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.

Inspiration for the New Year – The Mini Music Manual!


One of my favorite things about taking breaks from a regular teaching schedule is the opportunity it gives me to evaluate how I’m doing as a teacher and how my students are doing learning and retaining new concepts and skills. I love pondering possibilities to help me be more organized and intentional as a teacher. And I love dreaming up creative ideas to inspire my students in their ongoing musical pursuits. From these musings the past several weeks was borne our latest musical resource: The Mini Music Manual!

The more time I’ve spent learning from and tutoring with Classical Conversations, the more I’ve become convinced of three important facets of a successful education: memorization, repetition, and ownership. Memorization is the first step of acquiring new information (a.k.a. grammar) that will serve as the basis for deeper understanding and application. Without an inventory of knowledge from which to draw, students are left grasping for random bits and pieces. In piano teaching I’ve become adamant that students memorize the essentials that they need for musical success. It’s amazing how easy it is to inadvertently move on to harder assignments when students can’t even readily identify notes on the staff!

Next, repetition is the means by which the memorized information is solidified for application. If I’ve learned anything over the last couple of years of homeschooling it’s that just because I said or taught something it doesn’t mean that the student learned it. Again, it’s easy to assume that if I know something and have communicated it to the student that they now possess that information as well. That couldn’t be further from the truth! The real test of whether or not a student has learned something is how well they can communicate that knowledge to someone else. If it can’t be effectively communicated then it has not truly been learned.

Third, ownership. So much education today is a spoon-feeding approach whereby the teacher feeds information to the student and the student is expected to receive, digest, and systematically regurgitate it (usually for the sake of scoring well on a test). I want my children and students to learn to learn. To think for themselves. To search out, process, and evaluate information. To derive well-informed conclusions and then use what they’ve gleaned to grow as individuals and then help others grow.

These three underlying philosophies are what led to the development of the Mini Music Manual: The Ultimate Reference Guide that You Create! I’m excited to begin using this manual with my piano students this semester to help them learn and memorize new information and take ownership for their music education. They’ll be writing their own definitions of musical terms and symbols, memorizing scale patterns and diagramming them with correct fingering, keeping track of their favorite repertoire, and more. I’m excited to see how it goes and will try to post updates along the way!

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.

First Week of Lessons!

Some of you may remember my embarrassing confession earlier this year and my resolve to ensure that every one of my students becomes a fluent reader of music at the piano. I am happy to report that all of our hard work in the spring paid off! When I used our NoteStars game to evaluate where they were at this week, every student was still able to quickly and accurately identify and locate every note on the staff. They are also exhibiting a much greater level of independence in learning new music, which is exciting for all of us!

In our continuing quest toward playing the piano well, this year I am honing in on rhythm skills. Since note identification and rhythm are arguably the two most fundamental pieces of knowledge necessary to read music fluently, I want to equip each student to precisely execute any rhythm they come across in their music. Toward this end I have assigned each of them one part in an ensemble from the 4 Afro-Caribbean Songs for 5 Right Hands at 1 Piano book that I mentioned last week. (Note that you can download for free 4 of the parts from each song on the publisher’s website!) I introduced each piece by having the students look over it and tell me everything they could about the printed music. Then we discussed the time signature and used a rhythm instrument to play and count through the rhythm of the piece. At the end, I asked students which measure of rhythm was the hardest, then we worked specifically on that rhythm to make sure the student understood how to count it. I also had them count to see how many times that exact same rhythm was used in the piece, which led to the observation that musical pieces are usually comprised of repeating rhythm patterns. (Sometimes it’s amazing the things that I take for granted that students know or have somehow figured out on their own even though I haven’t made it a point to teach it to them!)

Part of my new resolve as a teacher is to take full responsibility for ensuring that my students have truly learned what I’m teaching them. Inspired by the following quote, my aim is to cause them to know the material and to essentially make it impossible for them to study piano with me and leave a lesson not having learned what I set out to teach them. It is such a wonderful responsibility and privilege to be a teacher!

“Teachers have redefined teaching as ‘the coherent speaking of an adult located at the head of the class to a passive gathering of students.’ They believe their primary responsibility is to cover the material in an organized manner.

They think about teaching as what they do–their focus is upon themselves. Many teachers cover their material and leave the room thinking they have taught. But if you gave their students a pop quiz, you would find out they hardly learned a thing. The divorce between teaching and learning is tragic and the root of many of our educational woes.

Obviously, the students are responsible to learn the material–but the teacher is responsible to cause them to know the material.”

~Bruce Wilkinson

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!