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Piano Exams are Optional

There’s a big misconception out there that if you learn to play the piano, you have to do piano exams.

This is not true.

There’s another misconception that you can determine someone’s ability at the piano simply by knowing what grade of exam they have passed.

This is also not true.

Let me say upfront that I am not against piano exams and I actually quite like them under the right circumstances. Some of my students have had great experiences with exams and they look forward to doing them because they are working at levels that are correctly matched to their abilities. Exams can be a great learning tool for the right student, motivating them to work hard to do well.

But exams are not for everyone, and I find it to be a real shame when students are forced into a process which can turn their enjoyment of piano into quite the opposite.

My Exam Philosophy

My view of exams is pretty simple when it comes to performance exams at an Elementary to Early Intermediate level.

I will only consider entering a student for a graded exam if I believe they satisfy at least two important criteria:

  1. They have most of the requisite technical and expressive skills needed to play the repertoire prescribed for that grade, and they are already playing similar pieces at that grade level
  2. They have already developed a solid practising habit and will not need to “amp” up their practising too dramatically in order to do well

The first point is important because I don’t believe in my students spending a full year learning only three or four pieces of music (the required number of pieces for an exam) without doing anything else, which can happen if they aren’t really competent at a certain grade. In my opinion, an exam is supposed to be an assessment at a point in time of where a student’s general ability is. If it takes them an inordinate amount of time to learn and polish pieces for an exam, then they’re probably not quite ready for that grade. At the Grades 1 – 3 levels, an ideal timeline for preparing pieces from start to finish would be around four months, for those who are truly ready. There is so much fantastic repertoire out there for students to be exploring, and to only play four a year because they’re struggling with concepts or requirements too difficult for them only hinders their actual ability to progress.

Not every piano teacher takes this type of approach towards exams. Therefore, a student who has done a particular grade of exam with one teacher may not have the same knowledge or skill as another student who has passed the same grade learning with another teacher. It can give you a broad, general idea of a student’s ability to play some pieces, but it isn’t necessarily a given that they can pick up a brand new piece of music at that level and be able to understand it and play it comfortably and faithfully.

The second criterion requiring a solid practising habit is to minimise the risk that the exam experience will ruin music enjoyment for the student. If a child is practising infrequently and then all of a sudden find themselves being nagged at to practise every day, there is a high chance that they will start to resent the fact that piano practise is taking them away from other activities. Saying “yes” to a piano exam means saying “no” to other things because you have to dedicate consistent time and effort to practising for that exam.

Exceptions

Of course, there is always that one student who has the potential and the passion for piano, but just hasn’t applied themselves diligently. Giving this type of student the goal of an exam to work towards can very well be the thing that gets them into gear and makes them take piano more seriously of their own volition. However, I find that this only really works if they truly like playing the piano to begin with (i.e. haven’t been forced into learning it), and only if they care about achieving a good result.

If Not Exams, Then What?

As a piano teacher, there is so much I want to share with my students and a one hour lesson once a week is barely enough time to do about 75% of what a student could possibly learn. Once exams are brought into the mix, there’s even less time to do it all.

When a student is not preparing for an exam, there is more room to provide a tailored learning experience as we can really explore a student’s interests and focus our attention on those things that make them want to go home and head straight to the piano after a lesson.

For one student, this could mean exploring jazz improvisation, and for another it could be intensive chord studies so they can learn to accompany themselves while singing. The possibilities are wide-ranging and the rewards are aplenty when you see students in a complete flow state during their lessons. These lessons often end with an exclamation of “already?!” when I tell them that it’s time for them to go home!

A student who hasn’t done an exam but who loves to learn and play can play just as well, if not even better, than a student who learns strictly to an exam syllabus. Ultimately, it comes down to how much time and effort the student (and parents) want to put into piano which determines how well a child can play. It’s promising that many parents today see the value of learning the piano as a lifelong skill, and not just as a hobby for competing with peers through exams. Progress and success can still be measured in the absence of graded exams, as long as parents and teachers are clear on what those markers of progress are. Exams are useful and excellent focus tools, but are by no means absolutely essential for every piano student.

Here are three videos of different students playing in my studio. They all play well and each has different strengths and tastes in music. Only one of them has ever done a piano exam, and I don’t think you can really tell who has done what. The most important thing is that they all come to lessons each week eager to learn and they truly enjoy playing. They weren’t told in advance that they would be recorded so you’ll see some candid reactions and stumbles but that was all part of the fun of recording and they were good sports to just go with it!

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How to Practice as an Adult

You’d think that as a piano teacher, I’d be very disciplined when it comes to practicing the piano myself.

However, time is scarce and I find that most of my time at the piano is spent on my work as a teacher. I’m often playing through music to find suitable repertoire for students, or trying out teaching techniques to help students overcome specific difficulties. I’m at the piano, but I’m not working on repertoire or technical skills for myself. 

Oftentimes, I find that I have a strong desire to practice at the end of a teaching day, after my last student has left. There’s something about seeing others play that makes you want to do it yourself. It’s like when a tennis Grand Slam is on, and you suddenly feel that you have an irrepressible desire to hit a tennis ball around after watching it on TV.

