In Australia we are just starting the new school year, five weeks in to be exact. This is always a good time to reassess teaching and think of new ways to success.
To begin with, what is success? Do we want every child to be a concert pianist. Obviously not! But I confess to an urge that each child goes as far as they can. I now realise after 30 years of teaching that I have been looking down the wrong end of the telescope. I have in fact always looked at what I want without, if I’m honest, thinking much about what children want. Perhaps I have always feared that children would want very little, which would reflect badly on my reputation. So I tried to get better and better results from different tutors, even for a long time not using a tutor and in a way trying to reinvent the wheel by teaching through pieces and spending a lot of time thinking of when to teach what, progress etc. I’m sure my anxiety was obvious.
Revelation one, a few years back now, was when my husband, also a teacher, said “Make the lessons more fun and praise them more. They will learn better when they feel good about themselves.”
So true, and I really tried, but it’s hard to make a child feel good when they never practise and you have big plans for them. I needed to create more motivation. But how? My problem was I was still expecting too much and was still trying to move too fast. I’d forgotten the old saying, “You must learn to walk before you can run.”
Revelation two has come from several sources, and really through finding out more about happiness. What makes people happy is growing, or learning if you like, challenging ourselves. Happiness is that sense of achievement involved in any task we set ourselves, whether it is learning a new skill, trying a new recipe, walking a little further each day, doing a crossword puzzle or playing a computer game. The sense of pleasure involved in such activities is very powerful and is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as the flow. BUT……. and here is the crux of the matter: small steps = happiness; something perceived as too far beyond our capabilities = frustration, sadness and giving up. Yes – it is true – we can achieve ANYTHING, but only if it is something we are drawn too, and if we take all the small steps necessary to reach our goal.
So what has all this got to do with piano tutors? Well nothing in a way. But as I looked at all the blogs and sites of other piano teachers on the net, I couldn’t help but notice that just about any tutor is somebody’s favourite, and somebody’s pet hate. Really it isn’t the tutor but how it is used. I really think using a tutor is the best idea. There are fantastic tutors around which present and cover all the technique and theory in good order and through great pieces, so no need to reinvent the wheel. I’ve tried, but I couldn’t do it as well. Choose one or two different tutors that you love, to suit different ages and abilities, and stick to them. Present material one step at a time, doing most of the learning IN THE LESSON, so that the child can just go home and enjoy playing. Each lesson, give the child one thing they can achieve easily so they can go home feeling successful – if all fails, a short rote piece. And include games and materials. Tall order – MAKE EVERYTHING FUN! Honestly, it is possible. Read www.insidemusicteaching.com for ideas.
So here are my personal favourite tutors, and I stress personal. You need to work with quite a few before you find ones to suit your style. My personal favourite is Alfred Basic Piano Library. It has lasted the test of time and the kids still love it. I really like the ordering and pacing and there is no unnecessary padding. The old warhorse Bastien Basic Piano Course is excellent and nothing is forgotten. But I find it is looking a little dated now in spite of the uncluttered pages and large format.
My Favourite Four:
Alfred Basic Piano Library
I use the lesson books and one other companion book. The new Pop music books for each level are greatly loved! The Technic books are excellent and cleverly distill the essence of good technique.
I’ve tried hard not to like these books as I personally don’t like cluttered pages. Every little trick to bring music and excitement out of the child, is employed and children just love the pieces. I only use the lessons book and sometimes the theory or performance book as I like to use the lesson pieces to teach theory and build exercises. For a beginning teacher, all the books would be helpful. There are many books covering all the beginning stages of learning and many supplementary books.
Pianotime: Tunes for Ten Fingers and More Tunes for Ten Fingers
I love these books and so do the children. They work well for children 4 – 7 years and are quite charming. There are lots of imaginative story telling as we go. Unfortunately I find that the following tutor Pianotime 1 starts slowly but then skips away leading to great frustration, especially as the music is very small and hard to read. But luckily the first books can lead quite happily into the books of Piano Adventures or Alfred.
Alfred Music for Little Mozarts
This is fast becoming the most popular course I use for children aged 4 – 6. They are enchanted by the characters Beethoven Bear and Mozart Mouse and the books tell a story and move at just the right pace. Along side the lesson book children work through a workbook which beautifully reenforces each new concept.