HOW TO PRACTICE SMART! PART 4

First of all, any time you choose to practice, you are doing the SMART THING!

But, as I have mentioned before, there are SMARTER ways to practice — habits one can establish which allow him to accomplish more during a practice session, and to play more accurately earlier in the learning process.

One of the practice strategies I like to encourage is what I call “backward practice.”  No, it doesn’t involve literally practicing a passage backward, note-by-note!  I use the term because it’s “short and sweet,” and because it always grabs the student’s attention.  In reality, I am advocating that the student back her way through a difficult passage.  Let’s examine a hypothetical situation.

Many of us who play piano have found pieces in which some sections are harder than others.  I’ve discussed in earlier blogs the benefits of identifying harder sections and practicing them first, or more, or both.  Now I’m going to recommend a way to increase the efficiency of those practice sessions.  Imagine that there is a phrase in which you always seem to find yourself stopping to figure out the next notes, or stopping to make a large leap with your hand from one location on the piano to another.  When I find myself in that situation (and, yes, I do at times!), I go to the last measure of that phrase and play it several times (usually four or five).  I then move back one measure and play from there through the end of the passage four or five times.  I will back my way through the entirety of the difficult passage — always playing to the very end, and always playing the same number of repetitions — until I have practiced the entire passage, straight through, four or five times.  Yes, I know that means I will end up having played the last measure many times.  And, yes, it’s time-consuming.

Here are the benefits of this practice strategy:

1) As opposed to working in the same manner through a passage, from beginning to end, this type of practice does not encourage a habit of stopping at the ends of measures, since it quickly gets to the point that each measure feels easier and more familiar than the one before.  Hesitations at barlines are enough of a problem for many students anyway, right?  Why use a practice strategy that promotes that bad habit?

2) It is psychologically very helpful.  As the student plays through whatever portion of the passage he is doing, he is feeling increasingly comfortable and confident as he goes.  Because most people seem to always practice beginning-to-end, those people inevitably find themselves more comfortable, more confident, and better at the beginning, and just the opposite at the end.  The strategy I suggest will help to undo that effect.

3) One need not do the “backward practicing” at every practice session.  Usually, even one day of this type of practice will show amazing results.  The student may find that she can do a few days of “normal” practice, and then another day of “backward practicing,” resulting in so much improvement in the passage that it no longer stands out as more difficult!  Mission accomplished!

4) It is more time-efficient.  Yes, it DOES take up a lot of time on the day one decides to put this strategy to work.  But in the long run, a student who implements “backward practicing” for a piece with one or more challenging sections will learn the piece better, in a shorter amount of time.

Those of you who are parents of early-level students should not assume that your child needs to implement “backward practicing” at this stage.  Just store up in your mind what you’ve learned from reading this post, so that one of these days when your child is stymied by a tougher passage, you can look very smart by showing your child how to PRACTICE SMART!

 

 

I LOVE IT WHEN PARENTS DO THIS! PART 4

I love it when parents help their kids make time to practice!

ONE POINT:  I, along with most of my professional contacts, have noticed that some parents consistently refer to our weekly learning appointments as “piano practice.”  NO.  It is a piano lesson.  Piano practice occurs during the week, BETWEEN lessons.

You will notice that I didn’t say “FIND time to practice.”  I am of the opinion that, in these busy times, NO ONE can “find” time to practice.  There is always something demanding our time or drawing us to invest our time.  Homework.  Video games.  Sports practice.  Social media.  Church activities.  Games (meaning here, sports).  Television.  Extra-curricular school activities.  Time with friends.  I purposely mixed my list, because there are necessities which demand our time, there are very good things which ask for our time or are very important in the family culture, and there are time-wasters (or maybe “time-stealers” would be better).  I think all of you can separate the above list into the appropriate categories.

So how does a parent help a student to MAKE time for piano practice?  First, the parent must be convinced that piano practice is one of those “very good things” and is, therefore, a valuable investment of time.  A parent who views piano practice as no more valuable than playing video games or mindlessly viewing social media is a parent who will not invest the energy necessary to help a student make time to practice.  If you are that parent, then you need to realize that your child will not make very much progress, if any, in piano.

