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?



Discipline in Piano Class

… 2 Effective Ideas, which work to discipline the young piano student.

Daily piano practise needs discipline and yet, students need to want to play, because they think practise is fun.

Students who have fun in piano class, are more likely to enjoy practise, so it’s the responsibility of the piano teacher – to find that balance where piano class has discipline and students still have fun.


1) A time to jump, wriggle or walk around and a time to sit still

Sitting still at the piano often is an effort for young students. They wriggle and fidget or want to walk around the classroom or jump about…..And they’re allowed to do this.

They need to know that they can ask their teacher for a short break and do all of the above, provided they commit to coming back and sitting perfectly still at the piano after that.


2) Shouting and drama

Students love this! It works when a teacher is still at the stage when she’s amused and entertained by her students efforts to disrupt the class. The student understands perfectly well that the teacher is not angry and is just acting up a bit, and find’s it amusing – and therefore actually listens and accepts correction.

This helps a lot with children who are timid and afraid of a slightly raised voice. It helps them get used to a louder voice, in a non-threatening atmosphere.


Parents need to know that their children need small practise slots to start with and may need breaks during home piano practise, depending on their age, and their ability to sit still.

It’s a very good idea to discuss what should be allowed during home practise with the piano teacher.

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 schedule the child’s daily routine, so that it’s not overly crowded with too many activities.

Practise for the beginner level student could be anything from 5 minutes to 15 minutes a day, depending on the child’s age, and it builds up very gradually over the years.

The piano class progresses at a pace the child can cope with. It is important that the teacher does not exceed this pace, because young children get very disheartened and often want to give up the piano when they cannot cope.

It’s important that parents make the time to be present in class, when the teacher sets goals or targets for students. Because children often want to reach goals their daily routine, their learning style and practise schedule does not support.

Please read Why young students give up the piano and Coping with the overscheduled child in piano class

When piano playing gets difficult

Dear Parents,

Piano playing is getting to be a challenge.

Your children want to perform and achieve and think they can do this without daily practise. So, they come for class and get disheartened when they don’t play well. They love learning the piano, so you’re realising they need your help.

Many of you are now insisting on daily practise, and helping them remember to use the practise techniques they learn in class (as they forget, if left to themselves)

Some of you knew what music learning was about, but many of you did not. Here is my answer to a couple of your questions..

“Is it always going to be this hard”

Piano playing has always been a challenge. Piano students learn hand coordination, they learn focus and they learn that even when it’s hard and they can’t do something, they simply take a break, read the instructions in the homework book and try again.

That’s why piano students who stick it out, develop maturity, confidence and also learn better and faster than they did before, resulting in their school grades going up, less time spent with study and more independent study at home.

That’s the reason why many parents are spending time and effort – in attending piano class once in a way and getting daily practise done. It’s mostly not because of the piano playing, but because of the changes they see in their children, as a result of piano class.

The level of difficulty goes up, in stages. So your child will find it hard, and then get used to the challenge…until he/she chooses a piece that’s a little bit harder or has something new in it. And it will get hard again for a while.

“Is my child finding it harder that others”

All children find piano learning challenges them, but some do cope better than others – these are usually students who have a lot more time at home.

Firstly, because their practise is scheduled in a more relaxed way, with more flexibility.

Secondly, they often spend spare time at the piano, after practise is done, just fooling around – maybe doing a favourite piece just for fun, or trying out new tunes they’ve heard.

Here are a couple of excellent articles on the benefits of piano playing. Please take the time to read them, because they’ll help you decide how much you need to help your child.

Practising the piano helps much more that musicianship

Scientific studies prove music lessons were the best thing your parents did for you


Why young students give up the piano

‘Parents thinking a child can practise alone, is a major reason why children stop piano study’ .. i quote here, from a blog by the Vahl Piano Studio.

The blog makes an interesting point, that students give up, because they can’t progress.. because they don’t practise enough to learn something new every time..

That when parents assume their children will practise on their own, it mostly just leads to a child quitting.

