Teaching v Learning in the Piano Lesson [Part I]

One of the biggest privileges of being a piano teacher is the opportunity to become a consistent part of a student’s life. Each school week for maybe even a decade or longer the piano teacher and the piano student have time one-on-one (more or less) to explore musical puzzles, pianistic tricks, and challenges both physical and imaginative.

This is not a relationship in the knowledge-transmission model (where the teacher pours knowledge into student until student is all full up) but rather a relationship that is built on the teacher tweaking the learning experience to match the interests and accomplishments of the student. This teacher-student relationship is usually nurturing and supportive, in the sense of helping the student achieve their musical/pianistic goals and ambitions and substantially beyond. Piano teachers get to notice things about their students that can be missed in the hurly-burly of classroom activity, and piano teachers participate in building a sense of achievement in students who might otherwise never feel as if they shine….

So piano teachers are in a tremendous position to work with students who fall outside the bell curve; teaching can be modified to fit the precise needs of the student and without a class of other students to manage the teacher can organise the learning process to be perfectly timed for the individual student.

That’s the theory.

In real life, as always, it’s more complicated. And the number one thing that gets in the way of this perfectly customised learning experience is the idea (held by both parents and teachers) that the job of the teacher is to teach.

The job of the teacher is in fact not to teach but to help the student learn. And there is a massive difference between the role of ‘teaching’ and the role of ‘facilitating learning’.

When you think your job is to teach you begin with a list of all the things you want to ‘teach’ to your student, a catalogue of the things they should know or be able to do by the time you are done with them. Piano teachers who work in exam cultures (half the planet, at least) even have this big list of all the things you want to teach broken down into examinable chunks (“Last year you learned D Major? OK, this year we’ll work on E flat…”, etc.). Things that aren’t on that list are deemed either of secondary or of no importance (particularly once students start taking annual exams).

But when you begin with the idea of facilitating learning you begin with a desire to discover what makes your student tick, what intrigues them, what doesn’t, what they yearn to master, what they hanker to understand. You also, over time, begin to understand how the student sees themselves in relation to their family, their school and classmates, in relation to their future (and their past), and in relation to their culture (and this might be simple through to extremely complicated). These understandings then feed into your understanding of what drives their learning, and you can better facilitate learning.

You still have a checklist in relation to skills, vocabulary, literacy, experience, recognition, and so forth, but this list is always at the service of maximising learning, rather than the learning experience of the student serving you as you, the teacher, work your way through that checklist.

Let’s make up some examples: a very intelligent but not very socially mature 8 year old who has been learning for about a year suddenly decides to figure out how to play every single major and harmonic minor scale – all 24 of them. If you are tied to your piano teacher checklists you’ll be thinking to yourself ‘You don’t need all these scales for years yet!! Why don’t we just keep learning the pieces in your method book and we’ll come back to these scales when you’re ready?!’.

You can see the problem here plain as day: the student is ready to learn how to play all these scales – in fact, they’ve basically mastered them all just for fun while you weren’t watching! It’s not that they are not ready to learn – it’s that you are not ready to teach. Yep, this is the moment where you can choose to make the piano lesson all about you, or all about your student. Your call.

Another example: you have a 12-year-old student with a sunny disposition, learning for 4 years already, they’ve done a Preliminary exam at the end of the previous year, just started high school (Australia), they have no particular academic gifts, but they love playing the piano, and they’ve just returned after the school holidays with nine piano pieces they’ve composed since the last lesson 8 weeks ago. They begin to show you their (not-so-well notated) compositions as the minutes of the lesson begin to click over. You know how hard it was to get through that Preliminary exam at the end of last year, and you don’t want to waste a term working on ‘composing’ (which truth be told you don’t feel that comfortable dealing with) because you’d like them to do well in their Grade One exam at the end of the school year.

This is the moment where you can make the lesson all about your checklist (getting the student ready for Grade One) or you can make the lesson all about the student’s musical experiences (and learning) over the holidays. Is it going to be about them? Or about you?

Of course, there’s always that 5-15% of students who appear to have no interest in learning whatsoever, the kind who ask “Do we have to do this?”. The challenge here for teachers is how to tempt students into having a more robust appetite for learning without falling into the trap of creating new kinds of checklists (what kinds of learning the student should want to engage in). I really do regard these children (adults just don’t have this problem, in my experience) as being ‘learning anorexic’ – for some reason they feel it’s a Good Thing to restrict their learning experiences and opportunities, and it’s really, really hard to convince them otherwise.

I’ve been becoming more and more hardline on this issue the more experienced I’ve become in my teaching: once upon a time I really would have insisted on students struggling through a piece for some number of weeks rather than ‘give in’ to the student and just move on to a new piece of repertoire; once upon a time I would have politely listened to a student enthuse about this great new piece they’d discovered that they’d been trying to learn to play, and then after no more than 10 minutes (probably 4) I’d have steered the lesson back to the repertoire I had assigned; once upon a time I’d have left activities generally deemed to be ‘creative’ til the end of the lesson because we had to get the ‘real’ work done first. But all these once-upon-a-times represent woeful educational practice, and I’m ashamed of every single example of this in my teaching history.

Then we have the rare 1-4% who love to learn things in the order we plan to teach things, who practice regularly and consistently for their entire learning lives, who explore new kinds of learning in their own time, but prepare for lessons so well that we can fit nearly everything into 45 minute lessons each week, and whose parents are keen for them to have extra lessons as their learning requires. And I think (deep down in  a little part of our hearts) we piano teachers think that in an ideal world the other 96-99% of our students would just morph into this kind of  a student.

