What To Do When You Make A Mistake

Music isn't about being right. It's about being human.


Mistakes are a big fixation in the life of a piano teacher. Students come to piano lessons and play their pieces and sooner or later they play wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong articulations, wrong dynamic shapes, and so forth.

Once upon a not-so-long-time ago (let’s say 50 years ago) a particular breed of teacher would respond to a mistake with a physical action – a smack across the knuckles with a ruler, say – with the idea that this would focus the student’s mind on not making mistakes. (It’s more likely that this focussed the student’s mind on not being tortured, but, well, we’ll talk about that another time.)

Even though piano teachers don’t do that now, this idea of not making mistakes still looms large in the learning-to-play-the-piano scene. Students are taught to avoid them. When they do make a mistake the teacher puts a big circle around the note in the music, and a list of these mistakes is compiled for the student to go home and fix.

I’ve written before about the importance of not having lessons (or life) structured around correcting mistakes. But here I’d like to explore the idea from the point of view of the mistake-maker: what should we do when we make a mistake? Here’s where I always start:

1. Think about what makes this mistake a mistake. Did it sound bad? Did it fail to communicate what you wanted to express? Did it feel bad? Did your body get muddled? Did it prevent flow in your performance? (Or was it your worry about the mistake that prevented flow?!)

If you don’t know exactly what it is that you did that was The Mistake then you’ll struggle to not do it again! Just as true in life as it is as a musician.

Looking at it another way…

Most of the mistakes we worry about in piano lessons are mistakes of accuracy rather than mistakes of truth. In some ways it doesn’t matter which kind of mistake it is – we still need to locate the source of the error in order to prevent the mistake occurring again. But while an audience will ignore/forgive/fail to notice mistakes of accuracy, mistakes of truth will destroy a performance.

2. Explore the mistake. Can you repeat the mistake? (If you can repeat the mistake on purpose you are almost certainly not going to make that mistake again.) How does the mistake change the meaning of the music? (If you understand what meaning the mistake communicates you can choose to create a different meaning.) If you make this mistake at this point in the music, what else do you need to adjust to make the music make sense?

This kind of exploration can go on for a long time, and if exploration of this kind is new to you it can feel as if you are ‘mucking around’ or ‘not getting on with it’. Stick with this as long as you can – these explorations build a platform of deep understanding for your future performances. (Ignore that little voice that tells you you would be better off practicing scales. You would not.)

3. Ask yourself if your mistake really was a mistake. Maybe the ‘wrong’ thing you did was what you totally meant to do. When beginner students consistently play a tune with the wrong melodic contour I ask them to sing the tune – more than half the time they are playing the melodic contour to perfectly match the shape in their imagination, and they’re not making a mistake at all! They’re just not playing the same piece I’m looking at in the score. This is a question that is a “locating the source of the error” question, but it can also lead to some further introspection…

If you are committed to your changes to the original musical text you need to be aware of the implications in the cultural context of that work – are you performing in a context where variation, improvisation and recomposition are valued, or will this be seen as sloppiness? Are you committed to your ‘mistake’ because you aren’t all that interested in other people’s point of view?! Are you capable of giving a range of different performances of the same work? A commitment to a mistake can sometimes indicate a high level of rigidity in the thinking of the performer, and this will be more or less troubling/interesting/challenging-to-work-with depending on the age and developmental stage of the performer!

Often our ‘mistakes’ are a commitment to a muddle-headed conception of the work. This is when and where you need to trust your teachers and mentors – they’ve had loads more experience than you have.

So, now, what NOT to do….

1. Don’t stab and stab at different keys on the piano until you stab the right one. By the time you get the “right” note the whole piece will be wrong, you’ll have forgotten where you were and what your point was.

2. Don’t go back and start at the beginning. You can already play that part. Don’t waste your time. By the time you get to where the mistake was you’ll have forgotten what happened and you’ll make the same mistake again. Going back to the start means you are in a cul-de-sac of doom.

3. Don’t write in the names of all the notes. This doesn’t help. It distracts. And it makes you feel righteous when you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing at all. And you still don’t know why you made the mistake in the first place.

4. Don’t think you’ve sorted it out as soon as you’ve played the section correctly once. Tomorrow you’ll come back and make the same mistake, because all your practice has been practicing the mistake, and only 1.3 seconds of your practice was when you played it right.

