Last week I took my little granddaughter, Naomi, along to ‘Music and Movement’. We’ve been a few times now. I get to push her in the buggy a few blocks to the local church where it is held and we discuss cats, dogs and flowers along the way. She’s only 16 months so we are keeping to easy conversation topics.

The first time we went to ‘M & M’, Naomi mostly just watched what was going on. Good skills! I could learn something from that. I usually blunder enthusiastically into new situations and neglect the careful observation part. The second time, she enjoyed the tambourine—having seen one of those at our place, she connected with the familiar and liked the sound. She thought the ribbons were pretty fun too.  Last week she was right at home and knew how to go and get an instrument and put it back with the others at the end. And when we got home she was rowing her boat and shushing the bear right on cue when we sang the songs we’d heard again.

The next day I was leading a similar session with a group of grandparents, mothers and children in our smaller community outside the city. I’ve been a part of the team which run it for a few years now. When I was first asked to prepare and lead a session I wasn’t too keen. (My only association in the past with preschool music had been to play the piano for ‘M & M’ many years ago. I thought that I would prefer that more demure position to that of leaping around to songs about floppy clowns.) But I took the advice of the leader, who encouraged me to leave my dignity at the door and said I’d be fine. It was good advice and I was. It has been wonderful being a participant in this more active role, as it helps me fully appreciate the value of a well prepared music session.

When you participate with a little person you know and love, you want them to have the full experience and you can reinforce it when you get home too. The framework given is so helpful to the activities you can choose to do. But I’m also seeing a fresh angle on how quickly these little ones absorb new skills through music. And I have found that getting involved with the session with Naomi adds to the experience for both of us and draws us closer to each other too.

As a music teacher I am often asked when is a good time to start a child at the piano. It really is different for every individual and it depends on a number of factors, but mostly how committed the family is to support the child’s learning. The teacher’s role is important, but won’t come to much if not continued at home, especially for younger learners.

In the years before a child might be ready to begin instrument lessons, I would advocate preschool ‘music and movement’ opportunities as a starting point to more formal learning. Children who have participated in these already have a head start with music skills. I’m also a huge fan of having your baby/preschooler listen to a wide range of music. Sing along with them as much as you can. Aside from the fact they are more likely to grow up singing in tune, home is a happier place when people sing!

And I highly recommend the experience of preschool music sessions for budding grandparents.

“My mum is going to like this piece!” I had just given a pupil a new piece of music that I’d recently written.

“But do you like it?” I asked.

“Yes!” he answered.

Children really do care what their parents think. They may not always express it as clearly as in the above example, but they are always looking for that affirmation in what they do. So, when it comes to piano practice, you can imagine how important it is that we affirm them for their effort with encouraging responses.

I have found that at the beginning children learning an instrument do really well because there is a natural interest on the part of the parent to listen to how they are getting on. So they come to their weekly lesson with everything learned, affirmed by their parents and proud of what they can do.

But I can always tell when life is getting busy at home. And I get it. I’ve had young children too, and I know there are times when days can go from one overwhelming event to the next. One of my favourite children’s stories was Five Minutes Peace, because the author, Jill Murphy, knew how I felt as a mum, and encapsulated it into an endearing story for children. A moment’s peace when your child is doing his or her practice without you is a valuable thing.

Whether this is you or not, you have to be intentional about both a child’s practice and your affirmation of it. Your children’s progress and your investment in their lessons depends on it. To help you in the affirming process, here are some comments you could use or adapt to your situation.

“Can you play that again? I really liked that one!”

One of the difficult parts of practice is the necessary repetition. So any way you can get a child to repeat an action accurately is progress. If it can be done in a way that it is not seen as a boring task to do again, all the better.

“You played that so beautifully.”

To be honest, it may not always sound beautiful in the learning process, so use this compliment on a piece they know well and do play well.

“Can you show me how that goes?”

Nothing shows your enthusiasm more than wanting to copy what your child can do. You are getting them to repeat it again as they show you.

“Do you think you could get it good enough to play for …?” (Fill in name of another parent, grandparent or whomever.)

The anticipation of a performance is a motivation all on its own. Someone wants to give the child the opportunity to show what he or she can do.

“Shall we play that together?”

Play with them—learn how to play their piece up high on the piano and play it at the same time. Or do the duet part if you are a pianist yourself.

 

Here are a couple of other thoughts to go into the mix:

  • Affirming works for both sides. Everybody feels good about what is happening. When you affirm your child’s learning you also feel encouraged that there was something to be encouraged about, and your child knows that they are pleasing you in some way. They are so much more likely to repeat whatever it is that gets your approval.
  • Keep it honest. Kids know when you are only being encouraging because it is in your job description. Look for things you can be honestly affirming about. If you are able to sit in on your child’s lesson, you will get to know the sorts of things the teacher affirms. I know some children prefer the parent not to be present, so you would need to work around that if that is your situation—all the more reason you can find out what happened in the lesson and show excitement at finding out what they did.
  • Practice initiation rewards. These are for the times when a child sits down to play without any asking (let alone nagging). It just wears you down if you have to constantly remind your child to practice. You want it to be something they always choose to do, but there can be times they need help getting to the instrument, and some sort of incentive for just getting there can help. One day they will thank you for it. Even diligent pupils can struggle with getting on with their practice, but usually once they are in the groove they are fine.

 

In New Zealand we have this unfortunate national trait called ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Loosely understood, it’s a subconscious attitude that we don’t want anyone to think they are better than someone else, so we cut them down to size. For many in our society, affirming, encouraging or saying something positive to someone about what they are achieving doesn’t come easily. Maybe that’s because we don’t want someone else’s achievement being a discouragement to another person who is making their own progress. I think that highlights what it should come down to, though. We don’t have to compare with the progress of siblings or friends. If they have made progress at their own level of learning, that is going to be wonderful in itself and well worth all the affirmation and encouragement we can give them to keep at it.

 

By the way, he was right. His mum did like the piece.

“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.