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 – 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!

Piano Safari: The Journey Begins…

I remember sitting at a restaurant in Austin, TX with a group of fellow MTNA conference attendees in 2006. Julie Knerr and Katie Fisher were among the group, and I sat with rapt attention as they flipped through pages of hand-drawn illustrations and notes while explaining the concept behind the new piano method they were creating. Little did I know that my own journey over the next six years would so perfectly prepare me for the official launch of Piano Safari!

I nearly leaped for joy when I read these two sentences in the Teacher’s Guide for Piano Safari: “In my use of various piano method series, I have come to believe that the main goal of most piano method series is not necessarily to teach children to play the piano. Instead, the goal of many method books is to teach children to read music notation at the piano.”

Ever since my epiphany at the conclusion of the Pattern Play Intensive and my subsequent experience at the Creative Life conference, I’ve been striving to teach in a way that reflects my desire to move away from a strictly literature-based approach to teaching, and adopt more of an experiential playing-based model of learning. In a sense, for the first 15 years of my teaching, I taught as though learning was the path to playing. But after experiencing a paradigm shift, I would now posit that the reverse is true: playing is the path to learning.

Piano Safari is the only method I know of that is based on this experiential and playing-based philosophy. Instead of reading music notation being the core, students are taught to develop beautiful technique, a sense of musicality, freedom to explore, discover, and create, an internal rhythmic pulse, and proficient sight-reading through a rich musical selection of rote pieces, improvisation experiences, guided compositions, and excellently sequenced reading skills.

The books are beautifully designed, with creative piece titles, memorable lyrics, and engaging music that is fun to play. I love that my students are learning eighth note rhythms right off the bat and getting to play music that sounds really cool. Learning by rote gives them freedom to focus on technique and explore lots of creative variations. They also learn to memorize quickly, and by the time they get to the end of the book, they have dozens of songs they can play by memory.

Piano Safari has revolutionized the way I teach and given me a framework to work within to provide a comprehensive and musically rich learning experience for beginning piano students. I am so grateful to Julie and Katie for creating this amazing method and providing myriad articles, videos, and other resources to help teachers successfully guide students onto a lifelong path as musicians. My students and I are loving the journey!

A Piano Teacher’s First Lesson Plan

Even though I’ve switched over to primarily using Piano Safari as my beginning method for new piano students, it’s still really helpful to gather other ideas and perspectives for introducing new students to piano lessons. The Fabers have put together a step-by-step First Lesson Plan for their My First Piano Adventures series. I really appreciate their emphasis on making piano lessons a multi-sensory, interactive, and enriching musical experience. It reminds me of this quote I recently came across from the renowned educator, Zoltan Kodaly:

“Often a single experience will open the young soul to music for a whole lifetime.”

What an incredible thought to keep in mind as we introduce young children to the exciting world of music!

How Students Can Get the Most Out of Piano Lessons

The last e-newsletter from The Musician’s Way directing me back to this wonderful post by Gerald Klickstein on “Making the Most of Music Lessons.” Gerald asks, “What’s the central issue in lessons?” He then goes on to state, “Learning. What, then, is the primary role of students? To be adept learners. (Teachers facilitate learning.) So let’s look at what it means to be good at learning.”

Many of you know that I take off the month of August to travel and spend time planning and brainstorming our practice incentive theme for the next year. This article is very helpful as I consider my role as a teacher and how I can effectively equip my students to be good learners. I am starting a lot of new students this year, so I am excited about the prospect of training them to learn well and progress into excellent young pianists!

Are You a Diametrically Opposed Teacher?

A couple nights ago I presented my workshop, Creativity on the Cutting Edge, to a music teachers association. In so doing, I was reminded of this wonderful statement about the teaching method of Theodor Leschetizky in an article about him in the September/October 2012 issue of American Music Teacher:

“The great quality of Leschetizky was his vitality…there is no Leschetizky method. It is a mere legend – an absolute fallacy. He never spoke, at least I never heard him to speak, of technique. Several of his assistants and some of his pupils have published books on his method which are all diametrically opposed. Don’t be misled by them. There was no method. His teaching was much more than a method. It was a current which sought to release all latent vitality in the student. It was addressed to imagination, taste, and personal responsibility.”