Unfortunately, my last lesson of the day usually wraps up around 7:30pm and that’s not really an ideal time to sit down for a piano practice session. Dinner needs to be made, dishes have to be done and lesson notes have to be updated. Before you know it, it’s 10pm and way too late to be playing anything at all (particularly if you live in an apartment with thin walls!).

Therefore, even for a piano teacher, practice time needs to be scheduled in. I say it to my students and I have to follow my own advice in this regard. I’m a firm believer that if it’s not in the schedule, it’s not going to get done. Also, you need to know yourself when making your practice schedule. Blocking out Friday nights 6pm isn’t going to work if you know that on most Friday nights, you’d rather be kicking back with a glass of wine than working through your minor scales. Plan for a realistic time of the week when there is a maximum chance that you will actually do it.

This is the first step for successful practicing.

Block out appropriate times each week to be at the piano and put it in your diary. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour – whatever works for the level that you’re at.

 

Sticking to Blocked Time

Once practice time is blocked out in my calendar, I find that sticking to it only works if I don’t have other things to do that I feel are more urgent or more important. But doesn’t it always feels like there is something more urgent and more important to do?

My inner voice tells me, I should be working, I should be cleaning, I should be doing XYZ rather than working on my hobby. And yes – while piano teaching is my profession, one could argue that since I’m already at a solid level of proficiency, I don’t really need to “practice” all that much. There are some aspects I need to upkeep for my continued professional development, but a lot of that isn’t necessarily working on furthering personal skills at the piano. It’s more focused on teaching techniques and behaviour management. Therefore, the time that I’d assign for practicing is for my own leisure and enjoyment, similar to how someone might use that time to work on their golf swing or a new language that they’re learning.

The other thing with these types of hobbies as an adult is that they have components to them that aren’t always the most enjoyable, but you know you need to do them in order to get to a level where you can really have more fun. It’s not like watching TV, which you know will 100% get done if it’s scheduled in. 

Sticking to practice, whether it’s practicing a language, doing a sports drill, or working at the piano, requires willpower, and sometimes it’s not even other important urgent things that get in the way, but easier, “more fun” things that really distract you. 

I find that for sticking to practice time, it’s helpful to put a label on it. If you’re familiar with the Eisenhower Principle of prioritising tasks, you’ll know that it can help to bucket things into four quadrants, along the scales of Urgency and Importance. For example, if you have a presentation at work tomorrow which will affect your performance review, then rehearsing that presentation would fall into the urgent AND important quadrant, meaning it would be top priority to do today. If your sister’s 40th birthday is in six weeks’ time and you need to organise a surprise party, then sure, that’s important but hardly urgent for today. It can wait until after your presentation.

Practicing the piano is definitely important to me because it is something I want to continuously improve on and do more with. For most adult learners, it’s probably important for you too as you are investing not only time but also money in lessons to learn this skill.

Therefore, one of the keys to sticking to blocked practice time is to keep the importance of what you’re trying to achieve at the front of your mind at all times. Go ahead and label it – piano practicing is important.

Now that you’ve said it, don’t give yourself an out by doing things that are unimportant. Flex your willpower to not get distracted by unimportant, not urgent activities (like random internet surfing or social scrolling). It seems a small thing, to simply classify something as important, but conscious thoughts like these can make you think twice when you’re presented with the option of practicing vs skipping it for a day.

Eisenhower Principle Urgent Important Matrix
Source: thecoachingtoolscompany.com

 

Urgency, not Boredom

Now that you’ve affirmed that practicing is important and you’ve made a good commitment to sticking to your practice schedule, it’s helpful to think through what you’ll actually do during your practice sessions.

For me, there are many different things that I want to work on and I feel pulled in different directions whenever I sit down to practice. If I don’t have a plan, then I’ll flit from one thing to the next, without any real sense of focus. The problem with doing whatever it is that you feel like doing on a given day is that it leads to very slow progress. Our brains and fingers need some degree of continuity and repetition to finesse a new skill, particularly for something like piano which is as physical an activity as it is cerebral. But doing the same thing everyday for weeks on end can also be very boring, even more so if you don’t have an end planned in sight.

It’s therefore important to set goals for your learning, and I would say that in general, more regular short-term goals work better than long-term ones.

Examples of this could be to:

  • Master Arabesque by the end of the quarter
  • Arrange your own version of Lean On Me by the end of the month

As these goals have defined deadlines that aren’t too far away on the horizon, your practice sessions become laser-focused as you know exactly what you need to achieve soon.

Repetition and boredom don’t become issues because you know that after this period of time, you’ll be working on something different. 

Going back to the Eisenhower matrix, setting these short-term goals shifts piano practicing from the top-right quadrant into the the important AND urgent box.

