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)….

Pedagogy Saturday at the MTNA Conference 2012

I’ve never been to an MTNA Conference before. In fact, my music education conference experiences to date have been restricted to events held in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Malaysia. Fantastic conferences, each and every one, but each on a rather modest to cosy scale.

Walking in on the first event of Pedagogy Saturday brought home the huge difference in population base between, say, Western Australia and the whole of the United States of America. The massive Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel (capacity in theatre mode of around the 1900 mark) appeared to be half-full of teachers sitting chock-a-block, each hanging off the wonderful words and thought and insights communicated by Nelita True.

I only got to hear the tail end of the masterclass, but the ease and joyfulness with which Nelita approached her master-teacher role were an inspiration and she perfectly set the tone for the day. An understated wit and a deeply empathic approach to the preoccupations and concerns of the student made every moment in this masterclass a delight.

Many of the teachers wanted to ask Nelita questions right then and there,  but she was bustled away by a charming Irish man who assured us all we would get the chance to interrogate Ms True at the end of the day. The man was so charming, in fact, that I noted his name and decided to attend his session later in the day.

But first up I listened to Scott McBride Smith and Steven Spooner discussing issues of fingering. I’m always wary of a duo effort in a presentation – it can so easily become one person talking and the other nodding, or two people politely disagreeing with each other for the duration, or one person outshining the other despite both having equal time. This presentation was none of these things, instead being a joyous exchange of anecdote and information all feeding into a shared perspective on the rights and wrongs of  pianistic fingering praxis. There was so much great thinking in this seminar that it really deserves a blog entry of its own (forthcoming).

Next up I split my time between Marjorie Lee discussing ‘her unusual immersion-style teaching’ and a panel of piano competition organisers discussing their perspective on the capital C competition. This split between sessions was prompted by Marjorie Lee not having a lapel mic, and therefore being inaudible to the back half of the filled-to-capacity room (in which half I happened to be). After nearly 30 minutes I was desperately irritated by only catching every third sentence (if I was lucky) so I popped next door to hear the competition organisers discussing competitions from their point of view.

The difference between the piano teaching and learning cultures of the United States of America and those of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Canada, etc. (think former British Empire) comes down to this: competitions v exams. In the nations of the Commonwealth music learning is measured through examination-assessments where the progress of the student is described in terms of graded benchmarks; teachers strive to have their students pass with flying colours and to have them progress through these benchmarks as quickly as possible. I’m beginning to realise that in the US teachers have competitions as the primary source of validation, and so teachers strive to have their students win competitions. This is a substantial cultural difference, upon which I intend to blog further…. And if you’re a teacher from the US reading this entry and you disagree – please let me know I’m getting the wrong end of the stick here!

I then popped back in to hear Marjorie Lee wrap up (and to hear some of her students play) and with the benefit of this competition culture information from the session next door I realised that what Marjorie is doing (amongst other, different things) is fast-tracking students into this competition success by not getting hung up on that other great US educational measure of learning, the method book. I really would love to have heard her presentation again, both in the sense of being physically able to hear it and in the sense of having a better understanding of the culture in which her teaching operates.

Following this I accidentally missed most of Yoheved Kaplinksy’s masterclass (damn you, jetlag) before racing downstairs to secure a seat for Peter Mack’s charming presentation “Lower the Rear End of the Elephant Slowly Onto The Keys”: Teaching Basic Artistic Concepts By Using Colourful Imagery. What I did catch of the Yoheved Kaplinsky masterclass demonstrated an elegance of approach to the piano, a swiftness of insight and a precision of communication – ten minutes left me desperately keen to see and hear more…

Peter Mack was, in fact, the Irish man who had so intrigued and charmed at the start of the day when thanking Nelita True. His seminar was a whirlwind of ideas about communicating deep and complex truths about musical learning, how to perform music, and more specifically in the latter half of the seminar, about how to play the piano. Metaphor, imagery, narrative and lateral thinking can be magical shortcuts to understanding, and Peter Mack’s many examples were as brilliant as they were entertaining. The session could have gone on for twice as long and still have left us wanting more.

And I think I particularly liked Peter’s session because he thinks almost exactly the way I do; case in point: Julie Andrews. How many seminars have I begun by making reference to Julie Andrews when I’m talking about starting at the very beginning? So imagine my delight/surprise to see on the handout from this seminar this sentence: “Julie Andrews was wrong”. Of course, Julie Andrews wasn’t wrong about anything, it was Maria who was wrong, or even more properly Oscar Hammerstein, or even more properly the lyric Oscar Hammerstein wrote. But Peter Mack and I blithely go about our seminars announcing Julie Andrews was wrong. Snap.