Practice is fundamentally NOT about repetition and discipline – it’s fundamentally about listening and reflecting and noticing and exploring. Take your thinking away from an accuracy = perfection model. Music isn’t about being right, it’s about being human.

And remember, if you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning anything. Every single time you make a mistake you have the chance to become someone even more fabulous than you’ve ever been before – so celebrate your mistakes; they remind you you’re alive.

 

 

 

15 Things You Need to Know About Supporting Your Child Learning to Play the Piano

This list was first published in It Takes Two Generations at the end of 2013. 

If you’re a parent who has no background in playing a musical instrument it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of things the piano teacher accidentally takes for granted along the way. Don’t be overly worried about this – the teacher won’t have enough time in each lesson to fill in all the gaps and still keep your child engaged and enthused about their learning, but as time passes you’ll become expert at supporting your child’s musical education.

Here are the absolute basics that you need to know to be able to support your family’s journey into profound musicianship:

1. You simply cannot miss lessons. Unless you’ve just had a car accident, your child has a communicable disease, or your grandmother’s funeral couldn’t be scheduled any other day. Your child having extra homework that night or wanting a playdate with a best friend simply doesn’t cut it as a reason to consider skipping a lesson.

2. Practice has to happen every day. Even if it’s just for three minutes. The act of commencing practice every day precedes the act of engaging in prolonged practice every day! Get your child into the habit of playing her or his instrument daily and to a certain extent the practice will take care of itself.

3. Practice might not mean playing through a piece from beginning to end. In fact, practice rarely means playing through a piece from beginning to end. The teacher will give your child clear instructions each week as to what is required, and you need to respect these instructions – which means you need to know what they are. Teachers traditionally give written practice notes, but these days some teachers may even make a quick video demonstrating the correct practice approach. Use whatever the teacher gives you as a guide for what will take place that week at home.

4. You need to have books of music at home. The best indicator of a child’s capacity to develop literacy skills lies in whether the home has books, and the same holds true of musical literacy. If you try to insist that the teacher work from one book instead of three you are deliberating limiting your child’s capacity to learn. The price of music keeps changing in today’s internet-distributed book economies, but a rough guide is that you should be budgeting between $A125 and $A200 (that’s Australian dollars) for each child’s annual print music spend. Less than that and you know your child isn’t making particularly good progress! This amount will change from one country to the next, but I’d suggest $US80-150 would be about right for students in the US (music is just cheaper in the US, less to pay for postage/shipping), and about £55-90 in the United Kingdom.

5. Your beginner student child should be learning new music almost every week. If your child isn’t learning new music almost every week (there will be weeks when new music isn’t assigned, but these should only be from time to time, not every second week) it means something isn’t going right with your child’s learning (probably due to issues with practice at home). Talk to the teacher about how you can better support the practice for pieces assigned for a second, third or even fourth week.

6. Writing the names of all the notes in is a total waste of time and will drive the piano teacher completely nuts. Sometimes a piano teacher will write in the name of one or two notes, but writing in the names of all the notes is like asking your child to read a book one letter at a time: it’s boring and it doesn’t even make any sense. Being able to read music at the piano is about seeing the shapes and knowing what that will feel like to perform, and even having a clear sense of what it will sound like (the word for that is audiation – imagining sound). Don’t ‘help’ in ways the teacher hasn’t asked you to – and when you have a brainwave it will almost certainly be a good idea to discuss it with the teacher during the lesson before putting it into action!

7. The lesson time is when you should talk to the teacher, not afterwards. The teacher will either have other students, other appointments, or a really short dinner break at the end of your child’s lesson. It’s not OK to expect the teacher to discuss matters with you outside of the lesson time as a matter of course. Make the odd phone call, feel free to send an enquiring email or text message, but the time directly after your child’s lesson is sacrosanct (and not dedicated to you). It might be the teacher’s only chance to use the bathroom in five hours. :-) Of course, if the teacher wants to talk to you then by all means, chat away, but don’t assume that the teacher has this time available otherwise.

