Last Saturday I attended the first round of the European Piano Teachers' Association (EPTA) piano competition for the Surrey region. I'd invited five of my students to play who have exams looming as I thought it would be good performance practise for them. I wasn't too bothered about the competition element but it proved to be very interesting.
Because it was a competition there was an adjudicator. We were fortunate enough to have Masa Tayama, 'one of today’s most accomplished pianists, ... much in demand across Europe and Japan'. As well as his international performing career he has taught at Chethams, is a principal tutor on the EPTA Piano Teachers' Course and is currently a professor at the Elmitt Piano Academy where he gives lecture recitals and masterclasses.
At the end of each class Masa gave each student individual feedback which provided excellent suggestions for how to improve future performances. There were so many gems I thought it would be helpful to share them here. Before I do, they can be summed up as finding the meaning behind the music and conveying it. This leads to real music making rather than just technical playing of notation on the page.
Curve your fingers!
Instead of repeatedly making this point Masa made it at the start of each classes' adjudication. He made the excellent point that other musicians, for example string or wind players have multiple points of contact with their instrument. Pianists have just one: their fingertips. Therefore the fingertips need to be under control. This means each joint round and firm rather than collapsed. It is only with curved fingers that students will be able to make great progress at their instrument.
I started a drive for curved fingers this term by handing out play doh for students to press their fingers gently into before playing each day. Watch the video on how to use it here. I have talked about curved fingers with my students for years but was freshly inspired by Masa. My students will now be starting simple technical exercises to strengthen their fingertips and I'm assured by him that this will transfer into their general playing.
I have a lot of new beginners this term and not only have they received play doh too, I am very carefully making sure they play with curved fingers from day one. I used to do this and somehow over the years it fell down the list of priorities with young beginners in favour of having fun just playing the piano. It's now back at the top of the list!
'Look like you're having fun'
Masa mentioned that many performers looked like they 'had to be there' rather than they wanted to be there. His opinion is if they are going to be there anyway they may as well enjoy it! This was particularly the case for 'silly pieces' where students were encouraged to really let go and have fun with the piece. A case in point was one of my student's pieces entitled 'Waltz of the Toads' which is a waltz written for very inelegant creatures. So he suggested really getting into the character of the piece and playing it inelegantly! I'm looking forward to the next lesson where my student will be given the choice whether she wants to play it like that - I must say it's much more fun this way and sounds great!
Whether the piece is silly or not, the point was to look like you want to be there and that you're enjoying yourself!
'Where's the pulse?!'
Masa noticed that in several performances he couldn't really locate the pulse. The pulse or beat gives music some of its character and in classical music we want to emphasise beat 1. Of course this isn't always the case and the waltz mentioned above is a case where we abandon this rule and emphasise beats 2 & 3! But generally when playing students need to show the pulse by emphasising beat 1 and putting less stress on the other beats.
There was much talk of dynamics. Dynamics are the different volumes we can use when making music. He made excellent suggestions about using imagery when thinking about them. If the phrase is forte (loud) is it an angry loud, an excited loud etc. think about what sort of mood the loud is and that will influence how you play it. The same with piano (quiet)- why is it piano here - is it scared, timid, shy, gentle, kind, - think about the mood and try to convey that in your playing. One point he made repeatedly was 'do dynamics because you want to, not because you have to'. If you can find the meaning behind the dynamics then you will want to do them, because you've found the point of them!
Dynamics combined with mood, character and pulse give the piece it's meaning - the meaning needs to shine through in every performance and that is where the real music is made. Not in just deciphering the notation, but finding the meaning behind it and conveying that.
It's your turn!
So, you've done all the hard work. You've learned your piece, you've found the meaning, you know how you're going to convey it. Now it's time to go and play it for other people to enjoy!
It's scary going up and playing in front of an audience and it's tempting to rush through the performance and be pleased when it's all over. But Masa pointed out that when you go to the piano it's your turn. It's your turn to be listened to, to have a go, to share the lovely music you've been learning. So relish this time, enjoy it and go for it! Try to forget about the audience and just enjoy your music making, showing the character and mood of the piece.