But if you see piano as a valuable skill and activity for your child, I suggest you begin working on developing time management skills in the student.  First, and especially with young students, you must model time management skills for the child.  Analyze your schedule and the times when the student is home with time available for practice.  SCHEDULE a practice time, and see to it that the student starts practicing at the appointed time, unless extreme circumstances (illness, car trouble leading to late arrival home, etc.) make it impossible.  In truth, the hardest part about practicing is often just getting the backside on the piano bench to get started practicing!

I am aware that the after-school schedules of most families vary from day to day, so it is not likely that you can say “4:50 every afternoon will be your piano practice start time.”  If you can, then great!  But in the real lives of most families, available time will be different day by day.  (And weekends will almost certainly differ.  Please see my blog post from July 23, 2019, where I discuss weekend practice.)  I suggest mindfully looking over and possibly discussing each day’s schedule on the night before, and setting a practice start time at that point.  Then when you start your day the next morning, you will all have the same expectation for piano practice.  Consider setting an alarm on your or the student’s watch or phone as a reminder.  The older the child, the more responsibility she can take in planning for practice time.  But I firmly believe that the parent should continue to expect, and monitor, the scheduling and fulfillment of a practice time.

You will notice that I only mention a practice start time.  I am more interested in the student covering his entire assignment, each piece a set number of times (which I usually indicate) than I am that the student spend “X” amount of time at the piano.  The first few days after the lesson will usually find the student needing more time to cover the material adequately; as it becomes easier from practice, less time is usually involved.  However, if your family culture is to require a set amount of time, that’s fine.  (If that is your habit, you are likely already seeing to it that your student gets to the piano every day for practice.  THANK YOU, and keep it up!)

I never encourage students to view piano practice as more important than homework or church or school activities.  I value the development of balanced individuals.  But I think we all know that kids (and we adults!) waste a lot of time on social media, video games, and television.  “Down time” is good; we all need it.  But a more mindful approach to time management will result in the development of skills and the achievement of worthy goals, all the while allowing for adequate rest and relaxation.

Parents, please consider implementing these suggestions.  It is a sure way of getting more out of your educational dollar!

QUESTIONS YOU MAY HAVE — PART 3

WHY DO YOU START TEACHING STUDENTS TO TRANSPOSE AT SUCH AN EARLY LEVEL?

In my opinion, the ability to transpose is second only to accurate sight reading as a desirable skill for pianists.  Unless a pianist plans to never play along with any other musician, he will almost certainly find himself needing to transpose a piece of music.

Let me define “transposition.”  Simply put, transposing is changing a piece higher or lower.  Another expression frequently used is “changing the key.”  If you’ve ever heard a singer perform a piece that sounds uncomfortable at certain points, as if the singer’s voice can barely make a sound come out on that really low note (or that really high note — yikes!), you’ve witnessed a situation in which the song needed to be transposed to fit her voice.  Even the most beautiful of voices has its limits on both ends of its range, and there is no song which can work, in its original key, for every voice out there.  Playing for singers is the single most common situation in which a pianist will find it beneficial to know how to transpose.  There may be other occasions, though, such as playing with other instrumentalists who, for whatever reason, find it hard to play in some specific keys.

If you have an electronic instrument, you may well have a “transpose” button on your instrument.  That is wonderful, and can save you a lot of time and stress.  But acoustic pianos do not have that function available, so . . . unless you can guarantee you will never play an instrument without the “transpose” function, it’s a good idea to learn how to transpose.  And, yes, sometimes direct downloads of music can be obtained on demand in whatever key is requested.  At this point, though, I don’t think that is universally true.  I can scan in a piece of music and, using my music notation software, have it printed out in a different key.  That is WONDERFUL, believe me!  But again, not everyone owns notation software.

I believe in teaching transposition as soon as a student knows the intervals 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, and can place his hands on major pentachords (the first 5 notes of the major scale).  I am convinced that, if a student learns to transpose easy pieces and continues to transpose as her reading and playing skills advance, she will feel prepared to transpose pieces as needed.  I encourage students (at an appropriate level) to be able to write out transpositions if the piece is to be performed publicly, in order to provide greater security; but my goal is to make students feel unafraid of plunging in and transposing on sight if necessary.  I also teach those students who do some playing from chord symbols to be able to transpose those.

