Find the hidden joy in teaching accessible piano music (which just might improve retention as well!)
In our modern world, progression is of utmost importance. However, when it comes to finding real enjoyment in music study, value is found in accessible piano music. Let’s take a look at why.
We all want to climb the ladder of success, whether it be in business, a video game or a hobby. This need for accomplishment is a vital part of our humanity. But, it also gets in the way of simple enjoyment at times.
Not trying to achieve something is very hard for certain personalities, mine included. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that always pushing and striving can lead to burn out and a negative mindset. The same can be said for my students. I’ve realized that there shouldn’t be any sort of rush involved in learning the piano.
What follows is a sort of manifesto for pacing our teaching and the reason we should all forgo the idea of levels.
But before we get into the meat of this article, here are a few questions to ponder about your own teaching:
How long do you keep the same piece on a student’s practice assignment?
When they are “finished” with a piece do you tend to assign them something:
I’m not saying that any choice is the right answer, but that perhaps we shouldn’t always give the same response.
How many of us have transfer students saying that they are at Level Y who struggle terribly to play a piece at that level? However, when we suggest something easier from Level X, they get defensive because they think they are beyond that!
This way of thinking leads to a toxic mindset that is a threat to the culture of performing music. If only virtuosic pieces were celebrated, we wouldn’t be hearing that much music.
I often perform intermediate-level pieces at weddings and events. When I tell my students this, they get a little puzzled. “Aren’t you the teacher? Aren’t you beyond that?”
I think a big culprit of this is the whole exam system (read about Why Working to Exams is Anti-Piano) because it invites comparison.
In other educational areas like math, the knowledge and skills are cumulative, so it makes sense to have certain milestones for each grade.
Piano study with a great teacher has the potential to be cumulative because they know exactly when to be adding an extra layer of difficulty here and there and are covering lots of material by exploring out in all directions.
If one were to only adhere to the exam requirements, they would, unfortunately, bypass this great learning experience as if on a highway to nowhere.
When most piano students start, and they haven’t been corrupted by this system, don’t you think their goal is to be able to sit down and play for an extended period of time? Play for relatives? Play for themselves to simply enjoy that inexplicable magic music has?
One of the most important things for my students to have is a set list of pieces that they can play without having to practice them. This is possible if they have a lot of pieces that they enjoy playing at their sight-reading level. Being able to pick up the sheet music or chord chart and rock it out is very empowering.
I truly believe sight-reading should just be playing. I wish we taught all our students how to sight-read as much as we taught them how to perfect details – they would all be so much better off.
In fact, I believe we should be developing so many more skills besides perfecting a piece and then never playing it again.
Think about what kind of pieces you are teaching – are you just trying to get through the requirements and move on or do you actually think the students will want to play this music for their lifetime?
Let’s compare music to cooking.
If you showed up at someone’s house for dinner would you think, “Wow that dish looks the most complicated, therefore it must taste the best!”
No! You would just taste everything and enjoy and probably not even think about how complicated it was to put together. The easiest recipes can actually taste the best if they use great ingredients.
If you are the one cooking, you probably wouldn’t work for months and months to prepare a dish and then never eat it again – what would be the point? If you thought this way, you probably wouldn’t be cooking or giving dinner parties for very much longer. On the contrary, if you spend a short amount of time prepping, buying the ingredients and enjoying the process of making something and eating it, you’ll keep that recipe in your repertoire.
What about professional chefs, what do they make on their day off? What about concert pianists, what do they play?
Here is a video of Valentina Lisitsa performing Für Elise as an encore. The comments on this video are also telling.
Many viewers remark how she is casting aside her ego in order to play an easy piece really well. Showing this to a student helps them to realize that even though this particular performer can play the hardest repertoire doesn’t mean she will only play that.
Remember that what is really easy for one student may be insurmountable for another. Don’t let the fact that they passed so-and-so grade stop you from addressing the problem and reinforcing the basics.
Don’t be afraid to go back to square one because somewhere along the line, the essentials have been missed. If they are finding things hard and aren’t motivated – don’t just move on to the next level, go back! Find out what they can do effortlessly and go from there.
Focus on just the rhythm, melody line, legato, bass notes of chords, anything you can do to keep the student focused on mastering the basics. They will start to feel more empowered and accomplished when their practice goals are not way over their head, but reachable.
Teach them ways to add and embellish on the fly. Perhaps they can change their left hand to a more challenging chord pattern, add chord tones in their right hand or add an intro or ending – the sky’s the limit!
Most music can be boiled down to a simple melody and chord progression and understanding this unlocks a lot more later on.
If they are really bored though, don’t be afraid to move on. Letting the student’s interest level guide you is a good way to gauge what they are ready for.
What if they want the challenge? If you have a keen student who is always up for something harder, by all means, go for it. Be careful though that they don’t get in over their head or rush through learning repertoire. They still need to be grounded in the basics and practice well enough to make the hard pieces easy for them.
One of my favourite books, Effortless Mastery, by Kenny Werner, is a veritable goldmine of ideas. One of the more practical illustrations he’s come up with is what he calls the “Learning Diamond.”
In four corners we have:
He suggests that while practising, we should always be playing effortlessly, and then picking two other goals. For example, if you wish to play effortlessly, fast and perfectly, you probably won’t play the whole example. If the student can’t play anything in the piece effortlessly, then they won’t be able to practice effectively.
Can we decide as a community not to be so boxed in by levels and curricula?
I’ve had to work hard to get it out of my system for the benefit of my students. If they haven’t heard of the levels, don’t corrupt them. Give them lots of pieces to play, the more, the better. I try for one new piece or section of a piece every week so that they are always reading. I want them to be able to master that piece within a week so that their confidence and their repertoire grows.
Pieces get stale if they are too hard or overworked. Let’s reinvigorate our teaching with lots of easy pieces that the students love and will play long into the future.
Don’t stick to only educational music; instead, pick pieces that are meant to be performed and enjoyed. Explore the music of different composers, collections and genres that the students love like musical theatre, pop and Disney.
If a student only cares about growth, they will one day outgrow the piano.
If we focus on fun, easy and enjoyable repertoire, we will be creating lifelong musicians – and isn’t that the point?
Gentle reader, what has been your experience? Do you have a student in mind who is starting to outgrow the piano? Do you have little ones struggling to perfect a piece? Do you wish that it could all be easier and more fun?
I hope that this article has stimulated your thinking about progression in piano lessons and re-focusing on the goals we have for our studios. I would love to hear from you in the comments below and wish you all the best in your teaching journey.