I had a chat with a parent this week about how her child had started so well with piano lessons and then recently the enthusiasm had waned. She didn’t know why and I’d noticed it too. During the lockdown Zoom lessons I noticed that their keyboard’s touch-sensitive function was not operating, and it was a fairly new keyboard. Somehow the setting had changed to non-touch-sensitive. Consequently, that piano feel was lost. Once we got that fixed and I had a good look at the music we were covering, the pupil got back on track and was clearly much happier.

Also during the Zoom sessions, I discovered that some pupils were practicing on pianos that needed serious tuning. One piano had middle C sounding a complete semitone lower! For a beginner (or indeed any player), this is significant stuff. It means that when they play at their lesson, wherever I teach them, the piano will feel strange. They won’t play for me as confidently and that will affect their overall experience because the instrument feels so different.

Reflecting on times when I’ve lost confidence in my music playing, it is usually through thinking that someone else could do a better job than I’m doing. I might make more mistakes, have less musical skill, play with poor musical expression and the ‘imposter syndrome’ creeps in. But even just reading that back reminds me how ridiculously easy it is for any of us to allow the loss of confidence to undermine our enjoyment of our own musical experience. It is time for us to appreciate the simple joy of making music whatever stage we are at and appreciate the value of learning at that level. Our sense of fulfillment can come from seeing our personal progress.

 

How much do you think social media affects a loss of confidence? I’ve had conversations about how we only seem to post on social media all the good things that are happening, like when someone travels overseas—remember that thing that people did before lockdown—and then posts selfies in exotic places. Others are reticent to post what seems mundane by comparison. A current equivalent might be when someone has found an amazing backdrop picture to put in their Zoom link, while some of us have no idea how to do that and have to resort to the blank wall look and face to match. There I go, comparing again.

The potential for a loss of confidence in learning a musical instrument is something that must be addressed. It can lead to the learner giving up and realising in later life that they gave up too early. When you see it happening, here are some things you can do.

 

  1. Check that the learner has a good instrument, and that it is set up right. If you need advice from your tutor, seek it. Check this link if you want to upgrade your keyboard. I have 3 keyboards that I reviewed on my resources page. It will show the sorts of things I look for in a keyboard. Just scroll down from the top to Physical Piano Teaching Resources to see the reviews. 
  2. Have them play music that they enjoy at the beginning of their practice. Once they are in the swing of things, go to the areas that need a bit of work, or to new music to cover.
  3. Be involved in whatever way you can. Even if you are busy, your child needs your verbal encouragement and affirmation. I can give it at the lesson, but what you add to that at home is massive.
  4. Avoid comparisons. Help them see how far they personally have come since they began lessons. This is why it is good to maintain earlier pieces that are easy to play. When they are discouraged you can fall back on those pieces to help them see what they have achieved.
  5. Keep practice times short and manageable. These may be different for each child.
  6. Have another look at your reward systems. I have quite a lot of information on this in my course on How to Teach Your Child the Piano Like a Pro . But for those of you who are not teaching your own, you may like to redo the star chart on the fridge and lower your expectations on what is required to earn a star on a regular basis. If you would like a copy of this star chart, let me know.
  1. Get comfy on some bean bags in the lounge and have a music listening date to some music on the instrument they are learning, to simply enjoy the sound of the instrument. Don’t focus on what they can’t do, but focus on the beauty created at the instrument. Remind them that all musicians had to start with basic things first and build up, one step at a time from there.

 

A loss of confidence in our learning does not need to last. It can be turned around with a kind word at the right time, a fresh goal, a change in perspective. Whatever it might be, I hope there is something here that can help in some way and be an encouragement to you.

One of the big reasons people sign up for weekly music lessons is to have regular accountability with someone who is going to keep their learning on track.  But if you were to miss the lesson once in a while, would it really matter?

