There seems to be broad agreement amongst piano teachers with the idea that half an hour is not enough time for a weekly piano lesson (beyond the youngest years, where thirty minutes might be stretching a child’s concentration span).
But ‘not enough’ for what? It all comes down to what a piano lesson ought to accomplish, and this is where the concept of ‘enough’ rapidly turns into a proverbial piece of string.
Piano teachers assume that their role is not simply one of instructing children in piano performance; “learning the piano” turns out to also involve the acquisition of music literacy, and much time is spent in lessons engaged in this non-piano-specific endeavour. Even after music notation basics have been acquired, students will be developing their literacy in their piano lessons until piano lessons cease.
Often this development of literacy skills extends into formal theory lessons, which are often seen as part and parcel of the piano teacher’s brief. And “theory” means written work which teachers need to check and correct in lessons; time-consuming, to say the least.
But even more significant than theory work is the time involved in preparing students for piano examinations/assessments. Teaching to a test takes far longer than teaching for learning. And no, the two are not the same thing. Even worse, teaching to a test that is at the extreme limits of a student’s capacity requires all the time in the world, not just 30 minutes a week (which is usually almost adequate for a bare pass).
And let’s not imagine the dark scenario where students bring along their own projects and ambitions into the piano tuition arena; 30 minutes is barely enough to get started in this circumstance.
Redefining ‘enough’ involves asking ourselves just what a piano lesson ought to involve, and what expectations we should have of students in regard to practice between lessons (both in terms of time spent, and the kinds of activities we ask students to undertake during their practice time).
At the heart of the question is this: what is ‘enough’ for us to do each week to facilitate productive learning and exploring by our students in the days between lessons? And surrounding this question is the aura of parental expectation: what is ‘enough’ for parents to feel satisfied with their child’s ongoing development? [Once upon a time these were almost completely separate questions, but in the 21st century we are seeing the rise of the parent who sees piano lessons as being first and foremost about developing the personhood of their child.]
One option is to start with the premise that we have 30 minutes with our student each week: what can we best do to facilitate learning and exploration within this time frame? Just quietly, if we start with this question it’s unlikely that assessments are going to be part of the answer (unless we subscribe to the old ‘students-won’t-practice-without-a-fear-factor’ chestnut). Facilitating learning means we focus on skills, and in this context repertoire becomes a vehicle for exploring new skills. So rather than each new piece being a collation of skill-hurdles (accidents waiting to happen), the music becomes a celebration of the skills the student has acquired. And facilitating exploration means we focus on discoveries rather than attempting to create performances that meet our perception of the expectations of others.
It’s quite possible to structure a half hour lesson to include both developing a new skill and setting the framework for a new discovery, and still have time to spare. It may not, however, be enough time to review all the discoveries the student has made during the week, and this becomes a problem, not just for you but also for your student who wants to share these discoveries with you! Which means we’re right back where we started with 30 minutes being insufficient time for the weekly lesson.
My conclusion is that redefining ‘enough’ will simply mean a new definition of what half an hour is insufficient to accomplish. But the exercise of asking ourselves what is sufficient (in terms of accomplishments and learning), taking the time to question our assumptions about our teaching praxis, is of such benefit we may find our lessons begin to change as a result.
Which leads us to the second option we have when faced with a not-long-enough half hour lesson format: looking at ways for getting the most out of those thirty minutes, seeking increased efficiencies and reducing time-wasting, the topic of my next post in this series!