Of course, for internally set deadlines, there aren’t any real ramifications for missing them and the sense of urgency may not always truly be there. If you want to hold yourself accountable, I’d suggest adding an external element to your goals, such as:

  • Master Arabesque and perform it for a friend by the end of the quarter
  • Arrange your own version of Lean On Me and upload it to your social media

 

Set a Deadline

Set a date with your friend in advance for your performance or announce your upcoming upload to your socials. This makes the deadlines real and immovable. Then you can really hunker down in your practice sessions, knowing that you have a countdown ticking to achieving your goal.

 

A Real Example: The Last Episode of Succession

A real example of this in action for me is currently underway. I have been watching the TV show Succession and am so hooked, though I am a little bit behind and haven’t yet finished it even though the series itself has ended. 

This is one of the rare shows where I don’t fast forward the opening credits because I want to hear the opening theme music in its entirety. I find it so interesting to listen to, and it really helps to build the anticipation of each episode to come. I like it so much that I bought the piano sheet music for it recently to play. Now this piece isn’t inherently difficult to read and play as it has a repeating progression and motif, but it does require practice to become fluent because of how many octaves it spans and the tempo. There are quick transition jumps everywhere with accented spread chords, as well as some counter balance needed with melody vs accompaniment in some sections. 

I started playing it a little before the summer holidays, but then we went away and I’ve been slow getting back into it. Not too slow, however, with getting through the show itself. I find myself now at the penultimate episode of the final season, but without having made much progress towards fluency with the music. So my goal now is this: to master the piece and perform it for a visiting friend next weekend, before I am allowed to watch the final episode of the series. 

If you have seen this show, you will understand how important and urgent this goal is to attain.

You can be sure that my current practice blocks are laser focused and I am definitely not missing a single practice day. 

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Student Compositions of “Creepy March”

Following on from my last post which talked about composition, here are some more videos of my students playing their own compositions!

All of these are based on Samantha Coates’ rote repertoire pieces which give students such a great starting point to creating their own music. It’s also a handy way to explain theme and variations (watch this video of Lang Lang explaining Mozart’s variations of “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” – popularly known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – if you’re unfamiliar with this concept).

I wish I had started recording my students’ compositions in years past as there have been other excellent ones but unfortunately they are now lost to time, so enjoy these ones!

 

Theme: Creepy March by Samantha Coates

 

Creepy March by Samantha Coates

Here is the original version of Creepy March by Samantha Coates, the “Theme” that my students have based their variations on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Variation I: composed by Christian

Variation II: composed by Noga

Variation III: composed by Phoebe

 

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Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

I’ve always been in awe of musicians who can improvise, arrange or compose music.

Back in the day when I was learning piano, there was a strong emphasis on exams. Most kids who “did” piano followed the same trajectory that I did, where our lessons were mostly dedicated to perfecting exam repertoire and theory. As soon as we finished one grade, it was straight onto the next. There wasn’t much time given to learning anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my piano teacher and thoroughly enjoyed our lessons together. This learning structure gave me a rock solid foundation for technique and reading, and I wouldn’t be able to teach now if I hadn’t established such strong fundamentals.

Once I hit my teens though, I realised I needed more. I wanted to play music that I loved to listen to. I was all about the Top 40 hits, classic country and pop from the 60s or 70s (thanks Dad) and musical threatre tunes. Honestly, I barely listened to any classical music at all and certainly not the stuff on exam lists (so so wrong. I should have listened to everything).

Luckily I lived near a library that had an amazing collection of sheet music so I could borrow and play as much as my library card limit would allow. This accelerated my sight-reading skills but the flip side was that I became extremely reliant on reading music to play.

I hadn’t developed any skills that would allow me to create or improvise even though I really wanted to. Mostly I wanted to come up with my own arrangements of songs or to accompany myself singing without having to chance upon the sheet music that would be in exactly the right key.

It never occurred to me to ask my piano teacher if she could teach me how to do these things. In my mind, I had kind of assumed that you’re either born with the ability or you’re not.

I have since gone on to learn some of this on my own, but I’ll admit that it doesn’t come as naturally to me as sitting in front of written music and playing. It takes a lot more brain power, but I can do it if I try.

This is why I incorporate aspects of improvisation, story-telling and composition with my students, particularly when they’re first starting out and have an open mind to what ‘learning the piano’ means. I want to open more doors for them, to let them know that in addition to reading and interpreting someone else’s written music, they can also be composers or improvisational artists.

Not all students take to this and I won’t push it too hard if it’s really not for them.

But some students really love this part of their learning. Imagine – permission to literally play on the piano – mucking around with melodies, putting notes together for harmonies to see how they sound, varying rhythms this way and that. They have so much fun doing this!

Start by Copying

There are different ways to introduce students to the ideas of improvising, composing and arranging and this can really depend on the age of the student as to what will resonate the most.

Irrespective of the details, I think what works really well for this is best summed up by jazz musician Clark Terry.

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.

Clark Terry

We start everything by copying. It’s how we learn to do anything!

Assimilation happens when we’ve spent so much time copying, the body movements and musical ideas that we’ve played over and over again become internalised. We can call on them and reproduce them easily.

This is when you can start to Innovate. How can you put what you know together in a new and unique way?