8. Just because you need to remind your child to practice does not mean that they don’t want to practice or that they don’t want to play their instrument. Just as you don’t give your children the option of failing to brush their teeth, bathe, eat or get dressed, so doing practice is not optional, even if that means you remind your child to do it every day for a decade. You are the parent: you make the rules. No one ever reached adulthood and said “I wish my mum had let me stop learning the piano”…

9. Think long-term. In other words, don’t plan to ‘try’ piano for six months to see if it’s a good fit – if you want your child to learn to play the piano you need to be internally committing to at least three years of lessons and practice. Then you can reflect on how things are going. This isn’t about being a tiger parent, it’s about being realistic about what’s involved in gaining musical skills. That 10,000 hour rule? You can have an awful lot of fun during that first 100 hours of piano practice, but you’re still only 1% of the way (if that) toward being amazing.

10. You may not realise how easy it is to play the piano, and at the same time how hard it is. There are very cool things students can easily learn to do at the piano which may give you the impression your child is a genius. Feel free to enjoy this sensation, but don’t be disappointed if the next week your child reverts to just being the cool, fabulous kid that you know and love. Some things that pianists do that appear easy are actually very hard, and some of the impressive things pianists do are ridiculously straight-forward to execute (if your teacher just shows you how).

11. If you want your child to learn to play the piano, then get a piano at home for your child to practice upon. Seems kind of obvious. Sometimes there are great reasons why you end up choosing to buy a digital piano, and these days there are just fantastic digital pianos available. But often parents choose woefully inadequate pretend pianos and think it will be as good: it won’t. If you can’t afford lessons AND a piano then postpone lessons for six months and use the savings to buy a decent instrument (digital or acoustic). Practicing on an inadequate instrument will set your child back by years in the long run – get this sorted as quickly as you possibly can.

12. Grab every chance you get to sit in on your child’s piano lessons. You will be a hundred times more likely to be able to support your child’s practice if you’ve been observing the teacher working with your child throughout the lesson – from how to use the body (shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingertips, proper seating position, etc.) to how to practice each piece to getting to understand the lingo (staccato, arpeggio, inversion, etc.). You have the chance to get your own free tutoring just by sitting in on your child’s lesson!

13. Participate in studio recitals every chance you get. You will be amazed how much your child is motivated by playing at and attending recitals – they get to hear music being performed by more advanced students, and they begin to build programs of pieces they are comfortable performing. And don’t project any nervousness you may feel onto your child – children don’t know they are supposed to feel nervous unless you tell them (or they have an anxiety disorder, which is a completely different matter), and you have an opportunity to develop confident public presentation in your child in this musical setting.

14. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. This one makes me smile, of course, because one assumes you’re reading this on the internet, and believing it. :-) The truth is that your teacher is going to be able to give you much better advice for your child than you will find chatting to random people/teachers on an internet forum or by searching YouTube for tutorials. If you don’t have a background in playing a musical instrument you won’t know what to trust and what is nonsense. Find a reputable teacher who you trust and like, and get educated (along with your child) and develop your capacity for discernment.

15. Share what you know about your child with the teacher. Does your child have a morbid fear of spiders? An allergy to cats? A learning disability or a processing disorder? Don’t wait for the teacher to figure it out by themselves – by sharing what you know about your child you won’t be preventing the teacher from building a positive relationship with your child, you’ll be facilitating immediately great learning experiences. Thing is this: piano teachers are fairly canny – because playing the piano is so holistic a learning activity you might even find that the piano teacher is alerting you to quirks in your child’s learning behaviours that will help you finesse their school-based learning! Piano teachers are often the first to notice problems with vision, dyslexia, problems with proprioception, processing problems, pronounced learning styles (which may be the basis for trouble in the classroom), even synaesthesia, simply because they are spending 30, 45 or even 60 minutes one-on-one with your child, and maybe this is the first chance your child has had for that kind of regular, professional adult attention. You and the teacher are a team working to make your child the best person he or she can be. :-)

Follow these 15 guidelines and you’ll find that you are fast-tracking your family’s musical development! Enjoy the transformation!

