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What are the best practices?

Editor's Note: In the November/December 2014 issue, Clavier Companion launched a series of articles addressing the future of piano teaching. The following article is part of that series, which will continue in future issues

"I've always done it this way."
"My teacher did it that way, too. It worked fine for her."
"I plan to keep teaching this way."

    Piano teaching has largely been a field in which we teach the way we were taught. Only in recent decades have universities begun to embrace the field of piano pedagogy by offering coursework and degrees in the field. 
     Take a moment to think about how you teach today. How does that differ from when you began to teach? For me, that's twenty-five years ago. Then take a moment to think about what you will do differently ten or twenty years from now.

Best practices 

     In business, research usually drives practice, allowing the business to adapt new knowledge. However, the field of piano teaching is sadly lacking in this area.

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"Best practices" are often talked about in education circles, but I have never heard this phrase mentioned in relation to piano teaching. We need to discover what "best practices" are in piano teaching through experimentation and collaboration with other teachers, rather than "teaching as we were taught." — Dr. Julie Knerr

"We want our automobiles, technology, and medical professionals to be up-to-date with the latest. What about looking at music instruction? Do we need to teach the way we've been teaching for 100 years?" —Marilyn White Lowe1

    As we look toward the future of piano teaching, I see the great possibility of piano pedagogy training coinciding and coordinating its studies with the field of music education research. Each field has its strengths, and it would be great if they could combine forces to address some fundamental questions. What do we want our students to know when they are no longer with us? What is the best way to give our students the gift of music? 

Learning language 

     We have known for years that our first steps in learning language center on sound. Children hear and speak a language before they begin to read it. This "sound before sight" acquisition is a natural way of learning, and the approach is not news to any of us. However, most of the major piano method books on the market today employ a "sight before sound" approach. There are a few notable exceptions, such as The Suzuki Piano School and Music Moves for Piano. Other methods employ a mixture of rote and note, such as The Music Tree and Piano Safari, a newer method. Methods, however, are only a guide. There is no substitute for a great teacher, and those great teachers know how to use materials in a way that effectively reaches their students. 
     When piano methods gained popularity, they gave teachers a "turn-the-page" approach to teaching lessons. A major publisher was known to have said, "The vast majority of teachers are wanting a traditional, turn-the-page book." Is this true in our field? Is this what we want for our modern students? If music education research tells us that children instinctively learn music aurally and experientially (through movement, for example), why do we insist on using the methods that have young children reading from the start?

"A piano method book has similarities to an Icelandic grammar book. A person may learn to read Icelandic from a book, but in order to speak and understand Icelandic language and culture, full immersion is required to allow the student to hear, speak, and understand spoken Icelandic. A person who learns to read Icelandic from a book but who cannot speak or understand it aurally cannot be said to be fully literate in Icelandic. Similarly, a piano student who can decode notes but has poorly developed ears cannot be said to be fully musically literate." — Dr. Julie Knerr

     I believe that the future of piano teaching will take us down a road where we will see a shift toward rote-learning, aural skills training, composition, and improvisation—all alongside a steady diet of traditional technical training. I think the future will also take us to a more systematic approach to reading that is based on the ways children truly learn music, and not simply on what is in print in method books. 


     I also think that we will see a shift toward more artfulness in piano teaching. We have seen a recent trend toward instant learning as well as the gamification of music lessons. Students love to play along with apps and software that cheers for them, but we still have to focus on our end goal—musical knowledge and overall artistry. We are building musicians, future audiences, and people who will appreciate music and music education for their entire lifetime. 

Dr. Jon Feirabend, a noted expert in the field of music education, challenges teachers to make every lesson "tuneful, beatful, and artful."

The First Steps in Music curriculum is designed to prepare children to become musical in three ways:
Tuneful—to have tunes in their heads and learn to coordinate their voices to sing those tunes. 
Beatful—to feel the pulse of music and how that pulse is grouped in either 2s or 3s.
Artful—to be moved by music in the many ways music can elicit a feelingful response.
     All adults should be tuneful, beatful, and artful so they can participate in the music that is interwoven throughout our lives. Adults who are tuneful can sing lullabies to their babies, sing "Happy Birthday" to their children and friends, sing in worship services, and join others in singing ceremonial songs like alma maters or heritage favorites. Adults who are beatful can rock on the beat while singing that lullaby, can dance at their wedding or their friend's wedding, and can clap their hands in time with others at a sporting event. Adults who are artful are moved by music and seek out venues to share artful experiences with others in concert halls, in community bands and choirs, or listening to National Public Radio. Artful adults enjoy being moved by music.                  
     Children who learn to be tuneful, beatful, and artful before they leave elementary school will grow to be adults who can benefit from what music can offer. Those that go on to sing in choirs or play an instrument will do so in a more musical manner. Those that do not choose to later sing in choirs or play an instrument will still be enriched by being able to share music in their daily lives.2

