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

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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

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

 

 

The Psychology of Piano Technique – Murray McLachlan

130bad77-b230-4f95-b01e-c0a12b4d2371This, the third book by Murray McLachlan’s for Faber Music on piano technique, takes a more leftfield approach to piano playing and piano technique, tackling esoteric, psychological and philosophical issues such as visualisation techniques, inspiration, musicians’ health and well-being (including dealing with performance anxiety), career development, and encouraging independent learning and interpretative decision-making. This non-traditional approach is underpinned by the premise that we should love the piano and its literature, and always seek joy and creativity in our practising and learning. If this sounds like a New Age self-help book for pianists, be assured it is not: McLachlan, an internationally-renowned pianist and teacher, writes with intelligence and authority based on his own experience as a performer and teacher and many years spent in the industry, and his approach is pragmatic and practical, offering wisdom for pianists, whether professional or amateur, students and teachers.

I particularly liked the chapters on finding flow in practising, visualisation techniques (something I use in my own teaching and playing), avoiding dogmatism (in teaching and interpretation) and stepping beyond urtext editions to find one’s personal voice at the piano. The book does not need to be read straight through and indeed I have enjoyed dipping in and out of random chapters. The text is eminently readable with clearly-presented musical extracts.

Recommended.

 

Publisher: Faber Music

ISBN: 0571540317

£12.99

A question of touch

It cannot have escaped the notice of many of those inside the piano teaching profession that a noisy and at times acrimonious debate is raging, once again, over the sensitive issue of touching students, specifically children, as a pedagogical device in the course of piano lessons. I am not going to go into the specific details of one particular discussion thread – those of you who use Facebook are probably already familiar with it. Nor am I going to discuss the opposing views expressed in this thread; I am simply offering some thoughts on this difficult area based on my own teaching practice and discussion with a number of piano teaching colleagues.
There is a wealth of published research demonstrating the value of touch in human interaction. Touch defines relationships between human beings from the moment a baby is born, and positive touch continues to be important to a child’s development throughout the early years. For instrumental teachers, and indeed singing, dance and sports teachers as well, touch can help improve a student’s technique, how to hold or play an instrument correctly, how to breathe, use the correct posture and protect against tension or injury. In its own guidelines the UK Government describes touch as a “necessary” activity in instrumental teaching.

Now, largely in response to the online debate, the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) has issued a revised Safeguarding Code of Practice regarding child protection which runs somewhat counter to the Government guidelines:

“Any physical contact with pupils can be potentially subject to misinterpretation or even malicious allegations. The best advice is to avoid touching your pupils and to develop strategies for teaching through demonstration and modelling. If a teacher feels that touching is essential to their pedagogic style, they are to obtain prior permission in writing from the parent and pupil, and will encourage a parent/guardian to attend the lessons. However, it is not appropriate to touch a child on the trunk of the body unless there is a justifiable reason (eg to administer first aid).”

European Piano Teachers’ Association, 24 July 2017

There are a number of problems with this statement, on which a colleague of mine, with many more years of experience than I, makes the following, considered response:

We have a revised policy from EPTA, which keeps the sensible advice of obtaining written agreement and encouraging parental attendance/involvement, but which precedes it with an ill-advised statement that can only be described as fear-mongering, rather than fact. The idea that the teacher who gently corrects a dangerous wrist position, with permission, with proper explanation, and with the parent present, could be mistaken by the child or parent for an abuser is simply bizarre. Has this happened, ever? In 25 years of teaching, training and observing other teachers on three continents, I’ve certainly never heard of such a thing happening.

There are two problems:

1. These statements stigmatise ordinary piano teachers who are doing a wonderful job – the very people that EPTA should be supporting

2. And secondly, conflating these issues, in my view, rather trivialises the experiences of those traumatised by genuine abuse. How disappointing that EPTA now writes policies predicated on fear rather than fact. They are very out-of-step with the Department of Education at this point, and I rather feel they have seriously let down the piano teaching profession on this occasion.

Private music teachers already suffer a hefty degree of suspicion in the light of the abuse scandals at specialist music schools and colleges, and so we must do our utmost to demonstrate that we work with transparency and good practice at all times. This may be through seeking formal written permission to use touch in lessons from the parents of our students (which could be incorporated into one’s studio terms and conditions) or by discussing the issue of touching for pedagogical reasons with parents and students in advance. For the record, I don’t touch students in the course of my teaching. Never have, and probably never will. It is just my policy and while it is not ideal, I manage by using clear instructions and demonstration (I might occasionally ask the student to feel my hand or arm to understand arm weight). 

