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.

Taking responsibility for quality piano practise . . . in 8 easy steps

Quite a few of my most supportive piano parents  went through phases when they got upset with feedback. They had children who played the piano daily and yet, achieved very little. Parents new to piano music often can’t hear the difference between good and poor playing.  It’s important then, to have parents attend piano class and to listen to what effective piano practise sounds like.

‘Correct playing happens. . . Some of the time’

That’s what many piano students say, when they get something right. When students are asked how they got it right ‘some of the time’ they often say it’s luck.

If it’s luck, then the power to play well does not belong to the student, but to chance. Students often don’t realise that they play daily, disregarding their teachers instructions. They end up spending more time at the piano than than they need to, often working very very hard for small gains. These students work hard, but not smart. They don’t  understand that there’s value in learning piano practise techniques.

Students need to play the piano, as well as practise.  It takes them time to understand that there's a difference & to learn to practise  right.

Practise lessons from the diary of a housekeeper

My maid is on leave this month. She does a few small chores for me once a week, that make my life easier and give me some free time. I wasn’t successful at getting a replacement. I could say that I’ve had bad luck. But that’s not the case. Many of the other families she works for have got substitutes.

I haven’t because I chose not to do this.

Because there’s payback to getting a substitute, that is not acceptable to me right now. I will need to be flexible with work time slots and adjust if the maid is late. I know from past experience, that anything from 30 minutes, to a couple of hours late, to not arriving at work at all, is the norm here.  While I might be lucky and get a maid who arrives on time, I’m not willing to take the chance of my daily routine disrupted.

Taking responsibility, means that the power to change things rests within me.

I can change my situation by making different choices

 

Taking responsibility for luck

If we say that piano practise was effective because of luck, we need to ask ourselves whether that luck just happened by chance or whether the way practise was done created conditions that brought about that luck? Can the piano student change the way he or she practises, so that practise brings clarity, and the student is able to see what made it effective? And so, take responsibility for that luck and for making it happen again and again?

Here are some ideas on how to do that.

8 Steps to help students ‘practise’ during practise time

  1. Read what’s written in the homework book and follow instructions. Young children often need their parents around at first, until reading the homwork book becomes a habit.
  2. Record small sections of practise done in class and take a look at it at home, before you practise.
  3. Divide your piano homework into 3 practise sections, practising each section during a different time slot, with breaks between slots.
  4. Schedule an extra slot, so that you have a little flex in your schedule.
  5. Practise 5  days a week and schedule  2 non-consecutive days away from the piano. Students who take a weekly practise holiday are relaxed and therefore more creative at practise time.
  6. Play slow and correct rather than quick with errors. Play right from the very first.
  7. Record your practise, listen to it and evaluate what you did. This will help you improve.
  8. Do what your teacher has asked you to do, then put aside your homework book and play what U want to.

What are the strategies that help you practise effectively? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

 

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.

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 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 a small easy goal makes students pay attention to their weak spots in new pieces, so that they don’t make the same mistake there.

The steps they take forward are very small. So small, that I need to point them out so parents notice them.

What makes them important, is that the student is taking them independently, without my help.

There’s value to quantity, that is, to learning more repertoire. It’s the only way for piano students to really master their instrument. Here are a couple of very interesting posts that every teacher, piano parent and student should read.

  1. The surprising power of quantity by Elissa Milne
  2. Which promotes greater learning – higher standards or lower standards  by Dr Noa Kageyama

 

 

 

WunderKeys – a preschool piano course

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

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

What you need to know, if you’re taking on the challenge :

  1. Learn 10 new easy pieces every 3 months
  2. Bring them to class done, and spend just 5 minutes of class time identifying weak spots and how to work on them
  3. Get them done to the playing standards set by your teacher
  4. Write them in “The Challenge Book”

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

 

Why easy pieces?

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

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

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

 

The reason for variable playing standards for each student

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

The goal is to help each student get a little better than they were before, and to set standards that take the student forward in steps small enough, that it’s easy. So that learning new pieces is relaxing and enjoyable.

So, the standards are graded gradually. For example :

  • Playing gently is the goal for students who bang and play with bad hand shape – working on dynamics is minimal and will be focused on later.
  • Students who are poor readers get very easy repertoire, until their reading skills get stronger

 

How piano friends are helping each other

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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?)

 

 

Piano Practise Charts and independence in practise

image

Regular piano practise usually happens because of parent support, and then, teachers need to teach students to move on and learn to practise independently. This happens very slowly, and takes years with very many students, but detailed practise charts speed up the process, and give parents a way of keeping track of piano practise when they’re not around.

Some of my piano parents use detailed weekly charts like this, to keep track of studies too, and it’s very very effective, as students become teenagers, and want to take responsibility for their own activities and have less parents supervision.

It’s my hardworking ‘Piano Mom’s‘ who take the initial responsibility of getting their child to write out the practise chart. Over time, their children learn to remember, and do it themselves, because, when children ask for something out of the ordinary, or want some extra time with friends, parents usually take a look at their child’s practise and study charts, before okaying it.

Detailed practise and study charts help students develop independence in piano practise and studies and take responsibility for their own education.