Creative approaches to practising

Routine or “autopilot” practising can kill one’s enjoyment and productivity at the piano. Practice can become strained or monotonous because it’s too often primarily directed by a preconceived idea and too exclusively goal- or result-oriented. This can lead to frustration and a feeling that you are not progressing as rapidly as you would like to.

Here are some suggestions on how to bring creativity and variety to your practising, to keep your interest and help you progress:

Variety is the spice of life

Vary your approach – if you always begin with scales, try something different, such a deliberately slow practise or beginning your practise session with some studies.

Change the warm up pattern

If you always warm up with scales and exercises at the piano, think about trying some simple yoga-inspired exercises away from the piano, such as arm swinging, neck roles and shoulder and wrist stretches. These simple exercises get the blood flowing to arms and fingers and allow you to focus on the task ahead away from the piano

We’re jamming

If your practise routine begins very formally (see above), try some simple improvisation or doodling on the keyboard. You don’t need any special skills to be able to do this – take the inspiration from a handful of notes from one of the pieces you are working on. Experiment with rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tone

Mix it up

If you find concentrating on one specifica area of practising difficult, mix it up and alternate between exercises or scales/arpeggios and sections from your pieces. Throw some listening into the mix, away from the piano, to hear how other pianists approach the repertoire you are working on.

Write it down

If you use a practise notebook to record what needs to be practise, try instead recording what you did in your practise, what you liked and disliked about it, what you felt you achieved. This allows you to focus on what needs to be done next and can be a useful path into your next lesson, if you see a teacher regularly.

Sing along

Singing phrases can be invaluable in helping us shape the music, find breathing space within it and observe nuances such as dynamic shading, articulation, intonation, and tone colour

Hear it live

Going to a concert to hear music you are working on can be really inspiring, and hearing music created “in the moment” of a live performance can offer ideas about how to create drama and nuance within the music.

Be prepared! Ensuring students are exam-ready for success

When I was a child and teenager taking my piano exams, my teachers never talked to me about aspects like performance anxiety or stagecraft/presentation. I went to the exam centre on the allotted day/time, took the exam and went home to await the results. I don’t recall ever being that nervous, perhaps because no teacher ever discussed the anxiety of performance with me…..

In supporting my students as they approach their grade exams, I have a number of tried and tested strategies to ensure they go into the exam room feeling confident, poised and, above all, well-prepared.

The late great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a performance. This is an important mantra: knowing one is well-prepared for an exam or other performance is a crucial aspect of exam preparation and can go a long way in alleviating anxiety, allowing one to play with confidence and musical vibrancy.

For students (with the support of their teacher) this means ensuring pieces are well-learnt and finessed. I encourage my students to think about the individual characters of their exam pieces (and we always try to select a “mini programme” of contrasting styles and moods to allow the student to demonstrate a broad range of technical and musical skills) and how they would like to highlight these characteristics in performance. At least a month ahead of the exam date, I expect students’ pieces to be “concert ready” and we do practise performances in lessons to focus on stagecraft and presentation. Occasionally, a piano teaching friend will come and listen to my students (and vice versa): this is a useful activity as it sets the bar slightly higher for the student by having another person/listener in the room.

In practising technical work (scales/arpeggios and exercises) I encourage accuracy, fluency and musicality. Easy marks can be picked up if technical work is well-learnt and played with good quality of sound and rhythmic cadence (I’m sure examiners would rather hear “musical” scales than monotonous, robotic scales).

I ensure that the other aspects of the exam – aural, sight-reading, musical knowledge – are all well-known and practised well in advance of the exam date.

All these things build confidence, but despite the best efforts of a sympathetic and well-organised teacher, many students feel consumed with anxiety when approaching their music exams. Perfectionist attitudes, issues with confidence and self-esteem, the feeling of being “on show”, exposed on stage or in the exam room, parental pressure, and an understandable wish to do one’s best all contribute to feelings of anxiety. In addition, a previous unhappy exam or performance experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy or nervousness.

When I taught younger children, I tried to make the exam experience feel like an adventure, something exciting and different, and a chance to “show off what you can do”. For all students, I urge them to treat the exam as a “performance” or “mini concert”, and to try and step back from the feeling they are being “judged” and to enjoy the experience, as far as possible.

