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.
Why would there be moments in the lesson when the student has nothing to do? Perhaps the teacher needs to take a few moments to write important reminders on the assignment sheet or to think about the next activity. I have recently played a little internal “game” to challenge myself to eliminate dead space when I am teaching. My solutions are hardly groundbreaking, but they were a little groundbreaking for me! My number one strategy is to make certain the student has plenty of opportunities to play the piano. Simple, yes? I am reminded that the majority of the lesson should be spent with the student playing and student talking, with a minimum of time spent on teacher talking. With this thought in mind, most of the times when I prepare myself to write on the student’s assignment sheet, I first give the student an instruction: “Now, play the piece one more time, with an even bigger forte sound!” As they play, I write my notes. Another dead space eliminator: “Look at this new piece and circle all of the 3rds you see.” (I open the book to the correct page and give to the student; as the student circles, I write my comments about previous piece). Much less efficient: “We’re going to learn a new piece. Will you open to page 30? While you circle the thirds, I’m going to write some comments on your assignment sheet.) Another alternative would be to ask the student to write on his or her assignment sheet or music, instead of the teacher writing and the student waiting.
Dead space can occur when teachers are thinking of the next activity. Lesson plans can be so helpful in streamlining and eliminating dead space. Some feel that lesson plans take the spontaneity out of lessons and prefer a more student-centered approach. I believe that lesson plans provide a starting point for the lesson. In addition, some attempts at student-centered teaching can backfire, creating dead space. “What do you want to do next?” can result in a long, painful silence. Instead, specify: “Would you like to start with a warm-up or your festival piece?” (while asking this question, point to each item on the assignment). Another example that can lead to awkward silence: “So, what did you think of the performance you just gave?” One alternative: record the performance, ask the student to listen for specific element. For example, the student listens, drawing a check mark next to all of the dynamic markings followed and circling the ones that were not followed.
My attempt at dead space elimination has admittedly resulted in occasionally frenetic pacing, however, the exercise has been generally helpful in solving some problems with student attention.