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As promised, today I am going to finish up my discussion of training music students to not just practice, but practice well. Yesterday, I spoke more generally about how important it is to teach how to practice in such a way that concepts and skills are reinforced, and the student is simultaneously trained to observe their playing and think through their songs. As a reminder, here’s what my list of Practice Directions looks like that I give all my beginning students:
1. Play and say the notes out loud.
2. Play and say the counts out loud.
3. Play and sing the words out loud, with dynamics.
4. Play and whisper count.
At the onset, their list is even simpler, because I start by teaching them their finger numbers first (on the black keys, as the patterns are easier to identify) and focus on that for a few songs before we start rhythm. In their case, all they have to do is 1) Play and say the finger numbers out loud and 2) Play and sing the words. So you can see how the list evolves to include new concepts as they are introduced. It usually only takes a few weeks to get to the point where they’re using the “full” list.
Let’s take the four steps apart then. What purpose does each of them serve? Well, the first two I think are rather self-explanatory. Two of the most important concepts a music student has to learn first is how to read notes (and finding the corresponding key/position on their instrument), and how to count. Saying both of these out loud simply reinforces that by directing the student’s focus. Plus, it helps to ensure that they’re actually reading and thinking through what’s on the page, and not just guessing. But why do I make them sing? I’m a piano teacher, after all, not a voice teacher. Singing has nothing to do with playing the piano…
I personally believe singing is an important part of being a musician, regardless of your instrument. No, I’m not saying all musicians should be amazing singers. But singing your music does offer incredible insight into how the musical phrasing should be shaped, because we all sing innately with inflection and emotion. Thus, by hearing how the melody would sound if it was sung, the student can then try to emulate that sound through their playing. So its first use then is to teach musical phrasing and emoting. This can be done while they’re playing as well as away from the piano.
Furthermore, singing along with their playing teaches coordination, trains their ears (because they’re trying to match the pitches with their voice), and also helps them keep a steady beat. Again, because singing comes so innately to us, we usually sing in time without even having to think about it. This can really help those students who struggle with the steady beat, because suddenly they can feel when they’re pausing where they shouldn’t be, or where they’re rushing or slowing down. Most method books designed for children have words to all their songs already. So, why not use them? If a song doesn’t have lyrics with it, then sing along with “La.” It doesn’t have to be fancy.
Speaking of steady beat, one of the greatest helps I have found for teaching students to feel and follow the beat is tapping. It’s easy, yet effective. For beginning students who haven’t been introduced to the metronome yet, I just tap somewhere on the piano and have them follow me. Basically, I’m being the metronome for them. When I’m tapping along with them, usually I do it during the first two steps. It’s important to note though, that if you’re going to tap the beat, the student has to follow you, not the other way around. If the student starts playing faster than you’re tapping, don’t adjust your speed to match them. They have to learn to listen and adjust themselves. Also, something else that helps them to follow your taps is to establish the beat before they start playing. The way I do this is I start tapping the beat, then have them count themselves in before they start, so they’ve already had a full measure of feeling my beat and know the speed they should go.
The last step of the Practice Directions is the whisper counts, which sounds like a pointless repetition of step 2. Yes, they’re counting again, so in that sense it is a repetition, but this time they’re whispering it softly to themselves. Why? Because it’s what I like to call “performance practice.” For this step, I sit back and say absolutely nothing. They are on their own now. When one is performing, there is a lot to think about. Add to that the pressure of an audience and trying to get everything perfect, and often one of the first things to go out the window is steady beat and rhythm. Even in lesson, when there’s usually no nerves, if they relax during the whisper counts and think it’s okay to do nothing but “play the notes,” odds are they won’t stay steady and they’ll make rhythmic errors. One of the greatest aids then is to teach them the importance of always thinking of the counts. Especially for my young students, I make it clear that I should see their lips moving at the very least. By physically mouthing the numbers, it helps them stay on track better and feel the beat.