A parent whose child played on Saturday said to me at the next lesson that the children will only do what their teacher has told them, which is true. I explained that this was an opportunity for her child to play for someone with so much more experience than their teacher is likely to have. Someone who's not readily available to teach young beginners, someone who has performed and taught at the highest level, who can bring new ideas and fresh insights for students and their teachers alike. Parents - if your child ever gets an opportunity like this then go for it! Make sure they are well prepared and take along some paper and pen to write down the comments to give to the teacher. The feedback will be well appreciated.
Not only was this a learning experience for my students in terms of gaining performing experience and receiving feedback, but it was one for me too. A chance to refresh my teaching, be reminded of what's important and listen to new ideas for how to teach what's important. I have come away from Saturday freshly inspired to look for the meaning behind the music and help my students find it and convey it too. I'll leave you with a Chopin Waltz which I performed at a Meetup group the following day which has great meaning to me.
At the start of term I handed out a questionnaire (to students who have been with me for a while, new students your turn will come!) from The Curious Piano Teachers' January Curiosity Box which is on the subject of motivation. It had the following questions:
So 70% of children I teach want to play piano for a hobby and 100% want to develop their skills and know they are 'doing it right' without referring to YouTube. The two go together because the more skilled you are the more you will enjoy playing the piano. So what does this mean for my teaching?
I need to remember to stay in the moment and help each student achieve their goal, whether that be learning to play for a hobby or, in the case of one student achieve grade 8. It is notable that only one person had this goal. While 30% mentioned achievements those did not refer specifically to exams. Achievement for others meant completing a piece and feeling the rush of satisfaction / happiness.
Practise was mentioned in 60% of answers, and not in a positive way. Children struggle with the amount of time they need to spend playing at home, especially the older ones who have other homework. Unfortunately it is impossible to become proficient at any instrument without practise. I teach the children practise strategies and we make it fun in the lessons with 'cute animals' to help practise. Of course it's different when they are going through the work at home without me to support them.
An area for me to look at, given how many children want to have piano as a hobby, is to think about how much work I am expecting them to do at home. Perhaps those without goals of getting to Grade 8 can have less work to do at home and so feel less burdened at home and have time to enjoy it more....This may be a conversation to have with families. Perhaps a follow-up parental questionnaire might be helpful, as well as an initial questionnaire to new families about why their child wants to take piano lessons.
The next immediate step is to go through 'My Piano Planner' with students who have completed the questionnaire, to set goals for the coming year. After all, if piano lessons are meeting the child's goals then, as the tagline for this month's Curiosity Box says, motivation comes as standard!
I can't remember if I did hurry her but I do know I noticed the desire to rush her and later in the lesson I know I slowed down so she could enjoy and be in the moment she was in.
As I reflected on my morning's teaching afterwards I realised that children inhabit the present moment naturally. They are so often absorbed in the present moment. How often do we, as adults interrupt that?
Many of us are always hurrying children onto the next activity; then we wonder why, at a later date, they always want to be onto the next thing, why they are never satisfied with what they are doing right now. We often find this at a moment when we have spent a large sum of money on an activity, or arranged something that has cost us much effort. They want the next thing because that's what we've taught them to want! In all our rushing to get things done, teach them as much as possible, cram as much as possible into their lives so they don't miss an opportunity, we are teaching them that what they have now or what they are doing now isn't enough.
Many of us are always hurrying children onto the next activity; then we wonder why, at a later date, they always want to be onto the next thing.... because that's what we've taught them!
So from today I will make a conscious effort to slow down in my teaching. To allow children to be in the moment; to be absorbed in the activity we are doing now. I will take that extra couple of minutes which will be a special time where I too can notice the moment, be in it with the child and enjoy watching their experience unfold. Their learning and their experience and memories of piano will be all the richer for it.
Here's poem I wrote about a year ago when I first noticed I am always in a rush for the next thing and began to wonder why. I'm grateful for the reminder from this student to just slow down.
Rush Rush Hurry Hurry
Always there; never here.
Rush Rush Hurry Hurry
Something different, something better.
Rush Rush, Hurry Hurry
This is never good enough.
Rush Rush Hurry Hurry
Let's slow down and be, just here.