My first introduction to transposition was almost traumatizing.  I was studying at the time with two teachers, one a classical teacher and the other one who specialized in a style of religious music.  One day, out of the blue, she told me to transpose one of the gospel songs to a different key for the next lesson.  I asked, “How do you transpose?”  Her response:  “Just play it in the other key.”  No help there!  I asked her to show me where to start, and I stared at her hands, memorized where she started, and then toughed it out at home from there.  (Now I was already very advanced in classical music for a 12-year-old, but I had never had the need to transpose any of that music, and none of my theory books had dealt with transposition.)  For years, even after I understood the music theory needed to transpose, I was stressed at the thought of transposing anything other than the simplest of pieces.  Then in my early adult years I transposed through THE BROADMAN HYMNAL at a very slow speed, and gained some confidence.  As accompanist for the local high school choral department, I have a few times found it helpful to be able to transpose one or more vocal parts, or an accompaniment, until the director can get the music to a piece in the key he realizes he needs.

I will add one thing:  Please do NOT put a musician “on the spot” by asking him to transpose on sight in front of others.  Only a small percentage will be able to do so.  Show your accompanist, your church pianist, or your wedding musician, etc., the courtesy of adequate time to prepare.

HOW TO PRACTICE SMART! PART 3, continued

 

I mentioned in my previous post that there are a few dangers which may come along with identifying and practicing parallel passages in pieces.  (If you haven’t seen that post, you should be able to find it easily, as it is the most recent post on my blog.)

One danger is that the student may become complacent and not put in the work necessary to learn other parts of the piece as well as those parallel passages which have been rather easily conquered.  There is ALWAYS the tendency to default into practicing what is comfortable.  And certainly those passages which one has already learned should NOT be neglected!  There is no stasis; there is only progress or regression.  But perhaps the student should first practice one or more of the sections not yet mastered before reviewing those things already learned.  It would be a very good idea to rank the remaining passages by difficulty and learn them in reverse order, hardest to easiest.  (See my post “HOW TO PRACTICE SMART! Part 1,” which deals with practice order, and apply those principles to the sections within a piece.)

A second danger is one which can show up even in pieces without any parallel passages.  That danger is a tendency to play some sections of a piece (the easier or more familiar ones) at a faster tempo than other passages.  Recording oneself during a play-through of the piece can help one spot that problem before going to a lesson and having it pointed out by the teacher.  Once a student becomes aware of lack of consistent tempo, she should figure out which section is currently being played at the SLOWEST tempo.  She should then work extra on that section, gradually bringing up the tempo, for several days.  In the meantime, when playing straight through the piece, she should play all of it at a tempo that is no faster than the current accurate tempo for the slowest section (in other words, the fastest tempo at which she can accurately play that section).  After a few days it is possible that a different section will then be the slowest, so the same procedure should be applied to that section.  Depending on the length of the piece, the entire piece should be accurate at the same tempo within a week or two of concentrated practice.  A metronome can be extremely useful for accomplishing that goal.

PRACTICE SMART and enjoy the results!

HOW TO PRACTICE SMART! PART 3

Everyone loves “freebies,” right?  Of course!  Something for nothing, or almost nothing, always brings a smile.

You’re probably wondering how this is related to piano practice.  Let me illustrate with a couple of pieces which are familiar to many of you — one which seems to be a goal for many students who want to play classical music, and one which is a very familiar children’s hymn.

So many students love and want to play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”  (Sorry for the omission of the umlaut above the “u,” but this platform doesn’t seem to allow for multinational symbols.)  Let me say immediately that this piece is much harder to play — let alone play well — than most people realize.  But that’s another topic for another day.  The piece prints out as 103 measures, some of which are repeated using repeat signs.  The first phrase, the melody of which many people can hum from memory, appears SIX times in print as one looks through the piece.  For the student that means that, once that phrase is learned, every time it comes along HE ALREADY KNOWS IT.  Because the notes which precede it differ in some of those appearances, it will take some practice to be able to flow out of what precedes it and enter the familiar notes, of course.  But the student knows 24 measures just as a result of learning 4.  THAT is what I mean by a “freebie!”  In lesson I speak of such passages as being parallel passages.  When a student can spot parallel passages in a piece, she will often find that the piece seems just a little bit less difficult than it did previously.

