What is ‘progress’?

Written on Saturday, prior to the two Sydney P Plate Piano launches…..

I’m back tonight from Adelaide, where in the early afternoon I presented a launch event for P Plate Piano.  The weather was unbelievable, literally howling winds, and rain that seemed to bend around the trees that were left standing (one just outside the venue had split leaving two cars trapped beneath enormous broken branches). So with this unpromising meteorological backdrop a group of around 20 piano teachers gathered to explore P Plate Piano.

The most exciting response came from a clarinet teacher who wanted to know when the same kind of approach was going to be applied to instruments other than the piano!  She also pointed out that the activities and the approach of P Plate Piano, while being designed to inspire and enthuse children beginners, would be equally inspirational to adult learners.  I honestly had not given adult beginners much thought at all, but this Adelaide teacher is entirely right – P Plate Piano would be an amazing course to use with an adult beginner, full-colour illustrations and large font text notwithstanding.

Another comment was that all this ‘extra’ stuff, the transposing, the playing duets, the improvising, the changing tonalities, the arranging, the experimenting with dynamics, and so on (and on) was just sideways learning, not forward progress.

“My students would rather play hard music badly than easy music well”, was (as I recall) an exact quote. The implication being, I suppose, that one is making forward progress by playing hard music badly, rather than easy music well.

So there are two issues here: firstly, the idea that some ‘progress’ doesn’t move the student ‘forward’ but rather ‘sideways’, and secondly, the notion that degree of difficulty is the only means of assessing ‘forward progress’.

In music education cultures where examinations are the dominant means of creating a curriculum for piano students it is certainly tempting to measure one’s own teaching by the numerical ‘progress’ students are making through the various gradings vis-a-vis time passed. Students, parents and teachers alike talk of ‘skipping grades’ as if this were proof of excellence.

Anything that does not contribute to this kind of progress is then defined as peripheral (‘sideways’), and many teachers consciously avoid activities or assignments which fall into this category (such as improvising, transposing, arranging, ensemble playing, and so forth).

These ‘peripheral’ activities are, of course, all the kinds of things that lead a student to develop excellent musicianship, that stimulate independent learning, that encourage personal engagement with the music.  Whereas spending the full academic year learning nothing but four or five pieces is the surest way to bore a piano student to tears and reduce their enthusiasm to a flicker.

To be honest, I’ve reached a point where this kind of thinking leaves me basically speechless. If you are a teacher who genuinely believes that “it’s better to play hard music badly than easy music well”, that engaging the student’s imagination in practice is peripheral, that spending time in the lesson exploring the possibilities of the instrument is a sideways manoeuvre, that encouraging students to perform with others is a time-waster, you are in the wrong game.

Now I appreciate that most piano teachers over the age of 40, and a goodly number of piano teachers under that age as well, were almost certainly taught to play the piano themselves learning no more than six to ten pieces a year, without any encouragement to explore their ideas or their instrument, and with external examinations the only means of measuring achievement.  So it’s really no surprise to find teachers today replicating those same learning conditions in their own teaching practice. They are simply passing on the musical culture they inherited.

But that’s not good enough in the 21st century.  It wasn’t good enough in the 20th century!

The idea that playing badly is progress of any kind is completely inimical to the teaching of music: a physical skill that’s also an art form and the most direct way that humans communicate emotion and create group experience.

One would think that it’s hard to argue for too long that students should play badly under any circumstances.  And yet this afternoon the argument was forcefully put to me that this was, in fact, the path to pianistic progress.

What do you think?!

7 thoughts on “What is ‘progress’?

  1. I’m one of those piano teachers over 40 who learned those 6 pieces per year in order to progress rapidly through the grades, and I have spent the last 20 years of my teaching career striving to teach as differently as possible from the way I was taught. I was stunned when I got to University at how little repertoire I knew – and I had no idea why I was hearing chord progressions wafting out of practice rooms. Music is so much bigger and deeper than certificates on the wall. I hope my enthusiasm and love for music will be passed on to my students for the rest of their lives, and I will continue to use every “sideways” method of teaching that is fitting.

    Thank you for bringing this up.

  2. Oh, my! I am taken aback by that point which was brought up about the ‘extra’ stuff (the transposing, the playing duets, the improvising, the changing tonalities, the arranging, the experimenting with dynamics, and so on) being seen as nothing more than a waste of time in regard to ‘forward’ development of a student.

    To avoid going into a massive rant, I will say only this:

    As a student, it was these ‘sideways’ activities that led me to pursue music as a career, from my undergraduate course in Jazz Piano at the Australian National University, to my current studies in Composition for Film as a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Music in London.