These ARE The Good Old Days

This last weekend I attended the Kennedy Awards, a New South Wales-based peer-awarded recognition of excellence in journalism, in the role of handbag to my journalist husband (who also happened to be nominated for, and go on to win, an award). Many stories were shared over the course of the night – events that had transpired behind the headlines, hair-raising exploits of reporters whose recklessness was matched by their journalistic brilliance. At some point in the evening, my husband noted that, for all the journalists in the room, these were ‘the good old days’ that would be recounted 20 years, 30 years, 50 years hence. From the premier undone by a bottle of wine through to disgraced former policemen being arrested for murder; from pervasively corrupt infrastructure deals involving Sydney’s water supply and regional mining leases through to politicians being handed paper bags of $10,000 cash just prior to elections; these are the good old days these journalists will look back on.

This last weekend also saw the passing away of iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, a man whose music and mentorship has defined much of what it means to express oneself as an Australian composer. Anyone whose lives were touched by his has found themselves complicit in communal remembering of various good old days and decades with Peter: former students, editors, performers, pop musicians who enjoyed drinking/collaborating with him, friends. Peter Sculthorpe’s death has suddenly rendered a whole suite of musical and human experience as part of the fondly remembered past.

The present becomes history so rapidly.

In my first year at university I was studying composition and the general music subjects one studies in one’s first year. But on the side I was taking a course in 20th century literature. This was 1984, and I was just 16 years old. The first term’s lectures were devoted to poetry, and the lecturer started with Gerard Manley Hopkins and took us the way through to boot-legged recordings of the then still (comparatively) nascent hip hop and rap that had been developing in New York. “This is your time,” the lecturer told us, “this is the time of your contemporaries. The art that will be talked about in 50 years time is the art being made around you right now. One day you will realise that you were here. Pay attention.”

I couldn’t believe how exciting it felt. I felt so privileged to be experiencing the living of history when I was still so young! Things that had already happened, that were already over, notated, documented, recorded – they weren’t the limit of what counted. Yesterday – this morning – this afternoon – mattered, too. It was all important. Suddenly, as I walked down the hill to catch the bus, the very atmosphere was heavy with all the creating that was possible, all the contemporaneousness that was.

In shaping learning experiences for my piano students I am always aware that as much as the past informs the present, so the present will soon be that past that informs future presents… How am I teaching my students about the past they are a part of? How am I helping them connect with contemporary experience as future memory? As future history?

I was gloriously fortunate in my teachers, both at university and at high school – teachers who understood that they were building the past even as they were building the future. I don’t just honour them by maintaining that tradition in my own teaching – I honour my students, present and yet to come, who are only just beginning to realise that these are their good old days.

Being Musical… Being a Music Teacher…

March was a month of conferences for me, the most recent of which was a conference where I had been asked to speak about (amongst some number of other things) the benefits to music education of utilising the opportunities social media affords.

This did not go well.

I began by talking about the ways in which high school students use music rather expertly without the assistance of teachers, for:

  • identity formation;
  • communication (especially in regard to emotion);
  • making sense of, or organising emotional experience;
  • organising executive function;

and I went on to assert that these four uses of music are more fundamental to human musical experience than are the ‘performance’ / ‘composition’ / ‘analysis’ modes of musical experience dictated by the curriculum; that it is a kind of concert hall-think that permits us to structure music education in the 21st century primarily in regard to such a narrow set of musical experiences (performing, composing, analysing) and to blithely ignore the rest.

In retrospect I think this, long before a mention of facebook (which was poorly received, needless to say), was where I lost most of my audience.

Once upon a time school music education was assessed by theory exams, harmony exercises and essays about music history; it was a triumph of some considerable magnitude when music educators succeeded in prioritising the performance of music in school music marking systems, a triumph that many still feel great pride in having helped to achieve.

So it was completely naive for me to waltz in and start talking about the function of music in the formation of identity or in the organisation of executive function and to fail to attempt to connect the dots from what is still perceived in classroom music education as a recent breakthrough of transformational proportions, let alone to acknowledge the history that was/is within the professional lifetimes of half the members of my audience.

I very much suspect that this first section of my presentation was apprehended as a babbling prologue to the real business of my presentation (talking about social media). This was a terrible pity, because the value social media might have for you and your students will change, vastly, depending on what you think your job as a music educator might be.

Surely we all believe that we are training musicians? And if we all think we are training musicians then surely the main game is teaching students to play musical instruments, no?

Well, no.