This process obviously takes time and practice, but it can be done in snippets during lessons. Once they’ve learnt to play a piece really well and know it upside down and inside out, they can start to take it apart to create something different.

Rote Repertoire by Samantha Coates

One of my favourite ways to bring this whole process to life for my students is by using great patterned repertoire, such as the ones written by Samantha Coates.

For every piece that Samantha writes in her BlitzBook Rote Repertoire series, she creates three different levels. The first level is what I think of as the bare bones theme, giving us a rhythm, a melody and maybe some harmonies. The second and third levels vary the first one in some way, adding complexities to create a richer sounding piece while still remaining true to the original theme.

Creepy March by Samantha Coates

By the time my students have learnt all three levels of a piece (imitating) and have practiced them a lot (assimilating), they know the overall theme really well. Well enough to create their own “Level 4” or what we fondly refer to as their “remix” (innovating).

I am always blown away by what kids can come up with and how creative they can be!

We spend time in lessons experimenting and improvising, and if they really want to take it to the next level they will go home and come back in their next lesson with a fully crafted Level 4 version of the piece.

Recently my student Christian made his way through the three levels of  “Creepy March” from Rote Repertoire and created his own Level 4 version to play.

You can watch Samantha’s Level 3 demonstration first to hear the original, and then watch Christian below to hear how he changed it to make it his own.

It sounds like the original, but is so much more with different rhythmic patterns added in, new melodic phrases and octaves – not to mention his favourite way to end any piece of music. That single lingering bass note.

He did a great job don’t you think?

You never know the potential that kids can reach.

I might very well be playing Christian’s written compositions in the future!

 

 

Has Christian’s performance inspired you to try improvising and composing? Let me know in the comments below, and let me know if you enjoyed his version of Creepy March, I’ll be sure to tell him!

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Music is what feelings sound like

I love this quote.

It describes so precisely why music has been such an important part of my life. I’m not a very emotionally expressive person when it comes to saying or showing how I feel, but I have feelings swirling around inside all the same. Where do these feelings go?

For me, music has always been the answer. It’s the outlet for all the feelings that I can’t express properly in any other way. Singing and playing music have always been my go-to’s for self-healing and I’m not sure what my mental state would be in if I didn’t do these on a regular basis.

This pandemic and its effects on society have played havoc with our lives and I feel it keenly on a daily basis. It’s given me a lot of emotional and financial heartache and there have been days when I’ve either wanted to curl up into a ball or throw large breakable objects at the walls.

Needless to say, my piano is getting a real workout during this time.

Music is what feelings sound like

Depending on what I’m feeling on a given day, this is what I’m playing to get me through:

  • If I’m angry and just need to forget about life for a while, there’s really nothing better than playing scales. Maybe a little bit of Bach and Burgmuller for good measure. Anything that has a very set rhythm, requires a heck of finger movement and articulation, so my brain is 100% engaged and I can’t randomly start thinking about what to make for dinner for a lonely meal for one.
  • If I’m missing people I love, I play sad, sad love songs. Mostly from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Maybe I venture into the 90s. But never beyond that decade. They just don’t get sad enough once you hit the 00’s. Current favourites are “Where Do I Begin”, “A Time for Us” and “Desperado”.
  • If I’m feeling upbeat and looking forward in a positive way, it’s Disney and musical theatre for the win (with very loud singing accompaniment).

I’m so thankful to have learnt the piano growing up so that I can play myself out of any funk I get into. It’s basically free therapy, and we could all use some of that right now.

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A Celebration Concert

Four weeks into isolation lock down, I’ve finally found time to get around to those “important, but not urgent” tasks on my to-do list!

One of these was to share about the end of year Celebration Concert that I hosted at my studio last December. Feels like a lifetime ago now…

A Celebration Concert with piano with po

Setting the Theme

For most of my students, this was the very first performance they had ever done in front of an audience.

That’s pretty nerve-wrecking, and while a bit of nerves are great, I didn’t want any of them to get too worked up about it. That’s why I decided to call it a “concert party” as opposed to a “recital” to help set the right tone. A party creates more positive associations and it was the holiday season after all. Nibbles and bubbles (chocolate milk and juice for the kids!) would be served afterwards to really give it more of a party feel.

I chose the theme “Celebrate!” to highlight that this was a concert to celebrate everything that my students had achieved for the year and to get into the festive spirit!

Student Nerves

The great thing about young kids is that they’re not overly inhibited by fear of judgment. The idea of performing in front of 20 people (most of whom they hadn’t met before) didn’t seem to daunt them. The older or more shy ones were nervous, but credit to them all, not one student turned around to say they weren’t going to participate.

I loved that every single one of my students embraced the opportunity to perform, even if the idea of it was scary to them.

The best thing to do with nerves is to channel them into action, and never had my students practiced so hard than in the six weeks before the concert. Even the ones who didn’t initially appear to be nervous started to feel it as the idea of performing became more real with each passing week. Everyone put in extra effort and I could see improvements across the board. This was a huge relief on my own nerves to be honest, as there were times when I wasn’t sure if everyone would have their pieces ready in time.

