Guidance for parents of young piano students

Guest post by Alexandra Westcott

Learning Piano

Learning music should be fun, but there are processes along the way that can seem like an uphill struggle, especially to a young beginner. However, perseverance through these processes at the start will give a student more freedom at the instrument and, therefore, more fun and a greater ability to express him or herself, which is why they come to the piano in the first place. After a number of years teaching it has been very apparent to me just how fundamental parental support is to the student’s progress, not just how far that student will go, but even whether they will get off the starting block or not.

These notes are offered to parents to remind them that they can be hugely instrumental (excuse the pun) in harnessing their child’s enthusiasm for music. Their support will encourage positive progress to emerge as a result of curiosity and fun as well as perseverance. The home sessions and the learning process itself become a journey of discovery, and a young student’s goal to be able to play the piano is achieved a lot quicker than thoughtless time spent ‘going through the motions’.

I will say, firstly, that I hate the word ‘practice’. A couple of the many dictionary definitions are ‘habitual performance’, and ‘repeated or systematic exercise’. You cannot do either unless you KNOW what it is you are doing! So a session at the piano is about LEARNING until such a time when KNOWING is reached. Then follows playing, and perfecting, both with an always curious and enquiring mind. All time spent at the piano should have attention and concentration so as to incur clarity of the text and freedom of muscles; unmindful drilling and repeated practice doesn’t make perfect, unless you can include perfect mistakes and a perfectly awful technique! Engaging, absorbing and attentive study at the piano makes for thoughtful and expressive playing, takes a lot less time, and is a darn sight more interesting along the way!

And while all this sounds like hard work, it doesn’t have to be. On the contrary, getting involved will add a fun and interactive element to what can sometimes be a struggle in the early stages when there is so much new material to absorb and digest. I have a countless number of ‘games’ I play with my students (see link below) and I’m sure your child’s teacher will have their own (usually they are a fun way of learning notes/listening games/creative games) so include these in the sessions at home.

Scheduling

A very young student will need help in managing their schedule so that they fit in their regular sessions at the instrument. And while this may sound obvious, it doesn’t always happen. There is no way with school/playtime/after school activities/supper/homework/friends/tv etc that a young child will have the discipline to put aside time for the piano. The number of students I have had over my 25 years of teaching who were prodigious and passionate enough to sit at the piano for hours on end on their own I can count on the fingers of one hand (and that doesn’t include the thumb!). Having a parent help schedule the time, and gently discipline the child to keep to this schedule, can be an enormous benefit when there are so many other distractions.

How often?

This depends on the age of the child, their stage in learning, their own enthusiasm, their concentration span, and the quality of the time spent at the piano. In the very early stages when the fundamentals are being absorbed, as long as there is an understanding of what is being learnt, then little and often is probably best. As things become more complex then a little more time is needed to reach a mental understanding of what is being learnt, and a correspondingly increasing amount of time is needed to physically absorb it both into the mind and into the fingers. Personally, I think it is important to have days off built into a schedule so there are guilt free non-piano days, rather than schedule practice every day and then ‘not get around to it’, but at the same time I know for some students it works to have it so ingrained into their routine, like cleaning their teeth, that they come to the piano without question and just get down to their work. It works differently for different families so decide what is right for your and your child.

How Long?

The same constraints apply with regards age, standard, level of concentration etc. It will be different with each student. In any case though, allow for periods of ‘fiddling’ and games on top of the homework that a teacher sets, either within the practice session, or maybe in a second daily session. For instance, covering the set practice in the morning then leaving the pupil to do whatever takes their fancy in the evening – improvising, games, messing about finding tunes etc. Ideally when new technical habits are being formed then even the fiddling should be mindful, otherwise the good work undertaken in the set time gets undone as old habits take over when concentration is elsewhere. However, paramount is an enthusiasm and curiosity for the music and instrument so it is vital for a pupil to have time at the piano in ‘discovery’ mode!

Offer Moral support

As a solo instrument it can be lonely and isolating for a young child in a room on their own when they are struggling with the early stages. Having the encouragement and close proximity of a parent can be a positive support to their experience, quite apart from the practical help that a parent can provide.

Be another pair of eyes and ears

The time at home is the time when technical habits are learned and ingrained, A parent will need to go over the teacher’s notes, ensure that everything gets done and gets done well. Ask the teacher for clarification at the end of the lesson if you don’t understand anything.

