Redefining ‘enough’ – is it even possible?

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!

8 thoughts on “Redefining ‘enough’ – is it even possible?

  1. This is going to be slightly off-tangent, but your current line of discussion has reminded me of it, so getting it off my chest now. 🙂

    In one of the prefaces to his collections of pieces, François Couperin talks about an ideal for music teaching. It was an ideal for him and is most definitely an ideal today, with the possible exception of the child whose teacher is also their parent. He argued – and I’m paraphrasing from distant memory, the relevant source being in a box somewhere – that beginning/young students should never practice or play their instrument without the teacher present. He writes about wanting to lock the harpsichord when he isn’t around.

    Now, of course, that inspires all kinds of reactions including how cruel it would be to deprive the enthusiastic young musician the opportunity to spontaneously play their instrument for simple pleasure whenever he or she wanted to. But when I first read this argument years ago, it immediately made me think of something else I’d studied: ballet.

    The responsible ballet teacher will strongly discourage a young child from practising at home. The idea is that you will all too easily acquire bad habits if you attempt to practise your new art without supervision. But the balance to this is that the beginning student will most likely be taking at least two and possibly three ballet classes a week, a number which only increases as the student advances. (In this respect learning ballet is more like swim squad than piano lessons.) And sometimes I do wonder what might happen if the whole art of teaching musical instruments could ever be re-conceived to follow a model that is more about frequent supervised coaching/training and less about the one-all-too-brief-lesson-a-week followed by hours of practice where the student must go it alone.

    • This is so thoroughly fascinating a comparison.

      The piano teacher expects much of the parent, and I can’t imagine for a moment a ballet teacher having any expectation of parental support at home. Mind you, the ballet teacher does not work one-on-one with the 5 year-old student, either, so there are many aspects of training which are worlds apart. And yet … there seems so much in common between the acquisition of dancing skill and instrumental skill that comparing the two models of instruction should prove immensely fruitful…

      Wonderful, wonderful food for thought.

  2. Hmmm..I am the youngest in a family of 4. As soon as I could climb on the piano stool I did, and ‘mucked about’ (as my mother would put it) working out how to play nursery rhymes, then how to put notes in the left hand which matched, and also making up pieces of my own. Later I would work out how to play the classical pieces my older sister was learning – Fur Elise and Mozart’s sonata in C, I recall. Well-meaning people were always telling my mum that she shouldn’t let me play by ear because I wouldn’t learn to read. Luckily she ignored them! I didn’t start formal lessons until I was almost 8 with a teacher who never played my pieces for me so I had to learn to read. And now I am a brilliant sight reader!

    The things I learnt from playing around myself are incredibly valuable. And when the time came for me to take lessons, I had a teacher who started me with a beginning primer so that I could assimilate music reading and technique easily. She was very strict about the curvy fingers!

    Because instrumental teaching is one-on-one, you can gear the lessons to what you know the student can take in and master in a week. Ballet lessons are very different – when I joined a dance class as an adult I was struck by how much the teacher depends on your unconscious mind to observe and reproduce complex movements. So if you teach by rote, the ballet analogy is reasonable, but in my teaching I like both sides of the brain functioning, so that the child not only observes what their practice assignment is, but also consciously understands it and can discuss it verbally.

    • How fascinating, the idea that in ballet the emphasis is on observation/reproduction, as compared to a very different teaching process in teaching students to play an instrument (certainly in western teaching traditions)!

      I can’t even imagine teaching entirely by rote (in the sense of observing/copying). Even when I do teach by what I call ‘rote’ (and that does happen in nearly every lesson for many years of a student’s life) the ‘rote’ learning is embedded in the discovery of pattern and thinking through a choreography of the body which might best create that pattern to a particular experiential effect. In less high-falutin’ language: take the score away and the exploration of the ideas and concepts only deepens, even the ideas and concepts involved in creating the sound with one’s body.

      Which leads me to wonder how much dance teaching would change if students were involved in verbal reasoning about their dancing, right from the start….

      • I guess that depends on the ballet teacher and the syllabus that’s being followed. Thinking back to my early dance studies (aged about 5), I had a teacher who made good use of imagery and verbalisation. For example, we were taught what the French names of the steps actually meant and taught to use them (although our French accents left much to be desired); we were given inventive (and sometimes quite amusing) images to help us achieve desired ends or to help us “feel” a particular technique. It was definitely not just looking and copying. And if I’m recalling the RAD syllabus correctly, there were from quite early on, exam elements in which you were required to perform a sequence of steps from a verbal description rather than from a demonstration. (Ballet “sightreading”?)

        But my favourite recollection is that it was as a 6-year-old ballet student that I learned to conduct! At the end of the exam there were various musical tests and one of these was to listen to a piece of music and then begin conducting in the correct metre, with the correct conducting motions for that metre. If I’d learned only music I probably wouldn’t have been taught this for another decade. 🙂

      • Oh, and a good ballet teacher will be teaching you about anatomy and how the body works and the physics of the steps (e.g. why first position arms should be held closer to the chest during a pirouette than you might otherwise hold them).

  3. I had read your previous post when it was written, and it has stayed with me for some time. I felt somewhat “put-out” by how I felt about it. A bit out of sorts.

    I teach primarily 30 minute lessons. However, I have several students who really need more time, Especially with the quantity of work we are trying to cover. My issue has been that I know these families are going to stuggle with the increase in fees. It wil be confronting to them. I realise that this is my projection, and may not be their reality. They are all very supportive families who are putting their daughters through two instruments. The students are dream students- listen, practise, explore- everything.

    My issue is the constant issue of trying to teach them everything that I know they can learn- giving them the skills to become the best musicans they can be (as with all students). For these students, that is a tall order in 30 minutes a week. With these students, I have been prompted to discuss the value of extra time with the parents and have offered to make room to accomodate that in my timetable.

    For the majority of my other students, 30 minutes a week is ok. I feel very much that it depends on how you get the most out of each lesson. Which is why I’m so pleased that I got around to reading this blog entry. I feel privileged to be a piano teacher, to be a part of the student’s life and growth.

    I always would love to spend more time with my students, and for many this may well make a difference. But for the time I do spend with the each week, I am grateful. Like you said in your most recent blog post, it is like an addiction.

    It is ok not to conform to the majority view, and I feel that sometimes, so much is unsaid in the music industry. As a young teacher, I feel there is a silent pressure to conform to the “way it is done”. I would like to think there is another way. A way that is flexible to the student’s needs and learning style. A way that matches their abilities and other commitments and also a way that affords them growth in their music.

    Thank you for saying so many of the “unsaid” things, that teachers do get it wrong sometimes, that we are all learning. I enjoy your open and frank discussions.

  4. I have been experimenting with the “actually I didn’t practise this week because I had insomnia” student excuse (real example) by having a collection of activities up my sleeve for those days. I don’t want to hear repertoire I heard last week if they haven’t practised it this week! I’ve been doing some games and activities with the circle of fifths to understand key signatures, order of sharps etc. At the time it feels like an extra but I noticed a difference the next lesson in her sight reading because she automatically included the two flats in Bb major, rather than adding them in when she noticed the sound was wrong without them!

    A wise woman once taught me about partial playing. I don’t need to hear the whole Rondo today. I just want to hear bars 17-24, the part that needed attention.

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