Of course, not all parallel passages are exactly alike.  The second phrase of “Fur Elise” begins like the first, but the last full measure is different.  Once the student recognizes this, he can practice smart by focusing on the different part of the phrase until he has it, then add the already-familiar first part of the phrase onto it.  (And guess what?  That second phrase also appears six times in print as one looks through the piece!)

Hymns, even more than classical pieces, are filled with examples of phrases, or halves of phrases, repeated exactly.  Take, for example, the well-known children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me.”  The first half of the first phrase (text in the first verse is Jesus loves me!  This I know) is musically identical to the first half of the second phrase (text in the first verse is Little ones to Him belong).  Learning either of these two passages makes the other a “freebie.”  It would be hard to turn through a traditional hymnal without finding such parallel passages at least every 2 or 3 pages.

Now there can be some potential dangers for the student who is using her skill in identifying these “freebies” and saving time thereby.  I will identify some of those traps in the continuation of this topic in my next post.

Learning to spot parallel passages, whether identical or very similar to one another, can be a huge step in learning how to PRACTICE SMART.  But until you develop that skill, remember that ALL practice is smart!  I’m just trying to help you learn to practice SMARTER.

I LOVE IT WHEN PARENTS DO THIS! PART 3

I LOVE it when parents expect weekend piano practice!

I know that weekend days are not like weekdays!  We all go through our weekdays with ideas and plans for what we’ll do on Saturday and Sunday, and maybe even Friday evening.  Those departures from the routine are good and healthy.  However, from the piano teacher’s viewpoint, weekends can be huge impediments to progress.

Let me explain why this can be the case.

If Saturdays and Sundays are planned without any thought of practicing the piano, it is highly unlikely that students will just “magically” find any time for practice.  In most cases families are at home at least part of the day on each of these days.  Parents can see to it that some of that time (which would probably be spent watching TV, playing video games, or using social media) is spent productively on piano practice.  Rarely if ever will spending some time at the piano keep any student from other recreational activities.  If both Saturday and Sunday pass with no practice having been done, it is very likely that when the student sits down at the piano on Monday, little of the progress made on Friday will be evident.  Learning must be reinforced within several hours for it to become permanent.  (Why do you think new spelling words are introduced on Mondays instead of Fridays — or, even more critically, new concepts in Math?  Teachers know they’ll have to teach it all over again on Monday.  What a waste of time and energy!)

Now let’s take this a step further down the road to regression.  Let’s suppose that, every Friday, as soon as everyone is home from work and school, the entire family goes into “weekend mode.”  No thought of homework.  No thought of piano practice.  Now THREE out of the seven days of the week go by without progress!  One can understand why students for whom this is the habit fail to progress quickly in something like playing the piano, which requires a combination of mental and physical skills.  There is no standing still.  There is only progress or regression.

Students who have lessons on Fridays or Mondays are even more vulnerable to the damage caused by lack of weekend practice.  Friday students will have had new material introduced at the lesson which very much needs to be reinforced within 24 hours if it is to be retained.  Monday students will be expected (and expecting) to show progress on pieces at the lesson on Monday, but if there has been no practice since Friday (or, even worse, Thursday!), very little of the assignment will sound well and seem ready to drop.  This can be incredibly discouraging to the student, because he or she likely will not realize why things don’t seem as easy as they did at the last practice session.  You can imagine the frustration for the teacher.

For that reason, I highly recommend that parents have their students practice on Fridays and on one of the two weekend days.  As I said at the beginning, I know that weekends and weekend activities are healthy and necessary.  I would never ask that a student spend more time practicing on a weekend day than on others.  I simply urge parents to make the most of their educational dollars by making sure that students do some practice on weekends.

