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Piano Lesson Primer: Tools For Success

Every piano instructor uses different tools to get the best out of each student. My attitude has always been that the weekly piano lesson should be like a super-charged practice session where we review learned pieces, demonstrate what's been learned on current pieces, and hone skills like technique or ear training. From there, the student is equipped to work on specific goals at home, and knows how to accomplish them.

Practicing is a challenge for all of us. Anything worth doing, especially anything of such high value as learning a musical instrument, will take effort sustained over the long term. It's understandable to begin piano lessons with high hopes only to have them questioned by uncertainty or even fear when it comes to practicing, or even to sit down to practice the piano and suddenly realize we have no idea what we're supposed to do.

How can I help?

Here are the tools that I wish all of my students kept readily available to ease them into a regular practice routine, and motivate them to find their way through the dark woods and into the light of confident, musical piano-playing:

1. Your Binder

Most students are given a binder when the begin lessons (if you didn't or if your binder needs replacement, let me know). Many of my students have a routine of handing me their binder at the beginning of the lesson. I open it and turn to the page where I took notes during the last lesson. I certainly depend on the binder to provide continuity week-to-week. But how should I student use the binder at home? Here are the sections of the binder for your reference:

Lessons Notes. The first section contains notes on the last lesson: Technical drills to prepare, pieces that were covered, and even particular sections of those pieces to focus on, especially. Sometimes I even write exercises to practice that will help with a particular difficulty. A student should practice with the binder open so they know exactly what I will call on them to do at the next lesson. Beside each of these action items is a grid which students can use to check off tasks once they are complete. They can look back on their week of practice and see how may days they reviewed their lesson, what tasks were accomplished, and some students even record how many minutes they worked on each one!

Technique Chart. I heavily use a wonderful, graduated chart of technical requirements that follows those set out by the Royal Conservatory for their examinations. It's a great way to work on level-appropriate scale, chord and arpeggio exercises to develop each student's ability to play with knowledge and ability. I usually assign one or two "keys" to be prepared each week, corresponding to a column of the chart. The exercises related to each key are listed in the rows of the chart. Students should prepare each row of the assigned key(s) for the next lesson, or remember to ask questions if they encountered doubts or questions while practicing during the week.

Staff Paper. This is useful in the lesson if there is some notation to demonstrate. For young students, I often will help them learn to read notes by drawing them on the staff paper and asking them to tell me the letter of the note I drew. Students can also use these blank staves to write their own music! More staff paper is definitely available upon request, or print your own online.

2. Official Recordings

Students have access to the official recordings for the two methods I tend to teach to children (Suzuki and the Royal Conservatory), as well as to the method I tend to teach to adult beginners (Hal Leonard's Adult Piano Method). Royal Conservatory and Hal Leonard Adult Method students can also find these recordings available from the link and password printed on the inside back cover of their Celebration Series books.

It is always easier to learn a piece if we know how it goes, and I encourage all students to listen to recordings of the pieces they play. Somehow we've all gotten the idea that that's cheating and the only "proper" way to learn music is to read it. Yes, each student needs to learn to read music, but since music is the art form of sound doesn't it make sense that we can learn it also by listening? Plus, it's enjoyable to find learning music easy. If that means listening to a good recording of a song while we learn it ourselves - why not?

3. You Tube

Here I go: "Back in my day..." I'm not really that old yet, but I remember a period of about a year when You Tube went from silly cat videos to actually being useful for musicians to find and listen to performances of almost any song, piece or work they could think of. Now, anyone can type in the name of a piece and view amateur performances of it, professional-quality music videos, analysis of that piece and even historical documentaries about its context and creation. Um, let me emphasize how amazing this is... WOW!!!! When I was taking piano lessons we were lucky if the local classical radio station played something we were learning, and extra lucky when the library had a VHS performance of an opera or symphony or concerto we were interested in. Apart from that there were live concerts to attend, but again, you probably weren't going to hear those sonatinas or movements from Baroque suites you were learning as a young piano student.

Now it's all at our fingertips. Plus, you can go down the rabbit hole (safely) and end up discovering all kinds of pieces, details about composers, performers... On and on! You Tube, used well, can spur a young music student on to discover all kinds of niche interests and develop abilities and skills on their own. As a teacher who gets paid to teach these things, I often wonder why students don't use this free resource to their benefit more often.

4. Live Concerts

I grew up in a rural community. I was lucky when my mother bought me a season's subscription to the local symphony. Even though I nearly fell asleep at each concert, looking back I find I was still learning valuable things about classical music: I heard overtures and piano concertos (in the first half) in addition to the symphonic literature (in the second half), and I got used to the sounds of the various instruments, observed how they were played, and got used to the protocols of an orchestral concert.

When we went on vacation to the big city (Vancouver or Calgary), occasionally I got to see musicals (Phantom and Show Boat) and jazz festivals in addition to being exposed to some more contemporary classical music (what I used to call "the weird stuff") than what was typically programmed in my smaller city.

This, in addition to performing in choirs and at my own teacher's studio recitals, developed my knowledge of the world of music in an important way that we overlook if we only focus on the pieces we are learning or on the repertoire we order à la carte on You Tube. What goes on in a ballet? What does a flute concerto sound like? What are the great titanic works of the piano literature? How will we know if we never let ourselves be surprised by a live concert program?

There is so much more to learning the piano than attending lessons and practicing. Incorporating any of these tools will lead to quicker absorption of the material a student is working on, and - even better - greater enjoyment while doing it!

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