Marvin Blickenstaff’s presentation on getting technique right with elementary students right from the start rounded off the day before the closing event: a panel (Nelita True, Peter Takacs and Peter Mack) answering questions from the floor. Marvin Blickenstaff is one of those truly exceptional music educators who seems able to address the technical needs of the student at the same time as he addresses their human needs. He approaches music-making as a profoundly human communicative event and process, and this session was a joy. What is amazing to me is that this was my overwhelming impression of his seminar, but when I look at my notes taken during the hour I have a succession of specific ideas and insights into developing good pianism in beginners; bullet points like “practice raising shoulders to the ears and then dropping” and “do it in the air first” and “make an O with the fingertip to the thumb” – practical ideas that don’t convey the philosophical approach to music education that underpinned this presentation.

My favourite moment of the panel that concluded the day was when Nelita True talked about the importance of students learning to support each other (rather than compete with each other) in order for them to become musicians; she shared a gorgeous story of a young student who, at the end of his years of study with her, thanked her for helping him become a charming human being.

I missed about three quarters of the scheduled events of the day (thanks to four options being scheduled for each session!) but my first ever Pedagogy Saturday was an absolute delight – so many insightful, generous and entertaining presenters, so many approaches to making beautiful, meaningful communication through the piano: such music teaching as makes the world a better place.


High School (Virtual) Music Class

There’s a chance I’m years behind on this one, but I had a thought today that high school music classes are on a hiding to nothing.

The syllabuses works towards a particular kind of assessment that is, effectively, based on performance and theory exams, given a bit of a tweak for the purposes of fitting in with the other subjects. Even when ensemble performances are part of the assessments the emphasis is on the individual performer rather than the group achievements or the learning that has taken place to bring the performance into existence.

High school music classes are just a kind of AMEB or ABRSM exam on steroids with a different marking system.

So when high school music teachers think about contemporary approaches to teaching, it’s quite tricky to see a purpose for these new-fangled education ideas in an individualised performance + theory/musicianship exam kind of assessment context.

My current favourite new-fangled idea about teaching is this one called “the flipped classroom”. Basically the students learn the content part of the course using online resources – the teacher might have uploaded diagrams, videos, links, recordings, and the students can read, watch, explore and listen in their own time at their own pace via their own internet access at home. The classroom time is then freed up to do the things that students can’t do alone: from things like discussing ideas with their peers and reviewing each other’s performances through to creative experiences like improvising in a group or learning conducting skills through to massive projects like planning and producing a concert series.

This freed up classroom time also means that the role of the teacher changes: facilitating and mentoring rather than instructing and correcting. And this would impact on the amount of preparation time a high school music teacher would need for each class (to be explicit – this new model would require much more teacher preparation) as well as increased follow-up obligations.

But it would be so cool.

No more prac periods, where students are (effectively) abandoned by the teacher to do their own private practice. All class time would be spent working collaboratively, either in small groups (even pairs) or as a class. Students would have to talk to each other about their work every day. [This would be a revolution in many an Australian high school...]

This would only work if teachers and school administrators took a leap of faith and believed that better results (marks and rankings) would be achieved through this change in approach. And as most collaborative activities would not have a direct correlation to the activities that are assessed, it might be difficult for teachers and administrators to take that leap. [And that's without the leap in hours invested being taken into account, for a sector of the teaching profession that is strained to breaking point already.]

But I’ve been feeling inspired today just imagining/fantasising about what might be….

Teaching v Learning in the Piano Lesson [Part I]

One of the biggest privileges of being a piano teacher is the opportunity to become a consistent part of a student’s life. Each school week for maybe even a decade or longer the piano teacher and the piano student have time one-on-one (more or less) to explore musical puzzles, pianistic tricks, and challenges both physical and imaginative.

This is not a relationship in the knowledge-transmission model (where the teacher pours knowledge into student until student is all full up) but rather a relationship that is built on the teacher tweaking the learning experience to match the interests and accomplishments of the student. This teacher-student relationship is usually nurturing and supportive, in the sense of helping the student achieve their musical/pianistic goals and ambitions and substantially beyond. Piano teachers get to notice things about their students that can be missed in the hurly-burly of classroom activity, and piano teachers participate in building a sense of achievement in students who might otherwise never feel as if they shine….

