The advantage of studying music with a private teacher is that lessons can be tailored to each student as an individual. There are many variables, such as personality, learning style, age, gender, attention span, short and long term memory, reading ability, executive function skills, and strengths and weaknesses peculiar to learning the language of music. But often overlooked in assessments of student learning is leadership style. Some students thrive only if they can self-direct the order of their lesson. So if such a student comes in with a piece of music they discovered, but you already had a plan for that lesson, you would be better off shelving the plan momentarily and take up what the student has brought with curiosity and pride in their independence. There will be time, with the student’s help, to make a connection between this “new discovery” and the lesson at hand. Just as often, there will be students who are so eager to follow a known curriculum that they will likely want to keep working in a series of graded lesson books, because they are given concrete information about their progress. For this student, progress can be perceived safely, incremental and predictable.
Then there will be students whose behavior or thought processes turn to the immediate thing in front of them, only to have their attention wander to something totally different. In this case, we teachers may inadvertently feel like a police monitor, saying things like: “no don’t do that”, “lets do this”, “no we can’t do that at this moment”, “please put that down”, “we are working with this,” etc. Before you know it, all thoughts of a lesson plan have fallen apart and both student and teacher are lost in a world of distractions. It would be easy to label this student as non-compliant or suggest to the parent that the student is not ready for lessons.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned from teaching music to very young children, it is that you can always help a student gain control over their learning by changing the teaching environment. For example, I have a mirror hung on the wall next to the piano so that we can always check our posture. But recently, one young, first grade student of mine, took every moment he could to make funny faces in the mirror. So, for a few weeks, I took the mirror down and put it away before his lessons.
Students who have trouble with directing their focus for any length of time are often frustrated in the academic school environment as early as first grade. These students also have short fuses, when it comes to learning by experiencing mistakes, a style of learning that is taken for granted in most schools. But I’ve noticed that these distractible but super-creative kids learn best through positive experience. The more they perceive themselves as performing well on a task, the more they will be willing to try the next step.
For example, Liam, a first grader just starting piano lessons, already had a few “breakdowns” because he became afraid that he could not do something without making a mistake. I always try to watch Liam for a few moments while he is in the hallway waiting for his piano lesson. One time, he found a favorite studio toy in my waiting room basket … a large needle art frame that produces 3D Pin Art. It makes temporary impressions of whatever you stick into the rack of plastic colored pins. My students most often stick their hands and fingers into the soft pins to take an impression of their hands. Liam was doing just that when I went to invite him into the piano room for a lesson. Liam’s dad immediately asked him to put the Pin Art toy down. But I’d already made it a habit to take whatever Liam was bringing to me to be the start of his lesson. The lessons that began with my preconceived notions, based on curriculum planning, more often than not ended up with Liam becoming frustrated.
I invited Liam to bring the Pin Art Impression pad into the studio. Sitting at the bench, I tried to use it so that we could review finger numbers. I couldn’t get the impression needles to work the way I was envisioning it, but Liam knew how! So our lesson began with my learning something from Liam. We continued to work a game out together in which we placed one hand in the impression box and then had to pull one finger away so that it was missing from the picture. Liam had to say which hand and which finger were missing, but what he didn’t know was that he was also exercising finger independence. We took turns. It was as good an exercise as playing scales and when we went to play Penta scales, Liam was ready, warmed up and showed excellent dexterity.
Since we were now focusing on finger numbers, I directed Liam back to a review songs in his lesson book, Piano Safari by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr. Rather than start a new piece, we reviewed all of his prior pieces, because they were dependent on recognition of hand and finger position. I had not yet used the song cards that are available with Piano Safari, so I got them out and we created a long “Jacobs Ladder” string of music successes.
When it was time to wrap up the lesson, we determined which fingers Liam would need to use in his next piece, took a photo of the impressions his hand made in the Pin Art toy, and sent this as a text to home. All was fun and successful, and now I have another tool in my toolbox for teaching finger numbers and correct hand positions.
Thank you Liam, for showing me some new tricks.
Penny Lazarus, NCTM
January 16, 2018