Another creative love is to create music, that is to improvise. Improvising is not playing music that someone else has written, but something I have created myself that has come from nowhere. I can’t share that so easily with others since it’s gone as soon as it arrived. Unlike art I find it harder to get myself to sit at the piano and create music, however when I do it’s such fun and I can get quite carried away, losing all track of time! This is a state of ‘flow’, which ‘is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time.’ (Wikipedia - see reference below)
we all have something to say, let’s make sure the opportunity to say it is given through the gift of improvisation
Leading piano pedagogues have written about the importance of improvising in piano lessons for The Curious Piano Teachers and I have taken a few quotes to share with you. See the full Curious post here.
So much of what we hear in the world of piano exams, piano competitions and yes, piano lessons, could be more musical. Could the way thorough this be by encouraging more improvisation in our lessons, to allow students the opportunity to connect to music on their own terms, expressing their own feelings and really developing their understanding of what music means to them. Would this lead to more enjoyable musical experiences for students and their families alike, would students be more motivated to play the piano because it’s ok to just sit down and improvise their own piece?
It is a tragedy if the opportunity to deeply enjoy and connect with music is lost through lessons that require students to simply play what others have written – we all have something to say, let’s make sure the opportunity to say it is given in the gift of improvisation.
Visit the improvisation page, play some tracks and experience it for yourself.
This month's Curiosity Box from The Curious Piano Teachers has been filled with Christmas activities to do with our students. I must admit to being a little lax with preparing these as my printer had run out of ink, however on my last day of teaching this week I opened up one of the challenges on my iPad and to my delight found that each of the students I tried it with really enjoyed it. Two children in Year 7 studying for Grades 1 and 2 wanted to continue way past when I thought they might have had enough and an adult was equally engaged.
So, what was the challenge I hear you ask! The Curious Piano Teachers have compiled a list of Christmas songs and carols and written them down, but not so that they are easily recognisable: rhythm and pitch have been separated and you're only allowed to hear it in your head. I've put three examples below in case you'd like to try it yourself!
The skills needed for these are those of musicianship. The students needed to be able to:
The results were that sometimes students could work out the song from just doing those three steps, and other times they needed to then play the song on the piano to try to identify it. Jingle Bells was easily identified by one student before she'd completed the three steps. The activity is designed for those around grades 3-4 so my students did pretty well!
I tried this with a friend who studied guitar to about grade 3 many years ago. He was able to clap the rhythms brilliantly but was at once stuck on the pitch - he had never been taught to sing as he played so it was almost impossible for him to sing the pitches. I am yet to find out if he has identified any of the songs!
With the New Year around the corner you may be looking for piano lessons for yourself or your child. The sort of teacher you want is one who will prepare you for a challenge such as this, without even knowing it is coming. So don't be afraid to dig into their teaching qualifications, experience and professional development activities before committing to lessons. Look for a teacher who'll make this challenge a walk in the park for you!
How do we solve the age old problem of practising between lessons? I'm sure many of you reading this will either have children who learn an instrument or remember your own instrumental lessons and one of the major problems is practice.
A while ago I wrote a blog post about the parent's role in the piano learning journey; a major part of which is helping with piano practice at home. Today's post is about a free online tool called Cadenza developed by Professor Rena Uptis of Queens University in Canada that teachers can use to help motivate students to practice at home.
Given that students see their teacher for only 30 minutes a week the progress they make is quite remarkable
Given that most students see their teacher for only 30 minutes a week the progress they make is quite remarkable. Compared to the hours children spend each day with their teachers at school, instrumental students, their parents and teachers do a job that is nothing short of amazing!
Cadenza is a free online tool that increases the support available for children outside of lessons. It allows:
perhaps most exciting of all, Cadenza allows the student to upload videos of progress during the week on which the teacher can provide feedback
Children will need access to a tablet during their piano practice time. They can work through the activities set by the teacher, monitor their progress during the week, see how much time they have spent working on activities and write notes for themselves or their teacher. The tool can help develop the skill of reflection as children can note what went well and what they need to focus on during the next practice session.
The creators of Cadenza report that students 'love' using it and that it's fun. Teachers and students report learning more quickly with Cadenza and experiencing more satisfaction as musicians. And why not, the goal is to make music and the sooner we can all do that the happier we will all be!
From January 2019 Surrey Music School will be using Cadenza with all students. If you have lessons with us please sign up and let us know when you've done so. We can then connect and the fun can begin!