I realize that there are occasions when a family may travel out of town for the entire weekend.  When I was growing up in Tullahoma, our family drove to Gallatin to visit my grandparents, on the average, once every six to eight weeks.  On those weekends my sister and I got in little or no practice.  BUT WHEN WE WERE HOME on weekends, we practiced, at least on Saturdays, if not on Sundays!

I also realize that some families do not practice on the days that they worship, considering piano practice to be “work.”  I respect and accept that, but strongly urge that practice be done on the other weekend day.

I have been teaching piano for 42 years, as of this past May.  I can state with absolute certainty that students whose parents have regularly excused them from practice on the weekends have NEVER progressed as rapidly as could have been the case otherwise.

QUESTIONS YOU MAY HAVE — PART 2

WHY DO YOU PLACE SO MUCH EMPHASIS ON READING BY INTERVAL?

If you have sat in on many of your child’s piano lessons with me, or if you have spent much time looking through the books I’ve chosen for your child, you have likely seen or heard the words “interval,” “2nd,” “5th,” “step,” or “skip,” along with other similar terms.  Even if you studied piano in your earlier years, you may be unfamiliar with these words.  (I suspect, though, that you do recall having heard about steps and skips.)  You probably have wondered what these words mean, and you may feel uncomfortable helping your child as a result.  Or you may have felt that “If ‘F-A-C-E’ and ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ was good enough for my teacher, it should be good enough for my child.”

Let me first explain what intervals are.  An interval is the distance between two notes.  The terms “step” and “skip” seem pretty obvious, then:  a skip must skip a letter (and therefore a white key on the piano), so a step must not skip a letter (and therefore indicates movement from one white key to the next).  But then we run into a problem.  What if two letters (and therefore two white keys) are skipped, or more?  A system more exact in its terminology was necessary to indicate those distances with precision.  Intervals have been named using ordinal numbers for centuries, a step being called a “2nd,” a skip being called a “3rd,” and so forth.  (Exception:  the interval we might expect to be called an “8th” is instead called an “octave.”)

So now to the question posed at the beginning of this post.  Why do I (and most other professional piano teachers and authors of piano method books) place so much emphasis on reading by intervals?  It has been proven by researchers in learning, that most students process distances between notes on the staves more quickly than they do the individual note names.  And because of the structure of the keyboard, those distances can be seen and felt as reinforcement of what the student is seeing on the staff.  This gives pianists a distinct advantage over, for example, singers, who must identify the distance between the notes and know by the sound how to find the next note.  (That is also the reason that any young person who likes to sing should take piano lessons and learn how to read music in order to be able to learn music independently.)

I’m sure it is obvious to all of you that a pianist must still be able to name notes on the staff, in order to know where to begin with each hand, and in order to know where to move when the piece calls for a repositioning of the hand or hands.  My preference is to introduce most students to note names by way of a series of “Guide Notes” (or “Landmarks,” as the great piano teacher — and teacher of piano teachers — Frances Clark called them as early as the 1960’s).  Students memorize them, then add notes around them, recognizing the distance of each note from the nearest Guide Note.  Yes, eventually a good pianist MUST know the names of all the notes on both the bass and treble staves; but even before those are internalized, students can play correctly by recognizing the intervals and directions from the notes previously played.

Now, if you’re still not convinced, I have a question for you, if you play anything which involves playing several notes in rapid succession or, even more so, several notes at a time.  Do you actually have time to think of every note name as you play?  Unless you are playing at an absolute snail’s pace, the answer is “No.”  If you don’t play piano, ask your church pianist.  Therefore, at some level of the thought process, you are processing distances between notes!  You just aren’t using the terms we are using in your child’s lesson.

There is one more very important benefit to learning intervals.  Transposing, which I emphasize heavily in my studio, is dependent upon reading by intervals.  Any pianist who might ever be accompanying a singer needs to know how to change the key of a song in order to accommodate the singer’s vocal range.

I want to make an offer to any parent who feels hesitant about helping your child with practicing due to lack of familiarity with intervals.  Come and sit in on your child’s lesson, and see if you can understand what we’re doing.  If not, I would be happy to set up a one-time, free, 30-minute session with you to explain intervals and how they relate to the piano keyboard.

