What should quality piano lessons include? - What areas and experiences?

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Postby Beckywy » Sun Feb 13, 2005 2:16 pm

2 days ago, I was at city hall speaking with my city councillor, and during the meeting we talked about the value and importance of the arts in children's education. Being music teachers is not just providing instruction, but also going out there and changing people's perceptions that only math and science are important - in exclusion of everything else. We have to justify what we do and make people see how important education in the arts is.



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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Sun Feb 13, 2005 2:31 pm

Beckywy wrote:Being music teachers is not just providing instruction, but also going out there and changing people's perceptions that math and science are important. We have to justify what we do and make people see how important education in the arts is.

Math and science are important (spoken like a true scientist!) :D

but...., so are the arts! They may not help you get a raise or a job (unless you are an exceptional artist), but they are one aspect of life that help make life worth living, just as understanding the world around us helps, too. I don't think that we have to change people's perceptions about math and science so much as we have to make the argument for the arts just as compelling as the one for math and science. To do that, we have to both teach people and help them to an appreciation for the value of the arts. Sadly, it's sometimes easier to teach people some of the mechanics of playing the piano than it is to develop an appreciation for the art. If more people appreciated the art to a higher degree, perhaps fewer would quit lessons after one or two semesters - at least, that's (a part of) my story and I'm sticking to it! :;):
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Mon Feb 14, 2005 10:14 am

I didn't say "advise people to get out of music". I said I could be [tempted] to say that, and I'm sure we all have. If you reread my final few sentences you'll see "....how can you make music meaningful to someone geared to an overloaded life?"

That's the uphill battle we all are engaged in, and I've always felt that one of the most important functions of a forum such as this one is mutual support--not commiserating, but rather celebrating together the fact that we are doing something very special, often with intangible or belated rewards, and exchanging good ideas. Composer Roy Harris once said to me, "I think a musician ought to get up every morning feeling that he has something extra special in his hip pocket." If we didn't feel that way we wouldn't do it, and I didn't mean to sound negative about it. But it's good we air our common frustrations, even thought the "pat answers" aren't there. We have something better than pat answers.

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Mon Feb 14, 2005 10:50 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:But it's good we air our common frustrations, even thought the "pat answers" aren't there. We have something better than pat answers.

Dr. Bill.

Certainly, airing frustrations can have a cathartic effect at times, but I hope that we can do a little more than that here. On a daily basis, how do teachers cope with the twin "cross" of time priorities and a fundamental lack of understanding of serious music? Parents who make sure that their kids have piano lessons deserve a bunch of "bravos." But have we done our job, as teachers and as a society, in helping those parents and their kids understand why such lessons are important, beyond acquiring a useful skill? Why are most people willing to spend untold amounts of money and time on sports activities for their kids, but have difficulty finding time or money for music? Why do most youngsters think of rap when you say "What kind of music do you like?" to them? I think in both cases it's simple lack of exposure to good music and, perhaps, a lack of the kind of positive reinforcement that those who achieve in sports (or other pastimes) get.

I've felt for a long time that piano teachers, for their own good if nothing else, must give kids and parents more than a weekly lesson and a lot of "Go home and practice" advice. If a student or parent can't see a bit of the prize at the end, it's hard to maintain enthusiasm and interest over the time required to gain real skill at the piano. When a kid plays a sport, he can see at virtually any time of the day on television and other media how that sport is done well and the rewards that accrue to those who do it well. Piano students rarely get that kind of positive reinforcement outside of their lessons. So, how can we provide that and how do we best fit it in?




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Feb 15, 2005 12:00 pm

Well, we have to figure out the best way to somehow do this within the society that our kids grow up in.

When I studied in Europe in 1959-60 I was amazed to find opera houses in small towns all over Germany, and to hear an ordinary laborer in Naples humming a tune from Rigoletto. They used to grow up with great music (not that way any more, even over there), while we grow up with what often seems to be the lowest common denominator of aural and visual entertainment--not to mention the endless blizzard of advertising. Philosopher Brand Blanchard once said, "The sense of beauty does not survive in such an atmosphere."

OK, so much for the complaint--what do we do about it? Well, for one thing, this is why I constantly harp on the importance of urging parents and students to provide an environment in which good music is being heard as often as possible; and I've always made listening an important part of students' assignments, even to the point of lending out my own CDs or making cassette tapes of them to distribute (it's probably not legal, but it's cheaper).

Just off the top of the head, I wonder if some public schools could be persuaded to have classical music on their PA systems in cafeterias or hallways--just a thought. As for the bewildering mix of choices we all have, it's about as easy to get most people to choose Brahms over rap as it is to get them to choose tofu over a Big Mac, and it's not only preference but also peer pressure--you'd be a real oddball.

I'm just rambling here, trying to get something going. Dr. Zeigler is certainly on the mark to suggest that teachers need to give more than a weekly lesson and a "go practice". I once suggested group outings: taking students to concerts and recitals, perhaps familiarizing them with the works on a program ahead of time. What else can we do?

