In this short article I would like to challenge some universally accepted elements of teaching piano. I am speaking about the teachers who are eager to provide all the information needed by students to play. Again and again. They “teach” by making every lesson a copycat experiment. Most beginner students are young children aged five to eight. While this is a perfect age for learning new skills and concepts because of the readiness and natural elasticity of a child’s mind, learning a musical instrument could be daunting.
Learning the piano is an overwhelming experience at first. You have barely mastered some eye-hand coordination tasks and here you are asked to look at a page full of new symbols. Each symbol requires an action on your part that you have probably never done before. You are also asked to pay attention to how you sit, maintain a constant distance from the piano, play with the little pads at the tips of your fingers, don’t bend aforementioned fingers backwards, sit up tall and straight, count at a constant and steady speed. The bloody teacher sometimes asks you to count aloud!
‘Which note is this?’
‘Middle C?’, the little charming boy answers with a clear question.
‘Are you asking me or telling me?’, I insist.
Despite all the difficulties when starting piano, my teaching philosophy regarding how much information and shortcuts to provide to students underwent a slow and long evolution. Yes, of course it is great to volunteer as much information as we can to our students. It helps them learn faster, right?
I don’t think it is great.
Not to mention that doing it the “fast and easy” way makes us feel good. We are the knowledgeable ones, we are The Master.
From my experience though, information “served on a platter” is not retained for long. I cannot tell you how many times I have taught a student some important concept – whether it’s new notes, new dynamic signs, new tempo markings, new technique and they nod and they say they “get it” and the next time they come it is all gone. In exceptional circumstances, the information would be retained on the next lesson, usually a week later, but it will be gone nevertheless very soon after that. Then I discovered the best way to teach them new information.
Lead them to discover it themselves
Yes, you will still teach them but after providing background and maybe reinforcement from previous concepts, let them discover it and form their idea about it themselves. I promise you, the concept or information you are teaching them will stay with them because it will be better internalized.
Let me be more concrete. Say, you have a beginner student who you are teaching to read. She or He is familiar with the the basic 5-finger position on the piano in treble clef. These are the notes from middle C to G. I am giving this as an example because very often beginner students spend more time just playing pieces in this first taught position, so they become very familiar with it. Now you will teach them a piece, which will include the next note up, A above the middle G. This would require either to start in a different position, which is a little bit harder, or to change their position in the middle of the piece, which is a lot harder. I guarantee you that if you just show them the note A written on the staff and say: “Here is the next note up, A, and it is right here on the piano. It is a space note. Now we will learn a new piece, which asks you to play this note.”, they will understand it but by the time they get home, the information will be gone.
Now let’s imagine a different scenario. You sit patiently with them, go over the first five notes (maybe in random order if you feel they need to practice naming them) and they YOU ask them the question:
“So, what will be next note up from G?”
“A”, the student says.
“Is it going to be a line note or a space note?”
“A space note”
“Could you show me where would it be on the piano? Now let’s see if you can tell me is there an ‘A’ in this new piece? Do we need to start in a new position in order to play it do we need to change position somewhere?”
Yes, this approach will probably take longer and it will require sometimes a considerable amount of patience on your part because some students would take longer to answer those questions.
This is a good thing!
Whether you are a teacher or a parent, arm yourself with patience. Information discovered by your student or child in this way will stay with them for a long time and they will remember it.
The example I am giving, of course, is a very, very elementary one. Despite that, you could apply this strategy to almost ANY musical concept you need to teach, sometimes up to advance level students. Humans learn from experience and since playing the piano is stimulating to our brains on so many levels – logical, emotional, tactile, abstract, given answers not only don’t work but will waste time in the development of our young musicians. I have also noticed that this is true even for adult learners.
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