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Of all the blogs I’ve written the one that has generated the most controversy has been “Piano Lessons Are FUN? THINK AGAIN!!”  I would like to revisit that topic with a slightly different angle.

The angle I’d like to explore in this blog is that of “excess“.  From this angle I think you can keep Keyboard Kidsyour own definition of fun in tact.  Whenever this topic comes up it seems several people will make the point of the necessity of defining the word “fun”.  This blog will allow you to define the word “fun” however you wish.  My point will be, with whatever your definition of “fun” you use, if it is done to excess you will undermine your effectiveness as a teacher.

FIRST POINT —  As a piano teacher your primary job is to teach, to educate, NOT HAVE FUN.  When you are not giving your primary attention to your primary job your priorities are in need of adjustment.  If your FIRST QUESTION is how can I make this teaching task “more fun” I think you’re asking the wrong question.  The FIRST QUESTION should always be how can I make this teaching task make sense to the student.  Your first question reveals your first concern.  Is it to teach or to have fun?

If your first question is about teaching, about educating, the element of making the task enjoyable, or fun, will just be one element of several.  There may be other elements that need attention.  Other elements may include, “How can I make this more clear?”  “How much detail is necessary at this time for this student to understand?” “How does this student best learn information?” “Can I make this more point more effectively through a story?”  “Would an activity that would involve more student interaction be more effective?”  “Could this task be accomplished through a demonstration of some sort?”  “Would my student benefit from more repertoire helping to reinforce the point the student needs to understand?”  “Would any sort of written assignment be beneficial?”

BUT, if the first question is about fun then every task listed above is evaluated according to its fun value and not its educational value.  You may think, “Going into detail may bore him.  I can’t to that.”  “Written assignments are a drag.  No one likes doing them.”  “This student doesn’t like this kind of piece.  He may lose interest if I assign it.”

YET, if the first question is about teaching, about educating, you will answer the questions above like this, “How can I make detail work interesting to this student?”  “How can I convince this student that this piece would benefit him?”  “What would aid this student in helping him see the value of this written assignment?”

Yes, these are more difficult questions to answer, but answering these questions can lead to a more intellectually engaged student and that, in turn, will result in much higher teacher satisfaction.

If a teacher’s primary concern is education, it will lead them to better questions and therefore better answers.  However, if your primary concern is making lessons “fun” you will be preventing yourself from asking proper questions and the answers to bad questions will result in answers that will lead to unsatisfactory results.

Now lets examine the concept of how excessive emphasis on wrong values can lead to very unhealthy consequences.

salt shakerLet’s compare “fun” in teaching to additives  like “salt” or “sugar” to the foods we eat.  Looking at these additives positively, we can all agree that salt can make something palatable, edible.  How many times have we been served something that needed salt to make it palatable?  Without the salt we wouldn’t, or maybe even couldn’t, have eaten the item served to us.  In like manner, some teaching tasks need to be salted to make them palatable to the student.

HOWEVER, I think we have all found that salt isn’t the only way to make something palatable.  Broiling cod in orange juice is terrific and requires no salt at all.  Often, herbs provide a great substitute for salt.  Sprinkling some Parmesan cheese on vegetables can cut down the salt content and eliminate the need for the salt shaker.  The point, through analogy, is that “fun” isn’t the only way of making piano “palatable”.  spice rackThere are many ways of making lessons palatable and even “delicious”.  Stories. Analogies. Demonstrations. Goals.

In fact, too much salt is not good for you.  Too much salt over a period of time is a cause of many health problems including high blood pressure and poor kidney function.  In like manner, always choosing “fun” will just as assuredly cause problems in piano study, including the “addiction” to “fun” as being a necessary additive to all education.  Would we become “addicted” to potato chips if they were unsalted?  Students need a judicious variety of additives to make their piano study healthy where they do not become sick.  Too much “fun” is as problematic as too much “salt” in the long term is, in both general health and piano lessons.

Let’s look at sugar.  “Sugar” is another culprit that’s used to excess and can be analogous to thoseSugar Bowl that feel the need to “sugar” every piano lesson, every activity, with “fun”.  But, we also know that too much sugar (excess) leads to diabetes; and diabetes can lead to other maladies, including blindness and even kidney failure.  Again, I see a direct line from a preoccupation with fun to meager results (poor piano health) after years of piano lessons.  When I end a lesson by telling the student, “We had a good lessons today!”, I’m always thinking the student learned a lot in his 30 or 60 minutes; not, that the student left the lesson in good spirits because we had fun in all the activities.

