Chapter 4 brings to mind this quote from Frances Clark:
“My primary goal as a piano teacher is to create a climate in which my students can experience continual musical, intellectual, and emotional growth, and to become increasingly dispensable to them in the process. Everything I do as a teacher, and every other teaching goal I have, relates directly to the first, most basic objective – to help my students grow by and for themselves.”
We know that this is one of our ultimate responsibilities. So, what are some practical strategies we can implement in our teaching to encourage student independence and autonomy?
1. Let children make choices.
One of the skills student need to be successful in their at-home practice is decision-making. Even allowing them to make small choices in the lesson gives them a chance to practice using their own judgement, which is a necessary skill for independent learning.
“Which review piece would you like to begin with today?”
“You can choose which 5-finger pattern you’d like to play first.”
“Do you feel 100% confident with that passage, or would you like to play it again?”
(With this last one, I’ve found that when given the choice, students will often choose to perform more repetitions!)
2. Show respect for a child’s struggle.
The authors explain this best: “We used to think that when we told a child something was ‘easy,’ we were encouraging him. We realize now that by saying, ‘Try it, it’s easy’ we do him no favor. If he succeeds in doing something ‘easy,’ he feels he hasn’t accomplished much. If he fails, then he’s failed to do something simple.”
By acknowledging that a task or concept is difficult, we can give students the courage to keep trying or solve the problem for themselves. When we feel the need to step in, the authors suggest using the phrase, “_______ Can be difficult. Sometimes it helps if . . . ”
I will never forget a story from one of my adult students, who was a retired math teacher. Once, she was helping a student with a problem, and after she stepped away, she overheard the student saying to her friend, “She made me feel so dumb.” She realized that by telling the student “All you have to do is . . . ” she made the student feel as if she had failed to do something simple.
“Playing this part hands together is tricky. Sometimes it helps if you take a slower tempo.”
3. Don’t ask too many questions.
Here, the authors are talking about personal questions, not questions that help students make discoveries about their music. For piano teachers, this is perhaps most relevant to our interactions with students at the beginning and end of lessons. In an effort to get to know our students, we often ask about their day, their week, or about a recent musical experience outside of lessons (such as an audition, or performance at school).
According to the authors, “The important thing is to be sensitive to the possible effect of your questions. One common parental inquiry that seems to be experienced as a pressure is ‘Did you have fun today?’ What a demand to make upon a child! Not only did he have to go to the party (school, play, camp, dance) but the expectation is that he should enjoy himself. If he didn’t, he has his own disappointment to cope with plus that of his parents. He feels he’s let them down by not having a good time.”
4. Don’t rush to answer questions.
This can be a tough one! The authors suggest that when children ask questions, we allow children the opportunity to explore possible answers for themselves first.
“What do the pedals do?” “Well, try them out and see what you discover.”
“Why is there a crescendo here?” “Well, think about the story of the piece. Can you find a reason why?”
5. Encourage children to use sources outside the home (or lesson).
What resources do children have outside of their piano lesson? Perhaps parents can help with some questions, such as clarifying something that’s written on the assignment sheet. Even an older sibling who plays piano might be able to answer a question. Students also have many resources available to them online (recordings, ear training/note recognition drills, notation software, instructional videos). Part of our job is to teach students when and how to utilize these tools when we are not present.
6. Don’t take away hope.
This one really strikes a chord with me. “By trying to protect children for disappointment, we protect them from hoping, striving, dreaming, and sometimes from achieving their dreams.” We should instead let children explore and experience their dreams by asking them to elaborate or simply restating their goal back to them to open up the door for conversation.
One of my students, who is 9, said that her goal this year is to play in Carnegie Hall through earning a high score in the Music Development Program. Of course I know that this is highly competitive and difficult to achieve, but how could I crush her dream? Why not capitalize on this enthusiasm? If we strive for this goal, and don’t make it, she will still have made a great deal of progress, and ultimately, that is the reward.
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
― Norman Vincent Peale
For more on this topic, be sure to check out Mary Bloom’s excellent post, First Steps on the Path toward Self-Reliant Learning.
Which of these strategies comes most naturally to you in your teaching? Which are more difficult to implement? Please share your success stories with encouraging autonomy in the comments below.