Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lessons Learned in the Piano Lab

It's hard to believe that my first semester of teaching class piano has reached the halfway point. I've learned some valuable lessons that I want to make sure I don't forget. Hopefully they will also be beneficial to you as well.

  • Just because a student passed the previous section of the course does not mean they are prepared for the material in your course. This lesson has taken me a few weeks to fully understand. Some students advance to the next level by the skin of their teeth. While they have learned how to play pieces for a test, they have not necessarily developed the skills necessary to proceed. These situations raise a complex issue of teaching philosophy:  are assignments tailored to the individual's abilities or is a course-wide standard maintained? If we are tailoring the course to meet students where they are, we are essentially conducting multiple private lessons in a single room. That defeats the purpose of having class piano!
  • Class lectures take longer than you think! When I began teaching correct fingering patterns for the C Major scale (two octaves, hands together), I expected it would take no more than 10 minutes. Twenty minutes into class I found myself discussing why fingering matters...and we still had not started the scale. At the opposite extreme, a discussion of functional keyboard harmony that I thought would be more difficult to explain was understood by the students after 5 minutes. 
  • Always have supplemental work on hand. It never fails that someone is going to complete an assignment days before the rest of the class. Rather than simply having the student move to the next assignment, it's sometimes good to provide some entertaining music to develop sight reading skills or let students explore improvisation on a given theme. As long as it's not presented as "busy work" the student often appreciates the break from the routine and continues to make valuable progress at the piano.
  • Group playing is valuable! Occasionally, it's beneficial to have the students unplug their headphones and play as an ensemble. Whether the class performs a piece in unison or simply runs scales and arpeggios, these group plays allow the students to compare themselves with their colleagues in a non-threatening manner. It also provides an opportunity to experience the joy and challenges of playing in an ensemble.
  • Creative assignments can push students beyond their comfort zone. I wanted my students to work on playing a four part chorale setting. Many of them were horrified at the thought of playing from a hymnal. By adding another dimension -- allowing them the freedom to re-harmonize the hymn's melody -- my students launched into learning to play the hymn with excitement and less fear. Technically, some of them weren't entirely prepared to play the four voice hymn; without a doubt, those who completed the assignment reaped tremendous benefits as beginning arrangers as well as pianists.
  • Faulty technology can undermine the entire process. Not every teacher utilizes the monitor/communication system commonly found in piano labs. I do and my students have responded positively to the privacy the headphones provide and the extra monitoring they receive from me throughout the hour.  However, when headphones and microphones don't work, students get frustrated. The best way to avoid the frustration is to have clear knowledge of what works in the room and what equipment needs to be repaired or replaced.
When I was first assigned to teach the course, I really didn't think I would enjoy it at all. I viewed it as a resume builder. Now that I have experienced the class first hand and have been given the liberty to experiment, I have really come to enjoy the format and look forward to each class session. I don't have the teaching of class piano down to a science yet, but I definitely plan to continue teaching the course as long as I can.

If you have taught class piano, I would love to hear from you.  What is the one piece of advice you would share with any professional new to the format? What new discoveries have you made recently?