Developing the ear
     Both Dr. Feirabend and Dr. Edwin Gordon, a prominent music educator and psyschologist (see page 10 of this issue), refer to a window of opportunity to reach children and help them maintain musical aptitude. Both researchers state that you have until approximately age eight or nine to make the most of this innate aural and musical aptitude. Dr. Gordon notes that the "impact of informal guidance in music at the earliest possible age is enormous…. Without appropriate early modeling and guidance in music that coincides with a natural intuition for learning music, a child's later attempt to deal with music becomes compromised, typically resulting in forced and mechanical musical performance."
     One of the most important aspects of music education is training the ear. Students need to listen to a variety of great music. You cannot speak a language if you don't know how it's pronounced. How will any piano student ever play correctly if he/she never listens to pianists? Develop a listening list for your students. Who are the most influential pianists? Are your students listening to them? One teacher that embraces this is Paul Sheftel. He has a "Music of the Week" segment on his teacher blog where he writes a short comment about a piece and includes one or more YouTube links of various performances. Students are encouraged to comment and discuss, and Sheftel uses it as a point of communication in lessons with his students.
     A well-trained ear is also essential to the development of improvisation skills. Improvisation is really just a skill that draws upon the vocabulary you have learned. I describe it to my students this way: You have a bucket of knowledge. Everything you learn lands in the bucket. When you start to improvise, you draw upon all of the information in your bucket.

     Providing the right aural context for our students is essential to helping them grow. With context, you have to ask, 'Is the music moving in two or in three?' Students need to relate rhythm to body movement. There are three essential parts to rhythm: the macrobeat, meter, and patterns. Context is one of the most fundamental components of music education. Forty years after your students stop their piano lessons, will they still be able to understand what they are hearing when they go to symphony hall? Will they hear duple or triple meter? Will they hear the mode of the music?
     Students learn through singing, chanting, moving to music, drumming, and listening, and all of these activities help to provide context. In many public school music classrooms, this sort of thing drives the music curriculum. The entire Orff approach is based upon this. Let's let it drive our piano lessons! Rote learning of patterns and then pieces of music that contain those patterns makes for a logical learning progression.
     Context helps with reading as well. When I introduce reading to my students in lessons (or in music class at school), I start with heighted notation so that students see patterns of up, down, and repeat. Then I move to patterns on a oneline or two-line staff. I even created an interactive whiteboard lesson in an app called Smart Notebook where students can create various patterns with colorful noteheads and then play them on piano, on recorder, or sing them. I can use this app on my iPad for pattern instruction in piano lessons and it gives students a visual perception of music reading that is lacking when I toss a whole page of music in front of a beginner.

Students need to listen to a variety of great music.
You cannot speak a language if you don't know how it's pronounced. 

Putting it all together
So, what do students need to know? They need to know what to listen for in music, how to listen, and what patterns are present. They also need help understanding meter and tonality. When students are the most successful, they learn to internalize what they know. They own the end product of their work and play.
My educational philosophy describes my thoughts about embracing a music education model that favors language acquisition. Here are some excerpts from that philosophy:

By giving children ample opportunities to experience education in many different ways—by thinking, experiencing things in a hands-on format, by composing, by listening, by imitation, by improvisation and discovery—students begin to discover their own learning styles and achieve their full potentials. It is my job to spark the interest of young musicians and help them achieve their greatest potential. While I realize that most of the students who study with me will not pursue music careers, I want them to have the broad base of knowledge necessary to become future concert-goers, amateur musicians, and supporters of the arts. I encourage students to think independently, and I encourage creativity through composition, improvisation, and other activities. Above all, instruction must be FUN. 

The study of music will encourage people to be more human, to be more caring and sensitive to those around them, and to allow themselves to take risks and be creative in their solutions to problems they encounter along the way. 

After all, life is not all about music, but music is all about life.3

Explore other practices 
     I challenge piano teachers to take a class in Orff-Schulwerk, Feirabend, Music Learning Theory, World Music Drumming, or any number of other methodologies available to music teachers today. Furthermore, let's open the dialog in our profession about what we can change to help our students to fully understand music, love music, and 'stick' with piano (and music!) for a lifetime. If we can continue to explore the best practices and implement them, the future of piano teaching will be bright.

1 Quotes from Julie Knerr and Marilyn White Lowe come from conversations with the author. 

2 http://www.feierabendmusic.org/firststeps-in-music-for-preschool-and-beyond/

3 http://www.kathleentheisen.com/Kathleen_Theisen/Educational_Philosophy.html

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Make parents your partners
Should we fear the future?

Comments 2

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CliffordAlba on Wednesday, 05 August 2020 02:49

Kathleen Thiesen, thank you so much for the interesting articles.

Kathleen Thiesen, thank you so much for the interesting articles.
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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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