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Feb 15, 2005 1:14 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:As for the bewildering mix of choices we all have, it's about as easy to get most people to choose Brahms over rap as it is to get them to choose tofu over a Big Mac, and it's not only preference but also peer pressure--you'd be a real oddball.

... I once suggested group outings: taking students to concerts and recitals, perhaps familiarizing them with the works on a program ahead of time. What else can we do?

I guess it's a good thing were not really talking about food here, 'cause I would choose the Big Mac (and just about anything else, as well) over the tofu! :D

We've tried, in various places on the site, to deal with this issue in the sense of giving a few suggestions. To stimulate discussion, if nothing else, here a a few of those plus some additional ones:

Give group lessons once a month or so in which the focus is on chamber music, where students can play with one another "just for the fun of it." This might help remove some of the loneliness associated with practice, as well as expose the kids to more music. Whether they play it "well" or not is almost secondary.

Try to make sure that contest results and participation get publicized in the local paper, somewhat the same way that school sports are publicized. This gives some recognition to those that put their time into the piano. This is pretty much up to the teacher to do, but is actually fairly easy to accomplish. All you need to do is write a proposed story, take a couple of digital photos and send it all to the local paper - or, if you can pull it off, have the paper send a photographer to the contest.

Make sure that good piano music is playing at a low level all the time during lessons. The kids won't get the full value this way, but will at least hear some of the music in snatches during the lesson.

One thing that would be really "neat," although I'm not aware of any teacher doing it yet, is to tap into the potential of VPN technology to allow students to go through music appreciation software on your computer from their homes over the Internet. We've talked about this a little in another forum, but the potential is fantastic here, because the student doesn't have to be in your studio to use the software and can do so at about any time that works for them. This technology is a great way to expand the learning time available at minimal cost.

More conventional, in-studio labs, are extremely valuable here, too. They just aren't as convenient for the teacher or student, since times for use have to be scheduled.

Offer free, off-hours music appreciation lessons in your studio to both current students and anyone else in the community who is interested. We have had some experience with these. Most teachers find them fun to do. They bring in people to the studio who wouldn't otherwise come in, resulting in more students. If you do them under the aegis of the local music teachers organization, the local paper and media will usually publicize them for free.

Dr. Leland mentioned concert outings. This is a great idea. It's usually a good idea to invite parents as well as students. If the parents go, it reduces liability questions and, often, the parents get interested and take lessons themselves. Then, you get a much more conducive home enviroment as a side benefit.

We have talked about many other ideas on the site, so I won't list them all here. Note that, even if you have a full studio and aren't looking for students, many of these activities can be fun for you as the teacher.

There are lots of other possibilities. What do you do to foster greater appreciation for the art of music?




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Postby Lyndall » Tue Feb 15, 2005 2:08 pm

I agree with you both in terms of encouraging students (and their families) to listen to classical music - it's not always easy to achieve though. I always offer & have indeed taken several students along to local piano concerts because their parents don't enjoy going or are too busy. Every newsletter I send home (every 4-6 wks) either lists local upcoming concerts featuring pianists, many of them free, and/or, states the value of taking their kids to classical concerts & exposing them at home to classical music of any kind (not just piano).

I can't recall one instance where a family has attended a student concert where their child was not performing even though I encourage them to attend as they might participate next year. Additionally, at my private studio recitals, quite often families will leave as soon as they have heard their child perform because they have another event to go to. Growing up I would never have left a recital part-way through no mattter what. Even free concerts often featuring excellent pianists are not much more of an attraction it seems.

I've taken to making certain free student recitals mandatory for junior & senior high students - they get to hear the best students their age who won music scholarships. I want them to hear what their peers are achieving, Plus it's great music! If I can't get more participation from everyone else, I will consider making it part of my policy for all students to attend 1-2 concerts per year (currently it's a recommendation only).

I don't have time to address any of your other ideas, but this is one of my main 'gripes'.




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Postby Beckywy » Tue Feb 15, 2005 3:04 pm

I've known of parents who are willing to drive long distances to watch their child's soccer games yet, would not sit through a student recital. go figure. Or, are willing to get up at 3am for their son's 4am hockey practice - and sit and watch for 2 hours, yet find it hard to find the time to go to a recital. How can we change this?
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Feb 15, 2005 4:45 pm

Becky, I like the idea of group 'lessons' where kids can play together "for the fun of it." I remember saying in my Artist/Ed. Interview that piano students lack the built-in group dynamic that students get from band, orchestra, sports, et al, so the more we can get them involved in group activities--maybe even "team spirit"--the better.

I don't understand about background music during lessons, though. Isn't this a major distraction when the student is playing?

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Feb 15, 2005 5:32 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:Becky, I like the idea of group 'lessons' where kids can play together "for the fun of it." I remember saying in my Artist/Ed. Interview that piano students lack the built-in group dynamic that students get from band, orchestra, sports, et al, so the more we can get them involved in group activities--maybe even "team spirit"--the better.

I don't understand about background music during lessons, though. Isn't this a major distraction when the student is playing?

