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‘He loves their lessons with you, but I just can’t get them to practice,

and don’t want to nag!’

I’ve heard this refrain oodles of times in my years of teaching and my answer to parents is …..frustrated-parent1

NAG BABY!!

OK; let me refine that a bit …. PERSUADE BABY!!

Let’s take a closer look at that statement.He loves their lessons with you, but I just can’t get them to practice, and don’t want to nag!’

Your child loves his teacher.  That’s a huge positive. The comment implies that you want your child to succeed in piano.  That’s also a huge positive.  This is NOT the time to give up when so much is going on in the plus column in the ongoing family drama of piano lessons.  Like I said, I’ve heard this refrain from scores of parents over the years.

When a piano teacher hears a statement like this they have many options available to them, especially when the student “likes them”.  Many teachers will analyze the many different aspects of the piano lessons to find a solution to this commonly heard difficulty.  There are many things a piano teacher will consider using his professional perspective drawing on his education and experience.

I may have a professional perspective, but parents, you have a more powerful and more important perspective; you have a parental perspective. I say this as a teacher; with your perspective you can provide a support that I just cannot provide.

You’re the yin to our yang

The idea of yin and yang is that, taken together, they form a complete unit, a whole. Yet, at the same time they are different.  Yin and yang do not overlap or intersect.  Teachers cannot effectively work alone. Our Yang cannot do the job alone; at least cannot do it near as effectively.

NOTE: As in all analogies, this one, too, is not perfect in all aspects.  But, here are a couple ideas that parents can do to yin yangcompliment our yang with your yin.   Here are some strategies that you can do to persuade your child not only to love their piano lessons and piano teacher but to love the whole learning experience itself, even practicing.

I want to give you two simple points that will help all parents in The Art of Subtle Persuasion and I promise ….. no nagging required.

Yin Number One – LET YOUR CHILD KNOW YOUR DESIRES

I think often what happens is the homes across America, and the world for that matter, is that a child will do something to demonstrate and interest in music.  The parent is delighted about the child’s interest in music. I also think most parents have a secret hope that their child is musical.  They have a little conversation together. The parent then asks the child if they would like music lessons.  The child enthusiastically says, “SURE!!”.  And then, I get a phone call.

In all of this little conversation the parent never expresses their personal desire to their child The child doesn’t know that their parent is as enthusiastic as they are.  Teparent and child at pianoll your child how pleased you are about his love for music and how excited you are about getting him lessons.  This is a great bonding moment!!  Take the opportunity to unify with your child on your common desire you have together.  If you’re a hugging kind of parent maybe a big hug is in order here.  If you do, that unity of desire will inform your child that he isn’t taking piano lessons totally on his own.  He knows his parent is totally on board and is invested in the endeavor.  Young children thrive on knowing they are doing something that please their parents.

I also think it’s important that when you communicate this to your child you communicate it directly into the child’s mind/soul/heart.  You want to make sure this communication takes root in your child’s person.  I think eye to eye contact is called for in this situation.  This is not something frivolous you may shout from the kitchen before meal time, like, “Wash your hands before coming to dinner.”

This shouldn’t be a one time thing, either.  In a moment like when a parent must explain to the teacher, “I just can’t get them to practice and I don’t want to nag!!” may be such a moment to reiterate you commitment of your desire for your child’s success.  Speaking of your desire for your child’s success repeats the communication that this is an activity that you both want.  It is a much stronger statement than saying, “You told me that you wanted piano lessons.”  “You told me that you wanted piano lessons.” can easily turn into a “nag” because the whole communication is focused on the child. Speaking of your desire for your child’s success repeats the “we” unity.  You are part of this team effort.

I know there’s a lot of discussion that parent’s should not live their desires through their children.  I agree with that.  That is something to be avoided.  I think, though, in reaction to that concept one can go too far in the other direction. That other direction is that the child must make Parent-child-talkevery decision totally on his own accord or it must be looked upon as a parental manipulation and therefore no good. What I’m encouraging is a middle ground where the parent guides, encourages and persuades their child to follow through on a decision that was made together, not through any coercion whatsoever, but through mutual agreement.  Since it’s a mutual agreed upon commitment, you, as parent, have input in what your little team does when that initial resolve and enthusiasm wanes.

