Guiding Students to Become Independent Learners and Musicians

The more I learn about Classical education, the more I am inspired to help my students become effective learners in every area of their studies. After reading this insightful post by Katherine Fisher, one of the authors of my absolute favorite piano method (Piano Safari, in case you didn’t know :-)), I am contemplating ways of incorporating more rote teaching even with my older students as a way of helping them make better connections with what they are playing and the underlying structure of the music. The deeper their understanding of music and how it is structured, the better equipped they will be to learn on their own.

Katherine says this,

I do believe the beginning of the process [of becoming independent learners and musicians] for students is to develop the discipline to concentrate and store information in a logical way. In the realm of piano pedagogy, I believe this translates to teachers encouraging students to learn and memorize a large amount of music. This should not be done in a “blind” sort of way in which there is no understanding of how the music is constructed. On the contrary, students should understand from the beginning that music is composed of patterns and a logical form. For musicians, this is an essential element of the art of learning.

AMT Inspiration – Work Ethic

This observation by Bruce Berr in the February/March 2016 issue of the American Music Teacher magazine resonated with me:

The work ethic that was typically championed by parents, “Whatever you do, do your best” has been replaced in more families with “just have a good time.” Since music study requires a steadfast focused commitment of time and energy, that’s clearly a problem. Learning an instrument is increasingly view on a par with other leisure activities, some of which require little or no skill development, perseverance, and other qualities that help people grow into more mature selves. More so than before, music teachers have to educate children and their parents about the need for a work ethic.

What a great opportunity we have as music teachers to help students and parents grow in their understanding of what it means to have a strong work ethic!

AMT Inspiration – Create A Feeling

Several times this past year in both my teaching and my performing I have recalled a comment by Time for Three from their interview in the December/January issue of the American Music Teacher magazine. When discussing the variety of genre the group performs, Ranaan Meyer includes this in his response:

“Ultimately the reason an audience wants to hear music is that they want to feel. To connect with the music they want an artist who is real and who is human. It shouldn’t sound like the most complicated thing in the world. You can ask audiences about this: ‘Do you care if this is complicated?’ Most of them will say, ‘No, I don’t care about that at all, I just want to be moved.”

This is the perfect perspective to have when going into a performance, and it’s especially helpful for students to consider when they feel like they are playing a piece that is “too easy.” Instead of focusing on the difficulty level of a piece, students should ask, “How do I want the listener to feel when they hear this piece?” Then the performance is about creating an atmosphere and eliciting a feeling, not about playing something difficult or hitting every note right. This also helps get the focus off of myself, as the performer, and onto the audience, where it should be!

AMT Inspiration – Be Meticulous

We have had a wonderful year of learning and growth in our studio, perhaps none more so than myself! I am continually challenged and inspired to improve my understanding of what it means to be an excellent teacher, and how to implement new ideas into my teaching. As usual, each issue of the American Music Teacher has little nuggets of wisdom and encouragement that provide fuel for that inspiration.

In the December/January issue there was an interview with the world renowned pianist, Emanuel Ax. In it he gives credit to his teacher, Mieczyslaw Munz, “for teaching him to practice well by being incredibly meticulous in the lessons. Ax comments that Munz absolutely, relentlessly, liked for things to be correct.”

Now I realize that we’re not all teaching concert pianists, but Ax’s comment reminded me that the way I work with students at each lesson is the model that they will be most inclined to follow in their own practice. If I let inaccurate rhythms, ignored dynamics, or unmusical phrasing slip during the lesson, certainly the student won’t feel compelled to do differently in their personal practice regimen. Too often, I am wont to jot a quick note in their assignment book while neglecting to spend the necessary time at the lesson helping them pay attention and play correctly. But when I do prioritize truly teaching students to play correctly, the rewards are always well worth it!

Teaching Students to Practice Their Instrument More Effectively

In his always-informative newsletter, Gerald Klickstein, author of The Musician’s Way, linked back to his post on Beautiful Repetition. I love his four points:

  1. Insist on Excellence
  2. Reject Mindless Repetition
  3. Aim for Growth Rather than Sameness
  4. Evaluate Continuously


Visit his post for an elaboration and specific ideas for each point!

Diligence is Quite a Virtue…

…working hard will never hurt you; when you’re through there’s always a reward.” So go the lyrics of the “Work Song” from the record “Antshillvania” that I remember listening to over and over as a child. These words came to mind the other day as I was working with my kids on our Latin exercises. (So of course I had to pull this clip up on YouTube and make sure it was inescapably stuck in their heads along with mine. :-))

Not unlike the process of learning to read music, understanding and developing a working knowledge of Latin is complex and difficult. Often one read-through of the lesson is not enough to fully absorb the material. Rather it takes a considerable amount of repetition, meditation, and implementation. How very un-American!

Borrowing from the Character First! Education materials, I find myself often quoting the definition of diligence to my children/students when laziness is the preferred pastime.

“Diligence is investing all my energy to complete the tasks assigned to me.”

