Bea's Keys: Tips for teachers
Beatrice N. Carney passed away on January 28 at the age of 99 (her obituary can be found at the end of this article). Her accepted publication for Clavier Companion was written when she was 97 years old, submitted when she was 98. Her daughter wrote, informing the editors of her passing. It is our privilege to honor Bea's memory here, with her Tips for teachers. These days, ageism can still wield a sharp sword in an otherwise PC world, so let this article remind all of us of the wisdom that can be found in living life fully. drs
These are some of the teaching tips I have shared with both new and experienced teachers in my workshops over the years. I am delighted to have this opportunity to share them with you in this article and would be so pleased to hear from you with any of your TIPS FOR TEACHERS. These are not necessarily new tips from me; many were gleaned from my years attending workshops, conferences, and masterclasses.
What a wonderful profession we have. At the age of 97, I still see the faces of boys and girls of every age who crossed my threshold and entered into the wonderful world of music. Eager, full of life, and presenting every imaginable variety in personality and proficiency! How we love them all, and what a joy it is to see them grow in their mastery of the piano as they learn to love and appreciate music's essential beauty and truth. For each new student, we create the atmosphere in which this growth takes place—beginning at the very beginning.
Tips for the first meeting with parent(s) of a new student
Communicating with Parents
- Meet with parent(s) before first lesson.
- Be clear about your expectations on practice, payments, punctuality, and how missed lessons are handled.
- Ask about their expectations.
- Earn their respect—you're in the driver's seat!
- Tell them you need to be informed of extenuating circumstances as they relate to the child/student (sick child, pet died, etc.)
- Encourage parents to stay for lessons and take notes.
- Ask about student allergies.
Tips for the first lesson with a new student
- Welcome the student warmly.
- Provide time for familiarity with surroundings—let student have time to explore the studio and ask questions.
- Be certain the piano bench is adjusted properly. Let the student help.
- Be certain the piano bench is adjusted properly. Let the student help.
- Demonstrate how the strings and hammers inside the piano work.
- Let the student experiment with the pedals.
- Demonstrate how the metronome works.
- Always ask new students why they want to learn how to play the piano.
- Talk briefly about your own expectations—that the student will come with a prepared lesson, clean hands and short fingernails.
- Show where your bathroom is.
- You may also tell a little about your family and ask about the student's family, whether they have siblings or pets or are involved in additional pursuits.
- Always remember that everything is NEW to a student at the first lesson, and what the student hopes is that you will be cheerful and friendly.
Introduce the Keyboard
- How many white keys? How many black keys?
- Find the sets of two black keys and three black keys.
- Find Middle C; find another C. How many C's are there?
- Play all the C's with different fingers, and with different tones.
- Ask the student how he found the C's.
- Now, switch roles and let the student be your teacher to review all they have learned at their first lesson.
Introduce Ear Training
- Have the student listen while you play different C's.
- Introduce the terms high and low and middle.
- Play a C and then a C# and ask if the student hears any difference.
- Make a sound on the keyboard and ask if it is soft or loud.
- Play a phrase with long and short beats and ask the student to repeat it.
- Then ask the student to go first and you repeat what he plays.
- Hum or sing a familiar tune with the student.
Tips for teaching
Always use positive reinforcement! Comment on what the student does well. Make mental notes of his mistakes, giving as little correction as possible at the time. Later in the lesson, teach what needs to be taught, without the student realizing that he is being corrected.
- If a student comes for his lesson completely unprepared, give him the benefit of the doubt. "Oh, you didn't practice much this week? That gives me the chance to learn more about you. Let's pretend you're at home. How would you go about practicing your lesson?"
- Example is the best teacher. During the student's practice session, take notes. Then demonstrate how you would practice, asking for feedback from the student. Naturally, demonstrate techniques to strengthen the areas where the student is weak, without actually "correcting" him.
- Present a group lesson on practicing, which can be followed by asking each student to write a short composition on "How to Practice." This will lead to another group lesson during which students read their compositions aloud for each other.
- Your students will relate to this suggestion from the composer Robert Schumann, who said that students should always practice as though their teacher was listening!
- If you follow a routine in the lessons, beginning with warm-up exercises, you will help your students follow a routine when they practice. But if a student arrives filled with excitement about something they have achieved, by all means, start the lesson off with whatever it is they want to show you. Celebrate their success!
Preparing for Recitals & Competitions
- Be certain the students' pieces are memorized at least a month before the performance.
- Be sure all your students know to continue playing if they make a mistake.
- Use the month before the recital to build their confidence.
- Group lessons are so beneficial. Discuss with your students what might happen during a recital or a competition, and let them act out some scenarios.
- Have the students over-dramatize their performances, by wearing hats or scarves or pretending to be famous pianists. Let them have fun by showing off with a bit of flair and drama in front of their fellow students.