But we only think that because we (deep down in our hearts) believe our focus should be on our teaching, not on the student’s learning.

As soon as we shift into a learning-centric focus the fun of the piano lesson becomes all about connecting with our students, with their unique gifts, challenges, contexts and needs.

And all those lists of requirements, prerequisites and checklists begin to gather a little more dust each week as we work to meet the evolving and unfolding learning needs of our students.

17 thoughts on “Teaching v Learning in the Piano Lesson [Part I]

  1. Wonderful post! This should be required reading for all piano teachers! Bravo! Setting aside the “checklist” not only benefits the students, but makes for happier, and more creative, teachers.

  2. Stunning, With my piano teaching I have been trying to head in this direction for a while but all the other teachers I know do the exam every year thing. I have just been dipping my toes in but haven’t had the confidence to actually really do more than a little bit of what my students want to learn in their lessons. I have also worried that their music education might have serious gaps in it if we just explored what they wanted to do. Thanks this really helps.

  3. A great article, Elissa! It is a juggling act, sometimes – you know that teaching them graded repertoire will give them the technical skills and musical knowledge to improvise and compose more complex pieces, so the art is to achieve balance. And all in 30 minutes per week!

  4. I think I would have learnt less if I had been setting the agenda for my piano teachers, at least for the first ten or fifteen years.

    Students often want to play pieces that were written to be sung, or for the electric guitar, which don’t work on the piano.

    I think there needs to be a careful balance between what the student wants to learn and teacher input.

    • I don’t think this post implies that students should just be able to play what ever they want. I think the main message here is that teachers need to learn to recognise the educational value of many (not necessarily all) tangents that students go off on sometimes and to capitalise on those rather than squashing them. Taking the example of the student who has worked out all of the major and minor scales for herself…rather than saying “that’s nice, let’s get back to what we’re *supposed* to be doing,” the teacher can develop this new knowledge by encouraging the student to find examples of these scales in her existing pieces (thus giving her a greater understanding of those pieces), or transposing an easy piece she already knows how to play. I see this as incredibly valuable learning…learning that I wish I had been allowed to explore much more when I was younger.

  5. This post is great! I totally agree with you, Elissa! I’ve always been ‘learning-centric’, but there really is a delicate balance in the student-instructor relationship; students come to teachers for a reason– their expertise– and it would be detrimental to both individuals if time-wasting choices were made as a result of the student’s milisecond-quick whim.

  6. Thanks Elissa! Brings a smile to my face as I print out an easy version of an ABBA song (Take a Chance on Me) that I’ve arranged this morning for an eager 7yo little girl yesterday who told me that she wants to learn ALL the songs in Mumma Mia!!! Had to have a little chuckle….as I circled her ‘favourite’ in the contents list of my ABBA songbook….
    Keep up the good work Elissa!
    btw I’ve started the ’50 Pieces a Year Challenge’ this year on a lovely big purple cardboard rocket I have pasted on a noticeboard with gold curling ribbon trailing out the bottom representing the flames. The little ones are highly excited (‘I want FOUR rocket pieces this week!’) as are the adult learners once I explain the rationale behind it. :)))

  7. We know what they need to know and it is a case of finding a path that assists each “individual” student to get there. Quite often, however, students will provide us in return we something we need to know. I love that!

  8. I think you need both the check list and listen to the needs of the student.
    To teach means also to guide. Question is who leads? In my opinion the
    teacher should be the leader. A skilled teacher will know when to add
    new material and what kind of material to give the student to stimulate
    their interest in piano playing. One thing is for sure, the more different
    types of music you explore the better it will be for all concerned.

  9. Hi Ellissa. I am struggling with whether to continue my 10 year old (grade 3-4) with a very competent highly experienced teacher who also has performance level students- only problem being timing of lessons and our weekly struggle to get daughter there. Versus enrol lying her at her school with a young 30-year old piano teacher. What does she lose at this stage by not being exposed to the “fantastic” one. Thank you

  10. I have quite a few piano students who are talented, love piano class, but only pay attention when there is screaming and shouting. So, just getting them to use fingering which is better, or to remember articulation, the things i explain to them, is a challenge. I’m currently struggling because they don’t pay attention, since I don’t lose my temper no matter how hard they try. And they do try very hard! I’m constantly trying different approaches, some successful and some not so. I would welcome any suggestions.

    • Hmm. I’m assuming this is one-on-one lessons? I might suggest different tactics in a group class situation, depending on the set-up and age of the group…

      It’s impossible to give suggestions that are guaranteed to work without knowing the exact personalities involved, but a very reliable tactic when things get noisy is to just stop talking or making any sound at all. Just demonstrate. Less explaining, more showing. Take the music score away and teach through the student copying what you do (as a means of correction).

      Beyond demonstrating, mirroring and copying, both articulation and dynamic contour are key in expressing a sense of event/scene. If students don’t have mastery of the technique required for the articulation, or if they lack the tonal control to create varied dynamics then all the reminding in the world won’t help – but asking a student to convey an emotion can be a means of engaging the student in exploring what their body can do at the keyboard to make the sounds that convey terror or excitement or boredom or sadness.

      The more you can take the conversation away from correction and into exploration the more students will feel it is worth paying attention. At least, that seems to be the case with my students!

      • I teach solo classes and have a batch of ‘Wildly Exuberant Students’ I’ve kind of figured out what works to discipline them without shouting and drama and have written a blog on this.

        I already make them copy out bits of the score, but i liked your other suggestions – especially what you said about exploration vs correction makes a lot of sense and I will try them.

        Thanks for the response.

        Anita Kohli

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s