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Accele Rando! Picking up the pace in our private teaching.

The combination of a busy teaching schedule and back-to-back private lessons often can yield a trance-like teaching pace where students seem to run together into a stressful blur. Reflecting upon this tendency, I began to wonder how more careful and purposeful use of lesson time might benefit my private music students. Knowing that time is one of the greatest gifts we can give a child, I set out to explore the meaning of quality time as it pertains to private music instruction.

As I researched time management as a factor in classroom teaching, I came across overwhelming evidence of time as a critical determinant of how and how much children learn. Research says that brisk instructional pace helps maintain student attention and may enhance student achievement and that the most effective teachers change behaviors frequently and are more efficient in their verbalization. (1) Though the findings of most studies are based on research conducted in nonmusical classroom settings, it is important to consider possible applications to the private music-teaching environment. From the very start, it is evident private music teachers hold an advantage over classroom teachers because we are able to utilize lesson time according to each individual's needs and abilities. The one-on-one relationship invites us to personalize instruction.

There are two research studies that help translate "brisk instructional pace" and "changing teacher behaviors" into musical terms. In his study of independent piano teachers, Dennis Siebenaler found that effective teachers are those who participate more during the student's lesson. Specifically, they clap, sing, model/play and talk more. They speak up when they disapprove of something, give frequent feedback, assess problems quickly and give brief, but frequent, directives or strategies. (2) Similarly, Robert Duke, Carol Prickett and Judith Jellison found in their study of classroom elementary, band and choral students that the perceived pace of music instruction is proportional to the rate of student performance opportunities. (3) In other words, the student should be asked to perform frequently during the lesson and the teacher should provide frequent but brief feedback and guidance. The ideal length of teacher talk episodes should be only 8 to 10 seconds each. We should not mistakenly interpret "brisk instructional pace" to mean hurrying carelessly through our lessons but, rather, we should become adept at leveraging the resource of time by utilizing behaviors that best benefit our students.

Attempting to better understand the concept of time as it relates to education, I found researcher Joy Zimmerman's visualization of an inverted pyramid to be very effective. (4)

At the top of the pyramid, time is most abundant. This is the allocated time that is available, including both non-instructional time and instructional time. In independent music teaching, examples of non-instructional time may include a brief conversation between teacher and student, teacher and parent or two students with back-to-back lessons. Other examples would be when a teacher presents the student with a new book or allows any interruptions to take place during the lesson.

Instructional time can be considered the number of minutes devoted to learning music, although some instructional time may have little to do with learning. Examples of instructional time during private lessons might include the teacher grading/looking over completed written work, demonstrating a new piece, writing a new fingering into a student's score or assigning work for the week. We can maximize instructional time by not answering phone calls, allowing students to freely enter the waiting area of the studio when they arrive and arranging separate time or methods for speaking with parents (for example, by e-mail) if dialogue becomes lengthy.

Engaged time or "time on task" is when the student is actively participating in learning activities, such as sight reading a piece of music. Just because a student is engaged in a learning activity does not mean she actively is learning. For example, a student may spend 10 minutes playing music that already has been mastered or 10 minutes trying to play something he is struggling miserably at.

Academic learning time, at the bottom of the pyramid, has shown the greatest relationship to student achievement. However, it is narrowly focused, difficult to measure and difficult to produce. Examples in private music teaching include the moment when a student is asked for the first time to translate pitches on the staff to his instrument; the moment a student plays a rhythm incorrectly, is asked to stop, clap the rhythm aloud and write the counts in the score; or the moment when a teacher demonstrates an expressive aspect of the music and asks the student to imitate the performance. Academic learning time is the precise period when an instructional activity is perfectly aligned with a student's readiness and learning occurs. Clearly, this is the goal of our efforts, and we must strive to reverse the direction of Zimmerman's pyramid.