Dr. B.

Actually, Dr. Leland, these were my proposals, not Beckywy's, and perhaps she wouldn't want to claim either of them. I suggested the group lesson "for the fun of it" in part because I've heard from several teachers over the years who have used that approach successfully, though more as an adjunct to lessons rather than a formal group lesson. I think that making it a formal part of the lessons encourages kids to actually follow through and do it, rather than having it as an option that they can take a pass on.

I have seen, and also heard about from other teachers, the use of piano background music during lessons. Of course, if the volume is too loud, it can be a distraction. However, if the volume is kept low, it becomes innocuous background sound at worst, and, at best, the student may actually hear snatches of the music that they will like and want to listen to more carefully. Used properly, it's almost like subliminal suggestion. This approach is no substitute for concentrating on the music, but, it doesn't take time from the lesson and provides a subtle reminder of what the student can achieve, if he works hard.

As you can see, both these proposals are intended to provide a way to work in some important exposure to the music without taking away from the lessons per se. Perhaps they are way to get in some of what I think is important in lessons besides learning to play: developing an appreciation for the music. If it weren't for the music, none of us would play. :)
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Postby 75-1095335090 » Tue Feb 15, 2005 6:16 pm

As an aside.... I took private lessons as a beginner and intermediate student, and took group lessons for a couple of years as an advanced student (two pianists and an organist in the group), and in my final year of lessons during that time, I did every other week alternating private with that same group.

When done properly, group lessons can be more than just a fun thing to do once in a while. I quite enjoyed my group lessons and wished I had started doing group earlier than I did. The three of us made quite an excellent group for ensemble competitions. (I remember it was also kind of fun to "gang up" on the teacher.... like, one of us would forget to do some part of the assignment and they'd convince the other two to tell the teacher that she hadn't really assigned that... boy, that seems so terrible now that I'm on the other side. lol)
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Postby Lyndall » Wed Feb 16, 2005 10:17 am

Sounds great Kitty, I'd love it.

But imagine if students & parents were willing to take one private 45 min. lesson PLUS one group lesson every week! Wouldn't that be fun AND satisfy the need for both one-on-one time for technical work & solo repertoire, as well as social interaction in a non-threatening learning environment mixing ensemble & theory etc work.

I guess if you just started including this arrangement as part of your teaching policy - either it's accepted or students go elswhere to find the kind of teacher they prefer. The additional cost of group lessons wouldn't be too much extra per student since the teacher can charge less having multiple students at one time. The biggest investment from the student's stand point would really be their time.

Growing up I too piano lessons from age 4, then started playing clarinet in the school band in 3rd class (age 7); I took a private lesson + had 2 rehearsals before school every single week no matter what. Extra when we were entering competitions. It could be the same with piano!

What do you think?
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Feb 16, 2005 10:36 am

Beckywy wrote:I've known of parents who are willing to drive long distances to watch their child's soccer games yet, would not sit through a student recital. go figure. Or, are willing to get up at 3am for their son's 4am hockey practice - and sit and watch for 2 hours, yet find it hard to find the time to go to a recital. How can we change this?

Team sports are positive reinforcements for both parents and kids. The kids get to socialize at practices and games, and, when they are successful, they get publicity in the media, which pleases the parents at least as much as the kids. Playing piano lacks these aspects most of the time, though, of course, it has its own rewards. These rewards may not be all that apparent to either the parent or kid in the short run, however.

These are some of the reasons I suggested group lessons for playing chamber music and publicity for piano achievements. Along these same lines, I have seen a number of piano teacher web sites in which accomplishments of students are touted, along with the information about the studio. This is another way to give kids some reinforcement, so long as it is done in such a way that it is clear that the teacher is putting the student forward, rather than trumpeting their teaching skills. I don't suppose that piano can ever be quite the same experience as sports participation, but perhaps we can adopt some of the less intrusive ways that sports are "marketed" to build or keep interest in piano.

I haven't heard much mention of ear training and theory yet in this thread. How important are these to work into lesson time?
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Feb 22, 2005 11:15 am

Let me come at this question of what should be included in "quality" lessons another way:

Assuming that your students take 1 hour lessons in the studio and that you expect them to spend a minimum of one hour a day at home on piano-related work, how would you divide the time? How much would you devote to: learning music and technique, theory, music appreciation, ear training, whatever? I know that this question may be unrealistic in some senses (e.g. one hour each of both lesson and home work), but it may help to hear various views on this - from both teachers and students.
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Postby Lyndall » Fri Feb 25, 2005 10:19 am

I'd probably spend 15 minutes on scales & other technical work; 35 minutes on repertoire; and 10 minutes on theory/ear training etc. Of course theory/history/technique also surfaces while working on repertoire and is covered as needed.

One problem is when you need to spend more than the 'allocated' time on one area, thus allowing less time for the other aspects.


By the way, I just polled all my students' parents to see how often they wanted their child to attend my group theory/ performance/ history classes - most opted for once a month, many every 2 months. I was hoping they'd see the value of a weekly class! Oh well...
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