How would you define success in any field?

I read recently about Erik Weihenmayer who was the first blind person to climb Mt Everest. The advice given by one of the team leaders was, “Don’t let climbing Mt Everest be the greatest thing you ever do.”

It wasn’t! Beyond Erik’s amazing personal acheivements he went on to found an organisation called ‘No Barriers’, and inspires many to push through difficult handicaps to reach personal goals.

 

This week two young New Zealanders earned bronze medals they weren’t quite expecting at the Winter Olympics.  It has been 26 years since NZ won any medal at the Winter Olmypics. So this is a big deal.

When 16 year old Nico Porteous was was asked how much he practiced, he cited two hours in the gym 4 times a week and every other available moment on the ski field.

His achievement didn’t just happen. Two things had to be in place:

  1. He loved what he was doing, and
  2. He put the time in to improve his skills.

To my mind that is success right there! He faithfully stuck at it so that when it really mattered he was ready to pull out his best.

But that’s not all. Any medal seemed like a distant dream but he was focused on simply wanting to improve on his 11th place in the standings by putting down his best possible runs. In some ways the bronze medal was a by product of his work. He got it because he was aiming for more than just a medal. He was aiming to be the best he could be.

Beau-James Wells was another NZer in that competition who was expected to do well. He missed out on the medals and came 4th.  No doubt that was disappointing, but to hear him express how pleased he was that he had improved his personal best score showed real character.

What has this got to do with music? Everything!

If anyone loves music and is keen to learn to play well, they need to want it enough to put the time into improving the skills given in their lessons. Some will go on to great things in the eyes of the world out there, but the real heroes to my way of thinking are those who are not limited by just wanting to be better than others. They want to be better than themselves – better than yesterday. These are the ones who can celebrate other peoples’ achievements along with their own. They are taking whatever God given talent they have and are turning into being the very best they can be.

Success is inevitable for those striving for their personal best, whatever that may be.

Ever been transported back in time?

If I ever hear the Beatles singing ‘I wanna hold your hand’ I am carried back to an old record player in the corner of the dining room of the family home and the memory of sisters crazy about the Beatles. I can’t quite remember which of my sisters, but I do remember the Beatles craze in our household.

Music is amazing at evoking a memory of a time in life, isn’t it? Perhaps a particular song on the radio rekindles the poignancy of a difficult time, or brings back the warmth of a special event, such as a wedding.

 

I can’t quite remember when I first heard Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, but I do remember that in my teens it seemed like the most exciting piece of music I’d ever heard in my short life thus far. And when I hear it again I recall trying to listen to a recording of it with headphones in a library while an elderly gent nearby was singing to the music he was listening to. Walled within his headphones, he was unaware that the whole library could hear his ambitious swoops to the high notes. As we all chuckled at his obvious enjoyment, I made a note to self not to do the same with the exciting music I was enjoying. I soon ordered the piano score and started working through its 30 pages. It is still one of my favourite pieces because of Gershwin’s wonderful blend of jazz and classical styles. And it brings back other memories of my teen years when I was exploring other music I hadn’t heard before.

 

All of this to say that music has a big part to play in the story of our lives whether we are listeners or performers. Being a listener can be an inspiration in itself to those who perform. Those who have listened to performances and expressed their appreciation will have had more of an influence than they probably realise. And being a performer offers a lifetime of rich experiences playing in various contexts and meeting folks from all walks of life who have a similar love of music. And it potentially offers a lifetime of memories to the audience.

Do you have a story of how a particular piece of music sparks a memory of a particular event or time period? Whatever emotion it stirs I hope it’s a positive reflection for you.

Musical time travel works well to the past. I’m not so sure that it does to the future. Still, funny to think that all around us now we are listening to or playing music that could strongly impact tomorrow’s memory with what happened today!

