Category: Piano

My Personal Learning Theory

I came across a wonderful graph of Learning Theories, that maps and links key scientific disciplines, theories, concepts, and paradigms.

It got me thinking about my own ideas about teaching and learning and where they came from. I am very lucky to have had such wonderful piano teachers in high school and university – their teaching style influences me to this day. Sandra taught me that playing could include emotion, and helped me realise that I needed to make choices about phrasing and dynamics. She introduced me to wonderful repertoire and tailored my lessons to my needs. Ben wrangled my technique into shape and brought a more sophisticated sensibility to my over-emotional playing – less Mills and Boon, more Jane Austen. I went on to do a Bachelor of Teaching where I was exposed to many pedagogical theories; and although they were in a classroom context I have absorbed them into my instrumental teaching method.

These are some of my views on teaching instrumental music. Please note that I approach classroom music in a different way.

Instructivism 
When learning an instrument you are learning a set of specific technical skills, and music is based on several key concepts (key, pitch, rhythm etc). Learning a set of discrete skills and specific knowledge is what Instructivism is all about. Learning and information flows from the teacher to the student and is fairly non-negotiable (The flat sign means this, this note is… play it this way, hold your hands like so). It is an Instructivistic technique to make the learning sequential, and I carefully construct lesson sequences that introduce students to new concepts, and then build upon that knowledge.
I cherry-pick from instructivism as it has many, many negative qualities that I don’t need in my lessons. Instructivism is quite rigid in the delivery of lessons that are carefully graded from simple to more complex whereas I am very flexible in my lessons and respond to student needs and interests. Instructivism provides little room for self-discovery and reflection, whereas I use reflection as a vital learning tool, and I make sure to include imporvisation/composing and student choice pieces in my teaching.

Experiential Learning
This can also be described as “learning through reflection on doing”, and is how I like to teach my students to practise at home. Step one is to choose a piece or section to work on (one page, one line?) and step two is to know what questions to ask yourself – was my articulation clear? Where did the melody peak, and did my dynamics assist that? did I play the correct chords? was my rhythm in time, should I check with a metronome? It needs an incredible amount of discipline to do this unaided by a teacher, especially for young children, so all my students are apprenticed into this way of thinking, starting out with simple instructions “play twice and sing note names”, progressing to “work on B section line 2, clear staccato in RH”, progressing to a conversation in the lesson on what could be worked on or achieved in practise time.

Learning Styles
Teaching in a one-on-one situation is such a privilege, and it makes it so easy to tailor every lesson to the students needs and interests. Some students like to make up their own note-rhymes, some learn best from flashcards, some learn a piece by listening, others by reading the notes, others by watching their own hands. No matter what your learning strength is though, I will also make you work on your weaknesses!!  Even the students with perfect sight-reading have to memorise a piece or two, and those that can play effortlessly after hearing a piece a few times must also learn to read music competently.

Zone Of Proximal Development
The ZPD is the area of skill or learning that is just on the horizon between what you know and can do, and what is currently difficult and confusing. It is very important to know where this is for each student, otherwise the lessons risk becoming too easy and boring, or too challenging and overwhelming. I like to make sure I keep mainly in the ZPD, with at least one piece being very easy, giving the student instant gratification and confidence, and allowing me to work specifically on things such as dynamics/phrasing/technique without worrying about learning the notes first. Working in the ZPD is where scaffolding becomes very important.

Scaffolding
 A scaffold is a support that is gradually removed as it is no longer needed. I am a very supportive teacher – I make sure that students have confidence in themselves, and confidence that they will be able to achieve the tasks that I ask them. (And confidence that making mistakes is OK) For all students I employ good scaffolding to their learning: I support the student while concepts and tasks are new, and as they learn the skill/idea I remove my support until they can master it independently. To this end I promote what I call “good learner behaviour” – I remind students that when learning a new piece it is good to pause and check the notes if you are not sure, I encourage students to use their ears and if it sounds wrong to double check the notes themselves, I ask them to identify the difficult bits and then play those through before beginning the piece, I ask them to identify any repeated rhythmic or melodic motif that could help them learn the piece a little quicker. And of course good learner behaviour changes as you master a piece – after learning the notes you should then try to push yourself to not have any pauses or gaps etc.

Mastery Learning
The Mastery Learning system is really meant for classroom application. When you get to have a student one-on-one the ideals of Mastery Learning come so easily; every student has as much time and support as they need to achieve their goal, students properly learn one concept before moving on to the next level, and formative evaluation is done almost at every turn.
At it’s heart, Mastery Learning assumes that every student can achieve, and that by allowing the student to achieve success, the student develops greater confidence and feels positive about the learning experience.