In our hyper-aware, hyper-sensitive times, following the deeply unpleasant revelations of the abuse that has taken place in specialist music schools and conservatoires, we are of course more concerned than ever to protect the children to whom we have a duty of care as teachers. But to infer, as certain commentators in the online debate have, that any teacher who touches a student in the course of a lesson is a potential groomer or child-abuser, is deeply insulting to the profession and the very many highly professional teachers working within it. The vast majority of teachers do not harbour perverse feelings towards children, and most children, even quite young children, are able to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touching. And do such guidelines actually stop those teachers who have genuinely bad intentions towards their students? EPTA’s statement also ignores the fact that teachers can perpetrate abuse through words or gesture: for example, the teacher who regularly reduces a student to tears or who humiliates a student in front of others in a group lesson.

The sad outcome of this latest debate is that trust and confidence in the teaching profession seem to be the real victim here, rather and, as is often the way in such scenarios, the actions of a few have created a difficult environment for the many to operate in.  It strikes me that teachers are now more vulnerable than the children they seek to protect, and in an effort to avoid risk, teachers may become less effective educators.


Further reading:

A policy for touch

The Use of Touch for Facilitate Learning in Music Education

Drawing the line with student–teacher relationships

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Say it Play it

Much of my teaching is based on visualisation, a technique I learnt from my first teacher as an adult pianist and one which I use daily with my students and my own practising and playing as a way of engaging and stimulating the imagination to produce music which is expressive, vibrant and personal. (Read more about visualisation techniques here)

Of course, it’s all very well being able to visualise the sound or movements one wants to make at the piano, but sometimes – often! – you may think you know what you want to do in your head, but it may not be that evident in your playing.  A way to make this more explicit is the ability to articulate our intention for a certain phrase or section or entire piece by describing it out loud.

This can work very well with students where the teacher poses the question and the student articulates his or her thoughts about the music. I do this a lot in my teaching, asking students to explain what they feel the music is about (for them) and what they want to say in it. It works for both children (regardless of age) and adults, and the results are surprisingly positive and often quite colourful. For example, I was working with an adult student the other day who was having some trouble with the semi-quaver runs in the final movement of Beethoven’s Op 14/1. She said she felt they were uneven and that she wanted the notes to “trickle” down the keyboard. After she had said this, she played the same run and it was transformed: immediately the notes were more even and there was a distinct sense of them trickling down the keyboard towards where I was sitting. And in a lesson with a teenage student, who is working on a very atmospheric impressionistic piece, I first asked her to describe to me what she felt the piece was about and to then try and put that description into the music. The results were impressive: her verbal description was very detailed, not only focusing on the broad narrative of the music but the details of individual sections, such as the rising quaver triplets which she felt were “the rolling waves” and the sustained notes in the bass which were “a foghorn or far away tolling bell” (you can hear the piece she was describing at the end of this article). It seems that the more detailed the description, the more vibrant the resulting music.

Psychologists have known for some time that words help us make abstract or fuzzy concepts clearer and the act of describing the action, sound or image out loud seems to make our ideas more concrete and fix them in our working memory. The action is also useful if you are having trouble finding a note, or landing on the correct note in a jump. Anticipate the note in advance by saying it out loud – “I need to land on E”, for example. Or for a tricky fingering scheme, say the finger numbers out loud just before your fingers land on the keys. It also works for rhythmic issues (count out loud) and harmonic progressions. These are all aids to memorisation too.

In addition to reinforcing memory, articulating our intentions and thoughts forces us to slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of the task in front of us more carefully and consciously. Putting our thoughts into words thus becomes a powerful tool to aid productive practising.

Sometimes we can act like our own teacher or coach, encouraging us as we play. I admit to doing this quite a lot! Practising the piano can be a lonely activity and being able to encourage yourself through verbal feedback is a very useful activity. So if I play a passage well, I might say to myself (out loud of course), “Yes I liked that” and examine why and what I liked about the passage (also stated out loud). We can also act like our own personal conductor, encouraging the “orchestra” (oneself at the instrument) to “crescendo here”, “pull back here”, “big orchestral sound now” and so forth. Conversely, one can tackle the inner critic with a conversation out loud: I berate myself when I play badly (“Oh that was dreadful! What did you do that for?”) and then examine what happened and how I can put it right (“try playing that slower/more quietly/louder” etc). This turns the negative self-talk into a positive learning tool, thus making practising more enjoyable and productive.