As we prepare to return to piano lessons next week and I sit down to write the invoices for the new online classroom fee it seems right that I let you know about the value it provides. Hopefully you saw this for yourself last term as your child learned and practised new skills. This blog post tells you how to get the most out of your online classroom experience.
During face to face lessons I taught music theory during the lesson through games and then set theory homework. This took up a lot of lesson time and despite revisiting topics frequently I still found that children found them hard to remember. This was just 'the way things were' and I accepted it, taking time to play games as necessary.
Lockdown forced me to find a different way of teaching theory. I discovered that teaching via video is extremely effective and frees up valuable lesson time for piano playing.
The online classroom allows children to watch the videos, which include activities, as many times as they want to until they are confident in their knowledge.
Children can practise their skills on the automatically marked quizzes that accompany each unit. As I'm sure you already know, practice is important for good understanding. I am seeing children engaging with the quizzes and making multiple attempts to improve their score which means that their knowledge is becoming thoroughly embedded. I am also receiving correct answers to questions I ask in lessons! This approach is called 'flipped learning' and is very effective. Children can thoroughly learn ideas outside lessons and are much better prepared for lessons, which become more effective.
Most of you are already using the online classroom really well, but just in case you're not completely clear, the value from it comes from engaging with it as I set it, including:
Over the coming academic year the theory part of the classroom will grow into a complete course in beginner music theory and your child will continue to benefit from all the advantages it provides.
The children (and I!) love improvising. It is such fun to just sit at the piano and be able to make music without being tied to what is written on the page. Improvising allows children to express themselves through music and play much harder things than they can read.
The online Improvisation course has provided fantastic 'motifs' that children have loved learning. They developed and made them their own during the last school year, including making up completely new motifs. It has allowed children to pick and learn motifs in their own time and explore the sounds the piano can make. There is already a new 'Improvisation Inspired by Nature' and, time permitting, I hope to add more to this part of the Improvisation course. My priority at the moment is, however, the theory course.
Finally, Music Moves! Music Moves is currently only studied by two students however this is something I plan to expand when I have space for new students (when face to face lessons resume). Music Moves is a new programme for 4-7 year olds that teaches core music and piano skills through movement, improvisation and rote playing. There are preparation videos for learning each piece, where children move and listen together with videos showing children how to play the piece when they are ready. There are also accompaniment videos for each piece. The online classroom provides excellent value for these students, allowing them to engage with me every time they practise!
Music is a language and, like all languages, listening is a vital part of the learning process. Last academic year I put up a Peter and the Wolf listening project for children. This term I will be putting up Carnival of the Animals which is a great piece that children will enjoy listening and moving to.
I have also embedded a Spotify playlist of general classical music. Engaging with both of these resources will further develop the rounded music education I am developing for your child. The Spotify list can be listened to anytime and does not have to be a serious 'sit down and listen' exercise!
I only have 30 minutes a week to teach your child piano. Piano teachers around the world complain it is impossible to cover all the things that provide a rounded music education in this limited time. Inevitably some things have to give and these are often music theory and improvisation, not to mention general listening!
The online classroom allows your child to benefit from these very important areas of music and means that they understand better, make faster progress, play more musically and, of course, enjoy more. It has been such a good find for me and I am excited about what it has to offer for your child. I look forward to developing it further and helping your child's music education be as rich as possible.
What has your child most enjoyed about their virtual lesson experiences so far? Do post your comments below!
A radically different approach to piano teaching: Music Moves by Marilyn Lowe, learn by listening, moving, playing, singing, chanting!
In 2005 as a fairly new piano teacher I enrolled on a 2 year distance learning post graduate diploma course at Reading University called Music Teaching in Professional Practice (Mtpp) (sadly now defunct). I'd been teaching a couple of years and felt sure there must be more to music teaching than I was then doing, but I just didn't know what it was. I taught in the way I'd been taught, starting with Middle C and using notation from day one.
The Reading course started with a week long summer school when we were exposed to dozens of new ideas including singing and moving as ways to teach music, the ideas of significant music educators such as Kodaly and Dalcroze. From this first week my teaching was transformed. I sought out new information and ways of doing things and as soon as term started in September I was ready with an entirely new approach. My students were introduced to playing by ear, singing before and as they played, improvisation and many other new activities. Over the next couple of years I went on both the Kodaly and Dalcroze summer schools. My and my students' enjoyment rocketed and my studio became very successful. These experiences made me into the teacher many of you know today.
