In recent conversations with piano teachers, several have expressed some discouragement in their teaching because students frequently come to lessons too exhausted to play, or even think, and have had little time to practice. After reflecting on this, I believe as piano teachers, we are music educators first. Being professional musicians, it is easy to lose sight of why many students are taking lessons. Few are going to make a career as a performing pianist, or even as a professional musician. Yet we often put all students in the same mold-teaching them as we were taught- with the major focus of lessons on teaching students to memorize and perform pieces. Some teachers spend much of a teaching year "perfecting" only one or two pieces for an end-of-year recital, festival, or contest.
If a student is coming to lessons, there is some interest in music and a desire to learn to play the piano. My goal is to help students better understand the great art of music through their piano studies. I also strive to give them the tools to make music themselves so they can experience the joy of creating music and expressing themselves in this way. I want them to attend concerts and enjoy playing the piano for the rest of their lives. To achieve this, a different emphasis may be needed in the lessons, including non-classical repertoire and other activities.
A few years ago E.L. Lancaster addressed this issue in a column for Clavier
Busy students can progress
by Sheila Vail
The lives of today's students are so tightly scheduled and over-
Since each student is different, the first thing to do is assess the individual student and his or her overall situation. Since time is of the essence and precision matters, it is also helpful to know the
1. How quickly do they learn? Knowing
their learning pace is essential to
2. How is their retention? Do they
3. How committed are they to their goals?
4. What appeals to them? Inspiration can do wonders to magically create practice hours!
S. Determine the amount of possible time they have to practice in a week. Will there be several longer periods of time or many small sessions?
Reduce and pre-teach
The first thing I consider is reducing the amount of material in the program. Moving to a program of "repertoire only" by reducing or eliminating technical and supporting work can ease the practice commitment and allow more lesson time for previewing and preparing the week's assignment. Even encouraging practice with one hand can ease the process and lessen the intimidation when they sit down at home to work through a piece. It is somewhat eas
A "tapas" approach to literature
Tapas are small appetizer-sized plates of food, often encompassing a wide range and variety of tastes and ingredients. For developing students, I find it helpful to choose repertoire that is clearly sectional with an appropriate amount of complexity and work on only one aspect weekly. Sets of variations, for example, offer small quantities
I have also found that a goal often provides the necessary stimulus to help a student find more practice time. Students will respond to a specific goal, especially one that will con
Another 'helper' I employ is a "Practice Guide Sheet" (see Fig
Some of the most poignant conversations I have had with
The 21st-century student IS different!
by E. L. Lancaster
The key to assigning repertoire to the "overstretched" student is to truly know each student individually. When dealing with busy students, in my enrollment questionnaire, I like to know the answers to these questions:
1. What classes are you taking in school? If students are enrolled in many honors and Advanced Placement classes, I know they will have massive amounts of daily homework.
2. Do you participate in other extracurricular activities (including church activities) and if so, how often do they meet? When I know the extent of their daily activities, I can ascertain how much time is left for practice.
3. Are you involved in other music activities such as band, choir, and church music groups? If students are involved in music ensembles, I can plan things for the lesson that will support their other music activities.
4. When are the best times for you to practice each week? This question forces students to think about their daily schedule and determine times that are available for piano practice. I then make assignments based on the amount of available practice time.
5. What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time? The answer to this question can help me find appropriate recreational music.
6. Is there a specific piece or style of music you would like to play? This question helps me determine if the student really wants to play the same style of music that he/she listens to or if he/she is open to a variety of styles.
7. Do you want to participate in auditions, contests, and recitals? If the answer to this question is no, I have more flexibility in choosing repertoire.
The Mindset list
There is no doubt that students are different today. We are all different than we were a few years ago as the surrounding environment shapes our lives and attitudes. Each year Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, releases their Mindset List.1 Its purpose is to give faculty members a look at the cultural influences on entering college students. By reading this list, piano teachers can also gain perspective on the thinking of today's students.
For example, 18-year-old students who are entering college today were born in 1990 or 1991. They have grown up with computers and rapid communication, expect most dorm rooms and public areas to be "wired" (and now even wireless), talk to others via cell phones, and communicate through texting. They share their personal thoughts with others via social networking communities such as Facebook and already know their college roommates through this venue.
During the lifetime of 2008 college freshmen, the Beloit College Mindset List says that:
1) Gas stations have never fixed flat tires, but most serve cappuccino.
2) Clarence Thomas has always
3) IBM has never made typewriters.
4) Caller ID has always been available on phones.
5) 98.6° F or otherwise has always been confirmed in the ear.
In many cases,
Beginning and emerging students
My long-range goal for "overstretched" students is to help them become musicians, using the piano as the medium for achieving this goal. After truly getting to know the student and assessing outside influences on the lifestyle, I work with him or her to jointly determine some short-term goals. This includes choosing the repertoire to be learned.
With most "overstretched" students, I only assign two repertoire pieces. The first is chosen in conjunction with the student. I play at least three pieces that are appropriate for the student's current level and musical development. All have similar technical and musical requirements. The student then chooses a favorite from the three. When selecting the pieces, I try to find patterned pieces that promote quick learning, short but interesting pieces, and pieces that sound harder than they really are. I want to make sure the student would enjoy playing any of these pieces for friends. Consequently, I try to avoid sophisticated-sounding pieces that would only appeal to educated musicians.
The second piece that I assign is one suggested by the student. It may be something he or she has heard another student perform on a recital, a piece in pop or jazz style that has appeal, or an arrangement of a classical theme heard in a movie or TV commercial. Many students request classical piano pieces they have heard other students perform such as a Bach minuet, a Clementi sonatina, a Chopin prelude, a Joplin rag, Ellmenreich's Spinning Song or the Burgmuller Ballade.
In the actual lesson, I do not spend the entire time working on the two pieces. A short segment of each lesson is spent on theory- this can include written work, computer work, ear training, and work on basic keyboard patterns. In addition, I plan a whole series of activities for the student where we can periodically sight-read duets or accompaniments, play by ear, study famous music and musicians (including listening to CDs and talking about the performances). I don't do these activities in every lesson, but use them throughout the year when the student has had little or no practice time, or so that lessons do not become predictable.
At the end of each lesson, I always give the student an "overload practice plan." This is usually one or two small things that I would like the student to accomplish during the week on the piece, even if there
The most important consideration in working with "overstretched" students is to be flexible in all aspects of teaching. Change the repertoire if it is becoming stale. Students can learn a lot from studying a piece, even if it never reaches a performance level. If needed, alter the lesson plan to meet the musical and psychological needs of the student. If necessary, change your expectations about what the student should accomplish during the year. Remember that the most successful teacher is the one who instills a love of music in the student that lasts for a lifetime.
1 The Beloit College Mindset List can be accessed at http://www.beloit.edu/mindset/1012.php. Retrieved on June 1, 2009.
2 Robbins, Alexandra (2006). The Overachievers: The Secret Lives ojDriven Kids. New York: Hyperion.
3 Rack, Katherine (2005, August 8). Not a Minute to Spare. Time, 166 (6), 59.