When has a student ‘learned’ a piece of music?

I’ve had some interesting discussions over the past few months about how I define ‘learning’ a piece of music. This has been prompted by my calls for teachers to have their students learning far more pieces each year – instead of 6 or 7 pieces try 25 or 30! Of course, switching from learning at most 2 pieces per term to at least 7 pieces per term is a fairly substantial change, and teachers have suggested that maybe what I mean by ‘learning’ a piece of music isn’t quite as thorough as what they mean.

So I thought I’d share the way I work with my students in terms of determining when they have learned a piece enough.

All those things that students have traditionally learned one by one, the notes, the rhythm, the articulation, the dynamics, coordinating the hands – these things are learned together, and it is taken for granted that students will master these aspects, hopefully within a week or two (maybe more if the piece is particularly challenging or lengthy).

Being able to play the notes, the rhythms, the articulations, the dynamcs, and doing so with both hands together, is simply not enough however. The piece has to be at a tempo that makes the music make sense.

When I was a student (let’s say 10-13 year old) I had no philosophical problem with never making it to the composer’s intended speed: I think I saw the tempo marking as aspirational rather than realistic, and considered it a job well-done if I was almost at tempo (say 2 or 3 notches on the metronome below the desired speed). The problem with this perspective is not that I was prepared to settle for second-best, but that I failed to recognise that the marked tempo is not about the metronome – it’s about the vibe of the thing. A piece is not well-performed until the essential message of the music can be effectively communicated, and it is almost impossible to communicate the essential message of the music at the wrong tempo.

So learning to play the piece at a tempo that is appropriate to the music is a non-negotiable in my studio. Students are not ‘finished’ learning a piece of music if they can’t experience what the music is about, and that experience is rooted in the way time moves, the way the body shapes time, the way the sonic patterns change our perceptions of time. Playing accurately at half speed doesn’t give the student any insight at all into what the music means.

And I forgot to mention pedaling – again, learned from the start, although not when the student is still learning how to use the pedal! This is an important aspect of the process: students who are still learning how to coordinate foot and ear and finger (and the reading of the all-too-frequently inexact markings on the score) cannot be expected to perform pedaling at the start. So it’s important the students become familiar with the pedal, its conventions, its notation and, most importantly, how it feels and sounds, as early as possible so that they do not find themselves stymied by this aspect of their performance-learning.

So, in order to have ‘learned’ a piece students need to have covered all the above. In an ABRSM exam this would mean a result of at least 22/30, maybe even as much as 25/30. In AMEB terms the performance would certainly receive a B grading (were pieces in AMEB exams to be given individual gradings).

At this point if my student has some good reason for not wishing to further refine their mastery of the piece, we let it go. Good reasons usually boil down to not feeling particularly passionate about the piece, but are usually more personal and nuanced than simply that. I don’t insist that students work on a piece that no longer holds their interest – there is plenty of material for students to move onto.

But there’s a part of the learning process that this discussion neatly side-steps, and that is all the other learning that takes place within the context of each piece.

Can you say a student has really ‘learned’ a piece if they don’t have any sense of its shape and construction? If a student doesn’t have sufficient familiarity to ‘play’ with the motifs, tonalities and rhythms? If a student doesn’t have an opinion on what the music can express? These aspects of ‘learning’ are harder to assess than a straight-out recital performance (although of course the recital performance is deeply enhanced by these learning experiences). And teachers in examination cultures struggle to do other than teach to the test.

These analytic (both engineering and creative) aspects of the learning are all a part of the learning process right from the start, just as much as articulation or accurate notes and rhythms. It’s just not appropriate to stop working on a piece if the student has no sense of the architecture and the poetry of that music: how can one say that one has learned something that one sees as being without form or meaning?

So, finally: is this minimum performance standard (at least 22 or 23 out of 30 in an ABRSM assessment context) good enough?

It certainly is if the student also has performances of a much higher standard during the year. Much of what we should be teaching our students is how to approach a new piece of music – independently! And the only way to master the approaching of new music is to practice approaching new music.

Performances in a public setting are a valuable and essential part of what piano teachers teach. But even more valuable and important is teaching our students how to enjoy playing (in any context, public or private) every day, if they wish, for the rest of their lives.

One thought on “When has a student ‘learned’ a piece of music?

  1. I’m all for teaching MORE MUSIC, and making sure the music is within the reach of the student within a few weeks. How tragic to study music, only to experience 10-20 pieces in 5 years instead of 200!

    Too often outside pressures, like adjudications and competitions, jettison REAL aspects of learning (absorbing skills and concepts) and turn the focus on pure product (pieces).

    I constantly remind parents that I teach SKILLS that will last a lifetime (if properly taught), versus teaching PIECES, which are usually 4-5 difficult compositions that the student will struggle to remember “how it goes” 10 years from now.

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