are a very important part of it, and one many students ignore. Listen for silences and feel the mood that they generate.  They need to become important to you.

  • Mark weak areas on the score

It might be a good idea to make small notes on the score, or mark areas where you need to check your playing, so that you don’t forget them during practise time.

  • Practise

Practise is different from playing. Yes, you need to play your piece and you also need to play it often enough. The mistake many students make however, is playing the piece through again and again, thinking it will improve their weak areas, and it doesn’t. That’s what practise is for.

  • Work with small sections

If you are ‘practising’ and still not getting results, you may need a smaller section. Working small will help you listen better. It helps to focus on one single weak area at a time.

  • Make notes

Write down the questions you have about any aspect of playing and performing your piece so that you remember them. Talk to your teacher about your ideas when you go to piano class.

Listen Listen and LISTEN.  That’s the key to being able to teach yourself to play better.

Aiming low = reaching high?

 Blog pic Why aiming low can lead to reaching highThe tried and tested path to success

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

This way of thinking has worked very well for me and many of my  piano students who wanted sucess easy. Who wanted to do just barely enough that was required to play their pieces well, who fell short when they played for an audience and then realised they needed to aim higher.

But it’s not working with my batch of new students, whether they’re young children, teens or adults.

The hard work required just does not happen  in the first year of piano class and students often get disheartened. Because everything is so far out of reach.

 

How my practise goals made me evaluate my teaching goals

I started out last year, in  April 2015 with My Personal Sight-reading Challenge. I’m a piano teacher by profession and I face a difficulty that all piano teachers face, which is getting time to practise.

Practising the piano is very necessary, if teachers want to improve the quality of their teaching. And yet we spend so much time  teaching, planning lessons and reading up on how to communicate effectively. We study teaching techniques and are involved in a host of other activities that are necessary to manage our teaching studios.

I started out my sight-reading challenge last year, with the goal of making a small commitment to myself  to play everyday, and it worked. You can read about it in The impact of 100 minutes of practise

I realized that having a very small goal that was achievable in a short period of time, got me going to the piano many times a day, and got me learning a lot more pieces than I usually do. And this made me think about what goals I set for myself, when I’m teaching my students.

 

The value of quantity

A few of my students took The 10 easy piece challenge. They learned 10 easy pieces upto set achievement levels, we recorded them and uploaded them online. Achievement levels set depended on the student’s weak area, and many of these were way below ‘performance’ level (the level of playing at which a student has mastered the piece).

The students were thrilled because they got good feedback at piano class. It was fairly easy for them and therefore getting piano practise done was not too hard a task for their parents.

These students suddenly moved from being the ones who did not get anything done, to the ones who were doing exceedingly well, and their parents were very proud of them. Their parents would motivate them by reminding them of how capable they were and they’re excited about piano class.

Progress was not always a straight line, and there were regular slips. Mostly though, it’s moving forward, and some students are now trying to do 10 more pieces.

Having 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

 

 

 

Preschool piano teaching with WunderKeys

WunderKeys is a Preschool Piano Program for children between 3 to 5 years of age. It gets  children familiar with the piano keyboard, and helps them to develop skills they will need later, when they complete the course and move on to a beginner piano method book.

 

My first experience with WunderKeys

I started teaching WunderKeys with just one student and was amazed at how exciting she found the stories in the lesson book.

The rhymes and math songs are practised in spoken English and counting from 1 to 10. They also help the student develop 4 important skills which are essential for students of music:

  1. Rhythm – singing and dancing in time to accompaniment
  2. Pitch – singing the correct tune
  3. Finger dexterity – the finger exercises with the rhymes are designed specially for this
  4. Identification of different fingers – each finger is a different ‘friend’ from the lesson book. Kids love the finger friends, so they find it easy to identify different fingers

My student liked the pattern recognition exercises, but loved to create her own original pattern and then copy it. Her favourite activity by far was the card games. She did not realise she was practising counting and memorisation when we did these at the end of class.

The student-teacher piano duets teach young piano students to play with 2 or 3 fingers at a time. It’s a game to the student. To the piano teacher, it’s an exercise that helps the student get familiar with the pattern of black and white keys on the piano keyboard.

 

What’s different about WunderKeys?

Unlike a lot of other pre-school piano courses, this course is designed for solo teaching (one student at a time) and teachers can teach at the students pace, repeating activities until the student has learned them well.

The story reading, songs and rhymes reinforce spoken English being taught at kindergarten level, and that’s why it’s particularly well suited to children who study in English medium schools but don’t have exposure to spoken English at home.

WunderKeys combines the fun of a group hobby class, with the learning focus that students can only get, with one-on-one teacher time.

 

Are you and your child ready for WunderKeys?

