Looking up the definition of “dead space” on the internet, I find a video game. When I think of dead space, however, I think of times in the private lesson when the student has nothing to do. We teachers sometimes expect that the student will wait patiently during these times. Often, though, dead space becomes a time for students to disconnect from us and from the experience of the piano lesson. We later wonder why the student cannot sit still, why the student is unfocused.
It’s probable that many believe musicians are born, not made. Certainly some individuals appear to have an innate “talent” for music-making and sometimes develop into superstars at an early age. They somehow seem to acquire technical prowess and the ability to play expressively — but not necessarily because of how they are taught (sometimes even in spite of it!). In this article, I am not writing about this type of “gifted” student. Instead, I want to address music-making in terms of traditional (“average”) pre-college level students – the kind that I and others who teach at this level spend most of our teaching time working with.
Back in the 60’s I was stunned by the results of a survey indicating that the majority of students who begin piano study have dropped out after no more than just two years of lessons. Since then, similar surveys reveal that this high dropout rate continues to exist.
Some Reasons for Student Dropouts
Perhaps two of the most common reasons given for student dropouts today is that children are so overly-scheduled with extracurricular activities that they simply don’t have time to practice, and that sometimes even parents seem too busy to provide the ongoing encouragement and support needed for a child’s success at the piano.
One reason which students themselves give for wanting to discontinue lessons is a dislike of practice. Because it is usually a “do-it-alone” activity, the “fun” element seems minimal, especially when compared with participating in group events with peers such as sports activities, singing in the school chorus, playing in the band, etc. In addition, when practice consists primarily of mindless repetition — just doing time at the piano and playing through pieces over and over again, often at too fast a tempo, and with few apparent goals or strategies for fulfilling them, the resulting pianistic and musical rewards are rarely satisfying enough to stimulate a desire to continue on with lessons.
“As teachers, what we want is a student who owns the rhythm. He owns it, he doesn’t have to borrow it from the teacher. So that he can use it whenever needed, in any piece in the whole wide world. He’s got it for life! ” – Frances Clark
Creative Chords by Bradley Sowash was mentioned in the January/February 2016 issue of Clavier Companion. In looking through this book, I realized that I have the perfect student who would benefit from this course. I am going to begin working with an adult student who is a busy mother of four little boys. She is a wonderful singer with wonderful musical instincts and has some basic piano skills. Though her training is not in music, she is finding herself working more and more with children, refining and coaching their acting and musical theater skills. As she moves into this path she feels limited by her keyboard skills and wants to improve at the piano so that she provides basic accompaniments for her students and generally augment her own musical understanding.
Creative Chords really is the perfect method for her. I believe it will begin at a place that is right where she is. She has a rudimentary understanding of music reading and notes. She will be able to read the beginning tunes and exercises. At the same time, there is enough theory background to fill in any holes she may have from gaps in her previous study.
As a singer, I believe the use of common tunes will appeal to her. The focus on keys and chords will be just what she needs to build her understanding of music theory in a way that is accessible to her quickly. The text has so much information that I know she will be able to do quite a lot on her own. At the same time, it is presented in a way that is easy to understand.
I also thinking the improvisation aspect will appeal to my student. The “Your Way” sections appear right from the beginning and guide the students to make small changes to embellish the printed arrangements. My student is great at improvising and finding harmonies with her voice so I know this will be fun for her and help her to gain freedom in exploring and improvising at the piano.
I especially like the “Checklist” section at the end of each chapter. I think this is perfect for an adult (or any older student really) who is motivated to take charge of his/her own learning. There is a review quiz that allows students to see what they know or what they may have missed.
Of course, this won’t be the only text I am using with my student. I would like for her to play solo pieces, as well as work on technical skills. In the FAQs at the beginning, Mr. Sowash also recommends that it not be the only text used. I do think, however, that it will be a wonderful core part of my student’s study and am glad to have it at my fingertips!