Before the instrument comes musical thinking. And musical thinking is exactly what is going on when kids choose one style of music to listen to, and to share with their friends, rather than another style; any act of selecting music to accompany life is an act of musical thinking. In fact, in the 21st century musical thinking is what we use to make it through the day: from choosing a ringtone to understanding the plot cues a soundtrack signals in a film or a piece of TV pseudo-journalism or advertising.

Everyone is musical these days in ways we could not have imagined in the 80s when teachers were fighting for instrumental performance to be included in the curriculum.

And if you, as a music educator, don’t acknowledge how musical the world has become, how underscored our lived experience is, how imbued with musical fragment, rhythmic motif, decontextualised timbres and insistent tone colours our days now are, you have no idea what you are doing.

You know what you were doing, back in the day. Back when intervals were learned with reference to song openings and modes were taught via medieval folk tunes. Back when a backbeat was still quietly considered to lead to promiscuity and chromaticism was widely believed to be to blame for political upheaval.

But in the age of YouTube, GarageBand, SoundCloud, Spotify, facebook shares and twitter retweets, you haven’t got a clue. Not if you think that being musical can be measured by how well someone plays an orchestral instrument. Or how well they write an 8-bar tune.

So…. if everyone is already engaging in musical thinking, what is the music teacher for?, I imagine you’re asking (possibly with a disapproving facial gesture and a bit of an eyeroll).

The music teacher is there to structure experiences that lead to more nuanced musical thinking, more informed musical thinking, more conscious musical thinking, more creative musical thinking. (Feel free to keep adding to this list – it is by no means intended to be comprehensive!). The music teacher is there to help students develop critical thinking skills in relation to their musical experiences; to build a vocabulary for the many experiences that students have no words to describe; to build a fluency in musical reasoning and an understanding of the musical narratives that have built the range of musical experiences the 21st century has to offer.

But we can’t even begin to be that kind of music teacher if we think that music education is about delivering performances, compositions and analyses. These are just not appropriate means of assessing what it is to have a good musical education anymore.

And I wish I’d spent the whole session exploring that. The first mention of facebook brought outbursts and outrage (it’s the end of PRIVACY, don’t you know?!), and there’s no purpose to exploring the opportunities social media brings as long as educators believe that their job is about cultivating and assessing 19th century ways of being musical (performance, composition, analysis).

To be continued…

Has Parenthood Changed My Teaching?

Back in second half of 2006, when I was 14-16 weeks pregnant, Gina Wake (from Hal Leonard Australia) and I did a two or three week tour launching Getting to Grade Four. And then, between weeks 28-31 of my pregnancy (and when Gina was 15-18 weeks along in her pregnancy!), we toured the nation again launching Getting to Preliminary New Mix and Getting to Grade One New Mix. In retrospect we don’t know what we were thinking.

But talking to piano teachers at this cusp moment in my life, this about-to-be-parent phase, meant that teachers who had known me through my seminars since as early as 2000 were sharing this transition with me, celebrating the arrival of motherhood on my resumé and giving me some great advice along the way.

One teacher said to me with quite a twinkle in her eye “I wonder how becoming a parent is going to change your piano teaching…”

“So do I!”, I exclaimed back. I’d always said that people who think that having a baby isn’t going to change their lives are dangerously delusional and/or completely failing to appreciate that the whole point of having a baby is to have your life changed. So the idea that my piano teaching would change as a result of raising a child of my own seemed obvious.

And yet – I’d been teaching since I was 14 years old. I’d already seen my teaching change simply because I’d gained maturity. I’d seen my teaching change because of new ideas I’d been exposed to when undertaking studies in non-musical disciplines (linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, sociology, French, film studies, and so on). I’d seen my teaching change because I’d taught classroom music and experienced first-hand the calibre and conditions of New South Wales high school music education. I’d seen my teaching change because I’d started presenting seminars to other piano teachers. And I’d seen my teaching change because I was composing and publishing music for students to play.

Becoming a parent was just going to be another one of these enrichments that changed my teaching.

When I resumed lessons with my much-reduced number of students and an 8 week-old baby, the biggest change was that I needed to schedule breaks between every lesson to facilitate breast-feeding. And as my son grew a bit older I needed to stop teaching earlier in the evening to facilitate his night-time routines, and I had far less time to organise the administration of my teaching practice.

