Of the hundreds of thousands of children who start to learn the piano around the world each year nearly all of them will say, later in life, that, despite their years of piano lessons, today they can’t play a note.
And then they’ll tell you about a family member who never had a single lesson and who can play anything by ear.
This incredible disconnect between lessons and life-long skill doesn’t get discussed much by piano teachers, despite the overwhelming evidence that the hundreds of thousands of brand-new beginner pianists will not grow into adults who can actually play the piano.
There is always the exception to the rule, and of course every piano teacher is one of those exceptions who found that piano lessons did help them become better pianists.
And so they teach pretty much exactly the way that they were taught. This even comes down to using the same method books with their students that their teachers used with them. Witness the still amazing sales figures for John Thompson method books. Witness the almost universal use of examinations as a curriculum throughout most countries in the world. And witness the nervousness the majority of piano teachers feel when approaching repertoire from the twentieth century.
The system is self-perpetuating, and it seems that even after more than 200 years of teachers and students experimenting with different approaches we still don’t know what might have made a difference for the 99% of students who never touch the instrument again, even after a decade’s worth of tuition.
But of course we know. We know that people who can play by ear seem to happily sit down at the piano and play whenever they feel like, and that might be quite often. And we also know that people who can read music easily and well similarly sit down and play whenever the mood strikes them. We know this anecdotally, and in recent times music education researchers (notably Dr Gary McPherson and colleagues) have gone to the effort to document the evidence that this is so.
So shouldn’t lessons be equipping students to do both these things? To play the music they hear, and the music they read?
The fact is that most students are taught with neither of these goals in mind, and with neither of these techniques being employed in lessons or practice. Most students throughout the world learn maybe no more than 6 or 7 pieces in a year once they are past the absolute beginner phase. Most students are encouraged to avoid listening to performances of the music they are learning (it’s seen as ‘cheating’). And most students are encouraged to attempt music at the outer limits of their accomplishments.
If we were talking about teaching literacy to 5, 6 and 7 year-olds we would be shocked at this news. Imagine only reading 6 or 7 books in a whole year while you were trying to learn to read!! Imagine not being able to hear someone else reading the book to you! And imagine being given books to read that mostly comprised words you’d never seen before!
Now not every piano teacher teaches this way, but those teachers who break with these norms are still teaching with reference to them. So, instead of students learning 6 or 7 pieces in a year maybe they learn 11 or 12. Instead of only practicing from the score maybe the teacher plays the piece to the student before the first attempt, or the student works from a book and CD package.
It’s time to change the culture, and quickly. Each year there are hundreds of thousands of eager-eyed beginners who trust us to teach them how to play.