P Plate Piano Masterclass (VMTA January 19)

It’s been a while since I talked P Plate Piano. After a flurry of launch events introducing the P Plate Piano philosophy and publications in the last weeks of 2009 and the first six months of 2010, I’d had a welcome lull. But the new teaching year is almost upon us, and AMEB Victoria saw the Victorian Music Teachers Association Conference as the perfect opportunity to look at P Plate Piano one year on.

One year on means that students (and teachers) have actually been using these books, playing the pieces, experimenting with the activities, and exploring the things they can do with this repertoire.

One year on also means that the world has changed: touch-screen technologies have gone mainstream, with primary school students receiving iPodTouch and iPad devices for Christmas. [Yes, one would think they’d have had to be particularly good to have an iPad in their Christmas stocking.] Factor in toddlers and preschoolers expertly manipulating any range of apps and programs developed for these technologies and the piano teachers of Australia have a very different cohort of beginner piano students than they had even two or three years ago.

These iPad children interact to learn. They are not waiting to be passively filled with information (as if children ever were), but are actively engaged in constructing their own learning experiences through this technology that does not rely on advanced literacy in the user for functionality. Instead of exploring broadly, children can explore deeply, changing direction and focus as it suits them, not as suits their parents or older siblings. They are simultaneously more prepared to spend time engaging with learning and more prepared to move on to a new challenge if the present activity fails to exhilarate.

This changes the way we can teach, and it must change the way we do teach.

One of the most exciting aspects of P Plate Piano is the range of activities designed for this 21st century style of learning: experimentation, exploration, reconfiguration, extension. This deeper-sideways kind of learning looks like ‘mucking around’ to the traditional teacher or the exam-obsessed parent. But this kind of learning is the kind that creates musicians out of piano students, and unless you become a musician your piano lessons (and your examination certificates) won’t be worth much in the long run.

Just as pre-literate children can navigate their way around our touch-screen world, so young piano students can manage any number of musicianship skills we normally delay teaching until a student is seriously advanced. And this is where the P Plate Piano Masterclass came in.

Seven children participated in the P Plate Piano Masterclass, demonstrating a range of pieces from the P Plate Piano series, in a range of stages of learning. One boy had been learning “A Little Latin” for two days and hadn’t quite conquered the groove, while another had mastered “Finger Feet”, performing exquisite crescendo/diminuendo with absolutely impressive control.

One very little boy played “Aunty Flossie” from Book 2 in 4 different keys – a master of transposing! While an older girl played “Here Comes the Caravan”, and happily experimented with alternative articulations switching the left hand staccato and right hand legato (no easy feat). Another student performed his arrangement of “Listen Please”, expertly moving from major to minor tonalities (not written in the score). Particularly delightful was the nine-year-old girl who performed her own composition “Mysterious” at the conclusion of the masterclass. A meditation in the Lydian mode, this piece lived up to its title, conveying an extremely appealing sense of intrigue and otherness.

Some of these students had already taken their non-graded P Plate Piano assessments, and it was a delight to see the range of skills they demonstrated.

I can hardly wait til the next one.

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