 

Being on lockdown for the last 40 days (due to the Covid 19 restrictions here in NZ) has given me a little clarity on this and I’ve been seeing the weekly lesson in a new perspective. It has been wonderful being able to carry through with the lessons as expected, even if only via Zoom. We did have a school holiday break in the middle and therefore a break from music lessons too, but that was useful for many adjusting to family life under lockdown. Once the holiday was over, the resumption of music lessons, along with the regularity of practice, gave pupils some normality to their unusual weeks.

 

(One of Emily’s lockdown Zoom lessons)

 

Some bored lockdown pupils were very grateful to have some music to focus on, so they did more practice than usual. It was a chance for them to shine, which I would not have seen if it wasn’t for the weekly catch up.  It gave me an opportunity to praise the progress, especially important for those who had been making slow progress for a while.

For others, even the short holiday break was too long, such that mistakes could become ingrained due to practice without accountability. Regular lessons are helpful to make sure things are being learned as they should.  It can be very discouraging for a young person to have to re-learn something they thought was correct.

It is also discouraging to have a long break at the point at which they are making good progress. This is particularly true of those in the early stages of learning where getting habits established is key to ongoing learning. Getting motivated to revise things already learned but forgotten can be a challenge. If the music skills are established over a shorter period of time, the pupil sees quicker progress and enthusiastically moves on to new material. The sense of achievement simply feeds the whole process and the resulting enjoyment makes the music all the sweeter.

I can speak from experience as to what it is like to have irregular lessons, even if I did have other advantages that balanced that issue in my music learning. My mother was my music teacher, and lessons were sporadic with a lot of the instruction coming from the kitchen while she was doing two things (or more!) at once. Maybe that’s another reason I see the weekly lesson as a hugely valuable way to make progress. Children work well with routines.

I address the challenges we face as parents when teaching our own in my FREE mini course called What does it Take to Teach Your Own Child the Piano. Click on the link to take you to the course if you are interested. https://accentmusicschool.teachable.com/p/what-does-it-take-to-teach-your-child-the-piano

One of the positives coming out of the lockdown is that Zoom lessons may be seen as not only possible but quite normal as a way of teaching a musical instrument. I had offered Zoom lessons at one of my schools for lessons missed, due to the huge number of school activities that often interfered with the regular lesson during school time, but was not often taken up on it. Now I think there may be a bigger uptake of that solution to timetable clashes. I have often seen those pupils suffer in their progress due to these missed lessons and I have been pretty sure that parents have not been aware of how much momentum can be lost when we are catching up on two weeks of practice instead of just the one, especially if it starts to become a habit.

 

To sum up:

Your child’s weekly music lesson is important. Let’s make the most of what we have learned through having to do Zoom lessons. Although the in-person lessons are still preferable, we can use Zoom again if we need to when we get back to whatever normal is. Whichever method, we need to value that regular lesson and maybe we will have a new appreciation of it.

Many who read my blog will be very conscious that this Easter the expression of faith in church worship around the world will look very different. Music plays a huge role in the expression of faith and has done so through the centuries in all sorts of styles and genres. For many people such musical expression is especially meaningful at key points in the year, such as Easter and Christmas.

 

Music can be composed, changed and rearranged to fit the setting, and it’s good for us to be able to embrace necessary change without hankering after what we might have had a few short weeks ago (or sometimes centuries ago!) The Gospel story we reflect on hasn’t changed, but maybe just now the way we express our worship will be a bit different. And that’s okay.

 

Since the lockdown here in NZ our fellowship of believers in our small community of West Melton have been having online services. Aspects of the service have been recorded in various homes and stitched together to make a service. As far as musical input is concerned, there has been a switch from the full band to a few instruments, or even just one, because recording with a makeshift setting in our homes is best kept simple.

 

So, given that it is Easter week, I’d like to share one of my favourite hymns on piano and cello for your times of personal reflection. It’s a first for me to play them both at once! Not quite… I recorded the piano a while ago, but only added the cello today.

 

If you do not follow any faith, or are unfamiliar with this piece, I hope you can still enjoy the music.