Notice, our first point is something totally out of the realm of the teacher.  This is your yin.  My yang comes from a totally different realm where there is no intersection.

Yin Number Two – KNOW YOUR CHILD.  Often, with younger students, parents will think a lesson time right after school may be convenient.  But, it ends out that the student is tired after being at school all day and really need some time to “recharge” or needs a snack to sharpen their mind up for piano lessons.  This is knowledge that cannot be known by the teacher because some children do very well with a piano lesson immediately after school.

Other important things that a teacher doesn’t know.

Is the piano is a area of the home where practice may be accomplished where other family members will feel put upon to “endure”?  But (and a very important but) the piano should also be in a place in the home where people can easily gather and music can be readily shared.

When I was a young student my family put our instrument (an electronic organ) in our living room.  The organ had headphones and when I practiced other family members could use the living room without me distracting them or they distracting me.  This was back in the day when the living room was the center of family activity when we were not all eating.  BUT, when the family members wanted me to play having the organ in the living room was the perfect place because it was the most social room of the house.  My grandfather lived with us and he would have me playchristmas at piano the hymns he loved.  When the insurance man would come to explain a new policy, my parents would ask me to play something, especially if I was practicing.  When my friends would come over and want me to play baseball they would come through to the living room and I’d play something I was learning.  When relatives would come and visit everyone would sit in the living room and invariably someone would ask me to play.

The point here is all social occasions are enhanced through music and it’s great incentive to have young student use their developing skills to share with others.  Don’t allow piano to become a lonely activity. Music is to be shared.  Nothing can persuade a student to practice than to know he can have all the attention of everyone in the room for those moments he can share music with others.

Again, this is the yin you add to my yang.  I cannot provide opportunities at this gratifying a level.  I can provide a recital or two per year or an academic setting of a performance class.  My opportunities are bronze or, at best, silver.  Yours are pure gold.

These two point will add powerful yin to my yang and should go a long way in The Art of Subtle Persuasion  …. no nagging required!!

 

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Many students take music lessons for several years.  Very good piano teachers have taught many students from preschool until they get involved in other activities in their early teen years.  At the end of that time many students can play individual pieces very convincingly.  The musicianship is strong.  The technique is solid.  The understanding of their piece is stylistically accurate.  You know from the performance that the student was “well taught”.  The student is “accomplished”.

But, put a new piece of music in front of this same  hard working student and it’s like having a young grade school student read a page of Chauser’s Cantebury Tales in original 14th century Middle English.  The student can make out an occasional word or two, maybe a short phrase here and there, but without any fluency that can make thought out of the text.  The delivery is very halting.  Words are pronounced very slowly and deliberately, often incorrectly.

This sounds like an entirely different student than the one just played so convincingly.  Unfortunately, this is far too often the norm and not the exception.  Why is this?  Why is sight reading music so difficult.

I definitely do not place the fault on the piano student.  If they can play well it is because they can respond to music as music.  Music is a language they can speak.  I do not fault the teacher because they have demonstrated obvious skill to get the student to the point of accurate performance.

I think the fault is one of priority.  We want piano students to first and foremost demonstrate musicianship.  We want to hear beautifully shaped phrases.  We want to inform students as to the meaning of all those notes on the page.  We get caught up so much on the “meaning of those notes” that we lose focus of the notes themselves.  They almost become an unimportant means to the end.  The priority we need to give to the notes gets shunted to the side because of our focus on the “meaning”.  We want to see a forest without appreciating the trees that create that forest.  Translating this to music, we want to hear the song without giving due attention to the arrangement of the notes.  If we want students to become good sight readers, we must make sight reading a priority.  A very high priority.

Sight reading needs its own “method” books.  Our best method books are not well designed for teaching sight reading.  They have been designed for performance purposes; for teaching musicianship.  I think most methods today do a good job in this department.  Most teachers, myself included, want to teach musicianship from the very beginning, even the first lesson.  We are trained to think this way.  Our method books are centered on the Lesson Book.  All other books are ancillary to that Lesson Book.  The Performance Book. The Theory Book.  The Technique Book.  The Reading Book.