I learned so much on the Mtpp at Reading it kept me going professional development wise for many years, until The Curious Piano Teachers (CPT) came into being in May 2015. Still being keen to learn new approaches I became a founder member. Membership of the CPT refreshed my teaching and exposed me to yet more new ideas!
One of these new ideas is Music Moves for Piano by Marilyn Lowe. Marilyn's teaching and tutor books are informed by the research of Edwin Gordon, a music educator and researcher who passed away a few years ago. He devoted his career to studying how children learn music and developed a theory of music learning called Music Learning Theory (MLT). Music Learning Theory brings together the ideas of all the great music educators including Kodaly, Dalcroze and of course Gordon himself.
Gordon found children do not learn music best through reading notation from day 1. I stopped using notation from day one in 2005 and did from a few weeks to a few months without notation however Gordon takes it much further and only introduces reading once it is developmentally appropriate and many fundamental musical skills such as keeping a beat, understanding rhythm, singing and learning to listen have been developed.
In the MLT approach, before reading is introduced children learn music the same way as they learn language. Think about your child's acquisition of language. What process do they go through? Well, they:
In many areas of the world (think Scandinavia) children don't start to learn to read until they are 7 or 8 and research shows they read just as well and with less of a struggle than those who learn to read earlier.
Music is a language that needs to be acquired in the same way as spoken language. But traditional music teaching does not follow this approach. It starts at the last stage of language acquisition, with the written symbol. Is it any wonder that many (is it most?) children learning the traditional way struggle with their instrumental lessons? Well meaning teachers are expecting them to read without having developed all the skills necessary before the reading can be successful, enjoyable and pretty easy. Children are also not able to easily understand abstract concepts (such as reading music) before the age of about 9. Of course this depends on the child; this year I have had a couple of 8 year olds very able to grasp music reading but some younger ones have found it more difficult and reinforced my belief that using Music Moves in the first couple of years of learning is something I will do with all children aged 4-7.
During my time at Reading University I read Teaching Music Musically by Keith Swanick that made the point that the eyes are a stronger sense than the ears and when a child is struggling to interpret notation their eyes take over and their ears are not used. So the musical experience is lost in the struggle to read. There is a real risk that this leads not to a love of music but resistance to it.
I have long believed that there is more to playing the piano than simply reading notation and for years have tried to put this into practice through improvising and playing by ear but as soon as reading is introduced the lesson focus tends to become largely about reading and other areas are pushed aside. These other areas are what makes true musicians and, as well as playing by ear and improvising include:
When reading is introduced too early these other vital aspects get pushed out because there just isn't time for everything. And learning to read takes time, especially when the listening, moving, improvisation and playing foundation hasn't been laid.
Since April 2020 I have been piloting Music Moves material in online piano lessons with two 6 year olds and have seen for myself that this method brings music to the forefront of the child's experience. Children learn to listen to music, move to it, sing, chant, improvise vocally and at the piano and learn to play short pieces, sometimes solo often accompanied by the teacher. I have watched these two girls, who started from very different places, flourishing. In a few short months they have become independent, accomplished musicians, able to remember and play all the pieces they have learned. They are developing a natural pianist's hand shape and technique (without even realising it) while having fun, musical experiences at all times. Their imaginations are inspired, they play musically and they love their piano. I feel emotional when I see how well they are doing and how engaged they are with the process. This is not how my music lessons were!
Music Moves is a programme that can be done in groups of 3 and once social distancing is no longer necessary Surrey Music School will be enrolling children aged 4-6 into this new programme which will give children the best introduction to music you could possibly wish for them. If you want your child to fall in love with music, then this is the programme you need.
To get on the waiting list for when face to face teaching resumes please submit your email address below and I'll be in touch. If you want to know when face to face teaching may resume please read the blog post about it!
As we look towards September I know some of you are hoping that face to face lessons will resume. However it became clear to me some weeks ago that I would need keep my teaching practice online for the foreseeable future to ensure everyone's safety and that piano lessons do not become a source of transmission for Covid-19.
