“What is the difference between a teacher and a coach?” I asked my husband, Robin.
“The wheels on the coach go round and round.” His typically silly initial answer preceded more sensible thoughts.

In simple terms, teaching involves the transfer of knowledge and skills. Coaching is helping someone to unlock their personal potential.

So how does this apply to learning a musical instrument? Maybe sorting out the difference will help me understand what I do a little better.

First thing that comes to mind is that I teach music, but I coach my pupils.
As an instrument tutor I am not standing in front of a class of listeners who take notes, but I work alongside an individual and look for ways for this learner to progress in particular skills.

With a knowledge base in music, the aim from there is to work with any pupil based on his or her particular learning style and personality. Knowing the theory helps, but, along with that, being able to draw from many years of practical experience is so valuable. This would be more of a coaching role.
I naturally think of the parallel here of a sports coach: someone who has played the game and has a wide range of experience that they bring in to develop potential, to strategise and to tackle current problems with goals in mind. If a coach merely knew the rules of the game, but didn’t know a range of potential outcomes, he or she would not be much of a coach.

So too when it comes to teaching music. Every pupil is different and one way of doing things does not work for everyone. So, over the years, a good teacher develops a range of tools to use in order to coach pupils through. They want to make sure the pupil understands underlying principles that can be applied in various situations. For example, I could play the music for pupils and show them quite quickly how it goes, but that is not helping them develop their potential. I want to be sure they have the decoding skills needed to read any piece of music for themselves. This includes solid counting skills for rhythm and quick individual note recognition, especially in the early years.

Maybe coaching could be called coaxing at times.
There is a certain amount of coaxing needed to help reluctant learners make those lateral connections that apply the principles taught. An example of this would be with transposing. A pupil who can transpose a piece of music from one key to another has understood how the piece works in the first key in order to apply the exact patterns in the second key. But they may need to be coaxed into thinking it through. Not everyone is keen on having to work it out. “Isn’t the teacher supposed to tell me how to do it?”

I have noticed that some learners just want to be taught exactly how the piece is to be played without having to understand how it holds together, maybe harmonically or rhythmically. If I go that route, it can mean they can learn quite quickly at first. But I have so often seen those pupils hit a brick wall when they don’t understand the important basics. Scales, for example, help with an understanding of key structures. Steady and accurate counting helps with complex rhythms. Those who are resistant to being coached take longer to understand how their music holds together. I strongly suspect they will not retain much in the long run either.

When I started as a piano teacher at the age of 15, I was under the careful tuition of my mother in the family music school. I had a knowledge base good enough to start teaching, but less understanding of what to do in a range of situations. Over the years I realise I am a better coach now than I was back then, because I have had more experience of the pitfalls my pupils will face if certain things are not in place. So it is probably fair to say that a teacher becomes more of a coach with cumulative experience.

In jotting this all down, I may have sorted out some differences and similarities in these two roles. Essentially though, I have come to see that I need to adjust the combination of the two roles for each pupil and be aware that my pupil may not always be ready to be coached in the way I know is good for them… yet. And I’ll connect with them best if I can be in the sweet spot between the two.

I would so value any thoughts you have on today’s subject. I have heard a bit about coaching in the on line space of late, so it seems to be a subject people are looking at. I know I have not covered it in any way comprehensively, merely musing on what could be observed as the differences between teaching and coaching. I’m sure there is plenty more I’ve yet to learn too.

I thought the most useful thing I could give you at the start of the year would be a few tips to inspire you as you encourage younger musicians in their learning at the piano.

Have a look at each of these imperatives. I hope you can find something that applies to your situation.

 

Listen

Make a note of which day the lesson is held so that you can ask your child(ren) what they did at piano lessons and have them play it through for you on the same day of the lesson. This is so important because they will still remember what was covered and the enthusiasm is still high. If you are excited to hear about it first your child will be excited to show you.