 

For those who know the words, I hope you will find it encouraging for this different time we are all going through. Know that our Heavenly Father is our “Rock within a weary land” and he is with us on this journey. We can still thank him for the eternal hope he has given us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I’ve just finished a week of video music lessons during which New Zealand began its lock down! Phew, made it. And so did my pupils.  There were very few who didn’t take me up on the offer.

I was impressed with how quickly everyone got on board with it. We were able to get last week’s review listened to and this week’s new material learned for the most part. There were some technical glitches at times, but we are all going to go into next week’s lesson better prepared.

Last year a lovely family, 3 boys of whom learn piano from me, were living overseas. We had Zoom lessons all year and it all worked out pretty well. They came to my home before the lock down this week, but now, after less than a term of lessons face to face, we are about to go back on line again.  Thanks to them I was definitely much more ready for this week.

 

Things that helped in the process:

  • Having light from a window from behind the pupil’s piano made it harder for me to see what they were doing. Once we adjusted that, the overall light on the screen was hugely improved.
  • Having their device up higher than the piano at an angle similar to where I usually sit helped.
  • Where I would normally give them music they didn’t have in a lesson, I was able to send .pdf copies by email.
  • It was good to be able to make sure everyone was set up correctly at their instrument in their home setting. This was especially helpful for younger ones who were just new this term.
  • It was easier than I thought to do a cello lesson, because the camera for the pupil was on the music stand, and therefore much simpler to set up than for the piano/keyboard lessons.

 

Expectations going forward

I think, once the tech side and angle of the device is sorted, we can have a pretty normal lesson. I can show some things from my keyboard, though perhaps not quite as well as during face to face lessons. I didn’t use two cameras for most of this week, so I’ll have another go at that. During last year’s overseas video lessons the connection seemed to glitch more with two cameras, but I think it may work okay for local lessons. This will help when I am teaching the learning by ear parts of my curriculum, also for showing detailed fingering or creative ideas.

I can see that it will be a help to be able to use video lessons to make up missed lessons in the future. With a new familiarity around a  video lesson there should be more confidence to do this.

For new (beginner) pupils it has been harder to convey what to do, because the expectations of the way I do things has not yet been fully established. Generally, a full term face to face with new pupils would be much more preferable for both parties, if possible. With having to go into video lessons so soon, we have had to limit some things to the most manageable. Maybe that’s where two cameras would have made a bigger difference.

When I teach at schools, there are often other activities that force music lessons go to the back of the queue. Missing a weekly lesson makes more of a difference to a child’s progress than most people realise. I’ve offered Zoom lessons before for missed lessons, but not often been taken up on them.  Maybe that will change. We know that necessity is the mother of invention. It is so good to be able to get some positive wins from the enforced stay at home.

 

One of the things I have noticed among my pupils this year is a reluctance to sing along with their music while they play.  I’ve written a few blogs on the importance of singing when learning music, but I think it is one of those perennial issues that needs revisiting from time to time.

Once the rhythm has been sorted by counting the beat out loud as he or she plays, the beginner should move on to singing the lyrics often found in beginner music. Some beginners really enjoy this part, but I have seen there are a few reasons why others don’t want to do it.

 

What are the reasons some people don’t want to sing when learning the piano?

  • They are embarrassed to sing in front of someone else
  • They simply don’t sing, not even along with their favourite recording stars
  • They are okay with singing, but find doing two things simultaneously, such as playing and singing, tricky
  • The words may seem trite for their age group
  • They may feel it isn’t necessary to learning how to play the piano.

 

Why should we sing as we play?

It helps us listen to the note and pitch it. This in turn helps us get a sense of where the melody is going. I have noticed with new beginners who are keen to impress that, even if they find it difficult at first to sing along, they quickly get quite good at it and it becomes habitual, especially if it is expected from the beginning. Their singing actually improves as they listen, play and sing the notes as they go through the piece. 

It helps us better remember what we are learning. This is because of using a ‘total physical response’ approach to learning. In other words, the more body parts involved, the deeper the establishment of what is being learned. We are already using our eyes and our sense of touch. By singing we are vocalising it as well.

