Teaching Tuesdays: Students are Snowflakes


snowflakes

Perhaps you have heard the saying that no two snowflakes are alike. Each one is unique, beautiful in its own way but different from all others. Likewise, each student you teach is unique, with their own personal strengths and weaknesses. What does that mean for the music teacher?

For starters, it means we can’t just force information into their heads. Nor can we follow the same exact script in each lesson and expect the student to understand new concepts just because we explained them the usual way. It’s true that there are general teaching methods that work more often than others, but there’s always exceptions.

Once you get into the details, you’ll quickly find that everyone learns differently–and one concept can be (and often times has to be) taught in at least five different ways.

Students are not photocopies. That means what works for one may not work for another, because each child has their own individual learning pattern. And it requires the music teacher to connect with each student and figure out how they learn in order to use that for the student’s benefit.

1)Some are auditory learners, meaning they understand things best when they hear it put to use. With this type of learner, the teacher often has to do more demonstrating, such as playing a specific rhythm or interval so the child can get a sense of what it sounds like.

2)Others are more visual and understand new concepts best when they can see it in front of them. It might be a picture diagram showing how all the notes fit into the beats, or perhaps the teacher demonstrating a new technique with their hand so the student can copy the motion.printer boy

3)Still others are kinetic, or “hands-on”, learners–they have to feel it and do it themselves before they get it. Clapping rhythms works great for this type of learner. And when starting to focus on good hand technique, I find what works best is to have them put their hands on the keyboard like they’re going to play, and then I physically set their fingers in place. I might even push down a key with their finger (while still holding it in shape) to show them what it feels like when done correctly.

Very often, students are a combination of two or more of these styles, with one being the most prominent. I for one am an “all-of-the-above” learner. In certain circumstances, I learn best by hearing something. But other times I have to see it or do it myself to really grasp it. Perhaps being a combination learner puts me at an advantage, because, since I’ve experienced putting each method to use on myself, I have a pretty good idea of how to help others in each area. But I’m always on the lookout for new ideas!

You can usually get a decent handle on a student’s learning style after a few weeks. Until you do, though, you might have to experiment. If the student doesn’t get a new concept right away based only on an explanation, they might need some auditory or visual examples, or they might need to feel it for themselves.

This is probably one of the harder aspects of teaching to master (or at least the most involved), but it is also the most rewarding. When you witness a difficult concept “click” in the mind of a struggling student, or when a seemingly apathetic child suddenly responds with enthusiasm or even gratitude, it makes it all worthwhile.

Obviously, this is easier to accomplish in private lessons, when you’re working one-on-one with a child with relatively few distractions. And since this is my field of experience, that’s what I’ll be focusing on today.

There are of course certain aspects of the music lesson that should always be present. Particularly the practice routine and the various components of musical training–including music reading, rhythm, technique, dynamics and phrasing, theory, history, ear training, etc. But how you accomplish that can be adapted to better suit a student’s unique needs. Furthermore, it’s possible to deliver this “customized training” without being a complete bore–or worse, an unyielding dictator. How? By giving yourself permission to have fun!

That’s right–have fun at the lesson! Remember: if you enjoy yourself and show enthusiasm for music (yes, even “Hot Cross Buns”), the odds are greater that your student will too.

Don’t just talk at them either–because 90% of what you just said will probably go in one ear and out the other anyways. Instead, keep them involved! I can’t stress enough how vital that is in any music lesson. Discuss new ideas with them, and let them voice their questions, opinions and thoughts. If they come up with their own way of explaining an idea, by all means, let them tell you! You never know–it might come in handy later on, to help another student understand, too.

Obviously, discussions should stay on topic as much as possible. I like to save “story time” for before and/or after the lesson. Then they can tell me all about their new favorite video game or what they did with their friends that weekend–but during the lesson, it’s “piano time” only. This helps to keep us focused and productive. But I still want them to feel comfortable talking to me and sharing their ideas, because I’m here in part to encourage the development of their imagination and creativity. And if I can ignite their love for learning along the way, even better!

Along those lines, one fun way to get them involved is to let them make up a story about the song they’re playing, or borrow an already existing story that fits the theme. They’ll not only enjoy the song more, but feel more connected to it and the mood. The story doesn’t have to be long or complex, just enough to set the scene so the child can follow its arc and practice more expressive playing.

