What is good teaching?
Whether you are beginning as a teacher, getting back into teaching after a break or just reviewing your practice, I’d like to share with you a few points that I try to bear in mind myself, as a piano teacher. We all have a preferred and individual teaching style, but these are some reminders that I give myself from time to time.
Good teaching has a clear focus, with definite goals based on musical principles. Good teaching results in good learning. Teaching should build on current understanding and promote future progression. Good teaching ought to be enjoyable for the teacher as well as for the pupil and if I am not particularly enjoying the lesson I ask myself why and aim to do something about it!
Once a student has played for me I like to think of something genuinely positive to say and then to discuss potential improvements to that piece or to the student’s technique in relation to any particular technical or interpretative demands.
What we teach
What we teach is best formulated according to agreed, conscious learning objectives for a particular student, whilst being sufficiently flexible to respond to the needs of the student in any particular lesson. Both short-term and long-term goals should be set for each student, for instance this lesson’s objective may be to teach the student how best to practise legato pedalling, whereas the long-term goal might be to pedal a Schumann piece well enough to pass the Grade 5 examination in six months’ time.
Be adaptable – if a pupil comes along with an idea for making up some music, this can be a powerful motivating tool and the other plans for the lesson may be incorporated later. A student who is involved in setting their own learning targets will be more engaged with the learning process but of course we have to guide students as to how they might improve their playing.
How we teach
Different students have preferred learning styles and it is helpful to know what these are so that we can both teach that student most effectively. The most relevant preferred learning styles for the pianist are:
(i) Kinaesthetic – these students will prefer to learn by ‘finger memory’ of melodic and chord shapes and they will probably be good at this way of memorisation
(ii) Visual – these students will prefer to learn by looking at the shapes that the music makes on the keys and they will probably be good sight readers
(iii) Aural – these students will prefer to learn by remembering how the music sounded. They may like to learn by rote more than by reading music and they will probably be good at memorising
(iv) Combination learners – these students will be able to draw on a range of learning styles.
Being a creative teacher
I like to begin teaching a piece by focusing on an aspect of it in a way that resonates with the individual student’s preferred learning style.
I know that, when beginning Satie’s Gymnopedie III, consistently using the Left Hand finger pattern 5-3-1 for root position chords (like A-C-E) and first inversion chords (like C-E-A), but using fingers 5-2-1 for second inversion chords (like A-D-F), can be of enormous help in achieving accuracy but the way I put this across will vary depending on the student.
Visual learners will be guided by how the patterns look on the keys compared with the notes in the score and kinaesthetic learners will become able to relate the feel of the hand position to the chord sequence to be memorised. Instead of telling my students about the fingering patterns, I may try asking them to devise a method or remembering the different chord shapes by choosing helpful fingering.
Aural learners will benefit most from remembering the sound of the chords. It is a useful and highly relevant exercise in aural development to encourage the student to hear whether the root (the A in chord A minor) is at the bottom, in the middle or at the top of the chord. Hearing this detail provides a quick accuracy check.
I think we should also develop students’ learning capacity in the ways that do not come to them so readily. If we know a student is probably going to learn pieces more by rote than by reading the notation, we could be positive about that student’s memorising abilities, whilst also encouraging better music reading by regularly providing easier sight reading opportunities. Nurture independence by showing students how to learn and practise effectively.
We can think of ways to engage those students who prefer playing by ear to reading from the dots. Playing the chord sequence of the Satie piece while improvising a melody with the other hand could be an enjoyable way of capturing the mood of the music, whilst memorising the chords. You could begin by doing this as a duet with the student, taking it in turns to improvise.
The means of assessing whether or not we have achieved our objectives must be clear to us, for instance we will know if we have really succeeded in teaching the correct time value of dotted rhythms in a Kabalevsky piece if the student plays accurately in the next lesson. If not, we may want to think of a different way of teaching rhythm in that piece.
The best way of judging whether we are helping a student to achieve long term aims may be through examination results but, if that path is not chosen, taking time to discuss the term’s achievement with the student may be a useful guide to how they feel about their playing and also helpful in formulating aims for future lessons.
Advice and resources for piano teachers and students:
Additional help for your teaching –
Aural Test Training for music students: www.e-musicmaestro.com/auraltests
E-MusicMaestro videos of piano pieces Grade 1 – 5: www.youtube.com/user/9pegasus9
Look out for more piano pieces on our new Youtube Channel as from August 2014: www.youtube.com/user/EMusicMaestroChannel
© Sandy Holland