  1. Is your child 3 to 5 years old?
  2. Can your child understand simple instructions in English?
  3. Is your child comfortable speaking simple sentences in English?
  4. Does your child enjoy listening to music?
  5. Is your child interested in playing around on your keyboard / piano at home?
  6. Can the parent spend a few minutes a day with the homework?
  7. Can any family member play one song and one rhyme daily, for the student to listen to at home (mp3’s that can be played on a phone, computer or music system) ?

WunderKeys homework takes just a few minutes a day, so it’s not a problem for working parents. Children get used to the idea that daily homework is fun, and later, when they start beginner piano method books, daily piano practise is then easy to implement.

 

After a few months of class

My student’s initial shyness during the first few WunderKeys lessons disappeared and she began to talk a little more and ask for activities she liked. She was interested and attentive throughout the class, and would sing and dance with abandon.

It’s been sometime. My student is on WunderKeys Book 2 and likes to play the piano for 10 minutes at every class.

She comes to class because it’s a fun activity, while I teach her, because of the educational value of all the fun that’s WunderKeys

 

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’

 

What practising scales is good for..

7 reasons why scales are an essential part of learning to play the piano….

  1. Understanding the ‘key’ of a piece of music
  2. Exercising each and every finger
  3. Developing strength and agility of the fingers
  4. Hand coordination
  5. Playing scales in different ways can be used to improve rhythmic ability
  6. Developing a good tone
  7. Developing focus – since students need to concentrate when they play scales

Young students usually love scales, as they’ve heard them sung in the musical “The Sound of Music” and are therefore keen on learning to play them. Older students often find them challenging, therefore enjoy practising them.

Playing scales daily require a lot of discipline and committment – something most young children don’t have, and parents who see the value of scale playing, usually step in and see that it’s done. When children see that they’re playing their scales well, and that they’re easy (because of daily practise) they start enjoying them.

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.

The impact of 100 minutes of practise

A follow up on My Personal Sight-reading Challenge and Month 6 of My Personal Sight-reading Challenge

I started learning new material regularly, with a very flexible practise schedule, ranging from 5 minute to 45 minute practise slots, to no practise at all.

Erratic practise is better than none

Learning of new material was now a regular part of my routine, and I would practise pieces or sections of pieces in rotation to keep in touch with what I’d learned earlier.

An erratic practise schedule like this was not enough for me to reach the playing levels that I would have liked to, but there was progress. Slow, steady, comfortable and enjoyable. It was enough to get me playing full pieces, rather than just demos of sections that I would practise to teach my students.

What’s more important, is that I started to feel the joy of playing once again, and to go to the piano to relax… Something that I had forgotten to do through the many years of busy – with family and work commitments, when I did not make the time to play the piano just for me.

Modifying my goals to meet my abilities

I had a few practise setbacks, because problems with my hands due to some health issues affected piano playing, among other things. So I had to modify my goals, take on easier pieces and take practise breaks for long stretches.

I tried and failed at reaching ‘The 30 piece challenge”  even though I had learned enough material, because many pieces were still too rough and needed more work. I no longer needed to upload my ‘first reading’ of each piece to keep me motivated, so I stopped doing it.

Having easier, and more flexible goals is helping me stay motivated and keep going.

Getting your child to the piano at practise time

Young piano students generally don’t practise unless there’s supervision. They need help with scheduling practise and they also need daily reminders to practise. Here are a few effective and not so effective ways that parents handle the daily reminders.

  • Tell my children to practise and they will do it on their own

Most parents who do this and expect instant obedience will fail. Some of them might also make the mistake of thinking that their child is not interested in piano playing, because they don’t obey.

What many parents don’t realise, is that piano playing is a very solitary hobby for the young piano student and what they most want, in order to practise, is company. Just someone to be around, listen and enjoy their playing.

This method often degenerates into the next method.

  • Shout and lecture on a daily basis

This is the most ineffective way of getting practise done and the cause of a large number of children losing interest in piano playing. Some children who are still very very keen on learning despite this, get very defensive and their minds just shut down, so at piano class, convincing them to learn something new becomes a very difficult task for the teacher.

  • Set a practise time, and see that the child is free at that time, remind your child twice

This is the most effective, and a large number of musical children who do well, have parents who do this. Children usually respond to the second reminder and parents who are prepared to remind their child twice do not get irritated when their child doesn’t go to the piano at first reminder.

  • Listen to your child either during practise or at the end of the day, 3 times a week – preferably on alternate days

This works very well for parents who are both working and come home too late to be there at practise time. For most children, just a reminder that they have to play for their parents is enough to motivate them to practise.

 

  • Convince your child that you need them to play the piano, so that you can relax after a busy day

One parent came out with this really creative solution. Her child would often tell me that she had to practise every day, because that was the only time her parents could relax and unwind. The parent would lie down on a yoga mat and use practise time to do some relaxation techniques!

Young children who get the support they need in the early years, will grow into teens who want to practise daily. The role of the parent will change, from scheduling practise and daily supervision, to helping their child to this on their own.