True Grit

little girl enjoying music through earphones

fuelling the desire

The key to success boils down to 3 essentials: determination to succeed, correct practising, and acquiring good reading skills.

Let’s talk more about determination, or sticking to the task however long it takes. What we might call having grit.

I want to debunk straight away the myth that you are either musical or you are not; that you are either musically talented or not. ANYONE CAN LEARN TO PLAY THE PIANO.

So why do so many fail to learn to play this beautiful instrument?
The answer is complicated, but our 3 elements are at the root of the problem.

  1. Fuel the desire. Those of you who have read any self-help books or looked into the whys and where-fors of success, will know to first fuel DESIRE. Without desire there can be no goal-setting and no determination. So first fuel your child’s desire to learn piano. Make yours a musical family. Sing and dance, clap and move as well as listening to a variety of music. Watch people playing the piano on Youtube. Make enthusiastic noises.
  2. Now we are warming up to the idea, fuel the desire by encouraging the goal setting and commitment. The commitment to learn to play should be open-ended, life long. The goal should be to become a good pianist, not necessarily in the professional sense, but to be the best possible. To decide to “try it for a year” is not good enough and doomed to failure.

The wonderful book by Michael Griffin, “Learning Strategies for Musical Success,” gives details of many studies that have been done measuring talent against hard work. Hard work wins out every time. In every case, child prodigies thought to be extremely gifted have found to have put in extraordinary amounts of practice. Mozart practised for hours from the age of 3. Tiffany Poon, the renowned prodigy who was awarded a schlorship to the Juillard School at the age of 8, played from the age of 2 and from the start of formal lessons at the age of 4.5 practised over 4 hours a day! She was also very curious about music. Encouraged by her parents, she developed the ability to concentrate for long periods of time at an early age. Yes, she may have been genetically more endowed, but it was her dedication and grit that lead to success.

And so it has proved for all professional players. Sheer hard work and persistence have been shown to be behind every success story. Child prodigies appear to be so brilliant because they are compared with children of their own age, not people who have put in the same number of practice hours. The magical number of 10,000 hours seems to apply, with  professionals clocking up well over 10,000 hours of practice, competent amateurs at least 8,000 and so on.

preteen girl thinking

dreaming, thinking

In his book, Griffin also cites studies done comparing children who were told they were gifted and so had acquired a “fixed intelligence mindset,” with children not labelled talented or gifted but who had a strong desire to succeed. What was found was that the children with the fixed intelligence mindset assumed they would be able to everything easily, but were also reluctant to test themselves in case they were not as talented as they had been told. Children who believed in developing their potential were less worried by mistakes. When practising the same number hours it was the second set, those prepared to work to achieve their goals, who achieved the highest levels of success. Children who believe they are talented often have fixed ideas about their abilities and are less open to teaching and fresh ideas.

“In the investigation of superior achievement, precocity can be explained in terms of practice hours, opportunity, parental support, and a young starting age.”

 

Three Essentials for Learning Piano

teenage girls practising band

playing music with friends

The road to success can be long and hard. But does it need to be? Learning to play the piano can be a real chore for some children, but for others it is a great joy. Why is this?

I would really love to say I have an answer that will turn every child into a budding pianist but perhaps that’s a bit optimistic.  As a teacher I am always looking for better ways of helping each child to succeed. I have distilled the three essentials which seem to be true for all.

These three things that seem to indicate whether a child will be a struggler or fly along happily. Thank goodness all these things can be changed or improved at any time.

Children come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their natural musical abilities. Some children have no natural sense of rhythm, some seem to be born drummers; some can sing like angels, others need to learn how to use their vocal cords; some are natural memorisers, etc. etc. But everyone has the wonderful ability to learn.

These 3 essential elements greatly increase the likelihood of short and long term success.

1. Grit: Whether children are learning to spell, doing complicated sums, or learning to play the piano, the determination to succeed is crucial! Once the first excitement of starting the piano has worn off, there comes a realisation that to learn to play this beautiful instrument is really quite challenging. Some children enjoy this challenge and put everything into achieving ever greater goals. Some children groan and hand the whole responsibility of their success over to their parents and teacher. Needless to say without much success. Please note by success I mean baby steps. Really being able to play and enjoy a lovely piece how-ever easy. Grit, or determination keeps a child trying until they can – just like a little child learning to walk. Grit is crucial for learning a skill, and playing the piano is a skill.

2. Practice: Knowing how to practise and when to practise is a crucial skill and needs some organisation of self and home to get it right. It is a self-discipline, and as such has enormous flow-overs into every area of learning for your child. In fact it is life changing. It needs to be done regularly and properly. A time should be found which will work every day, and it should be stuck to. The gains are huge and the side-effect is that your child will start to love playing. The ‘how to” practise is more tricky. Aimless playing through and watching the clock achieves very little and should be avoided. Having a goal to achieve for the day/week and succeeding shows real progress and is very inspiring. There are many good books written on this subject. It is definitely worth getting this right.

3. Good reading skills: Teachers call this sight reading. It means that your child can pick up a piece of music that they have not seen before and play it. How wonderful is that!! Good reading skills mean that your child can have fun playing lots of music, not just the few they are learning. Good reading skills have enormous pay-offs because now your child can read and learn pieces much quicker and so, you’ve guessed it, make huge progress. Some of you may be thinking – surely that is why my child is learning the piano? Absolutely! And yet it is amazing how many children are not able to read anything without months of excruciatingly slow learning. You would find it amazing if after years of reading your child could not open a book and read a story, but this is what I see everyday when children attempt to play through a new piece. I work through sight reading every lesson, but children need to play new music everyday to bring their skills up to a level where playing piano is a pure joy.

cartoon mountaineer

climbing to success

So there we have it. Some many disagree with this list, but after many years of teaching I have found GRIT,PRACTICE and READING SKILLS are the key to success. Your teacher is doing their best, but show your child you are serious about music and help to improve these three elements and watch your child succeed.