Specifically in relation to performance anxiety, I reassure students that feeling nervous is “normal” and that top international musicians feel nervous too. We discuss the “whys” and “hows” of anxiety so that they understand it is a natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) as well as an emotional one. I encourage students to come up with ways to help them personally manage their anxiety – these may include recalling a previous successful/enjoyable performance, using visualisation techniques, NLP, deep breathing and positive affirmation (“I can do it!”). Above all, I remind them that examiners are not looking for bland note-perfect performances but for music which is vibrant and expressive, with good attention to details of dynamics, articulation etc. And I reassure them that I will not be “cross” or disappointed if they don’t achieve a certain mark, that I want them to do their best and enjoy the experience.

For older/more advanced students, exam preparation also involves some discussion about the process of practising and what has been achieved to arrive at the point where the music is ready to be put before an examiner or audience. This understanding of the process and journey of learning is particularly important and helps students see exams in the wider context of ongoing musical development, maturity and progression.

To all students, young and old, beginners to advanced, Good Luck with your exams this summer!

Rewiring turns “I can’t” into “I can”

cf3a43f548ef0b0425f8af95032b8849Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain. “Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections which take place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states. The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative: it is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.

As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk. The ability to self-evaluate one’s playing and performance and give oneself critical feedback is of course very important: it enables us to practise effectively and mindfully, it encourages humility in our work and tempers the ego. Equally, we should be able to accept criticism and feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues and peers, provided it is given in the right way. But if our own self-criticism, and/or the comments of others, is repeated too often we can fall into a spiral of negativity.

From the teacher who continually undermines the student with negative feedback to the inner critic which constantly comments adversely on one’s playing, chipping away at one’s self-confidence, these repetitive detrimental experiences encourage negative neural traits which in turn build a negative mental state – and with repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you continually dwell on self-criticism, anxieties about your abilities, your lack of confidence or a teacher’s negative comments, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly help you to think those same negative thoughts again and again.

Break the negative cycle and turn “I can’t” into “I can”

  • Banishing the inner critic is a key act in encouraging a more positive mindset. Acknowledge that your inner critic exists and then literally “show it the door” by imagining you are ushering the horrid creature out of your mind.
  • Attach a positive thought to a negative one: “I played that passage incorrectly, but I understand why I made a mistake so I know how I can put it right“.
  • Exchange perfectionism for excellence. Perfection is unrealistic and unattainable, excellence is achievable. Strive for excellence in your own work by setting yourself realistic goals and standards (these can be set in consultation with a teacher or mentor).
  • Draw confidence from the positive endorsements and feedback from trusted teachers, colleagues, peers, friends and family. If it helps, write these comments down in a notebook and refer to them when you feel anxious or nervous.
  • If your teacher is continually critical despite your best efforts to play well, it is perhaps time to seek a new teacher. Few students will progress well if they feel constantly put down by a teacher or coach.
  • Approach practising, lessons and performances with an “I can!” attitude rather than “this is going to go wrong”. Try not to set up a negative feedback loop before you play, but instead draw confidence from previous good experiences (a lesson where you know you played well and your teacher offered praise and positive feedback, or a performance where you received compliments from the audience or another musician whose opinion you respect).
  • Draw confidence in an exam or performance situation from knowing you have done the right kind of work in your practising and that you are well-prepared
  • Try the Buddhist practice of “wise effort”. This is a habit of letting go of that which is not helpful, or is negative, and cultivating that which is positive and helpful. (It is related to mindfulness and NLP).
  • Spend time with friends and colleagues whose company is positive and inspiring.
  • Above all, allow the mind to focus on and remember the good stuff. Just as thoughtful repetitive practising leads to noticeable improvement at the piano, so repetitive positive thinking brings a more positive, cheerful mindset, which will in turn have a positive effect on your playing and your general attitude to your music making.

Further reading/resources

How Complaining Rewires your Brain for Negativity

The Perfect Wrong Note

Music from the Inside Out

How Positive Thinking Rewires Your Brain

New resources for pianists, piano teachers and parents

A couple of useful new resources for pianists, teachers and the parents of piano students which have come my way recently.