So piano teachers are in a tremendous position to work with students who fall outside the bell curve; teaching can be modified to fit the precise needs of the student and without a class of other students to manage the teacher can organise the learning process to be perfectly timed for the individual student.

That’s the theory.

In real life, as always, it’s more complicated. And the number one thing that gets in the way of this perfectly customised learning experience is the idea (held by both parents and teachers) that the job of the teacher is to teach.

The job of the teacher is in fact not to teach but to help the student learn. And there is a massive difference between the role of ‘teaching’ and the role of ‘facilitating learning’.

When you think your job is to teach you begin with a list of all the things you want to ‘teach’ to your student, a catalogue of the things they should know or be able to do by the time you are done with them. Piano teachers who work in exam cultures (half the planet, at least) even have this big list of all the things you want to teach broken down into examinable chunks (“Last year you learned D Major? OK, this year we’ll work on E flat…”, etc.). Things that aren’t on that list are deemed either of secondary or of no importance (particularly once students start taking annual exams).

But when you begin with the idea of facilitating learning you begin with a desire to discover what makes your student tick, what intrigues them, what doesn’t, what they yearn to master, what they hanker to understand. You also, over time, begin to understand how the student sees themselves in relation to their family, their school and classmates, in relation to their future (and their past), and in relation to their culture (and this might be simple through to extremely complicated). These understandings then feed into your understanding of what drives their learning, and you can better facilitate learning.

You still have a checklist in relation to skills, vocabulary, literacy, experience, recognition, and so forth, but this list is always at the service of maximising learning, rather than the learning experience of the student serving you as you, the teacher, work your way through that checklist.

Let’s make up some examples: a very intelligent but not very socially mature 8 year old who has been learning for about a year suddenly decides to figure out how to play every single major and harmonic minor scale – all 24 of them. If you are tied to your piano teacher checklists you’ll be thinking to yourself ‘You don’t need all these scales for years yet!! Why don’t we just keep learning the pieces in your method book and we’ll come back to these scales when you’re ready?!’.

You can see the problem here plain as day: the student is ready to learn how to play all these scales – in fact, they’ve basically mastered them all just for fun while you weren’t watching! It’s not that they are not ready to learn – it’s that you are not ready to teach. Yep, this is the moment where you can choose to make the piano lesson all about you, or all about your student. Your call.

Another example: you have a 12-year-old student with a sunny disposition, learning for 4 years already, they’ve done a Preliminary exam at the end of the previous year, just started high school (Australia), they have no particular academic gifts, but they love playing the piano, and they’ve just returned after the school holidays with nine piano pieces they’ve composed since the last lesson 8 weeks ago. They begin to show you their (not-so-well notated) compositions as the minutes of the lesson begin to click over. You know how hard it was to get through that Preliminary exam at the end of last year, and you don’t want to waste a term working on ‘composing’ (which truth be told you don’t feel that comfortable dealing with) because you’d like them to do well in their Grade One exam at the end of the school year.

This is the moment where you can make the lesson all about your checklist (getting the student ready for Grade One) or you can make the lesson all about the student’s musical experiences (and learning) over the holidays. Is it going to be about them? Or about you?

Of course, there’s always that 5-15% of students who appear to have no interest in learning whatsoever, the kind who ask “Do we have to do this?”. The challenge here for teachers is how to tempt students into having a more robust appetite for learning without falling into the trap of creating new kinds of checklists (what kinds of learning the student should want to engage in). I really do regard these children (adults just don’t have this problem, in my experience) as being ‘learning anorexic’ – for some reason they feel it’s a Good Thing to restrict their learning experiences and opportunities, and it’s really, really hard to convince them otherwise.

I’ve been becoming more and more hardline on this issue the more experienced I’ve become in my teaching: once upon a time I really would have insisted on students struggling through a piece for some number of weeks rather than ‘give in’ to the student and just move on to a new piece of repertoire; once upon a time I would have politely listened to a student enthuse about this great new piece they’d discovered that they’d been trying to learn to play, and then after no more than 10 minutes (probably 4) I’d have steered the lesson back to the repertoire I had assigned; once upon a time I’d have left activities generally deemed to be ‘creative’ til the end of the lesson because we had to get the ‘real’ work done first. But all these once-upon-a-times represent woeful educational practice, and I’m ashamed of every single example of this in my teaching history.