Concert Day!Piano Studio for Concert

From the outset, it was clear that performance day jitters had hit. The kids were unusually quiet when they arrived and even the usually chatty ones were a lot more reserved. A performance is a performance, no matter if there are balloons and a Christmas tree and smiles all around. I was nervous too, running around like a headless chicken trying to get last minute things in place and worrying about pretty much everything.

In my mind, the definition of success would have simply been for every student to get up and perform. How their performance went was secondary to the act of getting up in front of an audience and playing their pieces from beginning to end.

But not only did every single student get up and perform, they all performed really, really well.

Festive Outfit for Piano Concert!Christmas Ears at the PianoChristmas Colours at the Piano

One of the biggest lessons I’d drilled into my students before the concert was to keep going even if they made a mistake. Every piano teacher has those students who always want to start from the beginning when they make a mistake, or worse yet, the ones that stop altogether and don’t start up again at all.

That is the biggest no-no in performance.

The piece must go on, no matter how big the bungle.

The mantra of “keep going” was something I said to them at every lesson, at the risk of sounding like a broken record.

It must have worked though because on the day, no one had a meltdown, no one needed their parent to go up to the piano with them, and no one stopped halfway to start from the beginning. The kids all were fantastic and the gigantic grins on their faces at the end of the concert said it all. They had hit an important milestone in their piano journey and it felt great!

Can We Do It Again?

In each student’s lesson the week after the concert, I gave them their set of compliment cards so they could read how their performances were received (you can read more about them in this post). Most kids were only really interested in figuring out which cards were written by their mum or dad – no one else’s words mattered! There were some very thoughtful and encouraging comments from the parents and I was glad they had embraced the compliment card idea.

Compliment Cards

In chatting with my students, I was really surprised when a lot of them asked if they could perform again. Not next year, but next week! They had had such a positive experience that they wanted to do it all over again straight away. I’m hoping they will remember these feelings and look forward to it when we do this again in a year’s time!

Special Outcomes

There were two particularly special outcomes from the concert that I hadn’t foreseen but which made the whole experience even more worthwhile.

Two of my students had been really anxious about performing and both had struggled with learning the piano in their own ways. One in particular had started engaging in a lot of negative self-talk and they both seemed to think that they just weren’t good at piano.

Since the concert however, their entire demeanour and approach to the piano has changed. Perhaps the performance gave them the confidence boost they needed?

I’m hoping it showed them the power of perseverance and that they can achieve their goal if they keep working at it. The initial struggle of learning falls away eventually and playing the piano becomes so much more fun once you can do it with a level of practiced skill.

For all of my students, I’m glad the concert gave them the opportunity to strive and to feel good about their achievements. It was a lot of hard work but so rewarding to see all the happy and proud smiling faces of parents and students alike.

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Making time for practice

“How much practice did you do this week?”

I remember dreading this question as an adult voice student because my answer would almost always be “not much”. I was in my early 20s, starting out a career in a fast-paced organisation, partying on Friday nights and trying to show up to lessons on Saturday mornings. Singing practice was unfortunately a low priority when there were so many competing interests for my time during the week.

Alas, as a teacher now, I find myself asking this same question to my young piano students: “How much practice did you do this week?”

The responses I get are varied. Some will incoherently mumble something (= not much practice), some will go straight into giving excuses (“I had a birthday party to go to”), and some will very confidently say, “I practiced a lot.”  (That last response is always great, but sometimes “a lot” in a seven-year old’s mind can be different to what I think of as “a lot”).

Hearing the same kinds of responses week-in week-out gave me pause to think, why am I asking this question? What information am I really trying to get from my students?

It’s not that I want to police their practicing. Rather, I’m trying to help them develop the skills needed to play the piano in a proficient and confident way, while fostering a lifelong love of music. Anything that gets in the way of that – such as lack of practice – is a problem that needs to be addressed.

What I’m really wanting to find out therefore is, “Did anything prevent you from practicing this week and if so, what was it?”

“I Didn’t Have Time”

There are many reasons why students don’t practice, not the least being that it’s not always fun to do. It can be tedious and repetitive, and the benefits from doing it aren’t always immediate. That being said, “I just didn’t want to practice” isn’t something any of my students say (even though that might well be the truth).

Rather, the most common answer I hear is “I didn’t have time”. Then they’ll proceed to tell me all the things that they did have time for – tennis, swimming, watching YouTube, etc. Just this week, I had a student tell me he couldn’t practice because his dad made him play board games with him all week!

So when a student says, “I didn’t have time to practice”, what they’re really saying is, “I didn’t make time to practice.”

The great thing about time is that we get a fresh batch of it every day when we wake up and to an extent, we can decide how we will spend that time. There are certain things we do every day that can’t be left off the list – going to school / work, eating meals, going to sleep, etc. We give our time over to these activities without even thinking about it – they are just what we need to do every day. We always have time to do these things because we make the time for them.

The key, therefore, to addressing this first roadblock to piano practice is to actually make the time to do it. To prioritise it as something that needs to be done on any given day, as much as we need to take a shower or brush our teeth.

