I met a lady living on a nearby farm the other week who came from the area of the country I grew up in, another island away in a town most people haven’t heard of. As you do, I asked what part of the Waikato she came from and she said “Putaruru”. Funny how hearing your own home town suddenly makes a special connection with a person. So after she heard I was from there too, I ventured to ask if she knew the “Bousfield School of Music”, a music school developed by my parents in the community. She replied that my mother had taught not only her, but also both her sisters the piano. (It’s not the first time I’ve met a random stranger who learned from them.) Since then I’ve been reflecting on the legacy left by my musical parents, who taught 5,000 individual pupils over their combined lifetimes. I’ve also been thinking how pupils learned music in their day and how things have altered since then.
I’d like to think that my pupils learn with the same solid principles I gained growing up, along with new ideas and fresh approaches appropriate to the generation learning now. But, in musing on whether I have made the most of that legacy and built on it, I’ll share some thoughts with you as I go along.
The first thing that comes to mind is the increase in musical repertoire we have today. Of course the wonderful range of classical music from the last few centuries is still available, but just packaged in different ways. For example, with a search on You Tube we can often find someone playing music we might want to listen to. I’m frequently suggesting to my pupils to check out a piece of music on line. That was something my parents couldn’t do, instead they would have taken the time to demonstrate more in the lesson. A live rendition of the piece certainly is important for today’s pupil’s too.
There were fewer tutor books or courses available to choose from in my parents’ day. Now, a music teacher will have a lot more to choose from, and the fun part is finding the right music for each pupil. I review tutor books I’m familiar with in one of the lectures in my course for parents: How to Teach Your Child the Piano like a Pro
There is a lot more light jazz, recent compositions, improvisation and ways of learning to play by ear in music learning these days. Gone is the perception that you are only a real musician if you can read music. Having said that, it is an incredibly valuable part of learning a musical instrument and I am most grateful that I play by ear as well as read music. I look for ways to help my pupils with this too, usually after they have done an exam or reached a particular goal, like playing in a concert. In my Headstart Piano course, I include pieces that the pupil learns visually and/or by ear along with developing their skills at reading music. Congratulations to the my pupils at West Rolleston School in this photo after their concert this past week. They played beautifully, most of them learning with Headstart Piano.
In the era of my parents’ teaching there was definitely an expectation of a longer amount of practice each day. An hour a day was considered a minimum and they were not keen on giving lessons to anyone doing any less than that. In her later years I quizzed my mother on this and she said it was much harder to keep this standard these days with all the distractions of other activities. But the fact remains, I definitely see the progress (and a corresponding degree of satisfaction) with pupils who do this level of practice. I think a key aspect of productive practicing is maximising the time used through focusing on the difficult, new parts being learned, rather than just clock watching or staring at the wall while sitting at the instrument!
No social media or TV
Back when I was young it seemed every house had a piano—no keyboards with cute sounds. I had to do piano practice before playing with friends or going to watch TV at their homes. (We didn’t have a TV.) This year, one of my lovely new learners came bouncing in for her lesson at my home and asked if my piano was always “on”. Having an electric keyboard at home meant she didn’t know there was such a thing as an acoustic piano. I’d recommend that today’s teachers show the inside of a real piano for the student to observe the hammer action. I particularly like to do this when I’m teaching about loud and soft, and then again when learning about the damper/sustain pedal.
When I think about the portability of piano keyboards today I realise how much of a deal it was when my parents had a caravan purpose built with the right space for a piano at the back. They took it around the country schools in the Waikato and taught from it as a mobile studio. The down side for us kids was that when we went on school holidays the piano came too. No getting out of doing our practice on vacation!
I think I was able to stay focused on a task better than many of today’s young people. I could repeat things until I got it right. Honestly though, I still struggled to do it, not realising I’d be grateful for it one day. Maybe a lesson for today’s parents is that children can’t truly assess what is good for them and they need a big person to help them stick at it. Hats off to the parents who achieve this in today’s hectic pace of life. I’m grateful that I was required to stick to what was expected of me. I keenly felt that I would let my parents down if I didn’t. I learned the life skill of resilience as well as music from that.
Every generation has a way of being creative. For my parents, it included thinking outside the square to teach music in a caravan, writing music theory books and arranging music for their instrumental groups, just for starters. For me, it was when I learned to improvise.
I definitely was not a good student. Practice times seemed to drag on forever and I was terribly nervous when it came to performances. But I was more fortunate than my siblings in some ways as the youngest of 5, in that it seemed I was allowed to mess around at the piano more. I enjoyed making up music and explored playing by ear far more than my older siblings. That’s where my love of music really started to develop and I began to appreciate what I had learned through the music grades too.
More recently this has included producing Headstart Piano in 2 books that I use with my beginners. I am so close to getting Book 1 to you in an on line course. Hopefully soon.
In the meantime, keep enjoying your music and creating memories. One day it might become one of your own “It’s a small world” stories.