Then we have the rare 1-4% who love to learn things in the order we plan to teach things, who practice regularly and consistently for their entire learning lives, who explore new kinds of learning in their own time, but prepare for lessons so well that we can fit nearly everything into 45 minute lessons each week, and whose parents are keen for them to have extra lessons as their learning requires. And I think (deep down in  a little part of our hearts) we piano teachers think that in an ideal world the other 96-99% of our students would just morph into this kind of  a student.

But we only think that because we (deep down in our hearts) believe our focus should be on our teaching, not on the student’s learning.

As soon as we shift into a learning-centric focus the fun of the piano lesson becomes all about connecting with our students, with their unique gifts, challenges, contexts and needs.

And all those lists of requirements, prerequisites and checklists begin to gather a little more dust each week as we work to meet the evolving and unfolding learning needs of our students.

Let’s Start At the Very Beginning, Part 2: Where is the beginning?

In Friday’s presentation I began by challenging the notion that our beginner piano students are in fact ‘beginners’. Sure, this might be their first piano lesson, but most of our newest pupils bring with them a myriad of musical lessons learned prior to walking in our studio doors.

Music educators are deluded in the extreme if they believe that students have had no musical experiences prior to formal classes; from hearing their mother’s heartbeat while still in the womb through to being exposed to Muzak at the supermarket, children have a very rich tapestry of musical memories by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. There is complex musical accompaniment to children’s television (whether we’re talking opening themes of Disney preschooler animations such as Handy Manny or Jungle Junction or the rich semiotic of musical signification that organises In the Night Garden),  there are toddler/preschooler rock groups (The Wiggles, The Imagination Movers, and so on), and that’s without starting on iPad/iPhone apps and mobile phone ring tones.

But that’s just on the listening front.

Our beginner piano students have also been engaged in noise-making from a quite early age as well, whether it is vocalising/singing or creating noise with implements and saucepans. Not only do they have a bodily instinct as to pitch, but they have a corporeal sensation of dynamic. They know how to make long sounds and short sounds, and they’ve mastered all kinds of articulations and inflections and they understand the emotional loadings of specific kinds of sounds. In short, their musical imaginations have much to play with.

OK, so – so far this is everyone who walks into the piano teaching studio. But now things start to differentiate, and we start to see that some beginners are far from novices.

Some beginners have had a piano in their homes from the day they were born. This places them at a huge advantage to the beginner whose parents can’t quite bring themselves to commit to buying a $200 electronic device posing as a digital piano. Some lucky beginners have even had others in their family playing the piano as part of everyday life for years before you, the teacher, first see them. The fast-tracking this background experience provides is mammoth.

Firstly, these children are familiar with the layout of the keyboard, the function of the pedals, the weight of the keys, and maybe they’ve even explored the mechanism inside the lid…. There’s a whole level of ease that this familiarity provides that will take other beginners months (maybe even a year or two) to get up to speed.

Secondly, these children have witnessed the instrument being played. They’ve seen the way the pianist sits on the piano bench/stool, how the music is laid out on the music stand, how fingers connect with key surfaces, how arms are used in creating volume and in preparation for moving across and about the extent of the keyboard. This is almost always an advantage, unless the pianist has been extraordinarily ungainly or deficient.

And this all adds up to children who feel confident approaching the piano during those first 30 minutes of formal keyboard education. As the advertisements say, priceless.

But wait, there’s more. Some beginners come to the first piano lesson with a year or two of group music classes behind them, from Kindermusik through to Orff through to whatever has been offered in the local community hall. These classes might consist of moving to music, clapping with the beat, singing songs, learning about pitch direction, learning basic principles of music notation, maybe solfège training in some way, rhythm reading, playing on percussion instruments and so forth. These students are even more ahead than their beginner peers because they’ve been consciously thinking about these musical concepts (including musical literacy) prior to considering the specific physical skills needed to play the piano.

And then there’s the issue of students who’ve grown up with print music in the house (they’ve seen all these symbols over the years, even if no one explained what they meant) and observing people playing instruments using music as part of the process. These students are relaxed about learning to read, just the same way children who grow up in homes with books are comfortable about gaining literacy skills. Again, this is an advantage that can be measured in months.

There’s little we can do as piano teachers in that first lesson to ascertain or measure the differences between our beginner students. But what we can do is quickly work with parents and students who are new to the culture of playing a musical instrument to help the whole family adjust to what really is a cultural shift. Pianos being part of family life, not sequestered off in the furthest, dankest, back room of the house; playing the piano every day, even if just for a few minutes; a sense of celebration about the music that comes from the piano, rather than an anxiety over ‘accuracy'; a little collection of print music books gathering in the piano stool, or in a book case nearby, rather than dog-eared sheets of photocopy, disintegrating/fading/becoming lost; all these aspects of musical life need to be learned.