Also, don’t confuse palatability with addiction (excess).  A little sweetener is completely acceptable.  The problem is confusing taste with nutrition.  Sugar doesn’t give food more nutritional value it just make it more palatable, but the excess used day after day is what causes health problems.   In like manner, an undue concern to making our lessons sweet enough so they will always be enthusiastically consumed, is wrongheaded.  Our main concern should be the “nutritional value” of our lessons with only a secondary concern given to their “palatability”, and excesses need to be curtailed, if not dropped.

But let’s realize that food outlets know our addiction to salt and sugar.  People enjoy food that is salty or sweet.  It’s easy to eat a large bag of chips because we like the salt.  We can easily eat a dozen cookies because we love the sweetness.  We have become accustomed to unhealthy levels of salt and sugar because we are not sated by a few chips or a couple cookies.  We have been told by health care workers of all stripes to avoid excesses in salt and sugar.  I think the exact same thing could be said about education with the constant emphasis on making everything fun.

How many educational products are sold because of its “fun value” where its “educational value” is just given a passing incidental mention.  That’s because “fun” sells.  In fact, publishers will print and advertise products simply for their “fun value”.  Teachers can become addicted too and think that “fun” is the way to go and think through the pedagogical products they purchase.  Products that do not convince you of their “fun value” are viewed as not totally desirable.  Fun has become, not an additive, but an addiction given to us at excessive rates, and it’s harming our long term educational effectiveness.

I do need to make one important point before closing.  I am NOT saying that we don’t advertise ourselves as making music lessons “fun”.  We all have to dutifully mention that we make piano lessons “fun”; but, I’m sure we do that as a matter of feeling the societal pressure that it’s necessary to demonstrate we are not that stereotypical curmudgeon of past generations that rapped students on the knuckles for poor technical form or for scolding students for not practicing.   I get that.  I understand.

But I do see the need for us to see the serious drawbacks that can occur if we get caught up on the “fun trap”.  A trap that gives excessive attention to the feeling that making lessons “fun” is given a mouse_trappriority that it simply does not deserve.  “Fun” must only be considered an additive to make lessons palatable and needs to be administered judiciously, because in excess, it will lead to poor lesson health.  Remember “fun” isn’t the only additive in our teaching pallet; there’s stories, analogies, demonstrations, goals, and plain friendliness and genuine interest in our students as wonderful people.  But our priority, our first concern, must be on making our lessons educationally rich where music can work its magic in our student’s lives.

As a piano teacher and as a parent I can say without equivocation that being a parent is tremendously more difficult.  This is true in spite of 6 years of music lessons through my grade school years…

Source: Parents: Preparation for THE FIRST PIANO LESSON

As a piano teacher and as a parent I can say without equivocation that being a parent is tremendously more difficult.  This is true in spite of 6 years of music lessons through my grade school years that prepared me for 6 more years to attain 2 college degrees that prepared me just to enter my profession as a music teacher.  So, the advice I give here is given humbly because I think both of us want your child to be a resounding success in their music study.  I want to succeed because of my calling as a music teacher and I’m sure you want to succeed because of your vastly more difficult challenge of being a good parent.

Musical Family
I’m not going to give you 12 points on how to be a good “piano parent”.  I’m not going to give you 7 points, or even 3 points.  I’m just going to give you 1 simple point. That point is …….

PREPARE YOUR CHILD TO BE A GOOD STUDENT

student

When I became a parent in the late 1970’s there was a move away from the view that “a child should be seen but not heard”.  Children were encouraged to interact with adults.  Children were taught to be assertive. Children were taught to express themselves confidently.  As parents we listened to our children and did our best to respect their thoughts and wishes.  All these things are proper and good.  However ……..

……. these good traits do not always work for the best in a teacher-student relationship.

teacher student

The most common issue teachers face is the student that looks on the teacher as their buddy or their friend.  Sometimes teachers affectionately refer to these students as a “Chatty Kathy”.  Of course I consider all my students my little friends but in a teacher-student sense.  Some students will take each lesson as an opportunity to tell me everything that’s going on in their life.  I must say that sometimes this is all very interesting but it’s really not critical that I know that their little brother hid the beans he didn’t want to eat for supper behind the trash can.  And I certainly don’t want to know that mommy made daddy sleep on the couch last night! It’s important for a young child to know that even though their teacher is friendly and interested in them, that the main reason they come to the piano lesson is to learn about playing the piano and not sharing their life experiences, interesting though they are.  Their relationship with their teachers is a special one; and one that is unlike other relationships they will encounter in their lives.  It is a relationship that’s different than the one with their parents, or, their relationship with their peers.