Learn

If it is ever appropriate, get them to show you what they learned—let them be the teacher if you are not a musician yourself. But don’t get ahead of them. This is a key way to show your children you value what they are learning. I have seen pupils make remarkable progress when they “teach” Mum or Dad what they have learned.

Remind

Sort out a routine you are both going to be happy with—including a time length that means they are still keen to come back to it the next day. You may need to remind them, though. Make sure they finish their practice on a high note. (Literally? Maybe 🙂 ), but the main aim is to keep things positive. This is setting up for the long haul of learning, not just the first day. Life will get busy. We need to make sure that piano practice doesn’t get neglected in the midst of all the other things that need to happen.

Reward

Decide on some kind of reward system. It might be when they have reached a certain piece and performed it. It may be that they complete a sticker chart each week with a sticker for every practice completed. A full chart entitles them to a special reward.  Attending a musical performance of some sort is a great reward when a reasonable milestone is reached. And if it is someone performing at the piano, it is going to be a great inspiration for your child and also for you to keep them at it.

Brag

Brag about how well they are doing to friends and family. I know this is not such a Kiwi thing, we have to work at it sometimes. In general it seems my American friends are better at speaking about achievements. Make sure the grandparents get special performances of new pieces often. These mini performances are so helpful when it comes to something a little more formal later. I remember my father was always bragging about what his children were up to and getting us to play our latest pieces for poor unsuspecting visitors. I may have rolled my eyes a few times, but when I look back now all I remember was how proud he was of me. It’s still a special memory.

 

Listen, learn, remind, reward and brag. Basically, if you are engaged with your child’s lessons, they will be too. It may be one of the best investments of time with them you will have.

Having guided a family member through dyslexia issues (and realising I faced some of the same issues myself as a child), I developed an appreciation of how this affects learning at the piano. So today I am offering things I’ve learned along the way in the hopes my observations can help either teacher or parent. This is by no means comprehensive – I’d just like to start to a discussion with anyone affected by dyslexia who has been involved with learning or teaching piano.  I am genuinely interested in your point of view if you would like to add anything I may have omitted that would be helpful to us all.

Reading and writing can be a challenge for someone with dyslexia. The Dyslexia foundation of New Zealand describes dyslexia as an “alternative way of thinking – a learning reference… best thought of as a continuum of abilities and difficulties, rather than a distinct category.” I like this because the main issues of how we read something can vary hugely from one person to another. This means that adapting our teaching and learning to suit the individual is key to their progress. As private music teachers usually working one on one we do this all the time, whereas no doubt there are bigger challenges in a classroom setting.  In learning an instrument it is the music reading aspect where it is most noticeable, so here are a few things I’ve done when I see that the reading process is in any way a challenge. (The first seven tips are general; the last five are related more specifically to the printed page.)