How to Make Time

Board games with dad aside, some of my students really do have a lot on their plates and have formally scheduled activities almost every single day of the week. Activities include competitive sports (training and competition days), tutoring (yes, even the little ones do this a lot here), language lessons, extra-curricular activities at school, and of course piano lessons.

I can see why a lot of them think that the only time they can practice the piano is on a day when they don’t have something else scheduled in.

However, when you dig a little deeper, there are usually spaces in the day when they could easily do a practice session of 15 to 20 minutes. It just hasn’t occurred to them to allocate their time this way because piano practice isn’t something that is locked into their schedule. It’s different if you have to physically go to a tutoring class or if a teacher shows up at your doorstep. There’s a trigger for you to go and do the activity. But practicing the piano is pretty solitary and it doesn’t have an obvious trigger for action. It’s easy to forget to do it or even to deliberately do something else instead (TV anyone?).

To get around this, it’s essential to treat piano practice as an activity that needs to be scheduled in. In the same way that you would set aside time for a ballet or gymnastics class, you need to set time aside on certain days for practicing the piano. This changes piano practice from being something that “I’ll only do if I have spare time” to being something that “I have to do today because it’s in my schedule.”

An Inclusive Process

For my students who need it, we will take time during the lesson to go through their weekly timetables to see where they can make time to practice the piano. I really like to include them in this process because I think it’s important for them to take ownership of the commitment to practice and to be clear on what’s being asked of them. Having a conversation about it also creates accountability because they’re the ones telling me when they will have time and how much they can commit to doing. There’s clarity on what’s being agreed upon and therefore a higher chance they’ll follow through.

To make sure they don’t forget what we’ve agreed, we write on their practice assignment sheets the days of the week they will practice (and even the time of day if possible). This makes it easy to have a conversation the following week about how things went.

Most school-age students have a fairly set schedule during a school term so the practice times will remain the same every week for the most part. Eventually the practice schedule should become so routine that they no longer need it written out explicitly from week to week. An in-depth conversation about it doesn’t need to take place again until a new term starts or something changes with their other activities.

 

Days of the Week Faces

A Little Nudge from Parents

While it’s well and good to have practice times written down and scheduled in, we all still need reminders sometimes to do what we’re supposed to. By including students in the development of a practice schedule, I’ve tried to shift a large part of the responsibility for practicing to the students themselves. Depending on the age of the student however, they’ll probably still need mum or dad to give them a nudge every now and then to remind them that it’s time to practice. With a practice schedule in place though, hopefully there will be less debate about it and parents don’t have to be nagging machines on this subject.

 

Do you have a story to share about practice routines? Do your kids follow a schedule? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear about it!

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My 30 days of yoga (and how it relates to piano)

Imagine you know two people who both do yoga. One tells you they have been practicing for a year and a half, while the other tells you they have practiced for 30 days. Which person do you think would be more advanced in their mastery of yoga?

Most of us would say that the person who has done it for a year a half would surely be more advanced.

Yet you might be surprised to find out that the 30 day yoga practitioner has actually developed better technique and progressed further.

How could this be possible?

Let me explain.

My Yoga Journey

I first took up yoga in January 2017 when I signed up for membership at a nearby studio. I went “regularly” about once a week, each time for a one hour yoga class. There were definitely weeks that I missed every now and then but I tried to go when I could. I kept this up for a year and a half until July 2018 when my membership expired and I decided not to renew it. We were in the middle of a house move amongst other things but at the heart of it, I just didn’t feel all that motivated to keep going.

The classes were pretty much the same all the time and I got bored with doing the same things over and over with no visible progress.

So I took a big long break from yoga.

One whole year went by.

Piano with Po Studio

Then one day I realised, hey, in this new place we had moved into, not only is the space big enough for my piano studio, it’s also big enough to do yoga in without banging into furniture. During the year that had passed, I had wanted to get back on the mat every now and then but I wasn’t keen to take up another membership for the same experience as before. With the realisation that I could practice at home, I decided to try and re-discover yoga in a new way. I bought a brand new, beautiful (expensive) mat which gave me that final push to get back on (there’s nothing like a bit of financial investment sometimes to get things going).

I set a goal for myself: to incorporate yoga into my daily routine for 30 days. One. whole. month. I was allowed one day a week off only on my gym workout days. I had no expectations of how things would turn out and I was happy to just see what could happen. Concrete goals are a big motivator for me so I knew at least that I would try my darnedest to stick to it.

And stick to it I did!

As with most things, it was hardest at the beginning when I had to deliberately find time in the diary to squeeze yoga in as it hadn’t become a habit yet. Then as the second week went by, I started to really look forward to my daily yoga sessions. A day didn’t feel complete until I had done my yoga practice, whether it was in the morning, lunchtime or evening. By the time the final week rolled around, yoga had truly become part of my daily routine. It had become as second nature as brushing my teeth and I was happy to see that I could do a lot of the poses with greater ease and confidence.