There can be complicated and complex reasons why we do things, or don’t do things at the piano in a certain way, that a parent might understand but that a young child might not. Plus, it is very hard to monitor yourself and how you do things at any age, let alone at 6 or 7. Your child’s teacher will have given exercises during a lesson to help develop good fingers and technical skills. You should be able to ask as often as you like for demonstrations. As practice is about developing habits, short very focused bursts at technique is better than long protracted sessions with concentration slipping. Once you have understood what your child’s teacher is asking, do pay great attention to helping your child achieve it, with gentle encouragement, and helping them observe when they do things correctly as well as incorrectly. This is the only way good habits can be learned and ingrained and a good technical foundation means that time won’t have to be spent later on correcting bad habits which themselves hold up a musical progression (i.e. tense fingers won’t have the necessary freedom for the expression, facility, velocity and sensitivity required by more advanced music).

Lastly, try to be a reminder of what the teacher wants, rather than a judge, as this will undermine their confidence and can dampen their desire completely.

Encourage regular reading of new material

I have a number of activities that help with reading that I suggest students and parents do at home and I’m sure your teacher will too. I was very late to being a good reader but wow, the joy from being able to pick up a piece and make a fair crack of it is huge. Plus, being a good reader makes learning new music so much quicker and less painful! Later on of course, (as if you need further encouragement to add in this skill to your offspring’s practice), it opens doors to joining bands/ accompanying/duets etc etc.

Fun!

As I said before, do include games. If you need some inspiration you can find some here http://www.alexandrawestcottpiano.co.uk/resources-for-parents/

Make sure you include things to help with learning the notes on the piano, learning notes on the stave, listening (aural) awareness, memory, creativity and theory.

Other supportive activities

Other things you can do to support your child’s musical life is to play a wide variety of music around the house, attend concerts (there are lots of concerts aimed specifically at children where they can play the instruments etc), check out the internet for interesting bits of information about composers they are studying or listen to fragments of other pieces by the same composer. Write stories or draw pictures while listening to (any) music. Listen to tapes of stories of the great composers.

Notes to remember

Music is an expressive and communicative art so a student needs to feel comfortable with themselves, and allowing them an inquisitive mind and lively ear, and the freedom to translate their expressions to sounds, is vital in their growth as musicians. It is challenging but necessary to encourage them without judgement so that they feel free to explore the colours and sounds of the instrument without feeling censored, but are guided in areas where there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (i.e. note). Finally, I’m a great fan of rewards, but when extra motivation is needed make sure the rewards are for trying rather than for getting it ‘right’. Sometimes the road to getting things right is rather long so boosts along the way can give the encouragement needed to continue.

Conclusion

Just to reiterate, after all these suggestions, this is about making music and learning the piano fun, as well as providing a solid technical and musical foundation. Whether or not a student goes through the exam structure, or takes it to GCSE/A level, it is a skill and pleasure that is with them for life, so it seems worthwhile to offer them the best support we can.

 

Alexandra Westcott, BA Piano teacher/Accompanist

Follow me on twitter: @MissAMWestcott

A Fellow of the ISM, Muswell Hill N10 07966 141944

www.alexandrawestcottpiano.co.uk

Author: ‘Piano Teaching as a Career’
“Very readable, clearly laid out, and should be in every piano teacher’s library”

Music Teacher Magazine
buy from Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com

or Lulu.com

Pianist for Freefall Jazz
Contact: alexandrawestcott@yahoo.co.uk

Advertisements

Faking it: stagecraft for graded piano exams and performance diplomas

I am continually surprised at how infrequently stagecraft is taught as a specific skill to developing musicians, from children taking graded music exams to students at music college. I think this stems in part from a misplaced view that stagecraft is only for “professional” musicians. Yet the ability to comport oneself well in a performance situation is a crucial skill for the musician, whatever their level of skill or ability, and well-organised, practised stagecraft can add an extra layer of confidence and polish to one’s performance. It also offers a useful life skill, for giving presentations or public speaking, for example, and helps to build confidence generally. Personally, I think stagecraft and presentation skills should be part of the graded exam syllabus, certainly for the higher grades

In performance diplomas candidates are assessed on their presentation skills and stagecraft, and in the Trinity diplomas this is marked as a separate aspect of the diploma recital and includes elements such as appropriate attire (“for an afternoon or early evening recital”), programme notes and communication skills. While candidates are not currently assessed on presentation skills in graded music exams, a certain amount of polished stagecraft can help the exam go well by instilling positive feelings in the candidate, and I feel it is especially appropriate in the advanced grades (6-8).