    These ‘sideways’ activities have developed the skills I needed to write and conduct jazz big band pieces for one of the world’s leading Jazz Orchestras, the ‘Mothership Orchestra’, through to a-capella sextet vocal music for one of world’s top vocal groups, ‘Rajaton’.

    Waste of time? I think not. Otherwise, what on earth is the point of learning music?!

  3. I will definitely purchase an autographed copy of your book in a few weeks time Elissa. Lookm forward to meeting you. And bravo to the clarinet teacher. I gave an 2 hour lesson in painting to 5th grader in my atelier last Friday afternoon. the teacher and her elderly friend (I think her friend is her godmother), joined in the activities. They popped into the atelier again on Saturday morning to thank me again and urged me to offer the same activity as a workshop for teachers.

    The main problem I have in teaching people how to draw, is their fixation on WHAT rather than HOW to draw. Most of the instructional material for learning to draw, does not clarify the difference. These same people will parrot off the axiom – “give a person a fish and you feed them for a day, teach them how to fish and they can feed themselves for a lifetime”. Yet all their learning experiences have been about what to do, rather than how to do it – what to play rather than how to play, what to draw rather than how to draw.

    My clarinet teacher has dropped entirely the formal approach to my instruction (I’m his only student); we now do a few exercises on tonal quality to warm up then go straight into improvisation. We record it and then listen to it together, talking about how it went, then do it again. We both love it; I do the scales and stuff on my own time – I’m happy to pay good money for a quality learning experience.

    Oh yeah, I’m slightly amused that the things normally reserved for the higher levels, under the lock-step curriculum, would be referred to as “sideways”. frfcksake.

  4. Hi Elissa..

    As you know, my little ones are learning Piano and for the last month the focus has been on composing their own piece..”make sure you use both hands, get a feel for what keys sound good together and what don’t, listen to what you’re playing and if you want to, play a black key ok. You can play it in any postion, so go for it” …I didn’t quite get why but having read your blog, I get it now 🙂

    Mau then composed his own piece, bearing in mind we’re not reading music yet and just identifying positions on the piano, he wrote out his ‘music’ to show his teacher..I wish I could show you!!!
    Left hand D pinky and thumb
    Right hand C three note chord
    play 4 times twice

    Am I a proud Mommy???? YOU BETCHA
    Am I all for going sideways????? Abso-freakin-lutely

  5. Excellent post and excellent ideas as usual! Thank you! I also try as much sideways-teaching as possible – my problem is rather how to incorporate it in every lesson or make sure we cover as many items as possible in a given time of months to make sure my students are well-rounded musicians (I am just preparing a post about this on my blog…).
    And then there is another problem: parents who rate progress by the number of pieces learned. (Kiki, I loved your comment! Good to see that there are parents like you!!!) I really had complaints about my way of teaching, even getting comments like: “you are not to play games in the lessons, you are to play the piano”! “Games” being my flashcards for rhythmic patterns or reading. Big question: what do YOU do with such parents? Usually, these are the more “uneducated”, unexperienced and thus insecure parents. I never had this problem with children of colleagues. Some I can convince that in the end, their child will know how to play the piano and much more, but right now I am having major problems with a mother and I think the only solution is a breakup. How do you handle those situations?
    (Sorry, it’s a little off-topic!)
    And one more question: may I link you to my blog? Actually, I already did because I am fascinated with your website, but of course I will remove it if you object. Please let me know!

  6. Hi Elissa
    Of course the “sideways” teaching is in actual fact “making” music so should therefore be the lifeblood of every lesson. However, I wonder whether the statement “My students would rather play hard music badly than easy music well” is really that surprising. I have students who enjoy exploring music considerably beyond their technical abilities because it allows them to personally interact with the music. They know that they might, at this point in time, only be playing a few bars of the piece, but at least they get to experience a bit of it now rather than wait until later. I wonder if this is what the Adelaide teacher meant? 🙂

    • What a lovely interpretation of “playing hard music badly not easy music well”! Sadly, the context was more along the lines of “they would rather spend the entire year working on the three pieces in a Grade 3 exam and then only barely pass than spend only a short time preparing for a Grade 1 exam where they will achieve a distinction”. In fact, this was close to exactly what was said.

      And this was expressing a big problem with music examinations being the measure of excellence in the schoolyard – lots of students would rather be seen as keeping up with their friends, even if they only barely scrape through, rather than being a grade or two behind.

      Which of course is related to your fascinating point about your own students wanting to play music considerably beyond their technical abilities. I find that students are desperate to learn the pieces that they hear their peers playing, no matter how easy or hard that music might be (or what grade it is on this year’s syllabus!). So this is definitely where they want to ‘own’ a little bit of the music that they already love to hear.

      But beyond this personal connection, which is a means of building community through music (a really fundamental role that music plays), such an experience only rarely builds the student’s abilities or prepares them for further independent learning.

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