Because we are trained to think this way we give such a priority to musicianship that we neglect giving students the skills read music fluently.   We see staccato in a little composition and we give a great deal of attention to producing a good staccato sound.  We give attention to how to do this technically.  We notice unevenness in the fingers, as fingers 4 and 5 cannot play staccato with the same precision as fingers 2 and 3 …… and then there’s the thumb.  The focus becomes so easily totally wrapped up in musicianship issues that before we know it the lesson is over.

This all involves very professionally training.  It involves real teaching skill.  It is all very satisfying work.  But, this pattern of giving so much attention to these musical matters is having the unintended consequences of having students that play well but can’t sight read worth beans.  Students rightly deserve their superior ratings in auditions and festivals but they were neglected the training to become the independent musicians we all desire.  I know many teachers, like myself, set before themselves the lofty goal of “making themselves obsolete”.  Certainly, one of the best ways to make oneself obsolete is to teach our student to become good sight readers.

This idea really deserves a full length book but I’m going to give some basic ideas to get us to thinking about this topic.

THE CONCEPT OF VERTICAL SPACE

To read text, the eye must take in only a small amount of “vertical space”; a space no higher than the size of the font.  I remember in grade school, there were machines that would focus our eyes on this vertical space and the text would fly by at various speeds to help us become quicker readers.  This machine worked very well because in the sixth grade I was reading and comprehending at almost a 10th grade level.

Reading music is much more involved than reading text.  The amount of vertical space required is much larger.  No longer must the eye take in a single line of text, but the eye must take in the grand staff; a treble clef and a bass clef, and some sometimes multiple lines of music.

To read music one must develop the ability to not only move their eyes from left to right but also up and down.  If the right hand is a simple one note, treble clef melody and the left hand is a series of bass clef chords, the eye must move in a complex pattern of left to right to take in the melody, and, simultaneously with a down up motion to focus in on the changing chordal patterns.  This is “simple” monophonic music.  A piece with polyphonic elements is much more challenging.

Certainly a considerably amount of time needs to be dedicated to the development of the student’s ability to take in this high increase of vertical space.  So, to accomplish this task, a dedicated time commitment by both the teacher and the student is required.  Remember we don’t want to lose track of that lofty goal of “becoming obsolete”.

STEP ONE – The Music Reader

Remember the reading machines I mentioned that helped me read text more quickly? A very low tech equivalent is to make a “music reader” from dark colored construction paper.

Sight Reading Aid

Cut out a “see through” area (white). This “see through” area should be large enough to take in a single grand staff system.  The length should be long enough to help the student to be a few notes ahead of what they are actually playing.  This little invention will help focus the student’s eye directly to the music needing read.  Move the “music reader”, always keeping it ahead of the student’s performance.  This will also keep the student from moving their eyes back what they already played; a habit to be avoided when learning sight reading techniques.

For very undisciplined eyes the black area of the reader could be larger vertically.

Using this device should be part of every lesson.  We are slowly training the focus of the eye to take in greater vertical space in a methodical and systematic way.

STEP TWO – Choosing Materials for Sight Reading

Another idea that is helpful is to have students learn music that centers on the notes close to Middle C.  Remember this is a Reading Method, not a Performing Method.  The reason is that music that centers on notes close to Middle C is that it shrinks the amount of vertical space the student needs to take in.  Method Books, in their desire to get the student to understand the complete Grand Staff System, will include repertoire that take in a lot of vertical space.  Compositions in G position is a good example.  These teach the notes of the staff but they are poor sight reading material.  I find the old piano primers that grew symmetrically from Middle C to provide very good sight reading material; especially from the perspective of vertical space.

STEP THREE – PreScore Analysis

The following composition is an excerpt from Middle C Repertoire – Book 1 My Little Flat published by Piano Teacher Press.   (Click on the icon below for details)

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excerpt - Middle C Repertoire - Book 1

Before actually playing the score I help the student analyze the composition.  I will ask the student of the sections in blue, “What do you notice about the sections highlighted in blue”?  I’ll ask questions until I get the recognition that each section highlighted in blue contain the same two notes.  Then I’ll ask, “What are the two notes?”   Then I’ll ask the student to play F and D.

I will then ask the student to find any pattern in the notes highlighted in orange.  I’ll ask questions to try to lead the student to recognize the orange notes follow a chromatic pattern.  We will play the chromatic pattern from B flat down to G.