  1. Keep tasks short, manageable and rewarded. However, don’t shy away from the challenging tasks. Just break them down. Work on a small amount of music at a time by playing separate hands and not moving on until concepts are established.
  2. Have clearly defined, achievable goals.
  3. Use a range of note reading helps. Acknowledge that reading music is a challenge. Help with this can include note flash cards in conjunction with note reading rows. Doing flash cards games on their own is great but a longer time is needed over a period of weeks to focus on one particular set of 4 or 5 notes. It is also better to focus longer on learning the treble before focusing on bass notes.  Then it is good to use note reading rows featuring these notes so the learner can see the notes in context. If helpful, make the note rows larger print to be somewhere between the size of the pieces they are reading and the size of flash card notes. 
  4. Show and tell with visual patterns and aural examples. Don’t give an instruction that says “use your right hand now” on its own. I usually show the hand I want them to use as well. Depending on the individual child I might say “Let’s use this hand for the treble.”
  5. Because reading music is more of a challenge to master it is crucial to have pieces the learner can play by ear and learn them through various patterning, listening and watching you, rather than only learning music through note reading. Sometimes giving the music afterwards for them to see what they have learned can help them in making the connection with written music. (This does not work for everyone.)
  6. Encourage learners to memorise their music. The family member I worked with had an incredible recall of things that had been memorised. It was a skill that was not as well developed in many who could read music well.
  7. Small successful performances can be really helpful for building much needed confidence.
  8. Take away the confusion of looking between the staves on the page and then down at black and white keys that seem to have no connection. I find it helpful to cover a learner’s hands with a piece of paper once the hands are in position. The learner is often surprised how much easier that makes things. 
  9. Check if there is clear understanding of why some notes have stems up and some down. I had a pupil once who thought one way was for right hand and the other for the left.
  10. Use lots of examples and link to where a concept was learned somewhere else where possible. For example: “You used this group of notes in this piece here.”
  11. Have big print and an uncluttered page. I think that the tutor books that have a tutor part written on the page create a cluttered look that is stressful for someone trying to make sense of all that is on the page in front of them. Where possible it is good to have lots of space on the page and a decent space between the lines of music.
  12. Not knowing starting notes for a piece can mean, for some, that the piece can’t be played at all before the next lesson. To avoid this stress, write the name of the note for each hand to be sure they know where to start. Maybe include a picture of the keyboard for this too.

I’ve focused mostly on some things to do when the skill of music reading is being addressed for someone with dyslexia, but it is important to realise that the bottom line is that music making should not be about a person’s music reading ability, even though that is a valuable, helpful skill for a musician. We want the ability to play and express music, however it is learned. The challenge then turns back to the teacher – to find creative ways to help the learner best do just that.

My little grandaughter, Naomi, turns one this week. I can hardly believe it is already a year since that day my heart sang with her arrival. We have seen her grow and develop almost every week when we would go and babysit for a few hours, and there have been other wonderful times together too, each one special. So much learning in one year!

For me the year has been going by so fast. Someone said recently that life is like a roll of toilet paper – it gets faster towards the end. Not a flattering description, but the imagery seems pretty realistic. There has been so much I had been wanting to get done that isn’t there yet, but as I reflect back on the year I can at least acknowledge that progress is happening.

When my music pupils get to the end of a tutor book I usually have them revise from the beginning and play through all the pieces independently before they move on. This is often really helpful. So many times they will comment on the super easy pieces at the beginning and they then realise, without much prompting from me, just how far they have come. As we move through the book we fill in on the parts we might have missed or that needed a bit more attention. If they have been playing more than just the latest piece each week, there is often a much better understanding of what they have learned overall.

So, as you have a think about your or your child’s learning in the past year, what are the big takeaways?

When I think of Naomi I realise that in one year she has made really significant steps, but they didn’t happen overnight. Every day she has been consistently learning about life in the stage she was at and progressively moving on from there. When I think of my music pupils I can see that those who have been consistently learning (even if only a little each week) are the ones showing progress they are proud of.

One of our greatest delights in Naomi is seeing her happy little smile when something clever seems to happen. It’s pretty much the same when I get to witness the pleasure someone gets from the effort they have put into their music and when we both reflect on how far they have come.

But I can’t leave it there. I haven’t told you about the amazing parents Naomi has. What a delight to see them grow and learn along with her, encouraging her every move and watching her develop with delight, despite many sleep-deprived nights.  They still have quite a journey to go with so much more of her life ahead yet, but from where I sit I know they are on the right track!

The parents who support their children’s learning as much as possible will have the greatest joy at their progress too. I applaud these folks because enjoying their child’s music with them as they are learning is a lovely thing – just taking an interest each week in the new material and encouraging them to go over it between lessons is a massive part of showing them that it matters to the parent how they are doing.  Whatever I can offer at a weekly lesson is worth little without this support on a daily basis. So keep it up if that’s you!

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I know too, it takes a team effort to raise a musician.

And a lot can happen in a year.

