I have to admit that I started teaching piano quite by accident. It wasn’t really on my mind as a career path when I left Music College and only began because the son of a friend of a friend wanted lessons. This soon grew into a thriving private teaching practice which led to teaching in schools. On reflecting back over the last 25 years I can honestly say that teaching piano has brought me a huge amount of joy which I hope I have managed to pass on to my pupils. I’ve met all sorts of interesting people, each with their own needs and wishes with the added pleasure of seeing them improve their skills at the piano as well as their growth in musical appreciation.
It seems to me that teachers are there to enhance musical progress and to ultimately make themselves unnecessary in the learning lives of their students and that students drive their own learning. I am a huge fan of self directed learning and having come across Democratic Schools in the US, I can see the benefits of this type of approach.
Self directed learning at first sounds as though the teacher has less ‘to do’ and is even possible to view this approach as even a bit lazy. However greater planning, self questioning and reflection on one’s own strengths and weaknesses is needed. To enable better self directed learning we need to understand the motivation of our students regardless of their age as well as knowing which repertoire and practice strategies to use to drive meaningful progress.
It is easier to be told what to do and be evaluated by the teacher than to engage in the tricky business of learning. Learning requires questions and thinking, the brain is then more receptive to remembering than when information is simply delivered by the teacher. In time students are able to ask the questions a teacher would.
A sign of passive learning is if the teacher is doing more work than the student. The teacher does need to be aware of their approach, enthusiasm for a subject can lead to just delivering information. For their part, students should also take responsibility for their learning. Questions a student should ask could go along these lines: ‘How effective is my practice? How effective is my learning? What do I need to do to get better? What strategy does this task require?’ None of this is about facts or even skills but the process involved in gaining knowledge or skill.
This sort of questioning comes from experience of playing and learning, but younger students can also be prompted with questions to evaluate their own playing and musical development.
Well-intentioned teaching gives direction, telling the student what he or she needs to do. The role of the student is then to sit, listen, obey and execute. Teacher directed learning takes the hard work out of learning. It becomes:
Let me tell you what I think and what to do.
Let me tell you what you are doing wrong.
Let me show you how to do this.
Perhaps another model could be to say very little and let the student fill the silence, let the student start with what he or she thought went well and what could be better. This can then easily lead into a productive two way conversation. Having experimented with this for a while now, I will say that it does feel uncomfortable to begin with, but does lead students to teach themselves, solving problems and gaining more independence and independent thought. Expressive disciplines like music require active participation and students need to be enabled to question and construct their own ideas.
Here is a list of questions students should consider:
How do I think I played?
How does it sound?
Is what I am doing working? Why? Why not?
What is the goal of the week?
How can I learn this passage more thoroughly?
Has my playing improved since last week?
Questions are leading and informative, demanding and explore ideas. Teachers, myself included need to ask more and talk less. Students need to be more active participants in their learning in order to gain better understanding. An enthusiastic teacher keen to impart knowledge means that there is little in the way of learning for the student to do. Studies show that the best teachers tell their students almost nothing, but prompt and draw as much from the student as possible.
Another tip I can offer is to think out loud. When encountering a difficulty think verbally. By doing this it is possible to uncover the root of the problem and hopefully gain a better understanding of what is happening and then find a solution. There is quite a lot of evidence that suggests those who make their own verbal commentary learn skills more quickly.
Other tips for learning could be:
Plan your practice before starting.
Identify difficulties and the successes.
Describe practice strategies, how they can be implemented and why successful.
Professional musicians have great awareness of their own learning and of their strengths and weaknesses. Most children (as well as adult learners) only have one music lesson each week and so learning how to learn is essential. Music practice is complex, open ended and demands the ability to reflect and critically analyse their own performance more than any other activity.
As teachers and learners we must always reflect and evaluate our actions critically as a way to continually improve our skills.
Thank you for reading.
Another blog will come soon…