One step to maximize academic learning time is improving our ability to determine and execute appropriate "instructional pace" when working with each student. Instructional pace encompasses the goals and expectations we set for our students, as well as the methods we employ to help them meet these goals and expectations. In private music teaching, we can view instructional pace as a multidimensional term, where each dimension pertains to a different time horizon:

* Lesson pace (within the lesson itself)

* Repertoire pace (from lesson to lesson, or week to week)

* Long-term musical growth (month to month, or year to year)

Lesson Pace

When I begin a lesson, whether it is 30 minutes, 45 minutes or one hour, I try to have in mind a clear idea of the material I would like to cover. I then divide this material into discrete units of time and make every attempt to move to the next item promptly. Therefore, lesson pace can be defined as the proportion of the total lesson each item will take. "Stephen" is a 9-year-old, late-elementary piano student with a 30-minute weekly lesson. I might go into his lesson intending to cover six items. I then allocate a block of time for each item. For example:
2.5 practice Greet Stephen, review practice log,
 discuss what was practiced and

5 technique Hear Stephen play his scale and
 arpeggio with a metronome and
 assign new ones if passed.

10 theory Check Stephen's theory work,
 explain key signatures/circle of fifths
 and give new assignment.

 Hear Stephen play two repertoire
 pieces he is working on and pro-
 vide feedback.

10 repertoire corrections and practice strategies
 (for example, working with a

2.5 sight read Have Stephen sight read 8 mm. of
 an elementary piece, two times
 (steadiness, then accuracy).

30 minutes

Certainly, music teachers differ in their philosophies regarding the type and number of activities that should be included in a private lesson. The types and quantities of activities we cover also will vary from student to student and from lesson to lesson, depending on factors such as student age and maturity level, ability level, motivation level, upcoming activities and so forth.

Though I may have a clear image of how I plan to pace Stephen's lesson, he may have trouble mastering the fingering of a difficult scale and we may need to spend more time on it than planned. We might move quickly through his theory assignment because his answers are correct and he identifies with the circle of fifths. We may not reach sight reading at all during his lesson because he needs so much help using the damper pedal correctly during one of his repertoire pieces. Nevertheless, the graphic image of how I intend to pace the lesson provides a tangible, systematic starting point that can be altered as I deem necessary when working with the student. Sensing Stephen's awkwardness with the damper pedal, I may decide that more time, explanation, demonstration and feedback are required, and it will take priority over sight reading for the present time. To make sure sight reading gets covered, I make a note in his file to cover it at the beginning of his next lesson.

Although a good starting point, my image of lesson pace, depicted by the illustration, does not predict detailed teaching behaviors that Siebenaler suggests make an effective teacher (teacher participation, frequency of feedback, speed at which the teacher assesses problems and length/wordiness of strategies given to the student). Teacher behaviors are not things you simply can "plan to do"; they must become gradually embedded in our personalities and communication styles until they are exhibited naturally and spontaneously during our interaction with students. Once we become familiar with effective teaching behaviors, we can proceed by writing them into our plans wherever possible, observing master teachers and conducting informal self-assessments of our teaching.

Repertoire Pace

Another dimension of instructional pace is repertoire pace, the speed at which we cycle a student from old repertoire to new. More specifically, it is the length of time we keep a student on the same piece of repertoire, the frequency with which we assign new repertoire and the quantity of pieces we encourage the student to undertake. Although repertoire refers specifically to the pieces of music a student is learning, it is possible to include technical assignments, theory work and other curricular aspects when considering this broader dimension of instructional pace.

Our ability to gauge an appropriate repertoire pace for a student is crucial for motivation and progress. When moving a student along too slowly, she may become bored and play below her level of potential. On the other hand, moving a student along too quickly can cause her to become frustrated, not to mention that her music making likely will suffer. Private teaching would be easier if the appropriate repertoire pace was "one-size-fits-all" and remained constant for each student. But no two students are exactly alike, and adjustments need to be made throughout the duration of the student-teacher relationship.

Some of the criteria we can use to determine repertoire pace are age, maturity level, personality type, learning style, learning rate, learning patterns and changes in progress. These can be used to devise a composite sketch of the student. When considering a student's age, I think of renowned Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who was among the first to subdivide children's cognitive development into stages: sensorimotor, pre-operational or intuitive, operational and concrete operational and formal operational. (5) His conclusions that children in the operational stage (7 to 8 years old) can think causally and quantitatively, understand transformations of time, hold more than one idea in their head at the same time and compare a current situation with the past or future, explain why this is such an ideal age for children to begin private music study.