Stagecraft is not just the ability to walk to the piano without tripping over the hem of one’s concert dress, or how to bow properly. From the moment the performer enters the stage, his or her communication with the audience (or examiner) begins, and the way one greets and acknowledges the audience (or examiner) can have an important effect on the way the audience receives and enjoys the performance which follows.

Actors well appreciate and understand the need to take on a specific character or persona, and to inhabit that character for the duration of the play. As musicians we also need to employ a degree of “acting” to step outside the practice room and into the persona of “performer”. Those with little experience of performing can feel very exposed when playing in front of others, and these feelings of exposure can contribute to performance anxiety. I have found it helpful in my own performances to “act” the part of a performer, which puts me at one remove from my anxiety. It can also put one into an appropriately focussed mindset ready for a public performance.

Good preparation is crucial for all, regardless of grade or ability level. The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a concert, meaning that he knew he’d done the right kind of quality practice to ensure he would not be derailed by slips or errors, or by distractions from the audience etc. A well-prepared teacher will ensure his/her students are equally well-prepared ahead of an exam, audition or other performance opportunity.

Some ways to foster good stagecraft and presentation

Encourage students to take their time in the exam/performance situation: I like to remind my students that it is not their responsibility to ensure the exam runs to time – that is the job of the examiner and steward at the exam centre (this, however, is not the case in diploma recitals where it is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure the programme is within the designated time limit). Enter the room/stage confidently, greet the examiner politely and walk straight to the piano. Ensure the piano stool is the right height, that one feels comfortable.

Do not to rush to start playing but take a moment to think oneself into the opening of the piece – its sound, mood and character. Don’t hurry into the following pieces. Again, take a moment to consider the mood and character to be conveyed. In a diploma recital, the pauses between pieces can be integral to a professional overall performance: some works segue into one another logically, others require more time to “reset” the mood (for example, a very fast piece followed by a more contemplative work may need a longer pause between pieces). Don’t fill the time between pieces by talking to the examiner/s or fiddling with your nails but remain poised and focussed, “in the moment” of the performance and ready to continue.

At the end of the performance, don’t scurry away from the piano as if you can’t wait to leave (even if you feel like this, take time, “act” confident and remain poised). In a diploma recital you may wish to bow or acknowledge the examiner/s (a little dip of the head and some eye contact). Walk confidently from the room.

All these aspects can be practised at home (in front of parents and friends) and with the teacher. My piano is in my living room and when preparing for performance, I ask students to “come on stage” from the hall while I sit away from the piano, being the “audience” and giving the student someone at which to direct their performance.

I called this article “faking it”, recalling a former student of mine who liked to “channel” her favourite musician (Nicola Benedetti) in a performance situation. When preparing for a performance we would discuss “what would Nicola do?” and my student would try to imitate Nicola’s poise. Another student found it helpful to look at pictures of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt (who always looks as if she adores performing!), and I have personally found observing musicians in live concerts very helpful in teaching myself good stagecraft and poise.

Here’s actor and comedian David Walliams showing us how not to do it…..


Related article

Performance anxiety: a stressful subject

LCM piano grade handbooks 2018-2020

LCM_Piano_Handbooks_2018

I was delighted to act as a consultant in the selection of piano pieces for the new London College of Music (LCM) piano syllabus and I was impressed with the breadth and variety of music under consideration. When I received copies of the new handbooks, I was pleased to see some of the pieces I had suggested included in the new syllabus.

I am a recent convert to LCM music exams, having heard very favourable reports of both the exam formats and repertoire from teaching colleagues and friends who have taken both Grade 8 and the ALCM first level Diploma. LCM is clearly alert to the changing nature of piano teaching in the 21st century and in addition to traditional graded music exams, the board also offers Recital Grades, Leisure Play, Performance Assessment and the new Concert Diploma. This allows teachers and students to select an exam format which suits them (some students, particularly adult learners, prefer not to learn technical work or undergo the stress of aural tests or sight-reading). Several of my more advanced students have opted for the LCM Recital grade and are very much enjoying the repertoire, as am I. If we are to encourage and support students of all levels and ages, I believe it is important to be flexible in one’s approach to exams and to find an appropriate syllabus and format to ensure maximum enjoyment is combined with progress.

