I wrote this article for The Piano Bench Mag. It is some tips for keeping Elementary students engaged and motivated
“But this is Boring!” – 5 tips to keep Elementary students engaged (and practicing!)
“This is boring!” “This piece is too hard!” “These pieces are too easy!”
How we teachers dread hearing these phrases. If only the student could see what is coming around the corner! If only they could master these next few pieces, or fix these technical problems, or shape their phrasing more beautifully (a piano teacher’s list is never completely ticked off), then they will get to where they want to be. Realistically though, no matter which approach we take with our teaching at some point in a beginner pianist’s journey, they are (most likely) going to experience some degree of disconnect from what their aspirations are and what they believe that they are capable of. Practice starts to drop off and a spiral of doom can set in. Unfortunately, the only solution that most method books can offer is to simply turn the page. I believe that there can be more to the process and that we can effectively juggle the demands and desires of the individual student with the need for a sound musical development.
Rather than offering up a one size fits all solution, I’d like to present five little tips instead. I use these in my teaching and they are designed to fit in with whichever method or approach that you may use. Hopefully they may be of some assistance in smoothing out the inevitable teaching bumps and frustrations that we all encounter. They also help to make a student’s practice time at home more rewarding by offering avenues for musical extension and exploration.
1) Start messing with your list!
I know exactly how I would like my students to approach learning a new piece. Ordinarily we would approach something new like this:
- Read and experience the rhythm of the piece (mainly clapping and vocalizing)→
- Read and experience the notes and harmonies (the shape and direction of the melodic line and the “flavors” of the harmonies) →
- Combine these two elements (usually directly on the instrument) →
- Develop the technical and musical aspects required →
- Memorize →
- Creative input or extension activities (improvising, embellishing or transposing)
In this approach, the aural awareness of the overall piece develops over time. And for me, that works (most of the time…). Is this the only way to learn something new? Most certainly not! Your approach may be totally different (and better!). We could spend all day discussing the “correct” way of learning but that is not the point of this little tip. The point is that by playing around occasionally with what is our standard way of teaching, we can reinvigorate and expand the learning and practicing processes and discover more about our students. Here are two possible ways of approaching this:
1) Learn a piece backwards. For me, that would mean:
- listening to the piece many times →
- teaching the piece by rote →
- perfecting it at the instrument →
- working out how the notated score would look with the student →
- Getting the student to reverse engineer the score
2) Use easier pieces to race through earlier steps in your standard progression in order to get to the more rewarding end. For me, that would mean using pieces with easier rhythms and written notation in order for the student to quickly master the technical and musical aspects so that we may concentrate on memorizing, transposing, and using the piece as a jumping off point for improvisations.
Listening and/or transcription exercises, transposing and improvising can all be regularly featured in a student’s homework in order to offer variety and interest.
2) Do more with a piece!
I like to treat little beginner pieces as stepping stones. There are so many things to leap to and explore beyond what is printed on the page. You can:
- Explore the parallel minor. Everything is cooler in minor. A little C to G white note piece can be made to sound “scary” or “sad” simply by adding an Eb. Move the piece around the piano too! Pushing the middle finger up onto a black note is also great for encouraging a better hand shape.
- Transpose the piece. Memorizing and transposing is a wonderfully practical way of developing musicianship at the instrument.
- Add an accompaniment. Little pieces are often very easy to harmonize using just C’s and G’s.
- Improvise. As soon as patterns start becoming evident in a student’s pieces, I like to catalogue these so that we may add them to our improvisatory repertoire.
- Compose based on the theme. Use the title of the piece to create your own version!
As with tip #1, these exercises can all be featured regularly in a student’s home practice.
3) Incorporate technical skills early and keep them coming!