And at the very beginning of a beginner’s piano lessons it does us teachers well to remember that, even with such cultural lessons ahead, this is not necessarily the beginning at all.

To be continued…


Let’s Start at the Very Beginning, Part 1: Models of Learning

Yesterday I gave a presentation on teaching beginners as part of the Sydney Conservatorium’s annual Piano Teacher Festival. I promised I would blog about this presentation, but there were so many ideas in the 90 minutes of talk that I need to break things into smaller units. So today I begin with Models of Learning.

What I couldn’t show in my presentation, but would have loved to have had as prerequisite viewing, was this clip  that sets out the issues at play in ‘education’ generally. Part of what’s fabulous about teaching the piano is that we piano teachers have never bought into the industrial model Sir Ken Robinson outlines – we’ve never taught children content according to their age, for instance, but rather have responded to students’ progress and capacity, for instance. On the other hand, we have certainly taught to the test (in many countries) and as a result too many of us have taught our students to play as if there really is only one right way/one correct answer. Furthermore, we’ve restricted our students from hearing the music prior to learning it, buying into this notion that there is an ‘answer’ and it’s cheating to go to the back of the book and find out what it is.

But the model of learning/teaching the piano that I really took to task in yesterday’s presentation was the model of information being given to the student via some (optional) explanation which then resulted in a performance. This information-explanation-performance model is the way most of us piano teachers working today (2012) were taught; music (information) was popped onto the music-stand, and with some limited explanations (how to play the ornaments, or heavy pencil markings reminding us to count the rests) we then transformed this information into a performance. The job of the teacher was to control for error, making sure that the final performance was as close to a ‘correct answer’ as possible.

That’s still the way most of us teach.

When it comes to absolute beginners this learning/teaching model ends up supporting lessons where we tell students lots of stuff (‘this is a crotchet’, ‘this is a D’, ‘this is a barline’, ‘lift off when you see a rest’) and the student has to demonstrate that they’ve remembered all this stuff when they play. We end up putting lots of circles around the bits students don’t remember, and hope that these markings will be an extra reminder to remember. Sometimes it takes three or four lessons before beginner students get all the remembering done  for one particular piece.

In the presentation yesterday I suggested a different learning/teaching model (one which parents in 2012 are likely to expect from all teachers in any learning context). In this model all learning begins with experience. So the student will have the experience of hearing the teacher play something, seeing the teacher create sounds on the keyboard. The student then explores what they’ve just experienced – going to the keyboard to copy what they’ve heard, to mimic the movements they’ve just seen, and while they are exploring these sounds and movements they will also be having more experiences (what does it feel like? what does this feeling sound like?) and further explorations (what if I play faster? higher? softer?), and these further explorations veer into the territory I called experimenting.

In the experiment phase of the learning process the student is now creating hypotheses such as “I imagine that this will sound more exciting loud than soft” or “I think it would be more interesting to play this higher on the piano” or “I expect people will be scared when I suddenly play something after a long silence” and so on. The student is exploring what is possible and experimenting with the impact these changes and different approaches will make. Sooner or later (and it really is impossible to know how soon or late it might be) the student has something to say. This is now the phase of expressing.

Expressing oneself at the piano involves deliberately doing something that will have a known effect and communicate something more or less consistently to a known audience. This is a vital part of the learning cycle, for until a child/student communicates through their playing they are not really learning to ‘play’ the piano at all, they’re just learning about the piano.

Of course, once a student expresses something the student finds themselves back at the start of the cycle – they are experiencing the music they are playing, the thing being communicated, the sounds being created.

You’ll see how ‘information’ isn’t intentionally part of this process at all. And yet students will have gained oodles of ‘information’ through this process. Even by playing one simple piece or pattern students will have learned about weight needed to make sounds (of varying dynamic levels), differences of register across the keyboard, pitch direction, keyboard geography and patterns in that geography, and so forth. But instead of learning these things through instruction the student learns these things through experience and exploration.

It’s the old saying: “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.”

[Or is it an old saying? It seems terribly current-educational-thinking to me!]

And at the heart of my presentation was this idea that at the heart of teaching is the development of understanding, not the transmission of knowledge.

To be continued…