~Artur Schnabel, as cited in Defining the Undefinable: The Leschetizky Method In Vienna and Chicago by Christina L. Reitz

It’s so easy to feel pressure to adopt a system or a method that can be used with every student, but the reality is that every student is different, has different interests, different aptitudes, different ways of learning. What a tremendous privilege we have as independent music teachers to customize our approach to help each student realize their potential and achieve success. As overwhelming as it can seem, it’s also exciting to consider each student as an individual and tailor our teaching approach to their needs – identifying and working through their struggles, and capitalizing on their strengths!

Off to the Slopes!

It will be another quiet week here on Music Matters Blog because the studio is closed while I’m in Colorado enjoying the snowy slopes! In the meantime you might be interested in checking out a series of posts I wrote last year on Teaching Tips from Snowboard School:

Introduction

Part 1 – Be a Pro

Part 2 – Give Students a Vision of Success

Part 3 – Plan a Systematic Approach

Part 4 – Build Confidence By Teaching Mastery of Fundamental Skills

Part 5 – Provide Ample Time for Individual Practice

A Picture and a Video and a Quote (or Two)

After our fabulous weekend in Kansas City, my students and I thoroughly enjoyed our first experience participating in the Multi-Piano Concert! We got back late Sunday evening, so I’ve been scrambling to get everything done this week and thus the blog has been a bit quiet. However, I thought I would share with you a picture from the weekend and a couple of quotes I came across in a TED video I watched last night.


Aren’t they a great-looking bunch of students?!

One of the organizations that I follow is Character First.They send out a monthly e-newsletter that always has great articles and insights into how to address character in your own life and in your work with others. One of their leaders, Dr. Nathan Mellor, recently spoke at TEDxOU in a presentation called, Listen Up, Corporate America: Less Rules, More Character.

One of my aims as a piano teacher is to provide an environment where good character is promoted and praised. I’ve mentioned this before, particularly in the post, “Teaching Students to Play Beautifully,” but it’s a constant challenge to determine the best way to teach students with this in mind. Videos like the following one provide lots of thought-provoking insights and illustrations:

Here are a couple of the quotes that I really like:

“Your job should not define you, but the way you do your job reveals who you are.”

“Actions reveal beliefs. If you desire to change actions, you must challenge beliefs.”

In particular, a realization of the first quote was the impetus behind the character evaluation that students are required to complete at the beginning of each lesson as part of our Project 28 studio practice incentive theme this year. This has been a very helpful tool, but I still want to do a better job of encouraging students to view their piano practicing and lessons as an opportunity to develop good character that will transfer into every area of their lives!

Learning from Great Teachers of the Past

Reading about the great pedagogues of years gone by is one of my favorite aspects of the music education magazines I receive. In the February/March 2013 issue of the American Music Teacher magazine, there is an interesting article by Arjola Miruku about Tobias Matthay. Here are just a few of the insights that inspired me about his teaching:

“His teaching approach can be described as one of analysis with the idea that playing the piano does not have to be a struggle.”

“According to Matthay, good teaching makes students think, not just imitate the musical interpretation of the instructor.”

“Many accounts by his students have agreed to state that he never let the student work it out on his own in practice. He was an immediate problem solver, and with endless patience, made sure the student could demonstrate a passage the correct way in the lesson and show an understanding of the problem, so that he could then correctly practice.”

“Good teaching will help all students attain musical goals that they thought they never could reach.”

Free Music, Film, and Audio Engineering Courses On-line

Thanks to Music Matters Blog reader Victoria Shaw for alerting me to this collection of free on-line courses from Coursera on the topics of music, film, and audio engineering! In addition to music and education, I am also fascinated by the world of film and drama and writing. There are so many parallels in the arts, and insights gained from one discipline can often be relevant in other disciplines as well. Earlier this year I listened to a series of podcasts by Act One on Storytelling in the 21st Century. It was incredibly thought-provoking on many counts, and I love pondering how we in the arts community can have a greater impact on our society.

The more we can learn and develop creative approaches in our studios, the better equipped our students will be to make a lasting difference in our culture. In addition to acquiring musical skills, it’s also critically important for them to understand the underlying philosophies that drive the arts, and establish a right and true philosophy that will govern their own musical pursuits. This was largely the goal behind the Pursuit of Music camp that I held for some of my high school students this summer, and it’s something that I am always looking for opportunities to incorporate more into weekly lessons and group classes with students as well. It’s always great to find out about quality resources that can be used to supplement and enhance a well-rounded music education!