Do you ever have a student come to their lesson and say that they couldn’t practice an assigned piece because they couldn’t figure out what note to start on? Or do they play timidly and explain that they aren’t sure if they are playing with the correct rhythm? Here’s what NOT to do. Don’t point to the beginning of the piece, say, “Oh, that’s an A!” and move the student’s hand to the correct spot on the keyboard. Don’t listen to the first few measures and say, “You’ve almost got it – just make sure you hold the half note for the full two beats.” These sound like decent responses, but they handicap the student’s ability to learn on his own, and increase his sense of dependence on the teacher to solve problems for him.
It will definitely take more time, but I prefer to walk a student through finding the solution for himself. For example, here’s how I handled a student with the rhythm issue described above: “Alright, you’re not sure if you’re playing it correctly and think that the rhythm might be wrong. That’s excellent! Not that you’re playing the rhythm wrong, but that you’re aware that there’s a problem. 🙂 After all, the first step to fixing problems is knowing that there is one. Now, instead of me just telling you whether it’s right or wrong, let’s imagine that I’m not here and you had to figure it out on your own. What are some ways that you could determine if the rhythm is right or wrong?”
Then I let him give me as many ideas as he could think of. The final step is to have him put some of those ideas to the test and then tell me what he discovers. If he discovers that he was playing the rhythm incorrectly, then we move into a discussion of how to practice effectively to correct the problem. Not only will he likely be successful correcting the problem during the week, but he has also learned a problem-solving strategy that can be used on any future piece of music with a similar issue. Lastly, it provides a common vocabulary of sorts for the future, because if he plays a piece for me and I observe that there is a rhythmic inaccuracy, all I have to say is, “In measure 14, the rhythm is incorrect. Can you determine the error and fix it?” Instead of a glazed-over look, accompanied with a complete lack of understanding as to how to fix the problem, he can go right to work and probably fix it pretty quickly.
For one of my group classes a while back, I wanted to highlight various ways that students can solve problems on their own, so I grouped them in pairs and gave each pair a white board and marker. The I presented each pair with one of the following problems and instructed them to write down as many ways that they could think of to solve the problem. Here’s a list I put together ahead of time to offer suggestions if necessary, but the students did a great job coming up with solutions on their own.
- Don’t know what note to start on
- Use landmark notes
- Look at a piece of music you’ve already learned
- Compare the starting note to flashcards and find the matching one to see what the note name is
- Don’t know what sharps or flats are in the scale
- Use a scale you do know to figure out the pattern
- Use the circle of 5ths to figure out how many sharps or flats it should have
- Play a scale you know, then listen to the sound and play the new one so that it sounds the same
- Don’t know what fingering to use
- Try alternate fingers and see which one seems to work the most naturally
- Use scale, chord, or arpeggio fingerings that fit the pattern
- Don’t know if the rhythm is correct
- Write in the counts
- Tap and count it out loud
- Use a metronome
- Find a professional recording and listen to it
- Don’t know what a term in the music means
- Look it up in a music dictionary
- Look it up on the Internet
This is obviously not an exhaustive list, so I’d love to have some additional input! What would you add to the list? How do you help your students learn to identify and find solutions for their problems?