Let’s Start at the Very Beginning, Part 1: Models of Learning

Yesterday I gave a presentation on teaching beginners as part of the Sydney Conservatorium’s annual Piano Teacher Festival. I promised I would blog about this presentation, but there were so many ideas in the 90 minutes of talk that I need to break things into smaller units. So today I begin with Models of Learning.

What I couldn’t show in my presentation, but would have loved to have had as prerequisite viewing, was this clip 

that sets out the issues at play in ‘education’ generally. Part of what’s fabulous about teaching the piano is that we piano teachers have never bought into the industrial model Sir Ken Robinson outlines – we’ve never taught children content according to their age, for instance, but rather have responded to students’ progress and capacity, for instance. On the other hand, we have certainly taught to the test (in many countries) and as a result too many of us have taught our students to play as if there really is only one right way/one correct answer. Furthermore, we’ve restricted our students from hearing the music prior to learning it, buying into this notion that there is an ‘answer’ and it’s cheating to go to the back of the book and find out what it is.

But the model of learning/teaching the piano that I really took to task in yesterday’s presentation was the model of information being given to the student via some (optional) explanation which then resulted in a performance. This information-explanation-performance model is the way most of us piano teachers working today (2012) were taught; music (information) was popped onto the music-stand, and with some limited explanations (how to play the ornaments, or heavy pencil markings reminding us to count the rests) we then transformed this information into a performance. The job of the teacher was to control for error, making sure that the final performance was as close to a ‘correct answer’ as possible.

That’s still the way most of us teach.

When it comes to absolute beginners this learning/teaching model ends up supporting lessons where we tell students lots of stuff (‘this is a crotchet’, ‘this is a D’, ‘this is a barline’, ‘lift off when you see a rest’) and the student has to demonstrate that they’ve remembered all this stuff when they play. We end up putting lots of circles around the bits students don’t remember, and hope that these markings will be an extra reminder to remember. Sometimes it takes three or four lessons before beginner students get all the remembering done  for one particular piece.

In the presentation yesterday I suggested a different learning/teaching model (one which parents in 2012 are likely to expect from all teachers in any learning context). In this model all learning begins with experience. So the student will have the experience of hearing the teacher play something, seeing the teacher create sounds on the keyboard. The student then explores what they’ve just experienced – going to the keyboard to copy what they’ve heard, to mimic the movements they’ve just seen, and while they are exploring these sounds and movements they will also be having more experiences (what does it feel like? what does this feeling sound like?) and further explorations (what if I play faster? higher? softer?), and these further explorations veer into the territory I called experimenting.

In the experiment phase of the learning process the student is now creating hypotheses such as “I imagine that this will sound more exciting loud than soft” or “I think it would be more interesting to play this higher on the piano” or “I expect people will be scared when I suddenly play something after a long silence” and so on. The student is exploring what is possible and experimenting with the impact these changes and different approaches will make. Sooner or later (and it really is impossible to know how soon or late it might be) the student has something to say. This is now the phase of expressing.

Expressing oneself at the piano involves deliberately doing something that will have a known effect and communicate something more or less consistently to a known audience. This is a vital part of the learning cycle, for until a child/student communicates through their playing they are not really learning to ‘play’ the piano at all, they’re just learning about the piano.

Of course, once a student expresses something the student finds themselves back at the start of the cycle – they are experiencing the music they are playing, the thing being communicated, the sounds being created.

You’ll see how ‘information’ isn’t intentionally part of this process at all. And yet students will have gained oodles of ‘information’ through this process. Even by playing one simple piece or pattern students will have learned about weight needed to make sounds (of varying dynamic levels), differences of register across the keyboard, pitch direction, keyboard geography and patterns in that geography, and so forth. But instead of learning these things through instruction the student learns these things through experience and exploration.

It’s the old saying: “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.”

[Or is it an old saying? It seems terribly current-educational-thinking to me!]

And at the heart of my presentation was this idea that at the heart of teaching is the development of understanding, not the transmission of knowledge.

To be continued…

6 thoughts on “Let’s Start at the Very Beginning, Part 1: Models of Learning

  1. An excellent piece, Elissa! For beginners, I think there is an important case for teaching pieces without the written notes, the way we learn language, which allows students to experience, explore and experiment as you have described. Notational concepts – up and down, note names, intervals, sharps, flats, timenames – can be introduced when discussing with the students what they have done, so this can feed easily into reading skills.

    • Thanks Judy! And I absolutely concur with all your comments about introducing notational concepts – which reflect a complete change of direction from the mainstream approach in piano teaching!!!

  2. Very interesting and thought-provoking piece. I have recently been tempted to ditch all tutor books for beginner students in favour of just playing, experimenting, enjoying. Many tutor books – and by default, ways of teaching – rely on very narrow parameters, with the student stuck in a Middle C position week after week. Kids need to be encouraged to experiment at the piano: with sound, touch, arm weight, etc. and to examine what sort of sounds they can produce. I’m doing less talking and more demonstrating in my lessons now, and encouraging students to make their own decisions about what kind of sounds they should be producing in the context of the mood/style of the music they are learning.

  3. Such good points to make, Elissa.

    I “taught” my daughter absolute pitch at age four (or perhaps I helped her develop it and learn to listen closely). Later, when she began note reading at age 5, she saw the notes as something that were describing what she already heard in her mind. My wife and I both teach piano; since my daughter has grown up hearing LOTS of music she naturally creates the natural phrases and sounds she is already so familiar with. But she still creates her “own” sound as well. She has her own set of musical blueprints that she was born with, and those come into play too.

    Maybe if we look at music as a language that must be heard and spoken, with a two-way interaction, then our approach to teaching will evolve for the better.


  4. Oh how I wish I had been at your presentation, Elissa, fabulous article!

    I find that with experimentation, a lot of kids (and adults) are afraid to try, or are stuck at how to experiment. I have to ask lots of questions, such as “how would you make it sound like a giant?” or “what if you wanted to whisper the sounds” etc before they jump in. Do you find that as well? As students get used to that sort of freedom, they then know what avenues they have to explore next time. I find having a story to portray really helps as well.

    (and that Ken Robinson video is one of my favourites, I think anyone in education needs to see it)

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