What a difference 30 days make

30 days of yoga (and how it relates to piano)

At the outset of 2017 when I was a complete newbie to yoga, I did make some obvious progress as I went from knowing nothing to knowing something, e.g. how to hold basic poses, how to do fundamental flows etc. But I plateaued in improving my form probably around the six month mark. What I could do in December 2017 wasn’t wildly different to what was possible for me in July 2017.

However, with this recent 30 day yoga challenge, I could really see and feel the difference at the end of the month compared with where I was only 3o days prior. I was able to reach further and go deeper in many poses, and if I really wanted to I could do a whole session on my own without any verbal or visual guidance. For the yogis out there who are reading this, I was also able to actually touch my knee to nose before the step-through to one leg forward one leg back, and to hold the bukasana (crow pose) for a few seconds. Neither of these was ever possible for me before!

But really, how could 30 days beat a year and a half?

Quite simply, it comes down to regularity.

Doing a bit of yoga every single day over a short period of time made a bigger difference than doing it for an hour each week over a prolonged period.

With a once a week practice, my body never really got the chance to get used to new movements and to have them become muscle memory. Rather, my body was spending a part of each week’s class simply re-learning the old as opposed to building something new.

With a daily practice, there’s not enough time in between sessions to forget what I had done the day before. My body could reproduce the same actions as yesterday much quicker as there was no re-learning to be done. It was simply a matter of getting more and more used to the actions. This allowed space for adding more complicated movements and going into deeper stretches.

Numbers also tell a story

The thing about doing something only once a week is that it’s easy to lose a lot of weeks without you even noticing.

Looking back at my history of class attendance between January 2017 and July 2018, it turns out that I didn’t go as regularly as I thought I did. My total attendance tallied up to 36 classes which, at an hour a piece, only amounted to 36 hours of total practice. 36 hours over one and a half years?! Putting that into perspective, 36 hours is less than one standard working week! You could say that I had really only done yoga for a week in total. It’s little wonder that I made zero progress after the initial learning phase.

Compare this to the recent 30 days where each yoga session averaged 25 minutes:

30 days * 25 minutes = 750 minutes

750 minutes ÷ 60 minutes = 12.5 hours.

My total time on the mat ended up being 12.5 hours. At this same rate of practice, it would only take another two months of daily yoga practice to reach my prior year and a half total of 36 hours.

How this relates to piano

I sometimes hear parents speak about their children having learned the piano for X number of months or X number of years, and then using that time frame as an assessment of where they think their child should be in terms of playing ability. In some instances, it’s used as a direct comparison against other children of a similar age. “They have only been learning for six months and can do that. Why can’t my child do the same thing after a year?”

Taking my yoga story as an analogy, I think it goes to show that a year of lessons doesn’t always mean a year of practice.

How far a child progresses over a period of time isn’t only dependent on how many lessons they’ve had. It’s determined to a larger extent by how much time they spend working on quality piano practicing.

My 30 days of yoga (and how it relates to piano)45 minutes a week over one year only amounts to 39 hours of lesson time (and that’s being generous as it assumes a 52-week year with no missed lessons which never happens).

45 minutes * 52 weeks = 2,340 minutes

2,340 minutes ÷ 60 minutes = 39 hours

If you consider a child who, in addition to their 45 minute weekly lesson, practices at home for just 15 minutes a day on the 6 days in between, that’s already an additional 90 minutes they spend on the piano every single week. That’s a whole lot of extra muscle memory and technique being developed. To compare their ability with another child who does no practice at all wouldn’t really be a fair comparison.

There’s no doubt in my mind that a little bit of practice every day makes a big difference to progress. It may seem daunting to do something every single day, but you don’t have to start big. Start with just a little bit. Maybe try playing one song 3 times every day for a week. Pretty soon, you might find yourself practicing 5 songs every day without even thinking about it.

Go on, take on a daily practice challenge and see where it can lead you!

 

Have you incorporated something into your daily habit? What kind of results did you see? Share with us in the comments below!

 

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Let Them Be Silly

As a piano teacher, I am very conscious of every minute that goes by in a lesson. There is always so much I want to teach and there’s rarely enough time to squeeze it all in. 30, 45 or even 60 minutes can go by really quickly and it’s tempting to cut short parts of the lesson that don’t seem like they’re “value adding”.

However, what I’ve come to appreciate more and more is that these seemingly “unfocused” parts of a lesson can be more valuable than they appear to be on the surface.

Take for example the first time I introduced a backing track to my student Sarah*. We had been playing ‘My Piano Song‘ for a couple of weeks and she was having a hard time keeping to a steady beat. Having a backing track to play along to sometimes helps students with keeping time so I wanted to see if this would help her.

I pressed play on my phone and out blared a synthetic sounding melody accompanied by a boppy drum beat. We listened to it together once through, and then it was Sarah’s turn to play along with the music.

When we listened to the nine second introduction again, Sarah went from:

  1. Sitting still waiting to play; to
  2. Casually bouncing her head to the beat; to
  3. Getting off the bench entirely and doing what I can only describe as a belly dance.