Online I currently see more than 20 children a week from more than 9 different schools. In 'normal' times I see around 30 students a week. As soon as the government started talking about bubbles in schools I could see that were I to return to face to face teaching I would be breaking bubbles left right and centre. This would increase both the risk of me not only transmitting the virus between students, families and schools but also catching it myself. These are not risks I think worth taking.
Breaking bubbles for the sake of face to face piano lessons is not a risk worth taking.
There is also the issue of sharing the piano. In every lesson I demonstrate on the piano. In online lessons I use my own piano. In face to face lessons I'd have to use the same piano as the student (with the exception of one location). Guidelines for piano teachers are that the piano keyboard should be cleaned between each student and it would certainly not be practical to have to stop the lesson to clean the piano before and after every demonstration! Not to mention that with my schedule for face to face teaching there is not time to thoroughly clean the keyboard (sides and ends of the keys as well as the surface), the music stand, the door handle, the piano stool and anything else children may have touched after every lesson .
What makes face to face lessons special is the contact between student and teacher. The duets, the improvising together, the games we can play and the resources I use. As things stand at present none of these things can happen in face to face lessons. Not only because resources (including the piano) cannot be shared but also because I'd have to stay 2 metres away so would not be able to closely check technique, point at the page, help the student mark up his or her music, reassure normally if necessary. It seems to me that this would be the worst of all worlds. None of the benefits of face to face lessons and also none of the benefits of online lessons!
Students are well set up for their piano lessons at home and making great progress. I can see what they are up to technically via video, asking for the camera to be moved as necessary by willing parents, we can use the screen share facility in Zoom to look at music together and Moodle supports the children in their learning between lessons.
What has been most surprising about online lessons is the progress children have made and their level of engagement with them. Supported of course by you, their parents. Progress has been at least as fast, if not faster, than in face to face lessons, probably because children have had so much more time recently!
So, for the foreseeable future piano lessons will remain online with all the benefits that brings, none of the downsides that would be encountered in face to face lessons and with no risk of Covid-19 being transmitted between me and you.
We celebrated the children's progress with a digital showcase in May, the standard of which was superb. When the time comes for face to face lessons to resume and large groups can gather indoors we will celebrate with a joyful, in person, concert.
In March 2020, as Covid-19 made its way across Europe it was becoming increasingly clear that I was going to have to take my British piano teaching business online, something I had never even thought of doing, let alone considered possible. How on earth are you to teach piano online?! Well, 314 lessons later I have some answers together with some major innovations in the way I'll teach piano in the future.
Supported by The Curious Piano Teachers who provided a wealth of information and were already experienced in delivering online training to piano teachers I got ready to launch.
Frantic working out of how to set up kit to ensure an overhead view of the piano and a sideways view of me ensued together with:
There was an issue of how to get resources to families and how to share videos. I overcame this with the help of my good friend Andrew who is an expert in the online learning platform Moodle. I also had to think how to arrange homework notes – Google Drive has been great for this as it allows me to link directly to YouTube videos and specific activities in Moodle. Each child has their own link to Google Drive and accesses their updated notes there each week.
Helped by 7 days self isolating with very mild Covid like symptoms (I don’t know if I had it or not, whatever it was was very mild and quite probably a chill, but I didn’t want to take any risks) I was ready for piano in week 1 of lock down. As were many of my ‘piano parents’.
Piano parents were not only having to cope with their own rapid learning of new technologies and ways of doing things, they also had their children at home, were trying to work while also home schooling and, on top of it all they committed to keep their children’s piano lessons going. So thank you ‘piano parents’! Without you none of the innovations I have made would have happened. I would have had to put my feet up during lock down and make sure I looked after my own mental health without work to hold on to. Work has kept me going through all of this.
Thank you 'piano parents'. You have kept me going throughout this.
Always wanting to be the best I can I also spent quite a few hours in the first few weeks attending webinars about online teaching. The Frances Clark Center had some really great ones. As it turns out I should have had more confidence in myself as my training meant I was already equipped to deliver engaging lessons, apparently regardless of whether they are online or face to face!
I was finally able to put into practice some training (from The Curious Piano Teachers) about feedback. They have done a few Curiosity Boxes on this and I loved the first one, about asking questions. I’ve been using this for a few years now and it’s a great teaching technique.