818099The first, Piano Exercises, is a DVD by Mikael Pettersson, a Swedish concert pianist based in the UK. The exercises were created by Mikael to help pianists develop their technique to play without tension and with accuracy and fluency. Mikael’s approach is straightforward: the exercises are demonstrated clearly  by Mikael himself with useful close-up shots of the hands and fingers, but while the format may look simple, the exercises encourage the development of sophisticated technique including wrist and forearm rotation, lateral arm movement, speed and accuracy when coping with leaps, rapid scale patterns, and glissandi. The DVD can be used by more advanced pianists independently of a teacher, or by students with the assistance of teacher, and can then be incorporated into a regular practise regime. More information/download the exercises

51rtft-uaul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Encouraging students to practise is of course a crucial part of the piano teacher’s role, and if the students are children teachers rely on the parents to ensure practising is done between lessons. Understanding how to practise productively is important for both students and their parents who supervise the practising and a new book by Peter Walsh, an Australian pianist and piano teacher, offers practical advice for parents of piano students. In The Non-Musician’s Guide to Parenting a Piano Player, Peter covers aspects such as encouraging an interest in the piano, choosing the right instrument, choosing the right teacher and creating the right learning environment at home. In addition, the chapters on practising are particularly helpful. Many parents (and also quite a few students!) think practising is simply playing through the pieces or scales. Peter explains the purpose of practising and how parents can assist their children in practising efficiently, productively and enjoyably. This includes advice on how much time to allocate to practising, posture at the piano for children and teenagers, encouraging concentration, how practising can be subdivided into sections covering technique, revision and rehearsal and exam/performance preparation, using a simplified version of Josef Hoffman’s “practice pie-chart” to explain these aspects. This section of the book is particularly useful as it demonstrates that parents do not need to have specialist musical knowledge in order to support their children in their practising. There is also a section on preparing for exams and performance. The back of the book contains a list of FAQs and a simple glossary of musical and technical terms. The overall approach is non-specialist and accessible. Recommended.

Be kind to your students

I’m sure I am not alone in having several students who are currently immersed in revision and study sessions ahead of their GCSE and A-level exams which commence next month. Some young people cope well with the pressure of revision and exams, but sometimes even the most confident or well-organised students find that something has to give – and that something might be piano practise or even regular piano lessons. In such instances, it is especially important to be kind and sympathetic to students, and I believe they must not feel pressurised to complete their piano practise if they are busy with revision or tired from exams. This may seem counter-intuitive: shouldn’t I be encouraging them to keep up regular practise? Of course, but I also appreciate the need to cut them some slack during this crucial period in their educational lives.

Instead, I’ve suggested that piano practise should be regarded as a pleasant break from revision and exams, that it should be enjoyable and stress-free, and that I don’t mind in the least if students arrive at lessons and tell me they haven’t practised. My students know that I am not the kind of teacher who gets cross if they haven’t practised and they are comfortable about telling me how much they have or haven’t done. And we can always find other things to do in lessons, such as playing duets, listening to and talking about music, exploring what goes on inside my grand piano, or simply doodling on the keyboard.

For students who have grade exams in the summer, I have made sure that the bulk of their learning is already done. Pieces now simply need to be kept going, gently finessed; ditto technical work. And sight-reading and aural can be practised in a relaxed way in lessons, or by using apps or listening to the radio or looking music up on YouTube at home.

Students often find it helpful for their teacher to give them a practise schedule to enable them to focus on what needs to be done and how to do it if they have limited time available. Even 10 minutes of focused practising is useful, and during lessons I encourage students to identify what needs attention and how to prioritise their practising. Above all, I encourage my students to enjoy the piano and their music, and I hope that by being kind to my students, they appreciate that I care about them and I understand what their priorities are at the moment.

 

‘The Virtuoso Teacher’ seminar with Paul Harris

Renowned educator, writer and clarinetist Paul Harris, author of innumerable books on sight-reading, music theory and music teaching as well as original compositions, led a seminar based around the ideas set out in his seminal book T’he Virtuoso Teacher’ (Faber, 2012).

The book focuses on the core issues of being a teacher and the teaching process. By examining topics such as self-awareness and the importance of emotional intelligence, getting the best out of pupils, dealing with challenging pupils, asking the right questions and creating a master-plan taking the stress out of learning teaching for the right reasons, Paul Harris offers an inspirational and supportive read for all music teachers, encouraging everyone to consider themselves in a new and uplifted light. The book formed the basis of Paul’s presentation, with plenty of opportunities for discussion during the breaks and in a Q&A session at the end of the seminar. I read Paul’s book when it was first published and found it very empowering, yet much of what he suggests is both simple and easy to put into practice in the teaching environment.