Teachers love it when students feel free to communicate and interact with them during their lesson.  This free flow of communication helps the teacher in many ways.  It helps the teacher in making good educational decisions.  If a student expresses his like for a certain kind of music and his dislike for another kind of music that is important information for a teacher to know. A good teacher will consider this when choosing appropriate music; music the student will enjoy practicing.  However, this free communication does not mean that the teacher is duty bound to direct the student to music that is limited only to their area of interest.  A teacher-student relationship is one where the teacher helps expand the view of his student.  A good teacher will never discount the views of his student but he will want to expand the views to take in more territory.  So, it is important for any child to know that in a teacher-student relationship the teacher is going to be expanding horizons and moving the students out of their “comfort zones” in order to expand those horizons.  This is part of the teacher-student relationship.

Again, it is very helpful when a student is assertive.  If a student is assertive and says I DON’T LIKE FINGER EXERCISES that is very useful information for a teacher to know.  With information given that bluntly, the teacher can immediately respond.  When I’m confronted with this type of assertiveness I do not take offense.  I do not take it personally as an attack on my teaching.  I want to know “why” the student asserted this.  I will ask the student many questions to determine the “why”.  Were the exercises too difficult.  Were they uninteresting.  Were they intimidating because of the speed I may have demonstrated the exercise.  Were the exercises awkward for their hands.  With the student’s assertiveness I can immediately go about solving a difficulty.  However, this assertiveness does not mean I abandon the idea of finger exercises.  A student needs to know that in a teacher-student relationship assertiveness does not translate into a capitulation on the teachers part.

We live in an age when bullying is an issue we must confront.  We teach our children, quite correctly, not to be intimidated by bullies.  We teach them to be confident in their convictions, to stand up for themselves as to not be influenced by the tactics of a bully.  However, taking this attitude into the teacher-student relationship can be problematic.  This attitude often comes up in a piano lesson when the teacher will make a correction in a student’s performance, on a piece they’ve prepared for their lesson.  The student will resist the teacher’s instruction, confidently thinking the teacher is wrong in their evaluation.  Often when this happens I will try to come from a different angle to make the same point.  Again, in the teacher-student relationship the teacher is there to educate the student in their musical and pianistic understanding and this will often challenge the student, especially as the student gets into the junior high and high school years.  Again, a major part of the teacher-student relationship is to correct and refine.  All quality teachers do this with the student’s best interest in mind.  It is never done to tear a student down; though, at times, especially if the student is having a bad day, it may feel like it.  It is done to build them up and make the student better.  To have a good teacher-student relationship this must be understood.

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parent student teacher

I certainly understand the difficult demands of raising children in the 21st century and if I were a parent I would certainly teach my children to interact easily with adults,  to be assertive, to express themselves confidently.  I would teach them in how to deal with strong personalities and bullies. I would do my best to always respect their thoughts and wishes.  I would even give them a certain suspicion of adult authority figures. But, I would also temper these thoughts where there would be limits in their interaction with adults where adults would still be given due deference.  I would temper their assertiveness with the ability to listen to the wishes of others.  I would temper confidence with humility and teach them the best way to gain the respect of others is give due respect in return.  I think these points will all go towards preparing young children to be good students where music lessons will be the resounding success we desire for student, parent and teacher.  And, I think it will develop outstanding teacher-student relationships.

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The following selection is an excerpt from The Discovery Piano SystemBook 2ALadybugs.  This piece is an excellent example of a composition tailor made for introducing piano students to eighth notes.
FF - SAMPLE Ladybugs p1
Many beginning students are challenged when eighth notes are introduced into their music compositions.  I find this is because:
1) The notes contain SKIPS or a combination of SKIPS and STEPS
2) The notes change their beat arrangement.  Sometimes the eighth note group begins on a weak beat and sometimes the eighth note group begins on a strong beat.  In each case each eighth note group has a different rhythmic feel.  An eighth note group beginning on a strong beat has a different feel than an eighth note group beginning on a weak beat.
FF - SAMPLE Ladybugs p2
On LADYBUGS every eighth note group is a set of REPEATED NOTES.  This takes away all reading difficulties and coordination issues created by eighth note arrangements of steps and skips.  The student can focus all their attention to the rhythmic feel of the eighth note rhythm
Also, every eighth note group begins on a strong beat; either BEAT 1 or BEAT 3; so, every group is going to have a slight accent on the “first note of the group”.   Every eighth note group with have the same rhythmic feel.  This constant identical feel will help the student learn the eighth note rhythm more easily.

I always group the two eighths notes with the following note.  In this case the group would be eighth-eighth-quarter.  I often call this little rhythmic unit a three note phrase as this is the way the ear most naturally organizes this rhythm.  Often I will say three note phrase as the students play this little rhythm while playing Ladybugs.

Try this piece with your beginning students in their learning of eighth notes and I think you will see a quicker learning curve in this little musical hurdle.

To learn more about The Discovery Piano System –  Book 2A “click” on the graphic below to view a video of the contents of The Discovery Piano System –  Book 2A and some of the pedagogical thought behind it.
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The Discovery Piano System – Book 2A DPS 2A Color Cover

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