The second box focused a lot on feedback about what you, as a teacher hear. Whenever I’d tried this during face to face lessons it sounded very patronising to me and I didn’t use it much. Online however I see just how effective it is. I discovered that instead of telling a student they played the wrong note in bar 3, for example, I could say ‘I heard that you played a second up in bar 3’ and after a few seconds they usually respond with ‘ahhh’ and immediately set about having another go and correcting the mistake within 2-3 tries.
I came across quite a problem with rote teaching which is a large part of what I do in Piano Safari (my programme for 7+ year olds) and Music Moves (my new programme for 4-6 year olds). Students tended to have just one device to their side and it was hard for them to look at that while I played a section using my overhead camera view, then look at their keyboard and remember what to do. After some thought this was easily solved by asking them to either put a second device on the music stand during rote learning, or moving their existing device to the stand. So rote teaching has been a success too.
A major problem for me came with a pair of twins I teach who were racing through Piano Safari, which starts with rote and off stave work, towards the unit where the stave is introduced. I had previously taught one child how to read on the stave via a Zoom lesson but I knew I could do better.
This is where Moodle really came into its own and I started to use it as a flipped learning environment. Its a new phrase to me but it means that students first learn about concepts via video teaching and then discuss it with the teacher afterwards. Until then I'd used Moodle as a repository for the resources I use in face to face lessons so that parents could print them off and use them at home. The problem with this was that parents were already desperately busy and it was not realistic to expect them to do a lot of printing and cutting up! The videos meant that children could take responsibility for their own learning, watching them and doing the activities mostly independently (I hope!).
Then followed some serious professional development where I had to really think through in minute detail how to teach a concept as complicated as ‘the stave’ via video! There was also further professional development in thinking through how to actually make, edit, upload and embed videos. Work on Moodle has taken up a large part of my non teaching time this term. I discovered it’s no good ad-libbing in a video, I had to tightly script each video to make sure concepts were crystal clear!
Reader, I can tell you that this has been a success! The twins learned all about the stave via the teaching videos and within a couple of weeks became confident music readers. Of course, it’s no good making teaching videos without also giving the children a means to practise and test their knowledge, so the next step was to create quizzes to go with the units of work. By now I had reached my capacity for learning new things. Andrew once again stepped up and offered to do the quizzes for me. So now I write the quiz in a spreadsheet and he creates the music images in Muse Score and makes the quiz in Moodle! Eventually I’ll learn to do that too, but not yet. As a trained teacher himself Andrew is also able to give useful feedback on Moodle content.
I am already seeing the huge value of the quizzes where children are making multiple attempts, improving their score and the time it takes them every time. Some can already do the first quiz as fast as I can!
So in the space of 4 short months I have learned that online piano lessons are not just possible, they are effective. They have also given rise to some superb opportunities for professional development, particularly in terms of thinking how I want to teach theoretical concepts and creating step by step teaching materials that will be used long past when we return to face to face lessons. Thank you to all the 'piano parents' who have kept their child’s musical journey going throughout this difficult time. You and your wonderful children have kept me going too.
Why all cows do not eat grass, or, in other words, why using mnemonics to learn to read music does not work!
When you learned piano as a child, you may have learned to identify note names using mnemonics. There are four you may have had to learn. Examples include:
For the treble clef spaces: FACE
For the treble clef lines: Every Good Boy Does Fine
For the bass clef spaces: All Cows Eat Grass
For the bass clef lines: Good Boys Do Fine Always
Here we have four sentences to remember, the ones for the notes on the lines are confusingly similar! So not only does the student have to remember four sentences, he or she also has to remember to which clef they refer and whether they refer to line or space notes. The student also has to remember that the mnemonics all start from the bottom of the stave and go up. Are you confused yet? I am!
Now imagine you're under 10 years old - can you imagine the confusion and struggle a younger person (possibly your child) will face?
I hear many adults still using mnemonics to identify note names. If mnemonics worked, they would not have to keep referring to them. They would simply be able to name the note instantly (like we piano teachers can!). So what is it that musicians do to be able to name notes they may not come across much, for example on 3 or 4 ledger lines? We name them with reference to another note that we do know. This is called a landmark note.
Enter the realm of landmark notes and reading by interval! This is the strategy that I and many of my colleagues in The Curious Piano Teachers use to teach note reading. It's also used by the tutor book Piano Safari.