To be honest, as the first few years of my son’s life passed I was quietly surprised at how little my teaching was changing post-parenthood, organisational rather than qualitative changes.

More notable was how my experience as a piano teacher was shaping my approach to being a mother.

After more than 20 years of piano teaching I had experienced all kinds of different parents: parents who were always two minutes early, parents who were always five minutes late, parents who quibbled over money and parents who arrived at the start of each term with their chequebook open. I’d had parents who didn’t realise there’s any benefit to practice between lessons as well as parents who sat with their children to practice every day, for years, for each child in the family. There were parents who told me they just wanted their child to learn ‘for fun’ and parents who discussed how we should shape the next five to ten years to enable their child to gain a music scholarship or earn a diploma before the end of Year 10. Parents who barely spoke English and parents who thought migrants posed an unfair educational challenge to their children. Parents who were keen to sit in on lessons, parents who used piano lessons for a sleep in the car.

Chief amongst the approaches I’d quietly bemoaned along the years was the parent who uses the piano lesson as a kind of baby-siting, an expensive but enriching weekly event which requires no further engagement on the part of the student or the student’s family between sessions. Why invest the money in lessons each week if you can’t be bothered supporting the practice between lessons, even a little bit?, has been my bordering-on-exasperated thought. Don’t you know how much more your child could be achieving?!

But all of a sudden, I get it.

You’re exhausted. Years of parenting a child who doesn’t seem to need to sleep have finally compounded to deplete you of even the tiniest reserves. It’s a miracle if you can make it through the day without losing it between dinner and bedtime. The piano teacher wants your child to have practiced this week? It’s a feat of extraordinary proportions that the child got fed, for goodness sake, that they’ve turned up to their lesson in clean clothes. But you know that your child loves this 30 or 45 minutes each week, or at least you’re pretty sure they do, and you know that your child is getting quality one-on-one attention from a teacher who is invested in building a long-term learning relationship. AND you know that music is super-fantastic for the brain. Whatever is happening in the lesson is absolutely worth it, because it’s more than you can provide on your own.

I get it.

The piano teacher talks to you about your child’s capacities, potential and achievements based on weekly, focussed experience working with your child. You get to tell the teacher what’s been going on in the life of your family, what’s been making practice or organisation tricky, and the teacher makes some suggestions or sympathises or tells a joke. You know that the teacher wants good things for your child, and that they have been spending the past half hour thinking hard about the best way to help your child grow and develop. So what if this week was a disaster in the practice department? The piano teacher is part of your network, your support team. You’re not going to give this up just to save a few bucks.

I get it.

And I also know, from all my years as a piano teacher, that even without practice at home a child can still (miraculously) make something resembling progress, can still play happily at recitals, can still be a joyful musician. Not anything like a professional musician. But still happy. And it makes complete sense to have your child experience this, even if you can’t (for whatever reason) support your child’s at-home practice the way piano teachers might tell you you should.

Piano lessons aren’t always about playing the piano. A successful lesson might not even involve touching a keyboard. A great outcome for a student might not even have anything to do with music.

And that’s totally, completely, and always OK.

I think I really, truly knew this before I became a parent. But these days I think I marvel more – how extraordinary a thing it is that a student finds an hour a day to practice! – how tremendous that the whole family attends the end-of-term recital! – how spectacular is an improvement in posture! – how thrilling is a memorised performance!

Parenthood has underlined to me how the whole enterprise of learning is miraculous. And how it’s a privilege to participate in that miracle every day.

A small rant about diagrammatic illiteracy in the Arts Curriculum draft document

This has been my longest ever break in blogging since I began nearly three years ago. Family matters have been very pressing, and I ended up shutting down all my projects until things were on a more even keel.

During this time, however, I’ve either tried or wanted to blog about any number of things: the Steve Reich retrospective held at the Sydney Opera House at the end of April, the value of learning the melodic minor scale, background information on my piece Vendetta which is currently on the Trinity Guildhall Grade 5 piano syllabus, a post on how I’ve let a student down by not teaching her to read chord charts before now, a review of the Nico Muhly/Sufjan Stevens/Bryce Dressner collaboration “Planetarium” as performed here in Sydney at the end of May, a Top 5 Things Parents Need to Know Once Their Child Starts Taking Piano Lessons list, as well as a discussion of the value and challenge of playing on the black keys in the very first lessons, a discussion of the new-look and hopelessly fuddy-duddy Limelight magazine, and looking at piano lessons through the lens of gifted education.