The new LCM piano syllabus is impressive in its variety. Across the grades there is a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, “crossover”, and contemporary classical music, as well as core repertoire from the classical canon, which should appeal to all ages and tastes. In the early grades, there are pieces which will suit adult learners (often a problem in other syllabuses, where there is a preponderance of “children’s music”). Of all the exam boards, LCM is the one which features the most music by female and living composers, including works by Max Richter, Joanna Macgregor, Sofia Gubaidulina, Teresa Carreno, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Cecile Chaminade, and Lera Auerbach. In addition, there are pieces by perennially popular composers of accessible and interesting piano exam music, including Pam Wedgwood, Christopher Norton, June Armstrong, Ben Crosland and Elissa Milne.

The handbooks are very well-produced with robust covers and high-quality thick cream paper (very similar to the paper used in Henle Urtext editions). The books are slightly larger than the previous LCM piano handbooks and the typesetting of the music is very clean, uncluttered on the page with clear markings. Each piece is accompanied by a note which gives background information on the composer and the music and guidance on how to explore and shape the music for performance. It is particularly gratifying to find these notes are written by active concert pianists (such as Daniel Grimwood and Zubin Kanga) who are thus able to offer expert experience on how to approach the music in performance.

In addition to the pieces and notes, each handbook contains all the relevant technical work for each grade, two studies, guidance for the Discussion (viva voce) element of the exam, including sample questions, sample sight-reading pieces and notes on the aural tests, all of which should ensure candidates are fully prepared and means teachers/students/parents do not need to purchase additional books of scales and arpeggios or sight-reading exercises.

The new LCM syllabus is valid from 2018 until the end of the summer exam season 2021.

Further information about LCM piano exams, including the complete piano syllabus

A few highlights from the new syllabus:

Grade 1

Quasi Adagio from For Children – Bela Bartok

Grade 2

The Lonely Traveller – Evelyn Glennie

Grade 3

From the Rue Vilin – Max Richter

Grade 4

When Rivers Flowed on Mars – Nancy Telfer

Grade 5

In the Owl’s Turret – Liza Lehman

Grade 6

Railroad (Travel Song) – Meredith Monk, Forest Musicians – Sofia Gubaildulina

Grade 7

D’un jardin clair – Lil Boulanger, Bloodroot – Rachel Grimes

Grade 8

Desdémona – Mel Bonis

Performance anxiety – a stressful subject

Years ago I went to a new dentist. I went with some trepidation as I had not been for regular check-ups for some years, mainly due to quite severe anxiety. When asked why I had stayed away from my dental appointments, I admitted that I was very fearful of the dentist. The dentist (a man) replied by laughing loudly and sarcastically telling me I was being very silly indeed. This made my anxiety even worse.

Some years later I had to have root canal work followed by the fitting of a dental crown. By this time I had moved to another part of London and found a dentist who was very understanding about my dental anxiety (not quite a phobia, but not far off). She allowed me to talk about my fear without interrupting me or telling me I was “being silly” or “childish” and explained that fear can sometimes come through a feeling of not being in control of a situation. “You can walk away from here any time you like, if you don’t feel comfortable’ she told me, going on to reiterate that I could choose to be in control of the situation and that she would do her utmost to make my experience as pain-free as possible. Her gentleness and empathy enabled me to largely overcome my anxiety and I went through the rather laborious root canal work without so much as a twinge of pain and fairly manageable anxiety.

In the course of 11 years of teaching, I have encountered quite a lot of anxiety in both my own students and the adult amateur pianists with whom I work and socialise at workshops and piano meetup events. How we as teachers approach anxiety in our students is a crucial part of our role and one which needs to be carried out with sensitivity and understanding.

When I was having piano lessons as a child and teenager anxiety never came up, and was never discussed. It was assumed that I would sail through my grade exams (which I largely did) and I don’t actually remember being nervous on exam day (my mother would compensate for this by being extremely anxious on my behalf!). My piano teacher never gave me any guidance on managing anxiety ahead of exams or festival performances. This is indicative of a general attitude towards performance anxiety which has prevailed until fairly recently – that one did not talk about it and certainly did not admit to suffering from it. Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times now and the positive efforts of certain teachers, musicians and music colleges mean that anxiety can be discussed in a more open and sympathetic way, while sufferers can now access support and therapy to help them understand and manage their symptoms.