 

 

I always thought flossing was a teeth cleaning exercise. That was until I was playing for a school choir practice and the teacher in charge of crowd control said firmly at the beginning “No Flossing!”

I discovered it to be the latest fad that everyone at school was quickly learning. Children were in the playground in various stages of learning it: some with a friend showing them the movements slowly, so they could get it carefully and accurately; others had the movement right but were working on getting it faster; still others had clearly been doing it a while and were very fast.

I asked one of my pupils to show me what involved and I watched and learned. It looks more like a hip wrecking exercise, so I can’t say I’ve taken to it! It definitely qualifies as a fad. This girl got 5 million views on Youtube!

How to Do THE FLOSS DANCE – A Parent’s Guide

 

 

So what can we learn from fads?

Reaching across the generations is not a bad thing. Just taking an interest can build rapport. Being taught by my own pupil made a point of connection for me. She was tickled, I think, that I was curious about it. As music teachers, taking an interest in the things that our pupils are passionate about says something about how much we are really interested in them. It might give them reason to be interested in what we have to say, and what we are passionate about. As my sister reminded me this week, ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’

 It is clear that with flossing one has to start really slowly at first to get the movements in the right order before getting faster. If you get faster before doing that, it will take longer to learn them. Similarly, I have seen my pupils struggle to get something right. Often I have observed that they have to come to the realisation their own way that ‘the quicker they learn to play it slowly, the faster they’ll get it.’ (Not that I haven’t told them – I’m a stuck record on that one!)

 Peer pressure dictates an urgency to use whatever means possible to learn well. You don’t want to be the slowest person in the group doing that new thing! The sense of belonging that comes from peer pressure can be positive for those in the group. If the group is doing something useful and positive, all the better. Being part of a music group that is playing cool music is going to make everyone want to be there even when they don’t have to be. Last week a good number of school orchestra members that I teach were up late the night before, performing with the school choir at a local music festival. As a result, they were permitted to miss the first part of school next day. This would mean about half the orchestra would be missing the weekly rehearsal that starts before school.  Imagine my delight to find that (with the exception of 1) they were all there. Maybe they didn’t want to miss anything.

Fads can produce some great music. I have a pupil learning music from the very popular Lord of the Rings motion picture series filmed here in New Zealand. The connection to the movies is a great motivator for her to work through tricky melodies and harmonies that she might not necessarily get to in the regular instrument tutor book.

 

Pictures we took at Mt Sunday – the film location for Rohan, from Lord of the Rings, a couple of hours from here.

When people who are deemed cool start something new, suddenly everyone wants to follow the leader. Thus a fad is born. Every generation needs musicians who do this to keep the world of beautiful music fresh and vital. This works for both new compositions and also for classics reimagined. Vanessa May with her rock approach and Nigel Kennedy with his raw sense of humour and personality brought a reawakening of violin playing to their generation and inspired a wave of new young violinists. More recently, Lindsey Stirling, dancing in music story videos as she plays her violin, is doing that for today’s young people.

This is great for orchestral instruments. At the same time there seem to be endless numbers of children wanting to learn the guitar because of the influence of popular music, rock bands etc. No problem with that. I hope they learn well and enjoy playing. I also hope they get a broad appreciation of the range of beautiful guitar music that is out there, once they get past ‘Smoke on the Water.’

I have a lovely example in mind because this weekend the orchestra I play in is performing a beautiful guitar concerto written by Ulrik Neumann arr: Andersson. Our soloist is Matthew Marshall, reputedly one of NZ’s finest guitarists. I didn’t know this work until I heard it on Youtube and I think it is delightful.

Guitar Concerto (arr. K. Andersson)

 

 

 

So, fads come and go, but if we utilize what they teach us while they are here, we might learn to incorporate something in our learning that will become as regular as flossing. I’ll leave it up to whatever generation you are in as to which kind of flossing that might be.