 

HOW TO PRACTICE SMART! PART 2

Remember, ANYTIME you choose to practice, you’re doing the smart thing!

But it is true that, in learning any piece of music, there must be priorities in terms of what you master first in that piece. Unfortunately, many students have some of those priorities in the wrong order. I can’t count how many times I’ve corrected the rhythm in a piece, only to have the student say to me, “I’m going to get the notes learned; then I’ll learn the rhythm.” Here’s the problem with that statement: All the while you’re learning the notes, you are playing those notes in a rhythm which is quite possibly NOT the correct rhythm. Wrong rhythms are very hard to unlearn; in my experience they are HARDER to unlearn than wrong notes.

If you are intent on learning the notes first, then do so in this manner: Point to each of the notes on the page and say note names as you go. Don’t play them on the piano as you are figuring them out, because you will play in a start-and-stop manner which will have the greatest pauses before the leaps in the melody. And those are already dangerous spots for most students in terms of hesitation, due to the physical movement.

I strongly prefer that students make sure of the rhythm first. Figure out the counting for all of the measures, and write in the counts in any challenging measures. Then consider tapping the rhythm in your lap or on a table — right hand tapping when it would be playing, and left when it would be playing. Learning the rhythm without having to also think about which key(s) to play is truly the quickest way to learn the rhythm, and hearing your tapping of the rhythm gives your brain an aural model for the rhythm which it will try very hard to create when you put fingers to keys.

So correct rhythm is the first priority. As many teachers say, “The right note at the wrong time is still the wrong note!” Of course, the second priority is correct notes. But it is important that each note be played with the correct finger.

I have no patience with the all-too-prevalent idea that “it doesn’t matter which finger you use, as long as you play the right key.” Using correct, logical fingering makes it easier to play the following note correctly! Correct fingering also makes it possible to play with correct technique and in a manner which is stylistically correct for the piece. Playing the piano is an art — not just a matter of pushing the right buttons as if one were typing. For this reason, I am very tough on my students about using correct fingering. If the piece you are playing has finger numbers marked in (as do virtually all educational pieces and classical pieces), play slowly enough that you can notice and obey the fingerings FROM THE FIRST TIME you play the piece; and continue to practice slowly until you are able to play the correct notes with the correct fingers, in the correct rhythm. Most well-edited educational pieces give fingerings for starting notes and then fingerings before and after any shifts in hand placement; they assume that the student will keep his hand in place and make logical choices for fingerings for notes without numbers given. If you like to go through a piece in your head before playing, consider mentally naming not only the note to be played but the finger you will use to play it. (Example using the first seven notes of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”: “E with 3, D with 2, C with 1, D with 2, E with 3, E with 3, E with 3.”)

So the first two priorities are correct rhythm and correct notes with correct fingers. But correct articulation is so important that it should be given attention almost immediately upon learning the correct notes.

The simplest definition I can give for “articulation” in playing the piano is “the manner in which a key is struck or released.” There are very many different markings and terms for various articulations, but the three most commonly found in early piano study are LEGATO, STACCATO, and ACCENT. Train yourself to connect sounds with your fingers if the notes are slurred, and to release a key before playing the next if the note has a staccato dot over or under it. It is often the case that failure to pay attention to and obey these markings in the early days of practice on a piece will result in mistakes in rhythm or notes when an effort is made to begin to obey these markings. As with disciplining oneself to use correct fingers, SLOW PRACTICE is very helpful in giving yourself enough time to think about articulation markings. Accents are also more easily added when practicing slowly.

After correct rhythm, correct notes with correct fingers, and correct articulation have become habits every time you practice a piece, you are ready to begin to follow the composer’s directions for correct dynamics. You will probably find that you have already been obeying many of those markings while mastering the earlier priorities, and that’s great! But at this stage it is important to pay very close attention to your louds and softs, making sure to keep a steady tempo when you make those changes. (It seems to be almost born into us to speed up when getting louder and slow down when getting softer!) Take the time to think about the title of the piece and any mood which the title may imply. Sometimes there is a character marking at the beginning of the piece, instead of (or in addition to) a tempo marking. If the character marking is in English, lucky you! You don’t need to look up the meaning! But if it is an Italian word, you will want to check with me or a music dictionary to find the meaning. Try to make the piece sound sad, or songlike, or playful, as the composer has instructed you. Now you find the piece really coming to life!