And “management” of symptoms rather than “cure” is an important distinction, in my opinion. The unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety (for example, racing heart, sweating, trembling, nausea) are part of the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, including the release of powerful stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, and are common to us all, to a greater or lesser extent. An understanding that these symptoms are normal can go some way to alleviating them. When helping a student with anxiety issues, I remind them that we all feel like this, even the most seasoned professional artists.

Psychologically, anxiety can stem from many sources. In piano students, specifically adults, it may be associated with unpleasant experiences during childhood piano lessons – the overly authoritarian or unduly negative teacher, the overbearing pushy parent with unrealistic expectations, the embarrassment of a botched music exam, for example. In addition, as we get older, we seem to become more anxious about the responses of others and exposing ourselves publicly in a performance situation. We worry that people will laugh or sneer if we make mistakes and that as a consequence we will feel stupid or incompetent. Adult pianists often suffer from negative self-talk as well – that destructive “inner critic” whose critical running commentary on one’s playing can derail a performance and leave one feeling demoralised.

There are a number of simple strategies which teachers can employ to help students manage their anxiety, and rather than asking students why they feel nervous, focus on finding positive ways to manage their anxiety:

  • Take any anxiety seriously, and be respectful and sympathetic. Cheery statements like “you really don’t need to feel nervous because you know how to play the piano!” are not helpful.
  • Remind students that feeling anxious is normal, and common to us all, and that even top professionals feel nervous. Give them permission to feel anxious.
  • Remind students that the teacher is not there to “judge”, but to offer support and guidance on how to improve
  • Ensure the student is fully prepared ahead of an exam, festival, concert or audition. This should include not only detailed, methodical practising of pieces and supporting tests (technical work, aural, sight-reading, etc if relevant), but also practice performances – to teacher, to other students, to friends and family, and perhaps culminating in a mini concert
  • For adult students, an informal performance event, perhaps at the teacher’s home, or at a meetup or piano club, can offer the opportunity to play for others in a relaxed, non-threatening environment and a chance to discuss their anxiety with others (realising that other people feel the same can be a great comfort) and share ideas on managing nerves.
  • Reassure students that examiners are looking for expressive, musically-aware performances, rather than bland note-perfect playing. A few slips or misplayed notes in an otherwise musical performance will not lead to exam failure.
  • Techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy can help turn negative self-talk into positive messages of personal affirmation: “I am not scared, I am excited!“, “I can do this because I am well-prepared“, “I am doing this because I love the piano“.
  • Power poses have been proven to reduced levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and can make one feel “bigger” and stronger emotionally too.
  • Mindfulness and trying to remain “in the moment” of the performance, rather than pre-empting or imagining what might happen. It can also help block out distracting noises from audience etc.

 

These are fairly simple strategies which are easy to implement. Those who perform more frequently gradually develop their own personal toolkit for managing their anxiety (for example, I have reached a state of acceptance about the nerves, ensure I am well-prepared and use CBT techniques for self-affirmation). But for those people with more severe or deep-seated anxiety, more specialist support may be required. A colleague of mine practices Cognitive Hypnotherapy – more about her services here

I Can’t Go On – factsheet on managing performance anxiety from BAPAM

How teenagers practice

I suspect all piano teachers broadly agree on the importance and value of consistent and deliberate practicing for all students, and that practicing is essential for successful learning and progression. How our students practice is in no small part down to us as teachers: during lessons we will suggests areas which need special attention and offer strategies for productive practicing. But once the student gets home, it is largely down to them and their personal motivation to ensure the practicing is done and done properly.

There is much to be gained from observing and understanding how professional musicians practice, and even the most junior-level students can learn from the habits of professionals. Productive, successful practicing, such as professionals employ, requires a high level of self-regulation which enables the musician to achieve specified goals.

Self-regulation involves:

  • planning, goal-setting and motivation
  • self-instructions and observation
  • self-evaluation and reflection

In addition to these key areas, the process of practicing includes knowing the right practice strategy to fit a specific task (for example, memorisation or rapid leaps) and being flexible about that strategy if it proves unsuitable t for the specific task.