Once the student has completed the whisper counts, then comes another check list. It looks sort of similar to the Practice Directions, but it serves a different purpose: providing a list of criteria that must be met in order to pass a song, thus helping the student to apply those observational skills we’ve been talking about. Here it is:
1. Did you play the right notes?
2. Did you play the right counts?
3. Did you remember your dynamics and other details?
4. Did you keep a steady beat?
Basically, it’s a critique list, one which I again physically write down right next to their Practice Directions so they have it in front of them the whole time. I call it the “Sticker List,” because that sounds more fun, and if they get everything right on the list, they pass the song and get to put a sticker on it. The point I make here though is for my students to critique their own playing. If they made mistakes, they should be able to point out where they were and what was wrong. It offers them again a tangible goal, and teaches them to be observant. It teaches them what’s important and that a song isn’t right unless all of the criteria is met. Another great thing about the Sticker List is that it can be added to. If you have a student who struggles with a specific thing, say, good posture for instance, then you can add at the bottom of the list: 5. Did you keep a good sitting position the whole time? You get the point.
Furthermore, a list of criteria gives students the whole picture of their playing–both what they did great and what needs work. This is especially helpful for the two extremes of students you will likely encounter at one point or another: the Apathetic student and the Perfectionist.
The Apathetic student will shrug their shoulders every time and say “Yeah, I should pass the song,” even though they played the majority of the notes wrong or didn’t hold all of their half notes for two beats. Having a list of criteria gives them an opportunity to see exactly what they need to work on. Eventually, they’ll learn to pay more attention and take greater care when they play if they’re being consistently held to that standard.
The Perfectionist, on the other hand, will finish a piece and declare with much sighing and shaking of the head, “That was terrible! I ruined the whole thing!” when in reality they only missed one or two notes. In this case, the check list can serve as an opportunity for you to encourage them by showing that it wasn’t as bad as they think. You can ask them why they think it was terrible, and if they say they messed up the notes, then you can say “Sure, you got this note and this note wrong, but you got all the other notes right! That’s only two out of the whole song!” And make sure you consider their other criteria as well: “What about your counts? Did you get that right? And did you play all your dynamics? Were you steady? Huh. Well, then really you got almost everything right! All we need to do is fix two notes. That’s not so bad, now is it?”
That’s the great benefit of this approach: it helps to put a student’s playing into better perspective for them, whichever side of the spectrum they fall on.
In conclusion, one of my main goals as a piano teacher is to train well-rounded musicians. That means I want to encourage them to practice, but practice well. I want them to be observant, to not just play the notes on the page but really listen to what they’re playing and be able to critique it. It’s vital to keep the student involved and active in the process as much as possible. As a fellow teacher is fond of saying, “My handwriting is invisible, and I speak Swahili.”
In other words, if you write something on the page you want the student to fix, more often than not they’ll ignore it. It’s like they don’t even notice it. So let the student write it down on the page. If they do it, they’ll be more likely to remember it.
Along the same lines, if you spend half your lesson or more “talking at” the student, there’s a good chance at least 90% of what you just said went in one ear and out the other. They’ll tune you out or be overloaded by information. Solution: ask them questions, and keep them involved in the discussion. Let them talk!
And above all, teach your students to teach themselves. Resist the urge to give away all the answers and do all the work for them. If we do, we’re only teaching them to be lazy and dependent on someone else. Instead, make them work for it by putting to use what they’ve learned. Let them think things through on their own before you jump in and explain it all. Sometimes it’s good to let them struggle for a little bit, while always being ready to help or give little hints and pushes in the right direction if they need it.
Example: if your student is learning a new song, and they can’t remember what one of the notes is, rather than just saying “That’s an F,” have them figure it out. You can say something like this: “OK. We have to know what note that is if we’re going to play the song, so let’s figure it out.” You can give them hints, such as asking them “Do you remember what word the treble clef space notes spell?” or you can take the approach of having them find a note they do know and counting from there. The point is that they need to know how to figure it out even when you’re not there. So equip them properly so they’re prepared. Not only that, but when they do finally figure out the answer on their own (and more often than not they do), it’s so much more rewarding!
So teach your students to practice well and to figure things out for themselves. The result will be strong, independent, observant musicians who are equipped for the real world.
Are you equipping your students with the right tools? Do you give them the chance to figure things out and to be observant? Don’t hesitate to share your questions, thoughts or ideas! I’m always happy to continue the discussion. 🙂