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.
Director of Surrey Music School.