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Let the Adventures Begin! by Mary Bloom

“A student is almost always motivated to practice if he leaves his lessons feeling capable.”

  • Frances Clark

 

Here we are in the midst of the second week of the new school year, and good reports have started rolling in: students couldn’t wait to get home to practice their new pieces (hooray)! While I have been receiving this news with utter delight, it also serves as a reminder that it is my responsibility to help keep this momentum going, long after the autumn-induced spirit to push-ourselves-forward has faded. While the news is exactly what I am hoping to hear, it merely indicates I have done a good job for the past one week (ouch).

 

What is it about first-lessons that motivates students to have such a burning desire to get to the piano, beginners and veterans alike? If we could bottle the newness and its accompanying eagerness to do well, the excitement alone would provide continuing motivation for practice. The deeper desire to practice, however, probably has more to do with the positive energy brought about by exploring new music together, and the student having experience working through the details of the piece in the lesson. The student does not feel alone, and has a high degree of confidence as a result of the lesson experience.

 

First fall lessons are adventures in “we.” If we can continue with this spirit of “we,” rather than following-up the first lesson with the message “show me what you’ve done,” the teacher-student relationship finds common ground to set out on new and more complex adventures. Cultivating this relationship will open the door to responsiveness, creativity and trust.

 

Obviously, there is more to it than simply becoming an “co-adventurer” with our students. We also cannot continue to devote entire lessons to working out new repertoire beyond the first lesson of the year. It is essential for us to own the responsibility to develop our student’s confidence and capacity to learn by establishing the habit of practice early on by:  a) providing clear and consistent Practice Steps for home practice, and b) modeling the steps in every lesson. 

 

Frances Clark stated, “The teacher must be keenly aware of what the student needs to experience at the keyboard before leaving the lesson.” In addition to knowing exactly how to practice, it is critical for students to own the rhythm, notes and any new concepts in order to ensure there will be sufficient confidence to motivate practice at home. Appropriately accessible repertoire and weekly written practice assignments are also key factors.

 

I am guessing what you must be thinking: “What beginner is actually going to be able to follow detailed Practice Steps?”  The short answer is, “They won’t. Not without support.” Young students will need the teacher to model the Practice Steps in every lesson by working through at least one new piece following the plan. Students will also need a family member to help them follow these steps at home since they are not yet ready to follow outlines. The good news is that typical beginners (ages 6-7) exhibit common attributes that are particularly well-suited to developing excellent practice habits and here is why:

  • Children love structure!
  • Children are natural imitators!
  • Children feel safe with routine!
  • Children are eager to learn!

 

Rules and routine are important to this age group and make kids feel “grown-up.” They love responsibility, and with support and repetition (another perennial favorite with this crowd) they can and do follow routines with great success. Sample Practice Steps for beginners might be:

 

Before playing each piece:

  • Think about the piece and how it will sound. Read the words!  Will it be loud or soft? Slow or fast?Practice the rhythm: (a) swing (your arm) or march and say the words (b) point and count (c) tap and say your hands
  • Find the position and practice any moves
  • Play 4x or until it feels easy!

 

The first step is expectation. For young students it is a moment to wonder what the piece is about and how they expect it will sound.  As students grow, reading (and understanding) the title, learning about the composer and time period in which the piece was written, time/key signature, tempo, dynamics, mood are among considerations. Marking the form, dividing the piece into sections for practice and bracketing spots that are different, shows how little there is to practice.

 

The second step is rhythm.  Why rhythm? When students own the rhythm they are free to concentrate on other things.  Rhythm is a feeling in the whole body. Young students develop and refine large motor skills prior to fine motor skills, which are still developing (including the ability for their eyes to track from left to right).

 

The third step is to KNOW the notes. Students guided to FEEL the keys and travel the route of moves silently gain the feeling of becoming one with the keys.  In addition to developing sound fingering habits, this step promotes confidence and reduces excess motion, leading to a better tone.

 

Steps one, two and three prepare students for success before they ever play a note! Students know with confidence they can play accurately the very first time because they know what they need to do. 

 

I’m guessing what you must be thinking now: “With so much to accomplish is such little time, how could I possibly find time to impose a Practice Step routine into my lessons?”  The quick response is “How could you afford not to?” When done with consistency, the use of Practice Steps actually saves time. Students learn with greater accuracy, and teachers can throw away the dreaded “correcting” habit. And, once established, students move through Practice Steps quite quickly.

 

Here is another bit of good news: it is never too late to start good habits. In fact, older school-age students, teens and adults, when willing, adapt to using Practice Steps very quickly.  Those who are reluctant may refuse to follow steps at home until they have an experience where using the steps makes a noticeable impact on their playing.  Even with the most resistant, the benefit of following Practice Steps exclusively in lessons would not be lost on this group- they are old and wise enough to understand it is better to use them in the lesson than not at all. Many eventually come around.

