Holistic Approach To Teaching
Most pupils want to learn music because they love the sound of their instrument or because they love music in general; others learn because they have a sibling or a friend who plays, or because their parents want them to learn. But unfortunately, often students lose interest after a few weeks of lessons because the lessons are not so engaging or because the student is just lazy to put in some hard work. So it becomes very important for a teacher to keep the students motivated all the time. Teacher has to carefully structure the lessons so that they are challenging and at the same time, enjoyable. The lessons should focus on helping the students become musically independent and creative.
A lot of students spend a whole year learning only the 3 exam pieces by rote. And a few weeks before the exams the teacher rushes with scales and some lessons on sight reading and aural. Teaching improvisation and composition is not even in the agenda. Integrating all aspects of music, like scales and technical exercises, sight reading, aural training, improvisation, building a repertoire, theory etc. in every lesson would be a better way to go about. Each aspect actually complements and improves the others.
Scales and Arpeggios develop an awareness of keys. They are a good way to warm up before a music lesson. They also help students recognize scale and arpeggio patterns in their pieces. Along with scales, students should also be made to practice technical exercises. There are a whole lot of technical exercises from Czerny, Hanon etc. that help improve finger dexterity when you study piano. My students are particularly fond of Edna Mae’s ‘A Dozen A Day’ series. These books have plenty of short exercises that address the technical needs in beginners.
A teacher can save a lot of time and effort when the student is good at sight reading. Sight reading helps the student to be independent and learn pieces quickly. With the ability to sight read, one can explore the ocean that is music. Students should be taught to recognize various rhythm patterns, interval and chord patterns. Always insist on maintaining a strict pulse, and reading forward, never to go back and correct a wrong note. A good way to improve sight reading is by playing in ensembles and duets. Recently, in a workshop, Karl Lutchmayer, a concert pianist and educator, showed an interesting way to teach sight reading. He would give the student a few seconds to have a glance at the score. Then when he asks the student to start, he would cover the first bar in the score, which means the student can only read the second bar while he is actually playing the first. And when the student plays the second bar, Karl would cover it, allowing the student to keep reading ahead. This way, the student was chased to keep up with tempo and read at least a few beats ahead of what he was playing.
Ear training helps to analyze and understand music. It improves musicianship and helps in improvising and composing. Teachers should emphasize on having alert ears. Insist on constantly listening to what the student is playing. Make the students sing what they play. This way, they internalize the piece. With the advent of smart phones, there are a wide range of mobile apps that make aural training fun. One can have exercises for pitch, interval and chord recognition, scale patterns, rhythm etc. even while travelling, without a teacher being around. Again this saves the teacher some time and effort in the class. Also there are dedicated radio channels like BBC radio3 and plenty of recordings on YouTube to listen to western classical music online.
Improvisation has become a lost art in classical music. Today’s music instruction has become more score centric. I believe improvisation lessons can retain the pupils’ interest in learning music. Students develop a sense of ownership in what they play and thus pay more attention.
The importance of teaching music theory cannot be over emphasized. A knowledge on harmony helps to understand the music better and to appreciate it. It improves the listening skills and makes memorizing easier.
A teacher will obviously spend a big chunk of time in teaching pieces in any music course. No matter how much importance you lay on scales and other technical skills, ultimately what anybody would want is to play some meaningful music. It is here that the teacher’s role becomes very vital in improving the musicality of the pupil. Given the limited time available in a day’s teaching session, integrating all aspects of teaching (sight reading, aural, improvising etc.) with the repertoire pieces will be an ideal way to holistic teaching. Paul Harris speaks in depth about this and various other teaching issues in his book ‘The Virtuoso Teacher’. In fact the very first few lines in this page have been borrowed from that book. But honestly, the subject is what I really mean and something that I practice.
Going back to the topic, Students should also be taught how to practice. Most young musicians find practice as a monotonous, mundane work. It is certainly the teacher’s responsibility to present practice as a rewarding and enjoyable experience. I don’t deny exams are important. But students may lose sight of the goal when preparing for a once-in-a-year event. Instead, arrange peer concerts every few weeks so that the students set shorter goals and ultimately achieve the bigger prize. Wouldn’t it be lovely to think you are at least one step closer to achieving your target, after every practice?
Finally, a good teacher is a good student. Learning is a never ending process. It is important to shed one’s ego and search for knowledge all the time. All the above ideas that I discussed are just a small compilation of my little experience, and learning from some of the great teachers’ that I have studied under. Academy of Western Music, the place where I teach piano has been benevolently providing all the piano teaching resources that I need, which allows me to experiment with my teaching methods and evolve as a better teacher. The nicest learning environment, good teachers and the right teaching methods at this Academy, makes it the best place in Chennai for learning western music.
Faculty for Piano & Keyboard –Academy of Western Music, Chennai.