It Takes Two Generations…

This year I have had a handful of gorgeous beginners taking lessons with me. I’m trialling new material for beginners and I need a cohort of children of different ages, genders, interests and learning styles so I can really test a range of approaches I believe will be more effective than the approaches I’ve used in the past. I haven’t auditioned these new students prior to accepting them into my studio –  inviting a diverse group of children to explore the piano and learn musicianship and performance skills with me gives me my best chance of testing my material (as well as keeping me on my toes!).

Of all the diversities amongst these beginners the greatest is probably this: some children come from families of professional musicians while some come from families where no one has ever learned an instrument.

What does this mean? On the surface it means that I can write “start on F sharp” in a notebook of one student while in the notebook of another I need to draw a keyboard map with an arrow on the starting note. Or, a little bit deeper down, it means that I can assume at-home practice support for some students, while with others I need to assume that the student is the most expert musician in the home (no small difference between the two students!).

On a practical level it means I can get through much less in a 30 minute lesson with a child whose parents don’t know how to help at home than I can with a child whose parents can fluently read notation and who themselves engage in daily practice. It takes a lot of extra time to make sure a six year old will understand a task than it does to give an off-hand instruction in passing to a parent.

Just the other day I was talking with the father of the one of the families who have had no previous experience learning musical instruments. He was telling me about how much better their young child was doing since we had established firm routines both for attending lessons and for practicing at home, and how much more enjoyment the child was getting from the experience now that daily sessions at the piano were taking place. The father said a friend of his had told him “It takes two generations to make a musician – the first generation learns how to learn, and then the second generation has parents who know what it takes to really become a musician.”

The father said he was excited to know he was laying the foundations for the next generation to have the chance to really master an instrument.

Musicians are accustomed to long-term planning, but I was completely awe-struck to think that this family was investing in the grand-children yet to be born –  a couple of decades away from even being thought of, and still some twenty-five or more years away from taking lessons themselves.

As much as I would have liked to have disagreed with his friend, I couldn’t. It definitely takes more time to develop musicianship for the whole family than it does just for the youngest member. It’s not about loving music or knowing a lot about Beethoven or Count Basie. It’s about everything from how to engage in problem-solving, dealing with delayed gratification and the impossibility of perfection, through to knowing the names of the keys of the piano, understanding how the sound is made, how notation represents sound, that the experience of making music through the piano is far more than simply pressing the right keys at the right time, and specific knowledges such as “what is a cadence?” and “how do I use a metronome?”.

If you’re a parent who has no background in playing a musical instrument I’m sure 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 in time you’ll become an expert, I promise!

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!

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.

Half An Hour Is Not Enough

Since 2000 I’ve been talking to piano teachers around Australia (and from time to time around New Zealand, even less often in the UK, and just twice in Malaysia), and it doesn’t matter where I go, Sydney, Belfast, Bendigo, Wellington or Penang, teachers ask me “how can we fit it all in a half hour piano lesson?”.

The short answer is “you can’t”, and in a way it’s a relief to just get that admission out of the way. It takes a lot of energy and self-deceit to pretend that 30 minute lessons on an almost weekly basis for 10+ years will produce master musicians, and once we recognise that this time frame is insufficient we can start looking for better strategies.

So, if half an hour isn’t enough, what can we do about it?

1. We can re-examine how we define ‘enough’. What are the goals we are setting? Are they the goals we want to work towards?! Most of the time, in former Commonwealth countries, teachers define ‘enough’ by examinations (do we have enough time in 32-40 x 30 minute lessons to prepare for a excellent result in a Grade x examination?). Defining what is ‘enough’ involves talking to students and their parents about what they want to accomplish, as well as interrogating ourselves as to what we think a piano education should encompass.

2. We can look at ways of getting the most out of the thirty minute lesson. Have we built inefficiencies into our lesson model? Are our teaching methods wasteful of our limited time resources?

3. We can explore how more learning can take place between lessons. Are we structuring appropriate learning experiences to take place when we are not present? Are we informing students and their parents of ways to enhance learning between formal lessons?

4. We can restructure our teaching so that lessons are longer. This may involve a serious culture shift in some teaching studios where all lessons have always been charged in 30 minute units (even if they lasted for 45 minutes!).

5. We can offer once-a-term (or twice-a-term) learning opportunities which enhance the learning being done in the one-on-one context. This might be anything from a performance masterclass through to a Baroque dance class, from a scales concert through to a blog carnival, from a group harmony class to a studio-wide YouTube concert.

6. We can encourage students to take on additional musical commitments. This could range from learning a second instrument through to accompanying worship services at church/the choir at school, or being part of a jazz ensemble, and beyond.

And as with any such list, I’m sure we could add more to it.