But I have a new topic to add to the blog-post-wish-list: the latest Arts Curriculum draft document from ACARA. About 18 months ago I blogged (relentlessly) about the buried misconceptions about music education in the previous draft document, and I’ve taken a quick look at this new draft and felt my spirits sink as I see a whole new batch of blind spots, insufficiencies and outmoded assumptions.

For now, however, let me simply draw your attention to Figure 1 on page 5. This is a diagram of such woeful conception that it calls into question the general literacy of the authors of the draft. I know it’s a tad old-fashioned of me, but I do expect that educators understand basic concepts as what a Venn diagram is for and when not to use one. The most generous interpretation I can put on the inclusion of this poorly conceived figure is that the writers of the curriculum have just discovered the possibilities of SmartArt in their Word program. Which begs many questions about their capacity to author the Media Arts section of the curriculum document.

But, you know, if it’s good enough for a US presidential candidate, right?

Is the Study of Piano Declining in the United States of America?

This topic in the Tuesday afternoon line-up of MTNA Conference presentations seemed almost arcane on the page of the conference booklet, especially by way of comparison to other topics with immediate practical application in the 30 minute piano lesson. And the question seemed one of those asked-and-answered types: is the study of piano in decline? Hell, yeah. Who doesn’t know that, right?

But I’m an arcane-topic kind of chick, so I bounded with enthusiasm into this panel presentation-discussion. It was already impressive just checking out who was in the panel: Peter Jutras, who is the editor of the wonderful Clavier Companion; E.L. Lancaster, who is both Vice President and Keyboard-Editor-in-Chief of Alfred Publishing; Brian Chung, Vice President of the Kawai Corporation; Gary Ingle, CEO of MTNA; Mike Bates, Senior Member of the Institutional Solutions Group, Keyboard Division, Yamaha Corporation of America; and Sharon Girard, NCTM, a private piano teacher since 1976 in Connecticut.

To begin: college-level study (and beyond). The raw number of students taking piano as their major for the undergraduate degrees in the United States has increased significantly over the past twenty years (roughly a 25% increase), numbers for masters have increased slightly (currently around the 1000 mark)  and numbers of students enrolled in doctoral programs with a piano major have increased astronomically (currently around 1000, up from only about 400 less than ten years ago). But these raw figures don’t tell the complete story. More and more piano majors (all levels) are international students (so these figures don’t reflect piano learning activity in the US in any case); there are more options for students to choose from when selecting their music major (so students who might previously have taken piano are now specialising in some other aspect of music); there are more students studying music (so the proportion of students piano majors  in comparison to the entire student population cannot be inferred from the raw data).

What are piano teachers in the suburbs, cities and small towns noticing? An increase in adult students and in very young beginners (4 and 5 year olds) and a sharp decline in beginners aged 9 and 10. The GFC seems to have had a pronounced (negative) impact on enrollments, but further to this there seems to be a decline in the value parents in 2012 ascribe to piano lessons in the broad education of their children. From my Australian perspective I was also fascinated to learn that school teachers are drivers of enrollments in piano lessons! In Australia school teachers have absolutely no impact on the propensity of a child to begin lessons – and if anything, their neutral impact skews slightly negative. But in the US many children learn band instruments through the school, and so children can still have an instrumental education without taking private piano lessons. Apparently it’s the band teachers who promote piano to some large degree, and when those teachers don’t encourage piano lesson enrollment a sharp decline can be seen.

Next: sales of educational and classical print music. These sales have declined since 2006, but only slightly (4%), and it’s hard to see that as anything other than a ripple-on effect of the GFC. The breakdown of print music sales in the US works out at something like 19% Classical Music, 19% Christian Music and 13% piano methods, with the bulk of the remainder being taken up by pop titles. This proportion appears to have held steady. In any case, print music sales are a poor indicator of piano study, because younger siblings often use the print music older siblings used before them, and it’s entirely possible that in a climate of financial restraint parents are more likely to seek these kinds of economies.