- Have a group lesson where their performances are videotaped and played back. Invite students to "critique" each other by offering only positive comments. Tell the students to write their comments and also to write down the names of any pieces they have heard others play and would like to learn.
- At another group lesson, have each student perform his or her piece while the others in the group talk, laugh, drop things on the floor, pretend to cough, ring bells and make other sounds to distract the student who is performing. You may need to tell them not to touch or get in the face of the performer, but they will get the idea.
- After all this preparation, now provide ample opportunities for your students to play in front of others (family, friends and each other) before the big day.
- Schedule no lessons the week prior to the recital or competition. Have the students come and go during your normal teaching hours, bringing in their parents and friends and playing for whomever is there.
- Remind the parents to provide a good meal and a good sleep for their child.
- Remind the students to breathe deeply and to keep their hands warm … no holding a cold soda can before going in to play!
- Habits are formed from Day One. Building on a good foundation is the secret of success.
- Insist on consistent fingering.
- Explain that rests designate total and complete silence. Tell the student to pretend someone is sleeping.
- Suggest chromatic scales for limbering up the thumbs.
- Demonstrate wrist action by having a student jiggle a doorknob. Drops & rolls or drops & lifts are good exercises to learn how to play phrases.
- Have the student play arpeggios after their scales for command of the keyboard.
- Show the student how to lean into the keys when playing chords, moving their arms toward the backboard rather than the floor.
- Walk around the room with your student, like puppets with loose strings, to experience the feeling of loose arms.
- Two-note slurs can be understood if the hand is imagined to be lightly suspended from the shoulder, arm and wrist.
- Appeal to the student's sense of fun by telling them that ornaments (trills, grace notes, etc.) are not to be accented. Tell them to sneak them into a piece.
- "Sneaky" thumbs also help students play their scales smoothly.
- For well-rounded fingers, have the student practice making O's with their fingers and thumb.
- Tell the student you never want to be able to see their fingernails when they are playing. My students all remember hearing "No squishies!" I always kept a pair of nail clippers in my studio.
- To strengthen the 4th finger, have the student play scales and patterns with the 4th finger accented. Also, have them play the chromatic scales with only their 4th fingers. A weak 4th finger is often the culprit in uneven tempos.
- For a better understanding of legato, have the student walk their 2nd and 3rd fingers up and down the piano sideways with no "air" in between.
- Once a piece is mastered, the metronome is essential for building speed. Have the student keep track of the number of times each section is practiced at each speed. This is also the key to finger memorization.
- As speed and accuracy are developed with the practice of scales, they can be played in a variety of ways, including legato and staccato, and with various dynamics and different rhythms.
Tips for motivating your students
Keeping Students Interested
When it comes to keeping a student interested in continuing to study the piano, a teacher sometimes has to be like a magician with new tricks up her sleeve. This is one fun way to introduce simple new pieces to beginning students.
The Detective Game:
Let's imagine a child who is working his way through his method books but longs to have a "real piece." I enjoyed making this a detective game with my students. Before even showing a new piece to a student, I gave them a copy of it that I had cut up. I had the student look among the pieces of paper to find the title of the piece, the composer, the time signature, and the key signature. Then I had the student practice the time signature and clap until the rhythm was good and strong and even.
Now that the student has "played detective" with the cut-up pieces of their new piece, it is time for him to put the pieces together. As he arranges the measures to match the new piece in front of him, he has a wonderful opportunity to become aware of accidentals, phrases and dynamic markings. He also begins thinking, "Which hand will play this? Which fingers will I be using?" With a couple of pieces of cardboard and a glue stick, the piece comes together and the student is eager to begin learning to play it. However, his face may fall when you ask him to find the most difficult passage and assign that passage for his next lesson!
For the student who is "in the doldrums" or comes dragging in for a lesson: If the parents have not told you about any extenuating circumstances, put aside the child's music and suggest he helps you with a project that day.
- He could sightread new pieces.
- He might play some of his old favorite pieces.
- He could help you find a new piece to teach him.
- You can give him a piece of old sheet music and tell him he can cut it up and rearrange it to create a new piece.
- You could compose a piece together.
- Play a card game about composers.
- Let the student be your "Teacher for the Day."
- Relax together while listening to a CD, like Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev.
James Bastien once said that the challenge of teaching is to maintain the student's interest in continuing piano lessons. Meeting this challenge can be fun for student and teacher alike.
After 50 years of teaching private and group piano lessons, it has been a pleasure to share these TIPS FOR TEACHERS with you.
I was a friend of Bea's for many years. She was the most creative, energetic, entertaining person to be around. I learned more about teaching music from her than I did in all my college courses. I'm glad her teaching aides will still be available. They have been an invaluable part of my studio.