When reading is introduced we start with reading intervals of a second (steps) up or down from only two landmark notes; treble G and bass C. The advantage of doing things this way is that once a student can recognise and play a second, he or she can recognise and play a second written anywhere on the stave, including notes he or she can't actually name. This leads to far more fluent reading and playing as students do not need to spend time processing note names, just intervals. It also allows for a wider variety of music to be played. As students progress they learn to recognise intervals of 3rds, 5ths, 4ths and so on.
Learning this way also has a profound benefit for the aural element of music exams where students have to name intervals. Did you have to do that as a child? Was it difficult? I relied on my perfect pitch in this area of the exam, not my instant recognition of the sound of an interval. In the intervallic approach, students are introduced to intervals from very early on in their learning and do not have it suddenly sprung on them a few weeks before an exam.
Teaching this way is a gift to our piano students. It reminds me of the Chinese proverb 'give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime'. We could just as easily change this to 'teach a student a note name and he can play one note. Teach him a landmark note and reading by interval and he can play any notes'!
'Teach a student to read one note and he can play one note. Teach him a landmark note and reading by interval and he can play any notes'!
Reading this way benefits students' sight reading because again, they are not having to process note names, just recognise and play intervals. I did not learn this way but I do teach it! I have seen for myself the benefits for students' reading and playing fluency. I know it works, not only because I see it in my students but because when I come across one of those pesky ledger line notes, if I just read the interval, I can instantly play the note!
Are you curious about landmark notes yet? Have a look at this video from Music Mind Games which shows all the landmark notes. All other notes that students up to about grade 6 will come across are less than an interval of a 4th or 5th away. So provided a student knows his or her landmark notes he or she will be able to read the music with much less of a struggle than one that reads by note name.
Of course there is a place for knowing absolute note names but that is a post for another day and in the intervallic approach comes a bit later (it also doesn't use mnemonics!).
We continue our series on how to support your child's piano practice at home with more practical tips from Dr Christopher Fisher, pianist, piano teacher and piano parent, with a few ideas thrown in from me for good measure!
Remember to be specific and praise effort and not 'intelligence' or 'cleverness'. Children need to learn that good results come from effort which they are in control of, not some elusive talent that some people have and others don't.
For example, 'I was so impressed how you persevered the other day when you felt really frustrated that you couldn't do x. You persevered and got it and I was so proud of you'. Or mention the strategy they used that helped them succeed.
Have your child bring their favourite soft toy to the piano and play for it, asking 'could you play this piece for your teddy and make it sound peaceful, like a lullaby, let's see if teddy can fall asleep'. You hold teddy and make it fall asleep!
These are great ways to get repetition (only accept correct repetitions, use a practice strategy) which is what leads to great progress.
Tap the rhythm of the piece on their back and get them to work out which piece / song it is and then play it. Get them to do one for you to recognise. Can you play it too?!
Roll a dice and the number it lands on is:
Use a two minute timer and get your child to concentrate on one piece for that long (great for younger children). Stop when the timer's up, even if you're tempted to keep going - it's what you said you'd do and it's a bit fun if you're made to stop when you want to carry on - there's always later / tomorrow to carry on.
Mid-week recordings for the teacher
Make a mid-week recording for me. Send me something your child has been practicing / has accomplished, or is struggling with. I will watch it and send feedback as soon as I can.
We continue this series on practising with more really practical tips to help you support your child's practice at home. These are better done in a video format, so please watch the videos below. Do let me know how you get on with implementing the strategies at home.
The last couple of posts have discussed the vital role parents play in supporting their child at home by negotiating a practice time and making sure it's stuck to. For the next few posts we turn to practical strategies to help once you're at the piano.
Make it a special time
In today's hectic world 1:1 time with your child is rare, so why not make practice time a special time when it's just the two of you and you can treasure the time spent together. Put the phone and other distractions away, make sure siblings are occupied elsewhere, shut the dog out and really be present with your child.
your presence is one of the best rewards you can give your child
The power of praise & constructive feedback
You already know this, but children crave parents' affirmation but it needs to be:
Say 'I can see how fast you are progressing using that strategy'
Say 'I loved the sound you created just there'....and so on.
I hope this has given you some ideas for practical ways to support your child. There will be more next time!