We move on to sales of instruments: grand pianos, uprights, digital pianos and keyboards. There has been a massive decline in sales of grand pianos since 2005 – down from 35,000 then to around 12,000 now. Seeing as most new grand pianos are purchased by institutions and very rich people it’s possible to infer that the rich people are being careful and the institutions have had their budgets slashed – neither of which reflects on the current number of piano students in the US. It’s when we get to the other categories that we see some interesting trends. Upright acoustic piano sales are also consistently down, as are sales of digital pianos. The category that is doing just fine (although not increasing, particularly) is the under $200 keyboard. These instruments are purchased by parents who want to invest the bare minimum to afford their children access to music education, with the intention to trade up if their child demonstrates prolonged interest and/or aptitude. In the US roughly 1,000,000 units of this kind of keyboard has been sold every year for the past decade. Do the instruments live in the back of cupboards? Who knows! This statistic is as enigmatic as the numbers on grand piano sales in terms of establishing a trend of piano study decline in the United States (although it potentially reflects an opportunity).

Meantime, the percentage of MTNA members who teach the piano has been increasing. Again, this fact doesn’t really tell us anything: are memberships of MTNA in decline or are they increasing? Has there been a recent trend of the teachers of particular instrument families to not sign up to the Music Teachers Associations? Has the MTNA been catering very well for piano teachers of late, and dropping the ball as regards the other instruments?

One comment was made by a panelist that I found very interesting: “we live in a culture of deflection and distraction”, a comment intended to speak to a broad trend away from educational practice that engaged students in critical thinking and practical skill acquisition. I tend to take the view that gaming cultures are educationally preferable (in so very many ways) to traditional classroom practices, and I further take the view that learning the piano is much more like a game than it is like a traditional school classroom learning experience. But I suspect this comment reflects some things that are particularly true not of Western culture but of American culture.

Comments were opened to the audience, and one emerging theme (reflecting comments also made by panellists) was the tension between sport and piano in the broad culture of childhood in the US – this idea that you either play soccer or you learn the piano, the idea that promising students find themselves pressured into team sport participation that then compromises their musical education, and so forth. Implicit in this theme was the notion that parents these days just don’t get what piano lessons are for (as touched on above), that soccer and team sports are widely seen to provide benefits for children while piano lessons do not.

Another theme (again, reflecting comments already made by panelists) was that piano teachers are not very marketing savvy, and that they are not very technology savvy. Sometimes these two lacks merge into one big piano teacher fail, with piano teachers not taking advantage of the internet to reinforce community awareness of their services and not taking advantage of social media to communicate with current and prospective students. There was an implicit sense that piano teachers do not look at their teaching as being a business (much in this theme was not unpacked, but, I think, broadly understood by the audience).

A third theme was that piano teachers are often quite rigid in their idea about what they do; instead of looking at their available skill set and thinking about a range of services they can provide to the community, teachers imagine that their real job is to provide the same kind of piano lessons as those they received, last century. Some comments from the floor detailed the wide ranging activities some exception-to-the-rule teachers engage in in order to have a solid business model.

In short, I felt as if this session were the first two pages of an introduction to a 350 page book on the topic; we just began to frame the conversation when it came to an end. And as fascinating as what was said was what was not. What about socio-economics? Are there some parts of the United States where piano study is thriving? Some cities that are doing significantly better than others? [I can't imagine piano lessons are as common as they used to be in Detroit, for example.] Are language issues an impediment to piano study? [The paucity of Spanish-language piano methods, for instance, as compared to Spanish-speaking population in the US surely indicates a swathe of the population disengaged from piano study.] How about the decline of the use of the acoustic piano in churches and other worship settings? [Once upon a time many not-wealthy churches would have a good, mid-range grand piano in addition to an organ.]

The panel mentioned the rise of online, do-it-yourself-by-watching-videos-and-buying-the-book piano study, and this touches on another aspect of this topic. It could be that piano/keyboard study by volume has seen no significant decline, but there’s every chance that the national pianistic skill set is in decline.

It’s a fascinating time in the United States, a time of substantial cultural reframing and contention. The study of the piano could well be a case study for this rethinking of what it means to be an American with an education (even if you never did make it to college)….