Believe it or not, the LAST priority in learning a piece of music is getting it to the right tempo (speed). Of course, if it is meant to be slow, your greatest challenge after practicing a piece well may be SLOWING DOWN! But if the tempo is moderate or fast, the last stage of your practice should be a gradual increase in your speed. Don’t try to make a big change all at once; you may just crash and burn! Speed up only as much as you can WHILE KEEPING RHYTHM, NOTES, ARTICULATION, and DYNAMICS correct. Be patient. You will reach your goal more quickly with small changes.

Let me list the priorities one last time as a summary.
1) correct rhythm
2) correct notes with correct fingers
3) correct articulation
4) correct dynamics and mood
5) correct tempo

Smart practice produces better results, and therefore happier, more accomplished students!

I LOVE IT WHEN PARENTS DO THIS! PART 2

I LOVE it when parents monitor piano practice at home in the days between lessons! This involvement is just as helpful as sitting in on the lesson; and the combination of both is virtually a guarantee of greater success in piano study.

When the student is very young, this monitoring should probably take the form of supervision of practice. If the student cannot read, or is just gaining skill in reading, it will be necessary for someone to read what I have written in the student’s assignment binder so that he will practice everything which has been assigned, and so that he will complete any written assignments I have given. In addition, the explanatory material on the assigned pages of the student’s method book(s) will probably need to be gone over with the student again. No student remembers everything the teacher says in lesson! As the practice week progresses, it may be possible for you to back off a bit and just listen to make sure that everything assigned is practiced, and is practiced the number of times I have indicated. If you were unable to sit in on the lesson, don’t worry! You are helping just by being there, going over the assignment with your child, and trying to help figure out any problems which arise.

Students in the mid-elementary grades may need less direct supervision of practice. Nonetheless it is very helpful to keep a listening ear during practice sessions. I recommend that a parent look over the assignment sheet soon after the lesson to familiarize himself or herself with what is expected of the student during the week. Listen to make sure everything is being given its fair share of practice time. (It’s very common for a student to practice more on the things she likes and, as a result, neglect those she likes less. You may need to explain the logic behind practicing a less favored piece even MORE so that it can be dropped sooner!) Check to make sure that she completes any written work which I have assigned.

I want to stop right here and make a few comments about some problems which can occur when a parent monitors practice. Other than possibly in the cases of very young beginners, I am not asking for the parent to correct every mistake made during practice. It can be very defeating for a student, who is trying very hard to train his fingers to do what we’ve discussed in lesson, to be told of every single mistake he makes. Progress is, after all, a process. It is much better to ask general questions such as “Were you making sure to count aloud so the rhythm will be right?” or “Were you careful to keep your fingers curved so that you’ll train them to look good and feel relaxed while playing?” If you noticed something wrong, be tactful in bringing up what you think may have been wrong. Ultimately it is the student’s responsibility, not yours, to make sure he learns the piece to the best of his ability. If your child rejects your help, just back off and let him learn the piece wrong. I will address the issues at the lesson. On the other hand, if your child becomes too dependent on your help, he is in danger of failing to become an independent learner. PLEASE DO NOT PLAY THE PIECE FOR YOUR CHILD so that he can learn the right notes or rhythm. I am not teaching students to imitate someone else. I am teaching students to learn how to interpret musical notation on a page and apply that knowledge to playing the piano. There comes a time when it may be necessary to play for a student in order to demonstrate some expressive aspects of his piece; and I often demonstrate proper technique for students. But those instances are not for the purpose of having the student learn the piece by imitation.

Once a student enters middle school, it is rare for her to want a parent closely monitoring the practice session. I still suggest that you acquaint yourself with what is assigned, and I ask that you provide proper guidance in scheduling and carrying out practice sessions. Keep enough of a listening ear on the practice room that you are aware if your child is not practicing what she is supposed to be practicing. One very good strategy, which works for many families, is to ask the student to play one or two of her assigned pieces for you late in the practice week. Be alert to frustration that may develop during practice, and remind your child that she is welcome to call or email me with any questions which arise.