I was reminded again of the virtue of diligence when I read the recent article by Rebecca Grooms Johnson highlighting a research project conducted on “Work ethic, motivation, and parental influences in Chinese and North American children learning to play the piano” (published in the October/November 2015 issue of American Music Teacher). Of particular interest to me was the great divide in weekly practice time spent by Chinese students (295.26 minutes) versus their North American/Caucasian student counterparts (159.29 minutes). This is a reflection of “the broadly prevalent Asian cultural philosophy toward learning with a strong emphasis on hard work rather than an inborn talent or ability.”

Rebecca ends her report with a series of questions, among them, “Will our children’s apparently low levels of motivation and work ethic doom our culture to mediocrity?” Yes, indeed! That’s why we must make every effort to inspire, equip, and encourage our students to rise above such an indifferent approach to life and learning. We must push our students to work hard, to excel, to embody diligence in all their endeavors. We must refuse to accept half-hearted, lazy, excuse-riddled work, whether it comes to counting rhythms precisely, memorizing effectively, or even carefully reading and following specific practice instructions. If we truly want to see our students succeed, we must help them realize that it is not innate talent or ability that will propel them forward, but diligent and consistent hard work.

Exploring a Classical Model of Education

The first several days of this week I had the privilege of attending a Parent Practicum put on by Classical Conversations. What a fascinating and thought-provoking experience! An article by Dorothy Sayers called, “The Lost Tools of Learning” seems to be the underlying call of this movement to return to the more effective methods of education employed in earlier periods of history.

I hope to write much more about the things I’m learning in the days ahead, but for the moment I thought I would share one of the most useful tools for thinking and planning: The Topic Wheel

Right now I’m employing this tool to help plan our studio sumner piano camp and I’m so excited about how it’s helping me organize my objectives and ideas to hopefully make the camp a rich learning experience!

AMT Inspiration – Work Hard!

Several years ago I came across a quote in Tim Tebow’s biography, Through My Eyes, that I have oft-quoted during piano lessons with certain students:

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

That is the heart of the message that I took away from the second installment of an article called “The Art of Possibility” by Steven Brundage in the June/July issue of American Music Teacher. He presents some fascinating quotes and research that address the ongoing debate of talent versus expert skill. Perhaps most fascinating is the experiment conducted by Laszlo Polgar with his three daughters to see if he could  train them to become expert chess players. His experiment produced incredible results, with all three daughters becoming world-renowned chess players.

Brundage goes on to observe:

“Most children, and adults for that matter, never dedicate themselves to skill development with the same deliberateness, methodology and guidance of child prodigies because, in most cases, they lack the opportunity, guidance or motivation.”

I was greatly encouraged by his recounting of numerous worthy achievements by men and women later in life who devoted themselves to the pursuit of various skills and then reached a high level of expertise (there is hope for us at any age if we apply ourselves and work hard!). His final paragraph includes this point:

“…there are those lacking talent who will achieve greatness because they possess more than the proper training and opportunity. They possess the burning fire of motivation and the determination to spend time and energy pursuing skill development without short cuts.”

This reminds me of a proverb that reveals the same truth:

“Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kinds; he will not stand before obscure men.” Proverbs 22:29

In a video our family recently watched by Dr. Jeff Myers, he issues a similar challenge to young people, noting that:

“Talent is distressingly common, but hard work is extremely rare.”

KMTA Conference this Weekend

I’ve refrained from live-blogging the whole conference, but thought I would share a brief post from our state music teachers conference this year. We are currently enjoying a masterclass with our conference artist, Gila Goldstein:  

It’s been inspirational to spend time with colleagues sharing ideas, learning about new repertoire, listening to beautiful music, and growing as teachers. If you have the opportunity to attend any local, state, or national workshops or conferences, I highly recommend it as a way to re-energize your teaching!

AMT Inspiration – Ask My Piano Students Better Questions

One of the perks of being an MTNA member is a subscription to their bi-monthly publication, American Music Teacher. I enjoy reading each issue and always take away some sort of inspiration for my teaching. Instead of keeping it to myself, I thought it would be fun to start a specific section here on Music Matters Blog to share some of the great thoughts and ideas with you!

In the April/May issue, Courtney Crappell, NCTM, in his regular column writes about the importance of “Fine Tuning Our Questions to Engage Modern Students.” He draws on the ability of a good story, especially a mystery, to capture our attention and engage our senses, and then encourages teachers to trade in our blase (“Did you practice this week?”) or generic (“What kind of piece is this?”) questions for ones that elicit more excitement and thoughtfulness (“How does this piece make you feel?”).

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve asked such unproductive questions in my lessons, so this is especially challenging for me! He makes his case effectively, though, when he asserts that:

“Music lessons designed to promote discovery through effective questioning also serve as models for our students’ practice sessions. Their most productive practice sessions will include periods of thoughtful exploration rather than simple repetition of physical motions. The questions we ask in lessons will ideally become the questions they ask themselves in practice.”

And I love this perspective on  lessons as a whole and practice in particular:

“We need our music lessons and their practice sessions to feel as engaging as reading a good story. They must feel the need to solve the mystery and discover solutions for themselves, and if they do, we can feel confident that they will be hooked into lifelong learning.”

The wheels are spinning, and I’m excited to consider how I can become more of a storyteller who  effectively engages students in the thrill of discovery in their lessons and subsequent practicing!