That children need help in scheduling practise and in keeping to the schedule. They also need to be reminded to practise all the homework given, because left to themselves, they often forget to do quite a bit. That it is the parents who help their child, who, i quote ‘cultivate a student who is committed for the long term.’

The blog is worth a read and explains how parents can help their child. I won’t repeat what’s written, simply because its written so well – here it is for you to read ‘Why students stop piano study






2 Options and the extremely indisciplined piano student

Children (5 to 10 yrs old) who are extremely indisciplined and disruptive in piano class, are almost always the same at home.  And yet, these are invariably children, whose parents are making a steady and constant effort to instill discipline, and, obviously not succeeding.

So, piano teachers have a choice :


Option 1 : Do teachers simply tell the parent to discipline the child  – knowing the parent is already trying and not succeeding?

As a teacher who interacts regularly with parents, I usually have a fair idea of what the child is like at home and find that asking the parent to handle extreme indiscipline results in the child being told he or she is badly behaved. Since these children usually have learned how to push their parents to breaking point, this sometimes results in shouting and very rarely, beating the child. And both of these just make a child more difficult.


Option 2 : Should teachers talk to the parent and see how both the parent and the teacher can both change our teaching and parenting techniques, and work together to get the child to change

This means that the teacher is looking at a child, who is naughty,  lacking in discipline, sometimes moody and bad tempered or cranky, or even attention seeking in a negative way, and saying  “The child is not the problem – it is just that I the teacher, and the parents, have not yet found a teaching and parenting technique, that works on this child”

This is hard for both the teacher and the parent, because, actually, we have both done nothing wrong. However, if both of us just stick to our existing ways of functioning, which have obviously had no effect on the child, the child is likely to continue being indisciplined and may even get worse.

Why the teacher finds it hard : The teacher sees the child just once a week, so in a way it should be easier for her to be patient. It should, but it isn’t always. There are times when all the students on a particular day come to class and argue, throw, tantrums, sulk, and refuse to learn – any teacher will relate to this. And since discipline is part of piano teaching, it has to be dealt with.

Parents find it hard, because they never get a break!

Parents will often find that their parenting technique, which works on getting one child to be very well behaved, has the exact opposite effect on the other child. And yet, the parents are the biggest influence on a child .. much much more than any teacher can hope to be. So, the parent still has a choice :


  • To continue using the same parenting techniques on both children, and accept that one child is just plain difficult


  • To accept that the indisciplined child simply needs a different kind of parenting, and try to experiment and learn what works

I see progress, and I see change, with the many many open-minded parents who interact with me, and are taking the time to give their children what they need, in order that  they learn better. It’s not always easy for the parents, or for me the teacher (since we both often have different ideas and sometimes strongly disagree with each other on how to discipline the child – though we both agree that discipline is needed). But, since we persevere, we eventually find some common ground and are able to work together to make a difference.





Success at last with distracted piano students

Some of my piano students were very very distracted in piano class and otherwise too. They just wouldn’t pay attention during class, or while practising, so they’d practise enthusiastically – but wrong.

Piano class was an effort for me, because i needed to repeat a question many times, patiently, before they were able to get it and answer. They knew the answer and would always answer correctly, once they paid attention. The difficulty was in getting them to do so.

I had to be very very patient and be sure i remembered to boost their confidence, by pointing out when they did well, because i noticed that these kids got very anxious that they couldn’t get it at one go.

I also, had been noticing, that these kids were not always this distracted and had been trying to figure out what it was that made them this way. I noticed they all had something in common :

  • They skipped class a lot
  • They took vacation breaks of a month at a time
  • They all came from families with working mothers, who had recently had a lot of work pressure and were themselves, struggling to cope with their daily schedule
  • Some of them had weak eyesight and needed to get their eyes checked

It was too early to tell whether this was just a temporary phase or whether it was something more serious, but i realised i needed to change the way i teach.

So,  I’ve made changes in the way i teach and talk to these kids and their mother’s are rearranging their work schedules, to get more time with their children and it seems to be working!

My other blogs on distracted kids have more, on what worked.