happy girl reading book

memorising away from piano

One of my teaching resolutions this year is to put more emphasis on memorization.  This skill is too easily dismissed as a talent.  Either you can or you can’t.  To be honest that rather sums up my pupils at the moment.  Some are frightened to take their heads out of the book, while others seem to memorize everything effortlessly.  Unfortunately this memorization is not always secure, so there is a danger of spending many hours relearning the seemingly easily-memorized piece.

Memorizing is one of those aspects of teaching that I used to teach, but over the years it has been squeezed out because of the pressure of time. And memorising is achievable by all, and is able to be taught.

I was reminded of this special skill  when one of my post-exam students was given the task of memorizing the first section of Beethoven’s Op13 last movement.  We talked about the how and she then came back the next week with the section memorized.  This was not too unusual, as she is one who fits into the category of a quick memoriser.  What was pleasing was that she volunteered the information that she really felt she knew the section so well and was looking forward to applying the same method to the next section. Wow!

The trick is to be able to visualise the music, as well as using the physical memory of  the passage.  Too often good memorisers rely too much on the physical memory but quickly forget a piece when it is not played for a while.

Here’s how I teach memorization.  Although it sounds very long-winded, it shows results in a remarkably short time and, with practice, pieces can be memorized effortlessly and in a very short time.  It is all about “chunking”, the short-term to long-term memory process. As experience and knowledge increase, the brain is able to take into short term memory more information at a time, thus speeding up the learning process.  Once absorbed and processed, information is then sent to the more permanent long-term memory, so can be recalled easily and without thought.  (I know that is very simplified so please forgive!)

These are the steps I use.  This is not the only way, but it works very well for me.

  1. Take a short part of the piece, it maybe a section, or one or two phrases and should not be more than a page.
  2. Learn RH slowly and thoroughly noting the correct notes, rhythm and fingering, dynamics and phrasing.  I like to get my pupils to do this away from the piano as they look more thoroughly when the fingers are not itching to play!  Once all is correct, play until secure, This can take as little as 5 minutes!
  3. Learn LH in the same way.
  4. Once both hands are securely memorised, the same should be done hands together.  This will involve different problems but, as both hands are thoroughly known, the look and feel of the complete piece is more easily learned.
  5. Put music away and play!
  6. Rinse and repeat with each phrase, not necessarily in any order.

This whole process can be achieved remarkably quickly and with practice can be done very quickly.  The advantages of learning this way are huge.  The mind is freed to express the meaning of the piece, explore universal and individual feelings and meanings.

Should children sit exams?

Library of classical music books

facing exams

Should children sit exam?  Yes that old chestnut again! Just about everyone has an opinion about this, even people who have nothing to do with music, or learning the piano. But somehow it always draws hot debate, with tales of horrendous childhood experiences abounding. Let’s face it, our society is soft on stressing children out, commitment, pressure.  But, although we are conscious of keeping stress down, these are the very things that build life skills and dare I say character.

Piano exams are upon us and for once I feel that our timing is not bad.  Pieces are still nicely in control, and we are relaxing and reaching the peak at just the right moment. But my pupils have worked hard to get to this stage, a year’s work has reached its peak and they are about to reach their reward – not just an impressive certificate, but the satisfaction of knowing that hard work has been done and a bench-mark standard has been reached. Learning piano is a very solitary past-time and it is very isolating to watch friends meeting for band/orchestral rehearsals. Eisteddfods allow some experience, potentially very frightening, of playing for an audience. But what about sitting exams – is it worth the stress and hassle?

As a teacher of 35 years experience, I have fluctuated between a resounding “Yes!” and resounding “NO!”  As a teacher I agonize over every note with my pupils when they sit exams, urging them on over all the fences.  Result – exhaustion!  As a parent I have agonized over every note and urged my children on over all the fences.  Result – “exhaustion!”  I’m sure teachers and parents will relate to that!  When between houses, we lived in a small townhouse with 3 children doing exams each on 2 instruments, the organization and stress was amazing.  Miraculously all the exams were passed.

So what about the children, do they benefit by taking exams?

8 Reasons why Children Should take exams:

  • There is a well-worn path from beginners to advanced (primary to Grade 8 ) which takes 8-10 years and leads to mastery of the instrument.  This standard is international and it is a good yard stick for comparing self with others.
  • Exams ensure that essential steps are not missed.
  • Exams help to build confidence.
  • Exams give a sense of achievement.
  • Exams can be very motivating and tend to make children strive for higher standards than they would otherwise.
  • Exams introduce repertoire that may not otherwise be experienced.
  • Exams provide the firm technical background essential for technique which may not necessarily be achieved otherwise.
  • Exams provide valuable life-lessons for coping with and conquering nerves when in stressful situations.

    Spelling star

    Spelling star

5 Reasons not to take exams:

  • Exams can be a very stressful experience if the child is not fully prepared.
  • Exams may take a long time to prepare for, and repertoire may be restricted if the teacher relies on this source for the year’s work.
  • A rigid syllabus can be very limiting for the imaginative child.
  • The goal of passing exams can become the only  reason for taking them. The musical element, what music is all about, can be forgotten.
  • A few parents use exams to watch their child shine and enjoy the reflected glory. They become obsessed with their child passing exams and their child excelling. This can lead to unrealistic expectations.