An article in Psychology of Music highlights some common “types” of teenage pianist which I am sure most of us have encountered in the course of our teaching:

The “somewhat effective” practicer: this student takes his/her own notes for practicing in lessons and has developed reasonable practice goals. When he/she practices, he/she completes the assigned tasks (sight-reading for example), and is engaged when practicing his/her pieces, to the extent that he/she is able to identify errors and inconsistencies and puts these issues right by isolating or “quarantining” the specific areas which need attention. He/She is able to reflect on what he/she has achieved and what still needs to be done, and is satisfied that he/she is making good progress. He/She may even feed this back to his/her teacher at the next lesson, discussing the strategies he/she employed during independent practicing at home, and collaborating with his/her teacher on goals for future practicing. This type of student tends to make consistent and noticeable progress

The “surface” practicer: we all know this student……! She/he’s the one who plays the assigned repertoire from start to finish, stumbling over certain notes, chords or passages, but does not stop to reflect on or fix the errors, and feels that having got to the end of the piece she/he has “done the practicing”. Her/His teacher has highlighted some areas that need specific attention – she/he skims through these, repeating errors yet hardly pausing to reflect on how they might be fixed. She/He does not plan in advance or set goals for practicing, despite clear instructions in her/his practice notebook from her/his teacher. At her/his next lesson she/he might “wing it” to get through her/his pieces when played for his teacher.

So why do teenagers find it difficult to practice effectively? In my experience, a number of factors influence the way in which teenagers practice. These include:

  1. Unclear or confusing instructions from the teacher
  2. Student is unable to identify specific issues or problems in their repertoire
  3. Student is unable to judge or imagine how the music they are practicing should sound when played correctly
  4. An inability to transfer skills and techniques learnt in practicing one piece to new repertoire
  5. Over-reliance on teacher to tell students what to do
  6. Feeling overwhelmed by the task in hand or the thought of having to do 30-40 minutes practicing in one go

1 & 2. It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure the student understands the assigned practicing and is clear about what needs to be done between lessons. I find it helpful during the lesson to ask the student to identify problem areas, state what they should be practicing and to then prioritise specific sections of the music. I or the student then write these things in the practice notebook, often numbering them in order of priority. By asking the student to specify the practice goals, we make him/her complicit in the activity of practicing and give him/her a greater sense of autonomy, which in turn builds confidence.

3. Play the music to the student during the lesson, or listen to recordings, YouTube clips or Spotify tracks. Make these resources available between lessons, perhaps via the teacher’s website. Ask the student to listen in an active and engaged way and to highlight certain features of the music, such as articulation, dynamics or changes in tempo. I encourage all of my students to listen to and around the repertoire they are learning – not to imitate or copy good recordings or performances but to simply hear how the music is presented and to give them ideas about how they might work towards a desired sound in the music.

4. Clearly demonstrate to students, using explicit examples within their repertoire, how we never learn technique or skills in isolation: voicing a Bach invention for example provides us with the tools to highlight different voices in Beethoven or Schubert.

5. See 1 & 2 above. To encourage students to act and think independently and to self-critique, I ask all my students, teenage or adult, to comment on their playing at lessons before I offer my own observations. Many will inevitably focus on errors initially, so I ask them to find three things which they were pleased with and to comment positively. This kind of positive critical self-feedback is a crucial factor in working independently of the teacher and encourages confidence, self-regulation and self-determination in practicing,

6. Many young people are ridiculously over-scheduled these days, not only burdened by unreasonable amounts of homework from school, but also an abundance of extra-curricular activities from sport to private language or maths lessons. Making time for piano practice in such a cramped schedule can feel like a Sisyphean task for some teenagers. In addition. teenagers are often very tired from school and from the physical changes they are undergoing as they grow up. Thus, as teachers we need to be sympathetic and to offer practical ways to enable them to practice without feeling overwhelmed. Point out that practicing need not be done in one single chunk – two sets of 20 minutes at different times of the day may well be more productive, provided the student knows how and what to practice. Encourage “little and often” rather a long practice session the day before the next lesson. Set smaller, more achievable goals – ask a student to prepare a single line of music for the next lesson, rather than a whole page. I have found this “marginal gain” approach particularly useful for those students who are time-poor. Above all, encourage the student to enjoy their music and to gain satisfaction and a sense of personal achievement from their practicing.


