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Polyphony. (Professional Resources).

Q: Do you have suggestions for getting off to a good start at the beginning of a new teaching year?

A: The beginning of an academic year is an important time since it makes a new start possible with many students. Almost every student is excited, glad to be back at the beginning of the year. She feels refreshed and anticipates the music she will "get" to study this term. This also can be a good time to set new expectations or work toward changes in the student's practice habits. Is there perhaps something we can alter slightly in the lesson routine to spark the student's interest in a new way? Pretend that each student is a new one, or a new transfer student. Hold in abeyance any negative prejudices or expectations and approach the student as if she is new to your studio and as if your work together has a fresh beginning. Start the year as if you are the teacher you always wanted to be--a teacher who is attentive, compassionate, thoughtful, real, encouraging, intuitive, fun, challenging, kind, artistic and wise!

Q: I have transfer students who consistently ignore fingerings I write in the score. They also ignore fingerings provided by editors. How do I address this problem?

A: We wish students would understand that fingerings actually make the music easier to play. Fingerings are written by a composer, teacher or editor generally for a passage that presents some unusual pattern or something out of the ordinary, and the written fingering makes it so a student can learn that passage more quickly. When a student uses different and unplanned fingerings for a passage, the hand does not realize it is playing the identical music since the physical configuration is different. Thus, the passage actually requires more practice, not less, than if correct fingering were used. A student who continues to ignore signposts such as fingerings often is not a careful practicer, and the teacher should work on practice skills with the student as well as practicing during the lesson. For this student, perhaps six or seven successive weekly lessons could deal in part with how to practice specific passages. During the lesson the teacher and student will practice various passages from the,student's pieces, playing the passages with only correct fingering repeated in succession during the lesson. The key to correct fingering is consistency, making that the skill to be practiced in this lesson segment. Sometimes we talk about the importance of good fingering, but the key is to have the student play the passage with the correct fingering, a specific number of times.

The teacher will follow the sequence "plan, play, evaluate" when practicing a passage in the lesson. First, teacher and student plan the passage, including the fingering to be used. Then the student plays the passage, and afterward both evaluate the accuracy of the fingering. This pattern is repeated seven (or another predetermined number of times) for this short practice segment. Perhaps the teacher marks the repetitions by moving a penny from one side of the piano to the other to count seven successful consecutive playings. Any missed fingering will require the student to begin counting to seven again.

A student is unable to play well without fingering accuracy. It is the glue that holds together a phrase, and without that glue notes are flying freely with no physical cohesion and no future predictability.

A student who will not finger carefully probably does not practice well in many areas, although the problems may seem most obvious in the fingerings. Learning a quick-study piece during each lesson--usually a piece approximately three levels below the student's performance level--is another means of instilling strong practice skills in a student. The student learns to practice by learning an easier piece well during the lesson. The teacher prepares so thoroughly for success that the student never misses in the learning process. The student then transfers these practice techniques to the more difficult repertoire he is learning.

Q: What do you think is the best way to teach solid reading skills to the student who plays very well by ear?

A: Students who play well by ear have a wonderful gift the teacher should acknowledge as just that--a "gift" and special ability. They need to know, however, the importance of also reading music in much the same way as everyone learns to read books.

Students who play by ear should spend part of each lesson sight reading with the teacher present. This can take place in a short five-to-ten minute segment and should occur consistently every week. The student should be encouraged to play at a tempo appropriate for her reading level, to play hands together, to count aloud and to play musically, listening to the musical line and phrase shape. The teacher should, as much as possible, avoid correcting, simply letting the student read, providing gentle guidance. The teacher strives to set up the situation for success with the lesson reading segment. The teacher here is not "teaching" per se, but more guiding a process.

How does a student learn to count aloud while playing? This important step actually frees a student to feel the pulse while reading the notes and rhythms. The student is directed to count aloud one short phrase and then counts aloud and plays the music. It is important for the student to verbalize aloud the counts (numbers or some sound such as "tah") while playing. It will take many successive weeks to establish this, but once it is there, it provides a strong structure for the student who is simultaneously deciphering the score's note patterns.

Students always are directed to find patterns and groupings in the music. In early reading stages or with students needing much reading review, circling patterns on the score, even with colored markers to make them more vivid to the eye, can render the reading work more meaningful. This sets up, in addition, a proclivity for finding patterns in the music in later reading sessions.

Teaching solid reading skills, just as in teaching accuracy in fingering, requires many successive weekly repetitions before these are developed into skills and habits. Many teachers know what to. do and how to accomplish these skills, but fail to sit with the student working to develop strong reading skills week after week after week. For a student to have grown enormously in reading skills in one year because that teacher never missed a lesson for thirty-two consecutive weeks of working even five minutes each week on reading--that would be a major accomplishment for that year and one that could then carry the student throughout her musical career. It is the repetition and consistency that are the success factors in teaching these skills.