 

I’m realistic enough to know that I can’t be everyone’s teacher and, even if I could, that no teacher is perfect. So in this blog I’m going to see if I can give some pointers on what you should be looking for in a music teacher. And I think in the process I may just pull my own socks up a bit and realise where I need to sharpen up to be the best I can be for my current pupils too.  Here then are seven things that a good piano teacher should be:

1. Approachable

I cringe when I hear some stories of piano teachers in the past. I remember my mother telling me how she had a teacher who hovered over her ready to whack her hands when she made a mistake. “How was anyone supposed to learn under such circumstances!” she said to me. There was no way she was ever going to do that to any of her pupils! I think a piano teacher should first of all be approachable. His or her role is a very special one. You have a regular session with a child each week and that time should be one of encouraging, inspiring, challenging, laughing together – being somewhere between a professional tutor and a friend. It’s a delicate balance because sometimes you have to be a little firm. I’ve seen little 6 year olds who called me Mrs McKenzie growing up to tell me what’s happening in high school and transition through various stages until we are on first name terms, and by then I’m the short one.

2. Willing to be mentored/accountable to others

Music teachers often work on their own and don’t have a lot to do with others. I felt vulnerable and a little daunted in being observed by another teacher when I became a NZ registered music teacher. There were some things I was encouraged by but also she pointed out some things I needed to be aware of, things I could grow into to improve my teaching. A teacher who is ever learning and playing their instrument with others in some capacity will not becoming stagnant in their own experience of performance. They can appreciate your child’s learning struggles too as their own learning is fresh in mind.

3. Qualified/Experienced

There are all sorts of qualifications, but just because someone passes an exam doesn’t mean they can teach. There needs to be a balance between qualification and experience. A qualification says you have reached a particular level of skill, but says little about knowing how to guide others. Experience will fill many gaps in areas not covered by the examination process. Growing up with music teachers as parents gave me more of an advantage than I realised. When my first opportunity came to teach I was only 15, but fortunately had the experts right on hand to guide me through what to do.  So experience came first for me (I was not many grade levels ahead of the pupil at that time) and the qualifications that enabled me to register as a teacher came later.

4. Flexible in meeting pupils’/parents’ goals

Some parents want a definite path to success with exam work. Some want a very laid back approach. Most want something in between. But a teacher should be able to guide a pupil through exams if needed down the track. A teacher who is willing to guide your child through the process will be having their own test as your child goes for an exam. It is a chance for both of you to know from someone outside that they are covering what needs to be covered. I take it personally when there is an area my pupils don’t do well in. I assess whether there was anything better I could have done for my part in the result.

5. Able to teach a range of styles

We go through seasons of the things we like to learn. A solid reading approach is a good start but later you may also want to build on those skills and experiment a bit more. Would your teacher be able to help you there, or would you have to go to someone else when you want to play with more improvisation, for example?

6. Not focused on their own ability

You may have heard the expression: ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ (And I once heard from an examiner who wanted to applaud the work of the teachers he was talking to: ‘Those who can’t teach, examine!’) In other words, if you can’t perform you become a teacher. But if your teacher loves performing so much that they keep wanting to show you what to do, without giving ample time to try it yourself, that can be a bit of a road block to your learning. By all means go to their concerts and be inspired, but in your limited lesson time it is important that you get a good chance to show what you have practiced. When they do play during your lesson it should have a direct application to what you are learning at the time.

7. Not always talking

This is a big one for me because I’m a bit of a talker. However,  I know that if I don’t make some sort of personal connection during the lesson, the pupil is not at ease enough for us to work together on what is needed. A good teacher will keep focused on the aims of the lesson and the pupil’s practical playing, all the while keeping aware of time restrictions. By doing so excessive talking is kept at bay.

 

With that I think I have talked enough on the subject.  But if there is anything you want some advice on – or want to add to or challenge what I’ve said – do let me know in the comments section below. I’ll be glad for your input on my thoughts.

I still remember the excitement of beginning to learn the piano and receiving the book I was to learn from. I was either 5 or 6 years old. (Books cost a bit more than 40 cents these days!)