Further reading

Self-regulation of teenaged pianists during at-home practice

 

Inspiration for pianists at Jackdaws

Tucked away in a tranquil leafy corner of Great Elm, a small village near Frome in Somerset, is Jackdaws Music Education Trust. Now in its 25th year, Jackdaws was established by the singer Maureen Lehane in memory of her husband, the composer Peter Wishart, and took its name from his most-performed song, ‘The Jackdaw’. Their modest former home is host to a wide variety of very popular short music courses and workshops for adults and children, as well as concerts and opera performances.

Courses take place throughout the year, usually run from Friday evening until teatime on Sunday. The courses are led by inspiring musicians and teachers, and bring together passionate musicians, from the humblest amateur to the aspiring professional, to learn and develop together in a homely, nurturing and friendly environment. Tutors on the popular piano courses include Graham Fitch, Margaret Fingerhut, Julian Jacobson, Philip Fowke, Mark Polishook, Mark Tanner, Penelope Roskell and Stephen Savage. The ethos of Jackdaws is ‘Access-Inspiration-Inclusion’ and the atmosphere and teaching is relaxed, convivial and supportive. Course participants and tutors eat together at a large round table downstairs, meals are freshly made, generous and wholesome, and there are frequent breaks in the teaching schedule, plus free time to practise, socialise or explore the surrounding area. Participants stay with local bed and breakfast hosts in Great Elm or nearby villages.

I have been meaning to visit Jackdaws for several years: I’d heard so many positive reports of the courses and the place from pianist friends, and a short course with a small number of participants appealed to me. (I have not been tempted by larger piano courses such as the summer schools for pianists at Walsall or Chethams, nor the very expensive summer piano courses in France). It was serendipitous when my regular piano teacher Graham Fitch suggested I go on course called Finding You Voice At the Piano with Stephen Savage. Graham studied with Stephen at the Royal College of Music, and from the outset I found Stephen’s sympathetic and encouraging approach familiar from Graham’s teaching style.

Teaching is organised in a masterclass format which allows all participants to learn by observing one another being taught. We were fortunate in that there were only 4 people on this course which gave each of us the luxury of longer sessions with Stephen and the chance to further explore ideas which emerged from the teaching sessions. And from a piano teacher’s point of view, observing an expert tutor in action is also very instructive.

Our enjoyable mealtime conversations included repertoire, concerts, favourite recordings and artists and piano teaching anecdotes. These convivial interludes in each teaching day helped to forge a sense of shared purpose and musical friendship, which I think really aids learning because one quickly feels more at ease playing in front of others if you’ve shared the same dinner table with these people.


The teaching was of the highest quality: Stephen is expert at very quickly seeing what each person needs to bring their repertoire to life (in my case, a greater richness of sound and drama in the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, and more continuous energy in the opening movement of Schubert D959), and gave each of us useful advice and suggestions for practising, including strategies to bring security to leaps, chord progressions or rapid passagework. It is always wonderful to see how individuals develop, how their music changes, under the tutelage of a teacher like Stephen Savage, and it gives one inspiration and encouragement to keep going on one’s personal musical journey. In addition, courses such as these are a fantastic opportunity to hear, share and discover repertoire, and a chance to make new piano friends.

In terms of facilities, Jackdaws has a good Steinway grand in the main studios upstairs, a further Bechstein grand downstairs plus several upright pianos, a digital piano, a harpsichord and a spinet. Practice time is booked In half-hour slots using a simple rota and everyone was very good-natured about organising this. There is also free WiFi.

In sum, this was an inspiring, stimulating, enjoyable and highly instructive weekend piano “retreat” which I recommend to any adult pianist but particularly those who have not attended a piano course before or might be unsure about signing up for a longer course.

For further information about Jackdaws piano courses please visit

https://www.jackdaws.org.uk/piano/

 

A magical place for music making, made more special by playing in such an intimate space, surrounded by beautiful nature……it encourages us to open up

– Wendy

Sharing music with empathetic people who understand what we’re trying to do and what the difficulties are. It takes courage to play at these events but as adult learners we bring our own life experiences to bear on our music

– Susan

Small, domestic ‘at home’ atmosphere and lovely people

– Mark

It’s about interaction with new people – I really do value that – and it’s humbling to work with people from a multiciplity of professions who come on these courses with their hang ups. But there’s always a way to face these and to really get some focus into their playing. I think the key factors are the ‘craft’ of playing and rhythmic organisation in the music. As a teacher it’s important to be non-judgemental and respectful

– Stephen Savage

 

Respect

It’s that time of year again. The start of the new academic year and a new teaching term for private piano teachers. Many of us are organising our teaching diaries, planning lessons and welcoming students back to regular lessons, hoping that some if not all have done some practising over the summer holiday…..