And play games! Kids love games, and it can be a great way to reinforce concepts you want them to learn.

simon-says

I realize not all learning can be fun and games. There is a time to have fun, and a time to be serious. But there can be both in the same lesson. I guarantee you, with just a little bit of creativity, absolutely anything can be turned into a game…

Does your student struggle with finding the white keys? Play Simon Says! That is one of the simplest, yet most popular games to play with students. You say, “Simon says, play an E.” And they play an E on the piano. Easy. And, what’s great about this game is it can be expanded to included any concept under the sun as they advance. “Simon says, play four quarter notes on the letter B,” or “Simon says, play the C position warm-up with staccato fingers,” or “Simon says, point to the treble clef.” You name it. Sometimes I’ll even add a little “silliness” to it, by telling them to play a rhythm on the piano with their elbow or chin instead of their fingers, or to do it with their eyes closed or their tongue sticking out. The possibilities for this simple game are endless!

For others who struggle with a steady beat, play the Marching Game! Turn on a metronome and march in time around the room (this is especially great for kids with excess energy). Then try to march out different rhythms, or clap along. Heck, do jumping jacks to the beat if you’re feeling energetic.

Speaking of students with excess energy, one thing that was incredibly successful for me was what I call Crazy Time. I have one little boy in particular who used to struggle a lot with sitting still and focusing. So we started small: if he could play through one song all the way and say the note names correctly, then I would award him with ten seconds of Crazy Time to run in circles, jump up and down, roll on the floor, or whatever he felt like that day. Then we’d move on to our next task. Eventually, we were able to expand the amount of serious time with fewer breaks in between. Now that he’s a little older and more determined to play the piano well, we rarely need even one break during the lesson.

Do you have a young student who just can’t seem to keep their wrists up when they play? That’s where my invisible pet shark comes into play. I tell my students he swims in the air right under their arms, hoping to get a nibble. Then, if their wrists get too low while they play: “Uh-oh! Sharky got you!” I might even pretend to “bite” their wrists with my hand. The little ones go absolutely nuts over that. I’ve even had some who make a point of reminding me at the beginning of the lesson, “Did you bring your shark today?”

For help with curved fingers, sometimes I’ll use hand puppets or “talking hands”–the kind where you make a fist, and the thumb becomes the lower jaw. Then we’ll let our hands talk to each other for a little while. We might even name our hands (mine our George and Georgette, in case you’re wondering). Afterwards, I’ll have them place their hands in playing position on the keys and show them how, if their fingers are flat, George’s mouth is closed and he can’t breathe (because, obviously, he doesn’t have a nose). How would you like to have to hold your breath for an entire song? That’s what I thought. But if you curve your fingers, ahhh, George’s mouth stays open and he can breathe freely! And he’s most appreciative, too.

A fun way to help students be more observant is a little role reversal. Let them be the teacher, and you be the student. Then you play their song, making sure to play at least one thing wrong, and see if they can catch it. They love getting to “grade” their teacher, and it’s great practice for both listening and watching. Similarly, when a new concept is introduced, I’ll occasionally give an incorrect definition on purpose to see if they catch my “mistake.” Example: “Ooh, look! Your new song has an “f” dynamic. Do you remember it’s name? That’s right, forte. So that means we have to play quiet, right?” Then I usually get “the look” from my student and the response, “No! It means loud of course!” At which point I slap myself on the head and say “Oh man, you’re right! What was I thinking?” So we have successfully drawn our attention to the dynamic and defined it, but had a laugh at the same time.

Or, why not try the Copy Cat Game? For this one, the teacher plays something on the piano, and the student has to copy it. Make it notes, or rhythms, or both! I’ve also done a similar version of this that I call the Mirror Game. With the metronome on, I face my student and clap to the beat. The student is my mirror and has to copy whatever rhythm I do.

As they say, you are limited only by your own imagination. Only, in this case, you can also use the imagination of your fellow teachers, and even your students!

So, if you’re stuck, ask someone! Get ideas. Search the internet–it’s a great reference right there at your fingertips. And pay attention to the things your students say. They just might inspire you to try something new–that’s how my “Adventures in Harmonia” got started. After a rather entertaining conversation with my student Alyson on rests, I decided to make it into a story, starring her and my other students.

As a teacher, it’s incredibly helpful to be able to think on your toes–but it’s even more important to be prepared. If you have on hand an arsenal of games, teaching techniques, and ways of explaining things to connect with each student in a way that is meaningful to them, the more you will have to draw from on demand. And you should always be adding to it! You can never have too many ways of teaching the same thing.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much how a student learns, as long as it works. Remember: Students are snowflakes, not photocopies! Everyone is different and learns in a unique way. Take time to get to know your students, including their learning patterns, likes and dislikes, what interests them, their habits, etc. You can use all of that to help them learn and retain new knowledge.

A student who is able to enjoy learning, to study creatively, and experience various learning methods that work for them is more likely to excel in any area of study in the future, so why not instill those qualities in them now?


How do you meet your individual students’ needs? What methods, games, etc. work for you? Is there something you struggle with? Feel free to share in the comments!

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