I was allowed to colour in the pictures of the pieces I had learned too.

  learned about Mrs. Treble and Mr. Bass and their child, Middle C.

 

 

 

 

As a piano tutor and course creator, I flick through my first book with both amusement and interest – some things will still work after all these years, but we do need to have approaches that work in our times. 

6 years old

By 6 years of age the child is much more likely to be able to manage well the 5 points mentioned for 5 year olds (see last week’s blog), and if all those points are in place by the time they are 6 they are likely to be able to start well and keep going.

Check out my blog for getting goals in place for your 6 year old to start well, especially when he or she starts on a course that involves reading music. These relate to forming important habits that will help them develop into fine musicians. Basically, to recap the main issues:

  1. There needs to be clear, regular communication with the tutor as to what needs to be practised and how.
  2. There needs to be a regular time and place, agreed to by the pupil and parent, to practice.
  3. The parent needs to be consistent about making sure the agreed practice happens.
  4. There are reward systems along with genuine enthusiastic encouragement from the parent in the whole process.

I can virtually guarantee success if these 4 things are in place when your child starts learning an instrument with these guidelines.

7 to 10 years old

The biggest challenge I see for this age group is that these days children have so many activities. It seems an optimal time to learn many skills, and learning an instrument is packed in with everything else. Consequently time for practice is compromised. Even though they are likely to be more independent than at 6 years of age and practice on their own, there still needs to be the consistency of the above 4 points.

Here are some real case studies (with names changed) of situations where aspects from the 4 points above were missing.

The wrong instrument

Sally started very enthusiastically, but after a while I noticed that she was not pressing firmly enough on the keys. Other pupils learning in her group were doing fine, but this timid playing continued each week. She would gain confidence during the lesson, but the same timid playing returned the next week. I then found out that somehow the information about using a touch-sensitive keyboard had not been picked up and she was practising on a non touch-sensitive keyboard – one where the notes sounded the same regardless of how firmly the notes were played. It meant that when she came to her lesson, the touch-sensitive keyboard played softly and she didn’t have the same level of confidence to press the notes and make the sound. It also meant that she would not be able to learn to play with loud and soft expression in her music. Getting the right keyboard was so important for her confidence and enjoyment. Clear understanding of the tutor’s expectations would have helped to make sure she was using the right instrument.

 Practicing in various locations

Billy’s situation is becoming more common. Each week he was with either his mother or his father. Dad didn’t have a keyboard at his place and so the practice only happened when Billy was at his Mum’s place. But because of his mother’s determination to see him learn the piano (and Billy really wanted to) they kept up practice regularly on the weeks when he was with Mum. In some ways the concentrated practice on those alternative weeks made up for the lack on the other weeks. His progress was not as good as it could have been, but was definitely steady. Between them both they made the best of their situation, and it worked.

Too little practice

Tally was coming regularly to lessons, but every week there had been very little or sometimes no practice. She was quite capable and even with limited practice we were able to move on to new material most weeks. But because the lessons were during school time, I saw nothing of her parents except at concert time. I was surprised as she moved to another school that she was planning to continue with piano lessons. I am sure that with more parental involvement and practice she could have achieved so much more at her instrument. She might have realised what I knew – that she was really able to play well if she put the time in –  yet somehow I think she felt herself a poor musician.

 

Starting well and keeping going. We all need help along the way, don’t we? I’m glad my parents didn’t give up on me after I started, just because I didn’t always feel like practicing, or the pieces no longer had pictures I could colour.  And every generation needs to adapt to the new learning styles and the situations we face, without throwing out the old ways that worked too.

 I love working with beginners and seeing their excitement at learning how to play a new piece. I’ve also loved creating a beginner course that works with today’s young learners. 

But whatever course you learn from, or whenever you start learning, it is the way you develop consistent habits around your learning that makes the difference. And that goes for adult learners too. It is good to begin as a youngster, but you are never too old to start!