Archive for June, 2012

The SILENT Piano Lesson

All teachers teach their piano students HOW TO PRACTICE.  We often will take a couple minutes during a lesson and give the students pointers on how to effectively use their time.  These pointers usually include things like — play hands separately — isolate difficult spots — practice away from the piano — play at a constant tempo, even if slower than the final tempo, that you can keep from the beginning to the end.  I thought that after I went over this ritual, even at periodic intervals, I was effectively doing my job.

One day I found out how INEFFECTIVE this method was in teaching students how to practice.  One day I said to several of my students — Today we’re going to have a SILENT PIANO LESSON.  I’m not going to say a word.  I’m just going to observe you practice.  I may sketch down a few notes but for all practical purposes I want you to forget I’m here.  I want you to practice just like you do at home.

This gave me a chance to see how effectively my little “how to practice” lectures took root in my student’s practice routine.  I thought my little lectures were clear.  I always thought my explanations were colorful and full of analogies they could grasp.  I got feedback from the student that they understood my point(s).  And to complete the lesson I would ask them “How are you going to practice differently this week?”  They would answer with the affirmation that they would follow my instructions.

To my surprise most students practiced the same way.  They would play one piece and then go on to the next piece until they played all their pieces.  A couple of the students would play through the piece a couple times; but always the same way — from beginning to end.

It became obvious, regardless of what I thought was effective teaching, what I was doing was very lacking.  Like most piano teachers we generally teach students that are above average academically. I can’t really blame the students.  I also couldn’t blame myself.  I was doing good work.

So the question is, what is different between the lessons time and their practice time?  The answer —- ME.  When I’m guiding the student I am providing the questions that need answered.  I’m providing the direction.  I’m evaluating the performance for them with the necessary commentary as to how the student should think about what they just did.  This is actually very sophisticated work and students are not yet creative enough or critical enough in their thinking to solve the problems necessary to improve their repertoire efficiently and effectively.  Students can improve and do improve week by week; but they do so with very inefficient and ineffective practicing.

I’ve come to the conclusion that students must be taught THROUGH CONSTANT MONITORING how to practice.  And this can most effectively be accomplished through The SILENT Piano Lesson.  Until the students learns the critical thinking skills necessary that’s part of practicing through the active participation of the teacher the student will only learn most slowly and most painfully.

We all want better for our students.

Students must learn learn the difference between playing the piano and practicing the piano.  Most students don’t know the difference without the vigilant effort of a good teacher.  To most students, even those that have played piano for several years, the difference between practice and performance is a very fuzzy and hazy concept.  Most students think music lessons is a process of making music.  Practice is what happens at the beginning and performance is what happens at the end.  It’s like making ice cream.  You start cranking and after you are done cranking you have ice cream.

But each (practicing and performing) is really an entirely different disposition.  Practicing uses an entirely different set of mental abilities than does performing.  Practicing is the creating of a reality from the notes on the printed page.  Performance is the projection of those notes, of that reality, to an audience; even if that audience is only the performer.

When teachers are preparing students for performances it’s very easy to seamlessly move from performance suggestions to practicing suggestions.  This is why I recommend that with some regularity we focus on The SILENT Piano Lesson.  On The SILENT Piano Lessons we teach student HOW TO PRACTICE first by observation ALONE. BE TOTALLY SILENT. Be totally silent and observe how much of their personal critical thinking skills is taking place.  In the last 5 – 10 minutes of the lesson  TEACH the student to think critically through your observations.  Do this repeatedly UNTIL critical thinking becomes second nature to the student.  If a student needs a SILENT Piano Lesson monthly for several years it will be worth it.

Then by teaching the student the critical thinking skills necessary the student will eventually learn INDEPENDENTLY the creation of the musical reality found in each composition they study.  I know teachers do this as part of each lesson, just as I described at the beginning of this blog; but, if we do it in ISOLATION as its own skill in developing critical thinking and being creative, I think, in time, students will learn HOW TO PRACTICE and not just do well in playing their repertoire.
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