Earlier in March I visited the Barbican in London for the annual Music Education Expo. Described as the UK’s largest exhibition and conference for music teachers, the expo is a two day long event at which music educators come together and share ideas. The large exhibition space is filled with stalls. There are stands representing retailers (Hobgoblin Music was one I spent rather a lot of time at playing with the various instruments..!) stalls representing associations and unions (like ISM, Musicians’ Union and EPTA), stalls representing brands (like Steinway and Kawai), not to mention individual self published composers selling their work. I bought new sheet music from Rosa Conrad, Elena Cobb, Paul Birchall, Nikolas Sideris, and Ben Crosland which has all been a hit with my students so far.
During the two days there were many different workshops and lectures. The timetable was made available online before the event, so you could do a bit of prioritising and decide what you wanted to go to. Unfortunately it would have been impossible to go to everything, as there were many workshops and talks going on at once in the different areas.
There was so much to see and do in the two days, but I came away from the experience with just a couple of points ringing in my ears – and not necessarily what other people had spoken about in the talks and workshops, but what I made of them – and what i’m going to do about it in regards to my own teaching.
Piano teacher, examiner and researcher Sally Cathcart, and fellow piano teacher, lecturer and psychologist Lucinda Mackworth-Young ran a talk for piano teachers where the first question put to the group was whether learning the piano is in decline. I think the general consensus on this question was a no, but it led to the next area of conversation: the point at which young students tend to stop having lessons. Everyone agreed that young people are overloaded at school with homework and assessment, plus a timetable of extra curricular activities outside of school. Most people agreed that the point in which students’ interest in the piano declines is around grade 2 to 3, at which point notation and musical concepts become more difficult to grasp without fundamental theoretical knowledge. Up to this point, students can ‘imitate’ such theoretical knowledge using their ear, or – to put it bluntly – ‘blag’ it. It is only when a student reaches grade 2-3 level they really have to engage with notation, and if they have a very good ear they can get beyond this point without engaging with it.
The conversation from this point led to what we can do about this. How can piano teachers engage their students from the beginning so that they want to engage with notation earlier, and how can piano teachers engage ‘blagging’ students with notation to keep them interested? Composition and improvisation seemed to be what most people thought was the best way, because this keeps playing the piano ‘current’ and exciting. Students can begin to arrange popular pieces of music themselves, which is an excellent way to get students comfortable with notation – especially if you are using software like Sibelius or StaffPad. The overall benefit of using composition and improvisation in lessons, however, is that it develops the student’s musical identity, helping them equate ‘just having piano lessons’ with being a musician.
Achievable challenges and non-linear approaches to learning were discussed next. We talked about role reversal, getting students to assume the role as teacher in a bid for them to begin assessing themselves in terms of technique and musicality. Sally Cathcart spoke about ‘messy piano’, which for her, arose out of the awareness that the most effective learning is often unstructured and non-linear – unlike most piano method books on the market.
Breaking things down and making things achievable was an important thread of the discussion; because similarly as with notation, students can easily be disillusioned if they perceive a task as too big or too hard.
I agreed with what the other teachers said, but I thought there was an important point in the background that had been skirted over slightly. As students can ‘blag’ their theoretical knowledge up to a point, they can do exactly that with their practice. That’s not to say that they are not practicing, but it is highly unlikely that they will be practicing effectively enough to keep up with the ever increasing demands of their music. So, if we return to the question at hand: why is it that when students reach grade 2 to 3 on the piano, that their interest declines? Yes, notation and concepts become more challenging and cannot be imitated as easily, and therefore musical concepts, theoretical knowledge and notation need to be learned. How? Through consistent, effective, and thorough practice.
The way I practice has definitely matured through the years. Looking back to being a child, I don’t remember practicing – as I now would define the word – at all. I just played my pieces. I skimmed over them; the bits I liked and felt confident about got better, while the tricky areas lagged behind. I didn’t have the patience, the maturity or the guidance to practice effectively. Using a metronome felt like being physically tortured as I struggled to listen to it and myself at the same time. This doesn’t mean that I hated the piano, at all. I just hated practicing because I didn’t know how to do it properly. Once things get much harder, this all becomes more apparent and problematic. And that, is one of the reasons – perhaps the biggest reason – why students’ interest deteriorates and they stop having lessons.
The next day, I attended a talk by Fiona Lau. Fiona is a piano teacher, but she also co-founded Yohondo – an app which encourages effective practice – by breaking piano pieces down into bite sized chunks just as a teacher would. This enables the students to practice effectively, and learn their pieces correctly, but with the added bonuses of being able to watch, record and rate their performances. The talk focused on practice, reward and progress. It was similar in vein to the talk I had attended the previous day, and I left with many of the same thoughts in mind.
Personally – and I haven’t always felt like this – I don’t like rewarding my students. I think progress and achievement is motivating and rewarding enough. I used to give students little rewards, but became frustrated when the reward was expected purely on the basis of attendance. So I stopped (apart from the occasional sticker). No one complained.
Fiona did talk about the motivation of a little competition, however. I have noticed students do want to know what everyone else is up to, so seeing other students progress in the form of a chart – where ticks or stars are given if the student reaches a particular goal – could prove useful. A system like this could also be effective insofar as it promotes goal orientated practice. This made me think more about the previous talk, and what to do about it.
Between now and Summer, I am going to be focusing on effective practice with my students. I firmly believe that teaching students to practice effectively using the techniques used in lessons, and the newly available technology (more to come on this in my next post!) is one way to keep students engaged and interested. Why? Because:
- Students will gain the confidence to tackle problems head on.
- Students will become more independent as they begin to assess themselves.
- This independence encourages students to see themselves as musicians, rather than ‘just having piano lessons’.
- Self sufficiency is the mark of progress.