These are my notes taken during the seminar; by no means comprehensive, I hope they will provide a useful overview of Paul’s approach and the philosophy of the Virtuoso Teacher.

Definition of a ‘Virtuoso Teacher’

  • Not someone who teaches virtuosi
  • Nor a virtuoso player themselves (as Paul said, virtuoso players may be fine instrumentalists, but are not necessarily the best teachers)
  • A virtuoso teacher takes teaching to a virtuoso level through being collaborative, imaginative, engaging, non-judgmental and energetic.

Just as a virtuoso performer has qualities such as a sense of communication, secure technique, and a sense of artistry so the virtuoso teacher has the same qualities. But instead of playing to an audience, the virtuoso teacher works with students.

The virtuoso teacher has a heightened awareness of what is happening, is mindful, has a profound understanding of the instrument, technique, musicality and a deep knowledge of our pupils. The virtuoso teacher encourages pupils to reach their own infinite potential.

WHAT WE DO

The special things….

  • Teach music for its own sake
  • Guide pupils
  • Show possibilities
  • Open minds
  • Enable pupils to become independent learners and teach themselves

The word “teach” comes from the Old English world tæcan (“tee-shan”) meaning to “show”, or “point out”, but not “tell”.

The virtuoso teacher does more than teaching the instrument and pieces: the virtuoso teacher encourage pupils to really know music and enable all pupils to achieve, taking into account the needs and desires of all our pupils.

For the virtuoso teacher the process is more important than the outcome (i.e. exam or competition results, assessments or performances, all of which are stressful situations and which lose the enjoyment of “now”). For the pupil, learning to play an instrument or sing should be a happy experience. Unhappy or stressed students don’t learn (physiologically, the brain stops releasing hormones which enable us to take in information when we are stressed). We develop our pupils’ self-responsibility and turn mistakes into opportunities. We share our love of music and encourage our students to develop this love too. We make our students confident and independent.

Personal qualities of a Virtuoso Teacher

  • An excellent communicator
  • Certain, but never absolutely sure
  • Open-minded
  • Adaptable and flexible
  • Still learning
  • Focused (on the pupil)
  • A good role model
  • Good-humoured
  • Patient
  • Proactive
  • Innovative
  • Having good judgment, but never judgmental
  • Kind and caring
  • Reflective

How we teach

The “process” of the lesson

  • Warming up (e.g. stretches away from the instrument or use an aspect of the first piece as a warm up exercise)
  • Find ingredients and connections within the piece
  • Offer achievable, well-explained instructions (done well, this is unlikely to lead to mistakes, or will reduce mistakes)
  • Give well-expressed, clear feedback
  • Ensure the lesson is energising and always moving forward

When giving feedback, first wait and then notice the way the pupil reacts to the feedback. Positive feedback motivates and allows us to be effective because it empowers the pupil. We need to nurture, not control. As a result, pupils are

  • Confident
  • Happy
  • Enthusiastic
  • Motivated
  • In sum, the “virtuoso pupil” knows how to learn.

Dispelling the “myth of difficult”

  • Learning how to achieve
  • Removing obstacles
  • Encourage through a thorough and meticulous approach
  • The quality of our students’ understanding is better than the quantity of their work.

High-satisfaction teaching allows the lesson to flow and for pupils to be musical. They will also make fewer mistakes, feel less stress, feel less constrained by structure, which allows them to achieve. Lessons become positive with a spirit of discovery.

  • Simultaneous learning and simultaneous practising:
  • Teaching proactively
  • Making connections using the “ingredients” of the piece
  • Positive
  • Non-judgmental

Pupils need to practise in a way which matches this

  • Integration – refer to practising during the lesson
  • Representation – make practising interesting and engaging
  • Connections – ask how the practising went in the intervening week between lessons

This enables pupils to see how lessons and practising join up.

 

Teaching a new piece using the Simultaneous Learning process

Know the ingredients of the piece:

  • Key
  • Rhythm
  • Pulse
  • Time signature
  • Dynamics
  • Character

Don’t overload the pupil with information but know how much the pupil can take in.

Allow the lesson to unfold around the ingredients using various element, e.g. improvisation based on a rhythm or short motif within the piece.

Use Q&A and demonstration. Talk about practising as you go along. Practising should be fun, engaging and collaborative.

