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?

 

 

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?

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.