High school students are basically independent learners. Supportive parents who encourage and ENABLE practice time for these teens are priceless! Ask your child to play assigned pieces for you periodically, and be as encouraging as you possibly can.

I want to conclude by acknowledging that YOU know your child much better than I do! I can only speak in generalities based on my lengthy experience as a private piano teacher. There are always exceptions, and we can work together to find the proper parent-child balance for your child’s practice sessions. If you are reading this, then you are interested in helping your child do his or her very best in piano lessons. I LOVE THAT!

QUESTIONS YOU MAY HAVE — part 1

You may ask: “Why is my child using a different method book series from the series being used by my friend’s child who also studies with you?”

There are literally dozens and dozens of method book series in publication today.  A well-trained, experienced teacher will be aware that it is not possible for one series to work equally well with every student in his or her studio.

Some method books were designed with early beginners (approximately ages 4 to 6) in mind.  The pages are formatted with that age in mind, and the illustrations are designed to be interesting to students of that age range.  An 11-year-old beginner would very likely be insulted if presented with a book using animal characters to present new concepts.  A method series written for teens and adults will probably present concepts much more quickly than a series written for elementary-age students, and will move to chords and extensions of the hand much sooner than a young child could possibly manage those physical skills.  So you see that the age of the beginning student is an important factor in deciding which method series to use.  Even the difference between, for example, ages 6 and 8 will almost always require that the teacher use a different method series.

The student’s musical background often influences the teacher’s choice of method series.  A great many factors must be considered.  What has the student been taught about music at school?  Does the student already play another instrument?  Does the student have a parent who is actively involved in music in some way?  Has one of the parents previously studied piano?  Because no two methods are identical in the speed and order of presentation of new concepts, a series which works well for a student who has already been exposed to musical information may move much too quickly for a student with relatively little music in his or her background.

With young students, the teacher must consider how much parental involvement may be expected in the child’s lessons and practice.  A student whose parent is regularly involved in attending lessons, supervising (or at least monitoring) home practice sessions, and seeing that written assignments are completed, will probably be able to handle a method series which moves somewhat more quickly.  (Please see my earlier post, I LOVE IT WHEN PARENTS DO THAT! Part 1.  I plan to write other posts in the future detailing other things parents can do to promote a student’s success in piano lessons.)  In no way am I passing judgment on parents who cannot sit in on lessons, or who for one reason or another do not closely monitor home practice.  I am simply stating, though, that in almost all cases parental involvement leads to faster progress.

The student’s musical goals also influence the teacher’s choice of method series.  While the fundamentals of reading music remain the same, the order of presentation of concepts can differ between methods designed to move students into, for example, primarily classical music, and methods designed to move the student into jazz, or religious music, or other styles of popular music.

A student’s learning style may influence the choice of method.  Some books seem to work better for aural learners, others for visual learners, and so on with other learning styles.  An experienced teacher will have noticed that he or she has consistently better (or worse) results over the years with a specific series and, upon reflection, realize that those students who were successful in that series all seemed to have similar learning styles.

Learning differences (autism spectrum conditions, Irlen’s Syndrome, attention deficit disorders) will also affect the response of students to certain method series.  Page formatting (use or lack of color in illustrations, page background color, “clean-looking” pages as opposed to a very busy look) can make a huge difference with students with learning differences.

I try to stay abreast of what is new in piano education, so I will usually try out a series (newly published or just new to me) which comes from a reputable educational publishing house and which has received favorable comments from other teachers in my professional network.  After trying a series with two or three students who seem well-matched to the series, I can at least know if it works well with my teaching style.  I am NOT always successful in matching a student to a method series, but because I am not a “one-method-for-everyone” teacher, I can feel confident that I have a fairly good chance of eventually matching up a student with a series which will help him to succeed in piano lessons.

It should be seen as a POSITIVE when a teacher makes use of several different method series in his or her studio!

for piano students, parents of piano students, and prospective piano lesson clients