Over the last two weeks I've discussed the parent's and child's role in the journey, today it's the teacher's. The road to learning anything new is never smooth. There are ups and downs, struggles and joys and the teacher is there to accompany the learner through them all, the good times and the bad.
Role 1 - Facilitating open communication
Role 2 - Identifying and solving problems
These problems may be emotional and related to the child, or technical / musical related to the piece of music. Children arrive for their lessons in various moods and states of readiness to learn and teachers need to be able to observe and adjust their teaching to suit the child. This can be pretty hard to do as we are under time pressure and want to teach the child as much as we can in the time available, however sometimes it's just necessary to abandon the plan and go with how the child is feeling.
Role 3 - Entertainer
Role 4 - Researcher
As teachers we have to be endlessly curious about how we can teach 'better' (helped by ongoing professional development, for example from The Curious Piano Teachers, or membership of Facebook groups for teachers); what resources we can find for our students; which piece will suit which student; how to find a piece a student has requested that is arranged suitably for their level.
Role 5 - Educator
Not only do we need to educate ourselves and our students (this has been discussed in earlier posts), but we also need to educate parents. Many parents long to play instruments themselves and either didn't as a child, or did and gave up too soon and regret it, or did and became quite successful - whichever it is teachers need to let parents know what music education looks like today. It looks pretty different from what they experienced as a child or think they already know and they may not recognise it as what they want for their child. But it is what their child needs if they are to become fulfilled musicians.
Music education has moved on and these days high quality music education teaches the whole child all the skills they need to be successful musicians. So children learn through movement, songs, games, rhymes, they learn to play by ear and from notation, they are encouraged to make up their own music and 'mess around' on the piano. Learning an instrument is not just learning to decipher dots someone else wrote on a page.
I'm sure there are many roles that I've missed. Can you help teachers become better by identifying any more?
I'll be taking a break from blogging until after Christmas. The purpose of these first posts has been to help educate readers about why music is important, what good quality music education looks like and how they can help their children succeed. In January I'll look at a different topic.
Children tend to love music, they like to dance, to sing and to play on instruments. Really, they just have to show up at the lessons wanting to learn and curious to explore. By all means try out instrumental lessons with your child, but if he or she doesn't want to continue, please don't make them. Instead help them find what they do want to do.
When a child wants to learn an instrument it's essential they choose one they like the sound of since they will spend a lot of time playing it.
Parents can help by playing all sorts of music and even giving children the opportunity to try some out - advice here! Peter and the Wolf is a good piece to introduce children to various orchestral instruments, as is Carnival of the Animals.
Music is an entire language and just as children took years to learn to speak full sentences so will they take years to learn the language of music. This doesn't mean it can't be fun, engaging and fulfilling (which is the teacher's job; we'll look at that next week), from the beginning but reaching the dizzying heights of Grade 8 is hard work!
As well as showing up willing to learn, children need the parent's and teacher's support to develop:
Please remind your child not to be afraid to ask if he / she doesn't understand something and also to let their teacher know if they are not enjoying a particular approach or piece. Good teachers who have undertaken professional development can adapt their approach and can easily provide different repertoire to better suit the child. We are not mind readers and while we can 'pick up' on undercurrents we don't always succeed.
So much of the child's experience in learning an instrument depends on the quality of the teaching and if the child can develop the attitudes discussed above and is supported by their parents they will be well on their way with their musical journey. Next week I'll look at the final part of the triangle - the teacher.
What is your child's experience of music lessons? Are they developing the attitudes they need to succeed? Is there anything you can do to help them even more than you are already? If you missed the parent's role in the learning journey read it here.
So, you've signed your child up for piano lessons and just like every other extra curricular activity, you pay the bill, drop your child off on time and your job is done. Or is it?
They listen to enthralling stories from Inner Musician and are then taught motifs (musical ideas) to make the story their own, using the piano to tell stories about thunderstorms, butterflies, the ocean and other countries.
This is available for existing 1:1 students too, so if you'd like your child to experience the joy of improvisation just let me know and I can sign you up to Inner Musician.
Director of Surrey Music School.
Benefits Of Learning Music
Good Music Teaching
Music Lessons For Children Guildford
Online Piano Lessons
Piano Lessons Chertsey
The Curious Piano Teachers
Traditional Music Teaching