Q: I am just beginning to teach in a studio and find it difficult to know what pieces to give a student who has finished a method book. I know the piano methods fairly well and know some classical literature but cannot seem to match the two.

A: I suggest you put into practice many of the ideas from workshops you have attended or pedagogy classes you have taken. Try new teaching pieces. Be absolutely certain of the student's repertoire level and assign pieces only at that level or even one level below for safety. Above all, avoid giving a student music because you know it and because you do not know other music to give him. The number-one rule is to assign music that is appropriate to the student's level. The skill with which you do this is crucial to the student's success. Piano playing becomes too difficult for many students after they finish a piano method because the pieces they are then assigned are too difficult.

Test the student's reading level using classical literature that is carefully graded. (I use a system of ten levels.) Find out where the student can sight read relatively easily in that continuum and avoid being swayed by names of pieces the student has played in the past. Let his ability during that leveling session be what guides you to then assign literature to him. The student should read two or three lines of two to three pieces from a single level. You should have the student read from at least three levels before assigning literature to the student from one level. This activity may take fifteen minutes of a lesson initially, but it is time well spent with respect to a student's success. Once a level is determined, an average student should play at that level from one to two semesters, and generally should learn eight to ten classical pieces before moving to the next higher reading level. This holds primarily for students playing the easy classics and on up. Supplementary literature can play a strong part in this process and help establish a student's security before he progresses to more difficult literature.

Q: I am striving for fresh teaching goals for myself in this coming year. I have taught for many years and am looking for a different perspective on my teaching.

A: What you could do is write, perhaps in eight sentences or less, what you would want your students to say about you as a teacher. Write it and then read it to yourself at least once a week, letting it become a conscious part of your teaching. This activity done thirty-two times in one teaching year could help you move closer to being the kind of teacher you would really like to be.

In one class I teach, I asked the students to do this as part of a final project. Here, I share with you several responses:

"I want my students to say that I care about them as people and as musicians. I want my students to know that I love each of them and do not play favorites or compare them to each other. I want my students to feel that I see them as unique and special musically and that I respect their own individual musicality. I want them to say that I require hard work because I really think they can accomplish something at the piano. I want them to say that I am sensitive to their needs and learning styles, that I push them to achieve their best, but that I make the process enjoyable."

"Things I would like my students to say about my teaching include the following items: 'My teacher and I have fun together during my lessons! My teacher is kind. My teacher is understanding and compassionate. My teacher really seems to love music! My teacher knows so much about music. My teacher challenges me.'"

"I want my students to say that I am motivating and inspiring. I want my students to say that I am fair. I hope that they feel I have very high expectations of them, but never so high that they are out of reach. I hope my students say that I am compassionate and sympathetic and patient. I also hope they would say that I'm a very knowledgeable teacher and know what I am talking about. I want my students to say that I always find just the right pieces at the right time for them. Most important is that they find my teaching motivating and enthusiastic."

"Several elements of importance for my students' playing are technical facility, musical understanding and creativity. In addition, my deepest desire is for people to come away from hearing my students' play, saying, 'Wow, Ms. XX's students really enjoy making music.'"

"I would like to hear my students say I am a creative and inspiring teacher. I think it is important to keep playing piano fresh and interesting. Music cannot be separated from life. Developing creative thoughts and providing inspiring teaching is definitely significant for me."

Be accountable only to yourself this year as you strive to be the description that you want your students to give.

Wanted: Teaching Tips

MTNA has a website feature devoted to teaching tips. Please share with us some of your favorite tried-and-true ideas. Send your tips to: MTNA, Attn: Teaching Tips, 441 Vine St., Ste. 505, Cincinnati, OH 45202-2811; fax (513) 421-2503; or e-mail to

Send Us Your Questions

Do you have a teaching question you would like to have answered? Perhaps you have a practice tip for students you would like to share or a studio idea you are trying differently this year. Please write and share your questions, ideas and tips, or other experiences in teaching. Send us your reflections. Questions and other items may be sent to: American Music Teacher, Attn: Polyphony; 441 Vine St., Ste. 505, Cincinnati, OH 45202-2811; fax (513) 421-2503; or e-mail to

Jane Magrath, NCTM, is internationally known as a pianist, author, clinician and teacher. She is professor and director of piano pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
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Title Annotation:teaching tips for music teachers
Author:Magrath, Jane
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
Previous Article:West Central Division. (Division News).
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