 

In the chapter on habit in his book Talks to Teachers, the great educational philosopher and psychologist William James states, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,—practical, emotional, and intellectual,—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

 

James inspires us to action, charging teachers to shape good and useful habits as early as possible and to work to maintain them as a way of life:

 

The great thing in all education is to make the nervous system our ally instead of our enemy…  For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and as carefully guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous.” (Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16287/16287-h/16287-h.htm#VIII__THE_LAWS_OF_HABIT)

 

I still laugh at something my oldest child said after coming home from his first day of Kindergarten, many years ago. I was helping him prepare his backpack for the next day when he suddenly burst out, “Wait!  You mean I have to go back!?” (“Yes, honey. Again and again and again and again and again……….”). Establishing excellent practice habits may not be the easiest or most exciting part of teaching music lessons, yet its execution stands to yield significant results capable of transcending every aspect of life. For me, these results make it worth the effort. Students become enabled, leaving more time for creative stuff. And, who knows? With a little creativity, our two adventurers might take their Practice Steps to joyous new heights: practicing rhythms while lumbering like bears; moving into “outer space” on the keyboard; switching roles, having the student become the “teacher” (cue teacher making an obvious mistake and subsequent uproarious laughter); going on an “off-road adventure” by playing the piece on different keys or in different octaves.

 

Creativity and motivation thrive under the safety of structural stability. Confidence is a major dividend.

 

Let the adventures begin!

Happy 2015-16!

 

 


Mary Bloom is the Head of Music Education and Piano Department Chair at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, CT where she also teaches individual and group piano, piano ensemble and piano pedagogy.  A graduate of the New School for Music Study and Westminster Choir College; BM, MM, Mary was the Coordinator of the Preparatory Division at the New School for Music Study before moving to CT to be near family. She has been a featured teacher at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy and the Fiftieth Annersary of The New School for Music Study. Numerous articles and appearances at national conventions. Teachers include Phyllis Lehrer, Frances Clark, Louise Goss, Sam Holland and NMS teacher Helen Shafranek

2 thoughts on “Let the Adventures Begin! by Mary Bloom

  1. Thank you for this! I’ve been really pushing practice steps in lessons, hoping that, as Frances Clark says, the experience of successfully putting together a piece using the steps in lessons will convince them to use the steps at home. I think it’s been working too. Last night, I had a student starting Pumpkin Eater (from TTB) put together a very satisfying performance of the first line using these steps (during Trace the Route, I asked him to silently tap the keys in order to work out the direction of the seconds). I think it’s so important to get teachers to help their students think through their work before they begin to play. I have a couple of questions for further discussion though:

    1) What do you do to continue the spirit of “we” for the second week on a piece? Do you simply ask to hear a performance, then work on something more sophisticated (ex. fingering, phrasing, arm movements, etc.)? Or do you ever ask to hear a specific practice step, such as tap and count, before the student plays the piece?

    2) You said it’s important to use the steps for at least one piece in each lesson. What do you do with the others? It can get time-consuming to work out each new piece, but how do you ensure the student uses these steps with each piece? I’d also like to hear your strategies for generating motivation when you won’t be working out a piece together.

    Thanks again for your article. It can get stressful to watch the clock inch closer to the end of the half-hour, and, as you said, these steps are time-consuming. It’s good to know that practicing together is time well spent.

    1. 1) What do you do to continue the spirit of “we” for the second week on a piece? Do you simply ask to hear a performance, then work on something more sophisticated (ex. fingering, phrasing, arm movements, etc.)? Or do you ever ask to hear a specific practice step, such as tap and count, before the student plays the piece?

      Thanks, Jason. These are great questions. I think next steps for the second week on the piece will depend on the student and on the piece. With young students, I would definitely pick up one or more of the practice steps: a quick review of the title and what the piece is about followed by tapping/saying hands, or starting the lesson by marching up to the piano while saying the words are great ways to continue the spirit of “We” with review pieces. At the very least, I would have the student trace the route of the moves and set a strong pulse before playing. I think your comment about helping students think before playing is spot on, and that Practice Steps work hand-in-hand with developing thoughtful and mindful practice! I love your Pumpkin Eater story and have another great story regarding “tracing the route”. This one was an advanced adult working through a tough passage of the Haydn Sonata in E Minor, Hob. XVI:34. He asked “Do I have to continue tracing the route for this passage?” To which I answered, “Only if you want to continue to improve on it!” We had a good laugh! There are endless possibilities for follow up, really. The teacher might play the first phrase of the piece and have the student play it back. The teacher may clap the rhythm and have the student guess which piece it’s from. For older students, the teacher might initiate a discussion about how practice went, or simply play one of the hands while the student plays the other, assessing how secure each hand is before having the student simply jump into playing. Setting a reasonable tempo for the student is also a good way to help a student feel that they are supported by their teacher.

      2) You said it’s important to use the steps for at least one piece in each lesson. What do you do with the others? It can get time-consuming to work out each new piece, but how do you ensure the student uses these steps with each piece? I’d also like to hear your strategies for generating motivation when you won’t be working out a piece together.

      You really can’t ensure a student will use practice steps with every piece they practice. You can only set the expectation, model the habit in the lesson and ask the parents to help at home. I don’t think it’s necessary to use practice steps in the lesson for every new piece a student is assigned. Once the habit of using practice steps is established and one practice step piece is covered in the lesson, it is okay to pick, choose and use whatever steps are would be most useful for the student to have the confidence to carry on at home. In fact, having a regular “on their own” practice step piece (especially if it is slightly easier than their other repertoire) is a terrific way to develop self-reliance. The range of possibility for working out new pieces in the lesson goes from following all practice steps to simply having the teacher play the piece for the student or have a discussion about the piece and assigning practice steps for home practice, and everything in-between. Hope this helps clarify!

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