We will finally analyze the two yellow passages and discuss that these notes are passages in steps (with some repeated notes).

If the student understands the B flat scale we may play that before playing the piece, but I probably wouldn’t teach the B flat scale before learning a sight reading piece; a repertoire piece, yes, a sight reading piece, no.

The next step is to have the student mentally play the piece in his mind and to the best of his ability hear the notes in his mind.  The last step in to actually play the piece with the “music reader”.  If the student is ready, certainly count to see if this can be done at a steady tempo.

This, I feel, is a good process to follow to teach a student to sight read music.  It needs to be a regular devoted routine so the student can accumulate a little bit of information each week, each lesson.

It needs to be systematic and the materials need to be structured where the steps accomplished are almost not discerned to the student.  No one is perfect, and sometimes it may be in the best interest of the student to give the student something more challenging, but overall the goal is read more and more difficult music fluently.  It’s also a goal to give the student confidence that they can sight read music successfully.

A good sight reading program needs to be constructed in a manner that trains the eye to be able to focus on more and more vertical space, so don’t neglect using the “music reader”.  This focus on sight reading will be a big step in helping us all reach that lofty goal of making ourselves “obsolete”; a little Everest for us and for our students.

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Plato famously said, “The beginning is the most important part of any work.”  He said this because in the young we have a person that is unformed.  The ability to be formed by good information and good habits is at its highest.

Relating this to piano we can ask what is the most important habit we can develop in an unformed young piano student, in a student that does not, as yet, have any bad habits?

Before we answer that I think it’s important to highlight that when we begin a new student there are not bad habits to unlearn.  We get a blank slate.  We get to form the first habits in our student.  We get the first and best chance to help this young person develop a love for music.  We get the first and best chance to develop a healthy attitude toward education, especially if we are dealing with a preschool student.  We get the first and best chance to impress on the child a positive concept of “teacher”.  These are all huge responsibilities but also great opportunities to think through and make some deliberate steps to move this life in a positive direction.

Certainly one of the most important parts of our work as a piano teacher is to instill in our beginning student the habit of DAILY PRACTICE.  We would do well to think about a planned systematic approach to develop this crucial habit.  If we do, the many challenges we find in piano study will have a means to be successfully dealt.  If we do not, accomplishing these challenges will be made immensely more difficult.

I believe that DAILY PRACTICE is so fundamental a habit that it must be established even before a daily duration of practice time is discussed.   Here’s a plan I’ve devised to develop the habit of DAILY PRACTICE that works, even, especially, for the youngest of piano students.

THE SIX HOUR PIANO PRACTICE INCENTIVE

I created a little folio for my students.  Here’s the cover.

6 Hour Incentive

On the cover the student writes their name to give them pride of ownership of their efforts.  Make this incentive like a contract between you and the student.  Of course, your job is to guide the student to develop the habit of daily practice one step at a time, always moving the student forward to the goal of daily practice.

The next page of the little folio contain several Daily Practice Charts.   Each chart can record five weeks of piano practice.  Below each chart is a place for the parent to sign (verify) that the record is accurate.

First, you and the student set a goal; how many days am I going to practice this week.  The student is to fill in the number of minutes they practice each day they practice.  At this point it’s not too important to set a duration for each practice session.  The important issue is the number of days.  As quickly as the student is ready, move this up to 6 days per week.  The important thing is not how quickly the student gets to 6 days a week but that you are always moving/encouraging the student to reach higher.  I like the maxim – HURRY SLOWLY.

Practice Chart

NEXT — THE CLOCKS

Clocks

This incentive is called THE 6 HOUR PRACTICE INCENTIVE because as we are working toward the goal of daily practice, we accomplish this goal in 6 hour increments.   Our 6 HOUR PRACTICE INCENTIVE begins at 12:00.  Let’s say our student, after the first week, practiced for 40 minutes.  If this is the case, set the clock at 12:40.  If, on the second week, our student practiced for 65 minutes, then, set the second clock at 1:45.  Do this for as many weeks as it takes to reach the goal of 6 hours of practice.  But, to repeat, the goal is to move the student to DAILY PRACTICE.

