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!
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.
Over the last few weeks we've looked at the benefits of learning music; what good music teaching looks like; and how it is possible to measure progress without relying solely on exams. Today we're considering the needs of today's children and how a novel approach to piano lessons incorporating all aspects of musicianship meets those needs. Please do share if you think your friends will find this interesting.
As renowned music educator Paul Harris says, today's children have a wealth of choice in terms of activities they can choose to fill their time and many of these give instant gratification. Learning an instrument does not always give instant gratification and so, if taught by a teacher who doesn't understand music education thoroughly, it is not something children are going to choose to fill their time.
Lessons with Surrey Music School offer children activities they can do well, 'now' - they learn to sing a song, they move to the beat, they spend all week singing the song and they play games together while singing the song - often they can't get it out of their heads! When they know the song really well they work out the pitches (the sounds that go higher and lower) and work out how to play it by ear on the piano. Because their ear is being developed through all this singing and playing they begin to work out how to play it.
So a task that could be difficult - playing a song and reading it from notation - becomes easy because they have had lots of fun learning it thoroughly and when it is time to play it they know it really well.
Children are then curious to know work out how the song can be notated (written down), so they are given resources to help achieve this and again, what could be difficult becomes easy.
Children happily and independently working out rhythms to songs
The piano is a pretty exciting instrument to play and explore, so not only do children get to play songs they have learned to sing, but those taking our group programme at St Johns in Merrow also spend half the lesson exploring the whole piano through improvisation.
Children learning in this way not only get a really great musical foundation for the future but also get to play real music 'now'! Of course we do not advocate having everything now, but this approach has the dual benefit of enabling children to make real music while developing all the skills necessary to become confident rounded musicians.
Of course they will have to apply themselves, it will not always be easy, but it will be much easier than going the route of 'traditional' piano lessons which involve setting a tutor book in front of a child and expecting them to read and play without any musical foundation at all. In these instances the eye takes over from the ear in the effort to decipher the notation and all thoughts of music making are absent in the struggle.
Over the next few weeks we'll be looking at everyone's roles in the learning process - the parent's, child's and teacher's.
Director of Surrey Music School.