All the tips listed above will help to develop a student’s technique. A strong aural awareness coupled with an early feeling of independence at the instrument (created by exploring a wide compass on the piano, memorizing and transposing pieces and the early incorporation of flats and sharps) can create a very good basic technique without the need for many extra exercises. Certain necessary skills don’t seem to appear very often in the elementary repertoire though, and I believe that they should. Here are two examples:
The two-note slur. Mastering this skill is vital and I believe that it should be introduced quite early on. As learning this skill purely as a technical drill is rather dry and uninspiring, I composed a piece for it:
Both hands get to experience the “down-up” sensation created by the slur. I have surrounded the two-note slurs with staccato notes so that the student really gets to feel how their weight distribution changes.
Rotation at the elbow. Again, this can be treated as a dry technical exercise or you can learn this piece:
The Ab in the right hand creates a wonderfully natural movement for the student.
4) Keep the volume up!
By “volume”, I am referring to the number of pieces learned. When a student commences lessons, progress through pieces is usually very rapid. As the pieces increase in difficulty, it becomes more difficult (and less desirable) to maintain this rapid pace. In countries where exams are strongly emphasized (I’m looking at you, Australia and the UK), progress can often come to a crashing halt with the arrival at the first examination level. The solution that I use for my students is as follows: as soon as it becomes evident that the next level of piece is going to create significant challenges, I divide their pieces into two categories. These are my rules:
- Category One: High Intensity. We acknowledge that pieces on this list are going to present challenges (and potential difficulties). These pieces will take us “to the next level”. We will also use, as a standard, criteria external to those of the student, i.e. these pieces must be acceptable when assessed by an informed listener. These pieces will also potentially take longer to learn and perfect. Students assist in choosing this repertoire, but don’t necessarily always have the final say.
- Category Two: Low Intensity. There are only two rules for this category: the student must choose to learn each piece, and it must take no more than three weeks to achieve an adequate level of performance. (I usually deem a piece to be “adequately” learned when it flows at a speed approaching what would be considered top speed and that the musical demands have broadly been met.)
Obviously, pieces in the first category are going to be more challenging and time-consuming to learn than those in the second. Some students can handle more category one pieces than others and, as a student progresses, I generally expect them to progressively take over more and more responsibility for learning pieces from the second category.
My general rule of thumb is that the ratio for an average student is 1:3. For every one hard piece we learn, we pair three easier pieces with it. This system works for both long-term and short-term planning. The overall ratio can change based on a student’s personality and learning style but I find that the 1:3 rule holds for roughly the 80% of my students who are “in the middle”.
It is a very useful tool for encouraging home practice. By including category two pieces you are enticing a student to the piano. It is much more rewarding to sit down at the piano if you feel a sense of ownership over your repertoire. By acknowledging that some aspects of learning and practicing are going to be (somewhat) less instantly enjoyable, we also give the student an outlet to vent about their less positive experiences with pieces. They feel more able to tell us about their frustrations without having to describe all “practice” or “everything about the piano” in a negative manner.
I use this term in its most positive sense – “to follow a winding and turning course”. There are no straight lines to success at the piano. I encourage you to utilize every opportunity to explore the wonderful little detours and sidetracks that a student’s musical journey can present. I used to seriously worry about the fact that some of my students proved stubbornly resistant to developing a “balanced” repertoire. They resolutely refused to play pieces of which they did not approve. They usually won, as they would simply not practice those pieces that they did not love. They would practice the pieces that they loved to death, though! After a while, I noticed that it was these students who often turned out to be my best students in the long run. When they reached their mid teen years, their interests suddenly exploded in all directions and the repertoire they had totally ignored before was now firmly on the table. It was the time that they spent at the instrument that had made the difference, not necessarily that that time was “perfectly” spent. When they were ready for these pieces, their technical and musical skills were sitting there ready to go. These days, I have learned to be patient. I let students explore and guide me, ensure that their underlying technique and musicality is developing, and wait for the “big bang”.
There you go – five little tips. Thanks for spending some time with me! Hopefully there is something new in there for you, no matter how small. Beginning to compose was one the best things that happened to my teaching as it opened my eyes to the flexibility and inventiveness that we as teachers can bring to each and every piece. I encourage you to bring a little spark of something different to each piece and to keep your teaching supple! Just remember, little and often makes a lot in time (German proverb).