Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Importance of Great Beginnings in Music Education

Beginnings are vitally important. A great novel often grabs the reader's attention with the opening sentence. Hollywood blockbusters ensure their success through lavishly staged opening segments. Educators emphasize the importance of the first years of life to a child's intellectual development. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a solid early foundation in musical fundamentals is essential to a student's long term success.

The start of the new year is the perfect time for parents and teachers to evaluate the progress their beginning piano student has made thus far in their instruction. For many, the greatest problem is not determining whether or not progress is being made, but determining the cause when slow progress is observed. In my own teaching, I have discovered a few recurring issues that appear to contribute to the situation. I have listed them here in an order that I find helpful in discovering the underlying issue.

  • Unrealistic expectations. Because beginning piano students often excel in other pursuits, it is sometimes difficult for parents to realize that progress in music may come at a significantly slower pace. Like the acquisition of a new language, it takes time to become fluent in music. While it is not likely that your student is a prodigy like Mozart, discernible progress should be expected at a regular and steady pace. A child may struggle for a few weeks to grasp an elementary concept; this should not cause extreme concern. If the child continues to struggle with the same issue for more than three or four weeks with no discernible progress (assuming lessons are occurring regularly), it is advisable to look for a deeper cause of the stalemate.
  • Insufficient practice. "There are no shortcuts." I find this is often the cause of limited musical advancement that is overlooked by both parents and students. Regardless of how talented a pianist is, there is no substitute for practice. Consistent practice time at the piano is necessary to master new skills and to develop musicality. What should be practiced? Practicing is much more than just playing through the entirety of your repertoire. For starters, daily attention should be given to correcting errors, building technical skills, navigating challenging passages and shaping the melodic line. Instruction on how to practice and what to practice should be discussed in the piano lesson. How much practice is necessary? That's a common question that cannot be easily answered across the board. As a general rule, most beginning students should expect to invest at least 20 minutes in diligent practice each day. Rather than strictly focusing on the amount of time, however, I encourage students to use improvement as their motivation for daily practice.
  • Lack of parent-teacher communication. An open line of communication between the adults involved in the student's musical development is always extremely beneficial. The parent can provide insight into what is happening between lessons while also sharing areas of student frustration and confusion. The teacher that values parental input will be certain to provide information about supplemental resources (e.g. flash cards, technology aids, and additional music) that can aid the student's development. The most common method of parent-teacher communication comes in the form of a lesson notebook; with the increased use of technology in music instruction, electronic methods of communication between the home and studio are becoming more common, too. Whatever the method, the home communication allows the teacher to clearly state the week's goals while sharing additional information with parents. If a formal system of weekly communication has not already been established in the lesson, the parent should feel free to inquire about its development.
  • Misunderstood concepts. When a child is facing a road block in his musical development, a misunderstanding of an essential fact may be the root problem. A professional teacher should identify such circumstances quickly and develop a plan for correcting the error. If a parent observes a season of little progress, a gentle, non-threatening conversation with the student might reveal the misunderstanding that can then be communicated to the instructor. If the instructor becomes defensive when the issue is brought to their attention, it may be a signal that a more harmful problem exists.
  • Insufficient instruction. Once we have eliminated the above issues as the source of minimal student development, it then becomes necessary to examine the quality of instruction. Not everyone who can play an instrument is qualified to teach. Questions about professional training and teaching experience can often be obtained from a studio website or casual conversation with the teacher. Parents may also seek out information about the teacher's reputation in the community. If the instruction is found to be inferior, it is imperative to the student's development that a thoroughly qualified teacher be found as quickly as possible.
    • As a further note on the topic of instruction, it is also important to realize that no teacher is best in every situation. A pedagogue that specializes in adult beginners might not be the best fit for an adolescent student. A piano teacher with limited experience might not be a good fit for the student who is interested in the competitive circuit. Students with special needs will most greatly benefit from teachers who have specialized training and experience with similar students. Each situation is unique. The parent's best tools in making a decision about their child's study is information and personal intuition.
  • Absence of talent. As a last possibility, we must state that in extremely rare circumstances, a student may simply not possess any musical talent. I have never encountered a student who could not achieve some level of musical advancement through private instruction. Before allowing your student to be lumped into this "no hope" category, I recommend speaking frankly with all music teachers the student has encountered (school and private teachers, past and present) as well as other respected music professionals. The last thing that should happen is to have a child's musical interests crushed because of a poor assessment of their musical potential.