Lessons for years, but I still can’t play

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.

13 thoughts on “Lessons for years, but I still can’t play

  1. Sounds like you have little faith in the music education world. I agree their are teachers you describe. However I would dare to say I think those are the ones without music degrees who are winging it and teaching as they were taught as children.
    However, the students I see coming out of music colleges are quite competent. I have been in a circle of very talented, devoted music teachers of whose work I admire. And the Suzuki piano world is successful and thriving.
    I think the real point to make is that parents should check credentials and get recommendations for perspective piano teachers. I have faith that the students I teach will enjoy playing piano all their lives.

  2. Competence isn’t really enough! There is now really good evidence that teaching students only a limited of number of pieces each year, and teaching with limited reference to the performances of others (and the sound of the music) produces pianists who don’t end up playing their instrument once lessons have stopped.

    And, as a rule (of course there are always exceptions) even the most fabulous, well-trained teachers are still teaching their students at best 15 pieces a year (still nowhere near enough) and almost entirely teaching from the score, not from performance. The cycle continues.

  3. Music to my ears! I’m so glad that the piano-teaching world has an agitator and lobbyist who is thinking this through and doing something practical to bring about change. There is much guilt remaining in the psyche of failed piano students, particularly the ones who had their knuckles rapped with steel rulers when they played a wrong note! For so many years the blame has lain with the student who just didn’t practise enough. Thank you for your creative approach which I’m sure will make no exceptions for antique assumptions and holy cows.

  4. I am currently studying for my ATMusA and have become absolutely swamped in plethora of various music methods, most of them American. If I want a truly Australian, truly 21st Century compatible piano method book – can you suggest where I should start looking? I confess here and now that I do use the John Thompson Lesson books in conjunction with P-Plate Piano and the Getting to Series.

    • There are some Australian piano methods out there – I’m aware of at least four, maybe five, and I imagine there are more. My best advice is go to your local retailer and ask them to show you which Australian methods they have in store; this way you can take a quick look through and make a judgment as to how it suits you and your teaching style. But I completely understand your feeling of being overwhelmed by the options….

      Meantime, I would well imagine there will be more Australian-produced method material over the next decade or so – Australians have some fantastic ideas about music education!

  5. What a big barrier to learning, is the resistance parents have to spending on repertoire books. Sometimes its just their priorities, but there are times when affordability is an issue. This is especially true for families where the student is the first pianist and doesn’t have books passed down from parents and grandparents. I often wonder – if pdf downloads of available popular repertoire books were available, from the same publisher, and were priced lower, and sold each piece separately…would this help……?

    • Eliza, in my experience parents are delighted to supply their children with sheet music, repertoire collections, etc. The lessons are far more expensive than the music, by a rather substantial proportion.

      In my experience it is piano teachers who feel reluctant to require students to own printed music in any reasonable volume, and when piano teachers change their own perspective on the value of print music there really is no problem any more…

      Would having free music help? I honestly do not believe that buying print music is so onerous a burden on the family budget – in the US a weekly budget of $2 results in an impressive library of print music after only a couple of years. In Australia a weekly budget of $2.50 or $3 (still substantially less than a cappuccino, for goodness sake!) will provide a huge volume of resources.

      • Thanks for the reply. I think it’s different in Mumbai, depending on which locality a teacher teaches in. Very many parents are reluctant to spend on books. I don’t mean that music should be free, but maybe, pdf downloads made available for separate pieces, by the original publisher, and priced accordingly?

  6. Two things: yes, I have no idea as the cost of books in Mumbai!! In Australia, the US and the UK, where I have most familiarity with the piano teaching scene, the cost of lessons for the year is *at least* ten times greater than the cost of books for the year. If that proportion is different in Mumbai (say, closer to lessons for the year and books for the year being about the same expense) then of course this will impact on parental enthusiasm for supplying their child’s learning needs. In addition there may be a different set of cultural expectations as to the role of price flexibility or books in the home?

    This post of mine on the price v the value of music books comes to mind: https://elissamilne.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/the-price-v-the-value-of-music-books/

    The second thing is that publishers HAVE been making individual pieces available for download, but if a printed version of the book is easily available very few people use this option to make a purchase (thus far!). There are some self-published composers who have been far more entrepreneurial in this regard, making their work *primarily* available as downloads. And of course, for works that are no longer in copyright it’s completely possible to download copies for free, from a variety of websites….

  7. I seriously don’t understand why the John Thompson series gets your disdain. The quality of the music in this series is so much better than anything I have seen in some of the newer methods, absolutely boring stuff! Yes, Thompson lacks the more sequential instruction of the newer methods, but an experienced teacher can supplement and use the first few books in the series as a spine.

    • Hi Lindsey, there’s no disdain expressed toward the John Thompson method in this post, and I completely agree that some more modern methods have exceptionally dull music as compared to John Thompson. I’m not exactly sure what gave the impression that any negativity was intended here….

      • My apologies, I guess I was inferring something that wasn’t there. I enjoyed your post and I enjoy your blog.

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