Enhanced Discovery Learning
“Discovery learning can occur whenever the student is not provided with an exact answer but rather the materials in order to find the answer themselves.”
I always do improvising and composing with my students – this is a great time for them to dive in and start “learning by doing”. This is only after I have the students full confidence, and we have established the lesson as a ‘safe space’ where mistakes are fine. The students are supported to branch out and explore sound, and the learning is really directed by themselves as they discover sound combinations, and play with and manipulate melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, key, mood, tone, and texture.

Rote Learning
Rote learning is boring and disconnected from any meaningful learning, but I do use it sparingly in conjunction with other methods to learn how to read notes, and theory/composer information when preparing for exams.

Tones and Semitones

Musicians should learn to identify and play/sing intervals on demand.

The semitone is the smallest interval in Western music. Example: C-C#, F-E, G#-A. On a piano this is achieved by playing the neighbor note, whether white or black. On a guitar it is the next fret up or down that produces a semitone.

A tone is equal to two semitones. Example: C-D, F-Eb, G#-A#. On a piano, just play up or down two semitones (skip the middle one). On a guitar play up or down, skipping one fret.

Here are two videos showcasing the Chromatic and Whole Tone scales.

Chromatic and Whole Tone Scales in C (mid-range voices) Watch on Youtube

Chromatic and Whole Tone Scales in G (low voices) Watch on Youtube

 

It might as well be spring

This is a really lovely song to learn how to play on piano from a melody line and chords – it’s nice and slow which gives you lots of thinking time. I’ve written a few steps you could take if you wanted to learn this piece. Remember that depending on how much experience with this you already have each step could take an hour or a month!

Step One – make sure you know all the chords!
Learning a song like this should really come after you’ve learnt the theory behind all the different chords, but for those who want, I’ve done a cheat sheet with all the chords. (To match the version in Budget Books Jazz Standards)

Step Two – play the melody and bass lines together.
Get really comfortable with the melody – you need to be able to play it freely using a variety of fingerings – when we add harmony notes in the RH you will need to be flexible.

Step Three – play the chords through on their own.
This is so you can see how they fit together. Try it first in all root position just while you’re learning the chords, then try for the smoothest transitions. (The bass note is always the root – it is OK to jump this around.) Work in a 3-4 chord block at a time, playing it a few different ways to see what you like and what’s comfortable.
Once you get pretty good at this, play it through as chords and sing the melody, but again, flexibility is key as you will have to adjust once the melody is introduced.

Step Four – play the chords and melody together.
Go slowly, this is tricky! Again, work in small sections at first and play around with a few different variations.

Step Five – listen, play, tweak, repeat.
Listen to recordings of pianists, vocalists, and ensembles playing this piece. Find scores that are written out in full and play through those – analyse how they transition between chords. Look at the different rhythmic patterns they use in the harmony. Play around with what you are doing, tweak it, change it, develop it. And have fun!

You can download the cheat sheet with all the chords written out in full:  It might as well be spring chords.

Christmas Gifts!

Musicians are the easiest people to buy for – you can get them anything; metronomescookie cutters, jewelry, personalised guitar picks, instrument cases and bags, socks, ties and t-shirts.
609043-2TBut the best gift of all is certainly sheet music!

Nothing is more exciting that a whole book of new music to play through. This music can be a challenge to learn, or it can be almost at sight-reading level, needing only a few plays through to learn it. The music can be something that you take to your teacher to learn or it can be kept just for ‘fun’ at home. You can work up to a performance of this music, or you can just play through it every now and then.

To make sure that the student is getting the best gift for them, talk over your gift idea with their teacher to see if the sheet music you want to buy is at an appropriate level. Or take in the current book your student is learning from to the music store. Generally the people behind the counter are friendly and knowledgeable and will be able to help you find some music that suits the taste and learning level of your student.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

00416748FC   Disney books!! Disney books for piano are generally a little difficult so be sure to check with your teacher. That being said, you can find books that are appropriate for most levels of ability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

00124307FC   Or if you just LOVE one musical in particular, get the whole book of that. In the case of Frozen, there are several different editions catering from 5-finger hand positions to advanced abilities.

If you are after just that one song, you can also find copies of that.

 

 

02501533   The 4 Chord Songbook is great for beginner guitarists!

 

 

 

Some other ideas: The Harry Potter Soundtrack, Taylor Swift’s latest release, Johnny Cash in TAB, the complete Beethoven Sonatas, Assorted Classical Favorites, Queen for Voice/Piano/Guitar… There’s so much amazing music available!

Don’t forget that most educational books have companion books. Bastien has a rhythm and blues book for each level and the Faber books have Performance books for each level. And you can use different method books – if your student is using the Alfred books, then buy them the Bastien Performance book. If they are using the Bastien system then purchase a Faber’s Adventure series book.

If in doubt, speak to the teacher!