Sadly, some of us are also chasing unpaid lesson fees.

Despite clear terms and conditions and reminders via email, there are always late payers. I’ve been freelance since 1998 (and a self-employed piano teacher since 2006); chasing unpaid invoices is the sad lot of the freelancer and is the most disagreeable part of the job. I send out invoices for my teaching fees at least a month in advance of the start of term, with clear reminders of when the fees need to be paid (“in advance of the start of term which is on…..”) etc. The majority of my pupils’ parents pay promptly, but there are always a couple who have to be nudged several times. I don’t like writing payment reminder emails, but I do need to be paid for what I do, and I feel late payment is discourteous and disrespectful to me as a professional person. And where I live, in the very affluent leafy suburbs of SW London, where parents are used to paying for a whole host of extra-curricular activities from Kumon maths to tennis lessons or French language classes, there is no excuse for late payment of piano lesson fees.

Sadly, some parents regard piano lessons as a commodity – a view which is very eloquently and intelligently explained by respected cellist, teacher and examiner Alison Moncrieff-Kelly in her article for Music Teacher magazine (March 2017). For certain parents, piano lessons are just another activity to enhance their children’s CV, and the piano teacher is treated like a “service provider” rather than a skilled/specially-trained professional. Some parents may take this even further by questioning or criticising the teacher’s abilities and judgement (specifically with regard to a child’s readiness to take a grade exam, in my experience), undermining the teacher’s authority by deriding their skills, or “reteaching” the child between lessons (something else I have experienced). Because they are paying for piano lessons as a service, some parents think they are entitled to behave in this way, because “the customer is always right”, and the piano teacher (“service provider”) should submit to the customer’s view/demands. These types of parents tend to be very demanding, requesting changes to lesson times at short notice, make-up lessons, and refunds. They are also often the first to complain if their child is not making progress, yet they may not be willing to support or encourage their child to practise between lessons. In short, they lack respect.

Parents pay, but the teacher must provide everything from the talent to the practice, with a neatly packaged end product……The problem with the Aspirant Parent is that they not only criticise and question the teacher every step of the way, but also deride the very skills they say they want you to instill.

– Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (Music Teacher magazine, March 2017)

Any parent (or indeed adult student) who takes this attitude fails to fully appreciate what piano lessons are really about, which can seriously damage the relationship between parent (client) and teacher.

Respect is a crucial part of teaching – mutual respect between teacher and pupil, and also between teacher and parent/the person paying the teacher’s invoices. From my side of the bargain, respect towards my students and their parents includes:

  • Providing a pleasant, comfortable and welcoming space in my home for lessons to take place
  • Being kind and courteous to my students and their families
  • Supporting and encouraging my students in their pianistic endeavours
  • Being sympathetic if they have not been able to practise as much as they would like due to illness, school or other commitments
  • Ensuring my timetable runs smoothly so that lessons do not overrun
  • Being available by email or phone between lessons to answer queries
  • Providing additional advice or material to help parents support their children in their practising
  • Ensuring exam entries are made correctly and on time.

In exchange I expect students and parents to

  • Arrive on time for lessons with music and other materials
  • Respect my piano, my teaching space and my home
  • Be respectful to me and my experience/judgement, but to feel confident about discussing issues with me such as difficulties encountered in practising, exam readiness, performance anxiety and so forth.
  • Ensure my invoices are paid on time and in full

When mutual respect exists everyone thrives.

Clear terms and conditions can ensure mutual understanding on all sides, but sometimes even the most explicit T&Cs are meaningless to the pushy or disrespectful parent, and when such an impasse is reached, it may be the moment to call time on the lessons. It’s a great shame when this happens, for the student may be happy and progressing (despite the parent’s lack of input), but the dealings between parent and teacher may have become intolerable – and as a self-employed person, one owes it to oneself to create a working environment which is pleasant and conducive to success, if at all possible.


Further reading

Piano Lessons – More than a Commodity