But it’s these six ideas I’d like to explore a little further in follow-up posts: redefining ‘enough’, teaching more efficiently, facilitating out-of-lesson learning, creating and implementing scheduling changes, enabling group learning opportunities, and encouraging participation in non-solo piano music making.

In the meantime, do you find that half an hour is simply not enough?

Piano Lessons for Life

Piano teaching has been a part of my life since birth (my mother resumed her at-home piano teaching when I was three weeks old) and a part of my professional existence since I was 14 and started giving lessons myself.

Teaching at such a young age provided many lessons to me beyond the usual teenage job learning curve: I had to create invoices, prepare materials, plan learning sequences, discuss the progress of students with their parents, coordinate timetabling, engage in professional development, and so forth. This learning curve was much facilitated by teaching under the watchful eye of a mentor-mother, but even so, these are considerable responsibilities for someone who won’t be allowed to vote for another 4 years.

The most challenging aspect of teaching as a 14 year old was, without doubt, talking with the parents. Fortunately my early students practised well enough, and everyone paid their fees on time, so two of the biggest piano teacher communication challenges weren’t on my early agenda.

What did interest me considerably at this stage, however, were the rationales parents gave for having their children take piano lessons. None of the parents had the least expectation that their children would grow up to be concert pianists (unsurprisingly, seeing as they were trusting their children’s pianistic education to a novice), but they all believed that learning a musical instrument would impart lessons for life. The most usual lesson anticipated by parents was the lesson of self-discipline.

Students who learned to practice each day on the piano would, it was assumed, then transfer this lesson of discipline to any other endeavour in which they might choose to engage throughout the rest of their lives. Of course, parents who truly value self-discipline have been instilling this virtue into their children from the day they are born, and piano lessons are merely another means of engaging medium- to long-term goal setting and accomplishment skills.

During the 80s and the 90s this theme was a parental constant: piano lessons were important as much as anything for the discipline they imparted to children who came within their thrall.

But in the past ten years there has been a massive shift in parental thinking as regards the life lessons that piano lessons can give. These days parents will be more concerned with children learning to think creatively, and with children having a skill they can engage in with others. This trend reflects research showing how making music engages the whole brain as well as a changing societal perception as to the attributes that will contribute to a happy life.

What hasn’t changed is the deep-down conviction that piano lessons are not just for music, they are for life.

My own “piano lessons are for life” epiphany occurred, curiously enough, in an undergraduate harmony class. I was a 16 year old first-year student, and my harmony class was to be the final year that Dr Douglas Mews was to be giving it. Douglas Mews was a well-known name in New Zealand education, having written the definitive classroom textbook on harmony, and I knew my classes would be memorable if for no other reason than they were the last classes Dr Mews would give.

What I did not anticipate was the extent to which these harmony classes were about how to live life well.

My favourite life lesson from Dr Mews was this: if you come across something or someone once you should make no especial effort to remember it – maybe it’s a completely random occurrence that you and this new thing/person have met; if, however, you come across something or someone a second time you should immediately make every effort to make its/her/his acquaintance thoroughly – these meetings are no accident and you will surely meet a third, fourth and fifth time.

This principle is excellent for mastering harmonic language in music, and just as superb for managing one’s interpersonal experiences. In short, it’s a lesson for life, well-taught by Dr Mews in my first year harmony class, immediately ringing true in terms of its musical application, and proving itself over and over as I have applied it in everyday circumstances.

After this particular harmony class I found myself changing the way I approached the piano lessons I was giving. Much of the time a lesson might be concerned with minutiae of piano performance, finding a way to tuck a thumb comfortably beneath the hand, exploring how finger shape alters tone, mastering a chord progression or understanding a new notation. But each and every piano lesson was also about life. Voicing is not just about creating a beautiful sound, it’s about appreciating how conversations work by paying attention to one voice at a time; form is not just about how a composer has structured the work, it’s about how we can make sense of our experiences; scales are not just tedious exercises to be prepared for examinations, they are palettes of possibility, demonstrating the power that limitations can unleash as well as the tedium that repression can enforce.

A student once said to me “You don’t just compose music, you compose everything!” after seeing the meal I had prepared for my family that night. That too, is a lesson to be taken away from the piano: life is not for following instructions, but rather principles.

Related to this idea: the page is the start, not the end – you cannot predict what people will do with your music, and they cannot predict what you will do with theirs, but either way it’s all just stuff someone’s made up to make sense of the world they live in, to make themselves feel better about the world and themselves, a way of dealing with their disappointments, fears, exhilarations and satisfactions.

Remembering this lesson gives piano students a template for dealing in a positive fashion with the gossip, rumour and outright lies that litter teenage and adult relationships.

To be continued….