  • Don’t hurry
  • Make connections
  • Empower the student
  • Check the student has understood all the instructions given
  • Teach the right things at the right time
  • Be imaginative
  • Encourage flow
  • Collaboration
  • Encourage students to know their music
  • Encourage students to become independent

 

WHO WE TEACH

We need to get to know our pupils (but never interrogate them!)

  • Interests
  • Prior learning/knowledge
  • Vocabulary (important – so that we can communicate with them at the right level)
  • Preferred learning style, i.e. visual, auditory or kinesthetic
  • Gender difference
  • Relative speed of learning
  • Level of motivation
  • Expectations (pupil’s and parents’)
  • Psychomotor skills (e.g. finger dexterity)
  • SEN
  • R/L brain development
  • Experience and background
  • Maturity
  • Parental involvement

Having this information allows us to personalize our teaching to be more effective.

 

Managing expectations

We live up and down to expectations (the ‘Pygmalion Effect’)

“As the teacher believes the student to be, so the student becomes” (Rosenthal & Jacobson)

 

  • We should have high but appropriate expectations and the student will live up to them.
  • We have different expectations for different students
  • Don’t base expectations on pre-determined criteria (e.g. exam results)
  • Don’t compare students, especially negatively
  • Discourage pupils from comparing themselves to their friends/peers – explain to a Grade 1 student that the Grade 7 student is not “better”, just “more advanced”
  • Focus on achievement rather than attainment: pupils can achieve continuously
  • Encourage self-comparison: “How am I doing?”
  • Encourage students to hear friends playing in a positive context: peer support is very important.
  • Celebrate every student’s strengths
  • Have positive and appropriate expectations
  • Create a positive teaching environment
  • Labels are not helpful – there are no “bad” pupils! (but there are plenty of bad teachers!)
  • All pupils are able – different, but able

 

Giving praise

It needs to be appropriate and appreciative. Judgmental praise causes dependency and builds up an ego which can produce anxiety

 

Examples of appreciative praise:

“I enjoyed that”

“that was really accurate/musical”

“That practise has really made a difference”

 

This allows pupils to draw their own conclusions about their playing

 

Praise what they are doing or their effort, not the ego or talent.

 

Praise followed by criticism is not helpful.

 

Sincere praise goes a long way and creates a sense of trust.

 

 

Using questions in lessons

Good questioning is very valuable and can be used to

  • Check knowledge and understanding
  • Encourage understanding
  • Encourage recall of facts and information
  • Diagnose difficulties and involve the pupil in the “cure” (e.g. tension, problematic fingering scheme etc)

 

Questions also encourage students to think, engage, apply and reflect. Use open-ended, thought-provoking questions, e.g. “What do you like about this piece?”

 

 

Getting the best out of our pupils

 

  • The way we are and how we respond to our pupils
  • The way we manage expectations (of pupils and parents)
  • The care we invest in teaching methods
  • The level of positivity and love of our subject
  • Ensuring pupils understand what they are doing

 

 

In conclusion

 

Our values and beliefs colour the way we are and drive our thinking and teaching. We should be certain, but never absolutely certain, and we should always look outwards.

 

The present

  • The Power of Now
  • Living in the moment
  • Grasp opportunities and run with them, while always keeping an eye on the future
  • Using aspects such as applied psychology and physiology (e.g. understanding the reasons for warming up before playing), and using technology to enhance our teaching (e.g. internet, apps).

Teaching now

  • Teach laterally and holistically
  • Be proactive
  • Take care of our personal accountability
  • Make connections
  • Understand and appreciate what our pupils need
  • Use wisdom – how do we use our knowledge? We guide our pupils to enable them to progress.
  • Be honest (i.e. honest evaluation of our students, and in our dealings with parents)
  • Have courage – take risks and be prepared to tackle issues
  • Give our students our unconditional support

The Virtuoso Teacher wants to create well-balanced musicians who are driven by a love of music and a desire to sustain this great art.

 

Never forgot – teaching is A PROFESSION!

More about Paul Harris and his publications and other resources here

 

 

What Are Piano Lessons For?

This is a very personal manifesto about the purpose of piano lessons. You may not agree. You may disagree vehemently. But what you (as a piano teacher or as a parent of a piano student or as a piano student) believe piano lessons are for will affect your level of satisfaction with the piano lessons you are giving, or you or your child is receiving. Elissa Milne

What Are Piano Lessons For?.