I now enter all my pupils, who wish it, for exams.  But there have been periods when I have refused to put children into exams.  During that period we were able to do a rich feast of music, adding a range of styles and old favourites into the usual mix.

But I found that, although the sense of freedom was marvelous, it was harder to get the best  out of pupils. It was hard to instill self-discipline into the practice routine because of the lack of enforced deadlines.

My answer is a compromise.  We try to spend at least half the year looking at music outside the main repertoire and then do our yearly exam.  So far I have had no complaints.

Teaching Music to Young Children

baby at piano

Starting early

In my music studio, from time to time I stop and look at my own teaching and assess what works, what I could have done better and what makes children smile.  I know all successful teachers are constantly looking at their own performance. It is a necessary part of growing teacher skills. Sometimes I think we focus too much on what we want to teach, and neglect the how, forgetting to adapt to individual learning styles.

Children should be happy to learn.  They learn best through laughter and play.  So if children are not smiling and not enjoying their lesson, they are likely not learning much.

I know this, but I still have to keep reminding myself.

Here are some of my thoughts which I hope will start parents and teachers thinking and reassessing how they deal with children in their care. Parents are their children’s first teachers and teachers can have lasting influences on their pupils.

I am passionately interested in how and why kids learn or don’t learn, so here are some points that worry me:

1. Children have an infinite capacity to learn.  If we unlock the door by capturing their interest at just the right moment, enormous things can be achieved effortlessly.   It feels like riding a huge wave of enthusiasm as large pieces of life’s jigsaw fall into place.   But how to open that door…. Trying to push knowledge though the keyhole of a locked door is very difficult as all parents and teachers know!  Hmmm…

2. How can I unlock this door by my presentation, and generate excitement without dumbing down learning, in the hope that children might swallow smaller bites.   How we bore children – they just stop listening!  What works well in my teaching?   What bores me and therefore everyone else?   These activities can be dropped – there is always another and better way to present.

3. I am lucky to work with quite young children who by their transparency give me instant feed-back of my success.  It is wonderful when teaching through fun and laughter to watch the doors fly open as we all move forward together.  I review the moods and quirks of the children and how much there reactions reflect their own age and home life.  How can I encourage each child to be open and relaxed, so learning can take place?

happy child rolling in sand

happy child

4. I regard the building of confidence to be the key to all learning.   A confident child will take up ideas and run with them.  A confident child will be willing to try new things and take risks.  A confident child will be willing to make mistakes, learn from them and keep trying.  A confident child will be willing to laugh at themselves and encourage others.  A confident child is a future leader.  How can I encourage this growth, knowing it is all too easy to accidentally put a child down and dampen learning?

5.  Do I make children feel happy and secure?  Are they drawn to me by my warmth and understanding?  Are they happy to follow my leads and add their own ideas?  In these days of pedophilia we tend to keep children at a distance. This is understandable, but children need to feel that you care about them as an important person in order to listen to what you have to say. It can be so easy to unintentionally antagonize a child with an unguarded look, a harsh word.  It is so important to respect the dignity of each person.

6. Who will need some special help next year?  How can I make a troubled child feel especially important?

Hope this has given you fodder for your own thoughts and that we will all strive to make this a very special year for each and every one of our children.

Committing to Learning

Yesterday a small incident in my teaching day left me pondering things for quite a while. It turned my whole philosophy of teaching on its head. So I’d like to share it with you, and invite comments.

happy teenage girl

Being joyful but determined

I teach a beautiful 16 year-old  girl who plays like an angel. She really is very good, a joy to listen to and very enthusiastic. My husband had just commented on her wonderful playing and I was telling her. “Why thank you,” she said, “It wasn’t always so – I used to hate coming!” I was stunned but before I could answer she said she would like to share a secret with me. It appears that when she first started coming when she was eight, she cried and screamed before every lesson but her parents took no notice and come she did.

She had arrived from another teacher and technique was poor in every way, but I could see that she was very musical. I do remember her resistance to reading music, but was unaware of her feelings. Apparently this went on until one day when her father pretended to phone me saying she would no longer be coming to the lessons because she hated it, and then she screamed that she did want to come and the tantrums stopped.

Wow! I have another pupil who I do remember kicking and screaming in her lesson with her mother keeping her on the music stool and me very embarrassed, hoping she would give up – but no and seven years later she also is a very competent player. So I was not quite sure what to make of all this. I always feel that if a child is not enjoying playing they should not be playing, and yet here were two extreme cases which have resulted in excellent and very happy pianists.

Young girl playing piano

setting patterns

The conclusions I can draw are that playing the piano is a skill and as such requires regular practice of that skill and perseverance. These parents were cluey enough to realise that it was going to be a hard road and were happy to support and encourage that commitment, even when the going got tough, and it often does at some stage when learning the piano. Parents are the salt of the earth and I admire them greatly. These parents had held firm even when pressure was on and have been rewarded with children who now have a life-long skill which they love.

It’s tough bringing up children, and we all want our children to be happy, but committing to anything is a quality worth learning and the play-offs are enormous, far beyond learning a great skill, no mean feat. It effects character and relationships, trust and abilities and is definitely worth the learning. Committed parents make committed children and strong character. And certainly makes our job as teachers much easier.