It's the start of the new school year. Children have returned to school and piano lessons eager to learn. There really is no better time to get the piano practice rolling than right now. It's up to parents to establish and uphold the expectation that their child will practice as prescribed by the teacher to help their child develop a practice habit. If you, the parent, are inconsistent then your child will receive the message that actually, music practice is not important nor valued.
Develop a practice habit
I read a fantastic book earlier this year about how habits work. Habits are developed by our brain to make our life easier. For example brushing our teeth when we get up and when we go to bed. We don't need to think about this, we just do it and I'm sure it's something you're trying to develop in your child, with daily reminders necessary for years.
To develop the piano practice habit you need to develop the same routine for your child.
Consistency is key
Consistency with piano practice is key. If you are willing to be inconsistent, so too will the child. Every single child who has ever played music will have wanted to skip practice or complained about it, but if you want the end goal - joyful music making - you have to go through some pain. Elissa Milne says 'just as you don't give your child the option of not brushing their teeth, bathing, eating, dressing, in the same way practice is not optional. Even if you have to remind them daily for a decade. You are the parent. You make the rules. No one ever reached adulthood and said I wish my parents had stopped me learning the piano.'
Schedule a practice time
So, you're at the piano having scheduled the cue - the practice time. Now the real work begins of helping your child through the frustration that will inevitably come, as with any endeavour. Gary McPhearson a music education expert found that parents are the ones that quit. they get fed up with the battles. So what can you do when the going gets tough and the child doesn't want to do it?
You can provide structural support but you cannot make it grow. You want tomatoes but you can't focus on them. You have to focus on the environment. You have to create an environment where the plant can grow and thrive. In the same way you need to create favourable conditions at home, that will enhance and maybe accelerate their love and learning of music.
How might you begin to create this environment? Here are some thoughts:
You're still going to get tantrums and problems. Christopher Fisher says 'when little people are overwhelmed by big emotions it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos'. I love this. It's so easy to get caught up in it all rather than just be present with the child's emotions. Remember the key is to be calm and poised so that you can help your child.
when little people are overwhelmed by big emotions it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos
A few things to take away from this post:
What strategies have you found that work? Share them below!
Read the next post for practical strategies to apply to practice sessions.
Children can’t see the big picture but adults can. It’s up to parents to get the ball rolling so that the child can build skills and successes and realise that hard work leads to successful and enjoyable music making
How do they get to a stage where they can play easily and effortlessly? By practicing of course. But you can’t just tell a young child (under 12 but maybe older depending on the child) to go and practice the piano when they get home from their lesson, just like you couldn’t tell them ‘the toilet’s down the hall, off you go’ when you were potty training them. If you want your child to develop a love of music they need your support on a daily basis. If your child sees you not prioritising piano or music, they won’t either and you won’t get the lifelong love of music you’re looking for for your child. Remember progress won’t happen without practice and practice won’t happen unless you make it happen.
If you do know about music or had piano lessons as a child remember things have changed in the last 20 years and the lessons your child has will most likely look nothing like those you experienced. Ask the teacher questions about why if you like, but you will see for yourself how much better things are these days (with well qualified teachers who keep their skills up to date). Or read about what good quality music lessons look like here.
Many families today are very busy with both parents working and children taking part in many extra curricular activities. But if you want to see progress and joyful music making to ensure they love what they are doing and don’t want to quit then making good quality practice a priority is essential. For young beginners this may look like 5 minutes 3 times a day. If you’re not going to have time to do this at least 4 times a week then your child is not going to make good progress and is at risk of becoming demotivated because of that.
At Surrey Music School we only accept families who are able to commit to this level of practice because it leads to the best possible outcome for the child – a love of music and joyful music making. We can almost guarantee your child will love the music they are learning because we only use the most up to date methods, keep our skills well honed through ongoing professional development and are able to respond to each child’s needs. We also provide parents with everything they need to support their child at home, particularly workshops where we teach you how to make practice fun and where you can ask questions and get support. We are in the process of setting up a closed Facebook group which will also be a source of support, from us and other parents.
Next time we will look at how parental views, habits and expectations affect their children’s music making and the following we will look at how Surrey Music School supports parents with practice at home. Don’t worry, you’re not alone – we do everything in our power to help you do the best job you can do.
Director of Surrey Music School.