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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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The National Guild of Piano Teachers will be auditioning students of Severino’s Piano Lessons PLUS for the 2010 – 2011 academic year.  I thought it would be a good idea to give parents my experiences with the Piano Guild.  I hope by the end of this article you will share my enthusiasm for making this decision.

The founder of the National Guild of Piano Teacher, Irl Allison, is also the originator of the very prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  The following is a quote from Handbook of Texas Online.  You can find the complete article at  http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/VV/xfv1.html

Allison had long supported excellence in piano playing—as a pianist, as a piano teacher, and especially as the founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers. This organization sponsors the National Piano Playing Auditions, a program that brings professional musicians to cities and towns all over the country to judge the performance of students. The occasion for the founding of the Cliburn Foundation was Van Cliburn’s winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958; victory in this contest is one of the most coveted and prestigious achievements to which a young pianist can aspire. When Cliburn won, he was widely hailed as a major cultural ambassador whose influence would help to nullify the Cold War.

I’ve been involved with the National Guild of Piano Teachers for many years.  I established two audition centers for their organization in the 70’s and 80’s.  I’ve also been one of their judges who has listened to students from audition centers all over the state of Pennsylvania.

I like the organization for many reasons but I think the biggest reason is that they have a complete understanding of the piano student, all piano students.  Because of this understanding they’ve devised a system of auditions that can provide worthwhile goals for students of all ages, all ambitions, and all abilities.

THE NATIONAL FRATERNITY OF STUDENT MUSICIANS

All students who enter the auditions become a member of the National Fraternity of Student Musicians.  Students decide on the level of membership they want to become in the fraternity.  The levels are …..

LOCAL MEMBERSHIP – A student becomes a local member by successfully completing an audition of 2-3 memorized pieces.

DISTRICT MEMBERSHIP – A student becomes a district member by successfully completing an audition of 4-6 memorized pieces.

STATE MEMBERSHIP – A student becomes a state member by successfully completing an audition of 7-9 pieces.

NATIONAL MEMBERSHIP – A student becomes a national member by successfully completing an audition of 10-14 pieces.

INTERNATIONAL MEMBERSHIP – A student becomes an international member by successfully completing an audition of 15-20 pieces.

For students who have difficulty with memorizing pieces there is a Hobbyist Classification.

Students that do not identify with Classical music can enter the audition in a Jazz/Pop Classification.  These auditions may or may not be memorized.

There is also a Social Music Classification for students learning a series of hymns, patriotic, folk, and popular songs.

Students even have the option of playing a complete Bach Program to receive a plaque featuring an image of J.S. Bach.

One of the nicest features is that of earning a High School Diploma for piano.  Even though the work expected is very demanding; if completed, the student should be prepared for college level work and will be very well prepared for the level of work expected of a student in a music school.

The above only mentions the basics of the Piano Guild programs.  As you can see there is something for all ages, all ambitions, and all abilities.

Another strong point about Guild Auditions is that the rating system is a  complex system that compares strong points to weak points that makes comparisons between students difficult.  Put into that complexity is a very insightful evaluation that can be very helpful to the student.

The judges chosen for the auditions are chosen with great care.  Often they are college professors with a special interest in seeing students in their early years of study.  They are often from out of town and they do not have a personal relationship with any of the teachers, let alone students.  This makes the judges job much easier to be objective and straightforward.  One of the main reasons I didn’t like our previous system of evaluations is that judges were pressured to be very lenient with their evaluations.  I didn’t think the scores received represented my class fairly.  This is not something that I felt occurred as a result of my students participating in Guild.  Evaluations were fair and accurate but still were very encouraging.

Students are awarded each year with a handsome certificate and a fraternity pin.  There are awards for excellence.

I find the National Guild of Piano Teachers and their audition program(s) to be an excellent supplement to piano study.  I hope you will share my enthusiasm after our auditions next spring.  More information will become available as necessary.

 

 

 

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