There was so much dancing (and giggling) going on that she of course missed where she was supposed to come in with her piano playing.

But that was okay! It was the first time she had heard the track and this was her unbridled response to the music. Kids are so uninhibited and respond to new things in completely different ways to how adults have been conditioned to. Sarah was clearly enjoying the track so I let her continue with the belly dancing a little while longer. Not only was she having fun with a song that had become tiresome for her to figure out rhythmically, she was now listening in an engaged way and embodying the beat through her dancing. Having a few minutes of fun and silliness helped her to relax and we were able to approach the piece anew after laughing it out.

Anyone walking in on our lesson during those five minutes might have questioned whether I was “teaching” or simply letting my student run amok. At times when I’m teaching at my students’ homes I do get a little self-conscious and worry that parents listening in might think I’m goofing off too much with their kids.

But there is always method to my madness.

Learning the piano can be frustrating sometimes when you feel like you’re stuck and unable to do what you’re trying so hard to do.

A little bit of silliness can be just the thing that’s needed to help a student shake off some tension, re-energise and tackle the challenge again.

The silliness ends up being a very valuable use of five minutes if it means my student is happy and relaxed for the remaining 30!

“Enough of the silliness”?

Not in my lessons. Let them be silly!

 

 

Are you a fan of the silliness? Let me know in the comments below!

 

*I always change the names of my students for my blog posts to protect their privacy.

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Play and Practice Pieces

I give my beginner piano students a lot of pieces to play after their first month or so, introducing at least one or two new pieces of music each lesson.

Being new to the piano, every piece of music has something in it for them to learn, be it technique, patterns, rhythm or note reading.

Some kids are able to grasp new pieces and techniques quickly so having many pieces keeps things interesting for them. Some kids take longer to work through a piece of music but this shouldn’t stop them from having fresh material. A piece of music doesn’t have to be “perfect” before we get started on the next piece.

In fact, there’s nothing more frustrating than only having the same eight bars to work on, with nothing else to play.

Frustrated Child

 

By introducing a variety of repertoire to students, there’s bound to be a piece they enjoy more than the others, one which naturally makes them sit and play. This is the start of effective practicing for many kids and it usually doesn’t take long for them to play that piece fairly well.

The concept of the “Play” Piece

In my studio, I like to distinguish between “Play” and “Practice” pieces for my students. Play Pieces are performance-ready pieces that a student can play correctly without needing any prompts or help from me. These pieces have essentially been mastered and as such, students don’t have to practice them any further.  However, rather than forgetting about these pieces altogether, we mark the ones they really like with a coloured tab so they can easily find them to play whenever they feel like it.

I adopted this concept of the Play Piece from an essay written by Dr. Julie Knerr (co-author of Piano Safari) where she explains that children are happy to practice when they can play pieces they have already mastered. She refers to these pieces as “Review Pieces” but I re-named it for my students as it’s easier for them to remember to simply “play” them.

Children like to do what they do well. If they play pieces well, they will like to play those pieces. Keeping pieces as Review Pieces allows the student to build a repertoire and allows the teacher to continue to refine the student’s technique and musicality. This builds the student’s confidence, because he can play a group of pieces he knows really well.

Dr Julie Knerr, Piano Safari

Practice Pieces

As the name suggests, Practice Pieces are those that aren’t quite there yet and need to be actively practiced. It could be that a piece of music has just been newly introduced and the student is still getting familiar with it, or it could be that a piece of music presents specific challenges that the student needs to work through.

Sometimes during a lesson, I’ll listen to a Practice Piece and hear parts that need refining, but my younger students don’t usually pick up on the same things. In their minds, if they’ve played all the right notes then the piece is done. Never mind if the beat is off and they’ve ignored the rhythm completely!

What Constitutes a Play Piece?

To help my students understand how a Practice piece becomes a Play Piece, I put together a checklist to show them the areas they need to think about when practicing a piece of music. I’ve attached a copy of this Play Piece Checklist below in case you’ll also find this helpful to use at home.

There are essentially five main components to the checklist:

  1. Correct notes
  2. Correct rhythm
  3. Appropriate tempo
  4. Observing dynamics
  5. Articulation / technique

Of course for very early beginners, I’ll give a lot of leeway for Dynamics and Technique as these take a long time to develop and they won’t necessarily be able to exhibit excellence in these areas yet.

 

Play Piece Checklist by Piano with Po

By giving each student a laminated copy of the checklist to keep in their folders or propped up on the piano at home, they can see easily what they need to work on during their weekly practice for any given piece. This allows them to self-evaluate outside of the lesson which is a good skill to have for eventually learning to play independently.

When it comes to Play Pieces, More is More

Play Pieces are a wonderful way to show students how practicing leads to enjoyable, tangible outcomes. Having a bank of repertoire that they can play is not only fun for kids, but it also shows them (and their parents) how much progress they have made. Seeing proof of progress is a great motivator for learning and I really like how this system really helps with continual progress.

 

How many Play Pieces do you or your kids currently have? Let me know in the comments below!

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