If the student practices for more minutes in fewer days, encourage the student that it’s better to practice 60 minutes in three days than doing it all in one day.  We all know that music learning doesn’t “cram” well.  In other words, “guide/mentor” the student into daily practice.

CERTIFICATES

Ceertificate

After accomplishing the 6 hours of practice the student is awarded a handsome certificate for the good effort.  There is a place on the certificate for awarding the certificate”With Honors” (practicing 4 days a week) or “With High Honors” (practicing 5 days a week) or “With Highest Honors” (practicing 6 days a week).

After the certificate is awarded you can begin working toward a 2nd certificate.  For the second certificate see if you can move the student to a higher goal, practicing more days per week.  On the 3rd certificate again see if you can move the student to an even higher goal.

When this becomes easy move the goal posts to a 12 hour or a 24 hour goal.

This product may be purchased at Piano Teacher Press.  It is sold in a Licensed Edition for $3.95.  This means you can use the materials given here IN YOUR STUDIO on each and every student in your studio for as long as you teach.   It is priced low because DAILY PRACTICE is so important.  (ALSO – for those with black and white printers this product also comes with a Black and White Cover page and a Black and White Certificate included).  Click on the Piano Teacher Press LOGO to get your copy of THE SIX HOUR PRACTICE INCENTIVE.

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The Practice Puzzle

How do I practice?  How many times should I play through each piece?  Is 3 or 5 times for each piece enough?

I’ve been asked this questions by students since I began teaching.  In this short blog I want to give you a new way of thinking about practicing piano.

I think most beginning students approach practicing piano like they do putting together a puzzle.  They dump all the pieces out of the box and put the pieces face up and begin to try to find matches.  Very often this is done in a hit and miss fashion.  You find a piece that “sort of” seems like it may fit; or “seems to” have the right color and experiment to see if it fits.  With enough testing and experimentation eventually the picture emerges.

Many students practice this way.  They play their piece from the beginning to the end.  They think by doing it with enough repetitions and practice eventually the composition will emerge.

That is the longest and most inefficient method of practice we could devise.  We need A NEW METHOD ….. A BETTER METHOD of practice.

Mr Severino Presents – A BETTER METHOD

Let’s play a NEW GAME.  The example above is a 25 piece puzzle.

Our goal is to put this puzzle together in only 25 MOVES.

That means we must be perfect.  We cannot guess and try to put together pieces that “sort of” look like they “may” fit together.  To put this puzzle together in only 25 MOVES we are going to have to concentrate and think carefully, unlike before where we just guessed our way through to the completion of the puzzle.  We are going to have to closely examine each piece and imagine if the shape of one puzzle piece will fit into the other piece.  We are going to have to examine each piece to see if the colors of each piece and then imagine if they are going to help complete the image of the puzzle.

How does this apply to our piano practice?  We examine each “piece” of our musical composition.

Examine the “time signature”.  If your piece is in 3/4 time, with your music in front of you begin to sense the accent on beat one of each measure.  You may do these exercises with your piano in front of you or you can do them mentally.   You want to train yourself to do as many of these steps as possible away from the piano.  Not all piano practice must be in front of  your piano!

Examine the “rhythm piece” of the composition.  Mentally go through each rhythm and make sure you understand it.  If you do not, isolate that rhythm, play it or clap it until you understand it.

This includes the important point of being able to know how the right hand and left hand work together.  Don’t go on until you understand how this rhythm is going to “feel” under your fingers.

Examine the “harmony”.  Are there any chords that you know?  You want to get to the point where you can easily identify all the chords in your compositions.

Examine the “key signature”  If a composition has no key signature is it in C major or A minor.  Search for the note C or the note A in the composition  Search for C chords or Am chords.

Examine the “accidentals”   Many students are thrown by accidentals when practicing by just slugging away and trying to learn by going through each piece 5 times.  But if you are prepared by mentally going through each accidental you will be much more successful and make far fewer mistakes.

If we use this same approach in our piano practice our learning will be much better.  And if we make this as the main method of learning our assignments we will be able to learn our assigned pieces much more rapidly.  How would you like to learn 5 pieces in the time it now takes you to learn one?  This will be within your capabilities if you learn how to practice with your strongest concentration.

Thanks for participating in Mr. Severino Presents.  ‘TILL NEXT TIMEKEEP PRACTICING!!

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