Although Piaget's stages are gradual in nature and divided into sub-stages, they are not definitive and have been disputed by numerous scholars, namely Noam Chomsky, who argued that children's knowledge is innate, and Lev Vygotsky, who insisted that learning occurs externally as well as internally. While age is concrete and measurable, it also can be obscure because it is frequently independent from maturity level and further complicated by gender. In his book Time to Teach, Time to Learn: Changing the Pace of School, Chip Wood compares each child to a spring flower blooming at its own time. (6) Regardless of how we interpret cognitive development, putting ourselves into the student's flame of mind can help us decide what approach to take and how to structure their music lessons.

Characteristics of a student's personality can predict how he or she may respond to the plans we lay out. Lesson pace can be adjusted according to whether students are especially sensitive, adventurous or resilient, for example. External learning situations, or the physical, emotional or intellectual experiences occurring in the student's life beyond our control, also must be taken into account in setting a repertoire pace for our students. Musical progress can be suddenly or gradually expedited, interrupted or deterred. The most common example is probably transition to a new grade level or school. It is our obligation to recognize and record these changes in our students and be ready to adapt our approach to pacing.

Although most of us would agree all children can learn, learning styles and rates do differ. (7) Howard Gardner's popular "Theory of Multiple Intelligences" delineates eight separate domains by which we come to know the world: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and spiritual. (8) Gardner says we all possess "varying amounts of these intelligences and combine and use them in personal and idiosyncratic ways." "Any rich, nourishing topic--any concept worth teaching--can be approached in at least five different ways that, roughly speaking, map onto the multiple intelligences. We might think of the topic as a room with at least five doors ... into it. Students vary as to which entry point is most appropriate for them and which routes are most comfortable to follow." (9)

Gardner's research underscores the importance of tailoring music lesson activities and pace to the needs and interests of each individual student. It also implies that students will learn more effectively if we vary the teaching techniques in a given lesson or between lessons. The vast majority of students can learn when the objective is held constant but the time and approach are varied. (10) During a lesson, for example, I may hear a student play a few bars of three different pieces, but the following week, I might devote the entire lesson to one piece. Students enjoy occasional, playful breaks from the routine, and I have sometimes surprised them by playing a professional recording of a piece when they arrive or by arranging a visit from a special guest musician who will discuss a particular composer or style of music.

I ask many questions and listen carefully to comments my students make regarding the difficulty or ease with which they have accomplished their weekly assignment. If they find their assignments to be easy for several consecutive lessons and are successful in terms of their musicianship, I consider increasing either the quantity or the frequency of new repertoire assigned. In some cases, it may be in the student's best interest to skip a few songs in a method book so he is challenged by a more difficult piece at the end of the book. If we consistently have a purpose in mind when assigning a piece of repertoire, we will be better able to determine the point at which the purpose of that piece has been met.

We must be able to tell when a student is playing a piece the best that her age and ability level will allow or when we have reached a point of diminishing returns and should put that piece on the "back burner" for a while. Keeping a student on the same piece for too long can result in burnout, frustration, loss of esteem or stalled progress. There also are disadvantages in recycling the same repertoire pieces for multiple events over long time periods. If maintaining these pieces becomes the student's main objective and little or no new material is introduced or assigned, we probably are holding the student back from what he is capable of achieving.

Rarely can we consider work on a piece of music "finished"; this is one of the revered tenets of the musical profession--there always is room for improvement. But as teachers, we must track our students' progress meticulously, comparing their current efforts and success level to that of last week, last month, last season and last year, while also comparing their degree of mastery with one piece of repertoire versus another. By doing this, we can calculate our expectation levels for each student and make predictions for their musical future.

Long-Term Musical Growth

A gradual culmination of both lesson pace and repertoire pace, long-term musical growth is the rate at which we transition a student from one level of musicianship to the next (for example, elementary to intermediate). This is the gradual, long-range pace for our students and can encompass a time span of anywhere from a month or a year to the student's entire high school or college career, it is the most important dimension of instructional pace because it yields the end product in terms of the longevity of a student's interest in music, as well as the level and quality of their musicianship. In Questions and Answers, Frances Clark recommends a long-range lesson plan from September to June along with a detailed 10-week plan. (11)

Whether working with a new student, a transfer student or a student we have taught for years, it is important for us to be able to determine not only the musicianship level the student is currently at, but the speed at which we believe the student will be able to advance to the next level. There are many clues that indicate when a student is ready to begin working at the next musicianship level, among them, the ease, regularity and proficiency with which he accomplishes his assignments. Wood refers to the observant teacher as a "scientist who notices the patterns of development, the nuances of change ... she also knows how to recognize and measure growth over time and how to shift her approaches in her [teaching]." (12) Keeping a box of index cards with tabs in our teaching space is one efficient way to record our observations upon noticing shifts in student learning. By documenting the repertoire our students study and, more importantly, making notes on their struggles and successes with each piece, we can gain intuition as to whether they are ready to move on to a more advanced genre or whether they still have "room to grow" in a certain genre or musical style.