Explorers: Learning keyboard skills and music basics

Explorers

Explorers

Explorers is a two-year sequential programme for 3.5 to 5.5-year-olds. Those clever little preschoolers are brilliantly catered for!

In 2014 I taught Kinderbach to this age group. Kinderbach is a lovely programme pioneered by Karri Gregor. But as an ex Kindermusik and Kodaly teacher with ideas of my own, I soon found myself changing bits here and bits there, wanting to introduce more fun activities that I’d already used to great effect. So in the end I bit the bullet and spent some months developing my own programme.

The step by step approach of Explorers ensures that by school age children have a good gasp of music basics and are ready to move on to more mature piano tuition. Explorers achieves this in an easy and free manner through many short activities of singing, movement, dancing, beating, rhythm work, ensemble, creating, listening to stories and learning about other instruments, musical genres and composers. Children are taught to read music so that they can sing what they read and write what they hear. Much of this is learned through games. I have also ensured that children do not get out of their depth by careful nurturing and rethinking how to present new material.

This programme is definitely worth taking time to explore. It is not often that you find an activity where children shriek with delight, while learning so many valuable things. And developing their brains through music benefits other learning and character development for the rest of their life.

Exam Time

stressed lady

stressed teacher or mum!

Once again we are in the last run-up to piano exam with the usual nerves and anxieties for teacher and pupil alike!  If only children realised the stress they put their teachers through.  When I was a child I can remember thinking how lovely it would be to be the teacher, immune to the worry of approaching exams.  I wish!!

I think one of the biggest worries for the teacher is the unpredictable nature of children.  I never seem to learn this, after many years of teaching.  Once exams are over I seem to have amnesia, as with childbirth, and I forget the process entirely. Then here we are again.  My carefully planned timing is completely undone, and with weeks to go there are children still painstakingly learning scales and notes, never mind my imagined meticulous polishing and adding exciting touches. So what goes wrong?

I think I am an idealist.  In an ideal world all children would practise efficiently every day, they would delight in the musical adventure, laugh at the joy of speeding up scales and eagerly anticipate each new piece. Unfortunately there are very few children who fall into this category.  These children are a real joy, and like other music teachers I see my teaching excelling as our enthusiasm feeds off the other.  But some children are there only because their parents insist, and many more, while they like playing, are only too willing to fore-go the practice.  So while we think pupils are making steady progress, there comes a week when other things get in the way, and then another happy-go-lucky week, and suddenly your plans are ruined and we are into damage control, our tense and tight voices panicking the child who is then ready to bolt, like a startled horse.

I wish I knew the answer…  Allow more time seems a sensible idea, but I’ve found it often means the child delays doing anything.  Some children just will not work until their backs are against the wall, and then it is often too late.  Children are not good at planning ahead and assume teachers are old and fussy and all will be well in the end.  I had one pupil who timed it to perfection.  She started working about 3 weeks before the exam and walked out with a distinction every time, to my great annoyance and increasing grey hairs!  Alas, this doesn’t work for many who usually scrape through, but never really achieve anywhere near their full potential.

Mastering the piano is a skill, and like all skills there are many hidden elements to be mastered. Every Olympian must have complete control over themself in order to succeed. We witnessed this year just how many great athletes failed to reach their personal bests because of faulty timing.

lady playing piano cartoon

self discipline

I guess these hidden elements are:

  1. self-discipline – ensuring daily practice comes first
  2. Taking the right steps, looking at detail
  3. Picturing the goal and being determined to get there
  4. Believing in yourself

Many of these fine traits lead to success in other things and are well worth cultivating. But to acquire them needs commitment from the child and great support from the home.  So teachers – we can only do our best, the responsibility is then with the child.

Time for a glass of wine!!

Something Fresh

Spiralling piano keys

Something fresh

Unfortunately there never seems to be enough time in the lesson to fit in pieces, scales, ear tests, sight reading …. the list goes on… But what can you teach when you or your pupil need a break from routine.  Perhaps the long awaited exam is over, or the pressure of school is making practice difficult. Sometimes a change of pace acts like a tonic to revitalise lessons.

Without a great deal of extra teacher enthusiasm, sparkle and a good dose of creativity, pupils can flag into a state of turning up for lessons, but having a break from practising.  All has to be forgiven, but with a feeling of disappointment and a sense of teacher failure.  This situation needs to be nipped in the bud before the descent into the dreaded downward spiral!

Refreshing ideas for grey moments:

  • Exciting new book or pieces well-chosen for child.  A change of pace, perhaps mood pieces, may do the trick.
  • Pick up some jazz music or well-arranged pop.  Good time to try different genres.
  • Use cheat sheets or fake books and learn how to play by ear and add simple harmonies.
  • Music related side-fields – learn to sing, play recorder, conquer rhythm through creative means.
  • Teach some new concepts through games.
  • Play/teach duets. Duets are excellent for that change of pace.  Can be greatly motivating and will definitely hone skills such as rhythm, musicality and expression.
  • “Tricks” for technical work. eg. learn the trick of chromatic fingering, playing in thirds, starting a scale on any note.
  • For the little ones, a few simple-to-read or rote Christmas or Easter songs, whatever is in season.
  • Singing or rhythm games.
  • Lead sheets of pieces they have wanted to play.

Good luck!

Memorisation

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.