It keeps us aware of where we are up to. One of the challenges of learning to read music is keeping going from one note to the next. Singing along with the music is one way to help new pianists realise they are stopping and starting in unnatural places. So, even if they are not used to looking for the next note very well, they are aware that they need to keep going.

It helps with keeping a steady beat to the music. When we sing the song, we get a sense that the music is not just random notes. There is a flow from one note to another. Singing alongside reading the notes will help when it comes to counting the beat out loud when learning a new piece. This helps with that problem of doing two things at once. If we get into the habit of doing that in the early stages, it helps when there is more to think about as the music gets more challenging.

It helps us locate the phrases in the music. I was explaining to someone this week that a player of a wind instrument is more aware of phrases because they provide natural breathing places in the music.  But any music needs “breathing” places. When we sing the words that go with a piece of music we can often see where the music reflects the words of a sentence as one little melody that can stand on its own. Lyrics are usually written in for beginner pianists to show this.

We can find natural places to practice the music in chunks. When we are aware of the phrases it makes it easier to find a small section to practice on its own, rather than just starting at the top of the piece and playing to the end and then doing all that again. Practicing to play smaller sections completely correctly is much more manageable. I often find that a pupil with more of a perfectionist approach gets frustrated that they can’t play something correctly from start to finish. They are likely to always go back to the beginning if they make a mistake. Consequently, the end of the piece gets less attention this way. If they practice perfectly one small phrase at a time until it is correct and then move on to the next, they can keep that very helpful perfectionist approach one phrase at a time and get successfully to the end without frustration.

Singing improves the music. On numerous occasions when I’ve been playing in an orchestra, the conductor would encourage someone to sing the melody they were playing. Sometimes the whole orchestra would join in and sing it. Every time, the music always sounded better after doing this. When we sing, we put those natural louds and softs into the music and flow from one note to the next. Instrumental music needs to include those things too.

Pianists often need to be able to sing along to what they are playing in all sorts of settings. A few examples could be: introducing a new song to the band, leading corporate singing in church or at a community event, teaching a song to a school class or choir, Christmas carols at a family gathering, etc. And it is good to get comfortable with it right from the start. If we get used to singing in front of our piano teacher (the most sympathetic person in the world to you doing it!), it will give us a step towards confidence in all sorts of singing we do in life. I often sing along with my pupils as well, so they don’t feel they are out on their own doing so. If your child is learning piano it would be great if you get them to let you sing along with them too. Give them an early start at accompanying others singing around the piano.

Last, but not least—and actually the whole point of why we play in the first place—

it helps us enjoy the music! There is much out there to suggest that singing releases endorphins – chemicals in the brain that lessen anxiety and help us feel good. All this is really useful if we are stressed about our piano playing. If you don’t like the words of the song, make up your own or at least sing “la-la-la”. You never know, it may be the beginnings of making up your own songs!

 

How to make it happen

  • Sing along with your child as they do the singing part in practicing their pieces.
  • Have them teach a family member their latest “piano song”.
  • If it really is a difficult thing to encourage and you sense a push back on it with your child, don’t make a thing of it, but have it as part of the reward system of various completed tasks at the piano. Give more credit for the more difficult tasks and include singing along to their pieces as one of those.
  • Find one of the reasons above on why we should sing as we play that most suits the person learning, and use that when explaining how it is valuable to their learning.
  • Be encouraged that if they don’t like hearing themselves singing, that is going to improve as they play along. Besides, the piano playing covers up the singing in a way, so it doesn’t come across as all that noticeable.
  • For those embarrassed to sing in front of others, give the space for them to do it without others in the room, just as long as they still do it.

 

I am sure my early song writing attempts came out of this usual activity of singing along as I played my piano pieces. I’m sure it was also a contributing factor to learning early on how to sing in tune. Whether you are learning to play as an adult or whether you are encouraging your child, let me encourage you to develop a love of singing as part of your piano playing. I am certain you will feel all the better for it.