With regard to the research findings on "brisk instructional pace," it seems common for teachers to take an approach that is too gradual and too passive when pacing their students. If we truly want to see our students work to their potential, we must be "scientists" anticipating signs of student readiness. We must try to locate the threshold of challenge for each student, and this may mean ignoring the level we were at ourselves when we were 12, ignoring the level other 12-year-old students are at and possibly ignoring the page-by-page sequence of the method book tradition. There may be times, for example, when we should overlap levels of a student's method book to accelerate the transition into the new level of playing. Other times, upon noticing that a student can play two-octave scales in three or four keys very well, we should perhaps add another octave or increase the tempo without waiting for the student to complete every key before advancing.

I am inspired to become more of a scientist in my efforts to challenge, motivate, captivate and respond to my students on an individual basis. I continue to reflect on research findings that suggest we should be alert, active, responsive, honest and direct when working with our students, much like an athletic coach in preparation for an important game. Surely, if academic learning time leads to the greatest student achievement, then we need to create an atmosphere where our students are actively engaged and learning during as much of the lesson as possible. While the term "accelerando" can be used to denote "brisk instructional pace," it also can summarize our educational outlook--that is, the acceleration we would like to see in our students' progress. And since student progress is largely dependent on the quality of our teaching, perhaps the greatest gift we can give a student is not time, but quality time.
Allocated Time
Non-Instructional & Instructional

Engage Time
(time on task)

Academic Learning


(1.) Brophy, Jere and Thomas L. Good, "Teacher Behavior and Student Achievement," Third ed. Handbook of Research on Teaching, ed. M. Wittrock, (New York: Macmillan, 1986): 360-361; Robert P. Grobe and Timothy J. Pettibone, "Effect of Instructional Pace on Student Attentiveness," The Journal of Educational Research, 69 (1975): 133-134.

(2.) Siebenaler, Dennis J., "Analysis of Teacher-Student Interactions in the Piano Lessons of Adults and Children," Journal of Research in Music Education 45, No. 1 (1997): 16-19.

(3.) Duke, Robert A., Carol A. Prickett and Judith A. Jellison, "Empirical Description of the Pace of Music Instruction," Journal of Research in Music Education, 46, No. 2 (1998): 265-280.

(4.) Zimmerman, Joy, "How Much Does Time Affect Learning?" Principal, 80 (January 2001): 6.

(5.) Beard, Ruth M., "The Development of Intelligence" and "The Sub-Period of Concrete Operations," An Outline of Piaget's Developmental Psychology, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969): 15-16, 76-96.

(6.) Wood, Chip, "Time, Growth and Learning," Time to Teach, Time to Learn: Changing the Pace of School, (Greenfield: Northeast Foundation for Children, 1999): 35-51.

(7.) Crews, Nancy N. and Kathleen P. Glascott, "A Teaching Philosophy: Rhetoric or Reality?" Childhood Education, 74, No. 4 (1998): 232-233.

(8.) Gardner, Howard, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, (New York: Basic Books, 1983): 73-276.

(9.) Gardner, Howard, The Unschool Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach, (New York: Basic Books, 1991): 81, 245.

(10.) Gonder, Peggy O. "Caught in the Middle: How to UnLeash the Potential of Average Students," American Association of School Administrators, (Arlington, VA, 1991): 16.

(11.) Clark, Frances, "Lesson Plans and Assignments," Questions and Answers, (Northfield: The Instrumentalist Company, 1992): 17, 19.

(12.) Wood, Chip, "Time, Growth and Learning," 35.

Bonnie S. Jacobi has been a private piano teacher for more than 14 years, and also teaches elementary music in Spring, Texas. She holds a D.M.A. degree in music education from the University of Houston, and an M.M. degree in piano performance from the University of Texas at Austin.
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Author:Jacobi, Bonnie S.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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