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Learning Styles

Q: Today, most piano teaching courses discuss learning theories as part of the course content. I am interested in learning styles and teaching to a student's learning style. Where might I find additional information, since my college courses in the past included little of that information?

A: You are correct in identifying an added content area in most piano pedagogy courses around the United States. We believe teaching to a student's learning style can vastly enhance our ability to communicate most effectively with the student. Identifying and working with a student's learning style makes a big difference in the student's satisfaction in the experience, especially when making music.

One source currently available is an in-depth article by Susanna Garcia titled "Learning Styles and Piano Teaching." In this article Garcia discusses learning styles or modalities, how a teacher evaluates learning styles, teaching to a student's learning style, ten tips for teaching through learning styles and a list of resources. This article can be found online through the Piano Pedagogy Forum at

A timely introduction to learning styles took place during the most recent MTNA Pedagogy Saturday (March 16, 2002). As part of the day, Keith Golay provided an informative and entertaining assessment and demonstration of various students' learning styles. His book Learning Patterns and Temperament Styles provides an excellent resource for identifying student learning patterns. [Editor's note: A summary of Golay's presentation is on page 40 of the October/November 2002 AMT.]

Those of you with access to a major library will want to look at the bibliography of writings on learning theories that appeared as part of the Proceedings and Reference of the 1988-1989 National Conference on Piano Pedagogy. It is an annotated list of books and articles on learning theory for teachers of piano and piano pedagogy. Though now some thirteen years old, the list was updated biennially for the Proceedings through 1995-96, and the information provided is still sound.

Sight Reading

Q: How long should I spend in each private lesson on sight reading? Should I use a CD some during sight reading?

A: For a fourty-five-minute lesson, I suggest spending about five to ten minutes on sight reading, although the time recommended among teachers will vary widely. Sight reading skill is built and, as such, some regular time during each lesson needs to be devoted to this skill. Part of what is accomplished in this work is helping the student become less nervous during the sight-reading process so she or he does not completely avoid sight reading and is not dominated by fear. Reading during each weekly lesson will help.

Also during the reading segment in each lesson, the student is asked to think and respond at sight. The teacher can see exactly how the student approaches music and help with that process. The consistency of reading during part of the lesson is as important as the length of time devoted to the skill. Once it is a regular part of a lesson, the student becomes more comfortable with the activity. A skilled teacher can turn the student into someone who actually begins to enjoy the challenge of realizing a score on the spot.

Perhaps it is best to save the CD accompaniments for situations where a student has fully prepared a piece. While the CD is playing, the student actually cannot hear herself as well, since the added sound in the room blends with the piano sound she is making. The CD also forces the student to continue--in a way something we desire but, instead, continuity might be better built into the practice to avoid possible tension from trying to stay with the CD, read the notes and rhythm, and execute the phrasing, all at sight.

Q: What emphasis do you place on sight reading?

A: Sight reading is one of the most important skills we teach students. It centers around the student's ability to continue to make music after the lessons cease. The student's level determines his enthusiasm with approaching the piano to accompany a social group or choir, his enthusiasm for playing chamber music or accompanying, in other words, in making music with another person. The student's sight-reading level also determines how enthusiastic she is to begin to play another piece of music. Re-reading this AMT article, I wondered for the first time why we do not have sight-reading festivals or competitions.

Brain Gym

Q: I recently heard someone mention "Brain Gym" basic exercises as a means of helping a child with centering, and improvements in attitude, attention, discipline and behavior. What is "Brain Gym"?

A: I first heard of "Brain Gym" several years ago while attending the Washington State MTA Convention in Spokane. A workshop on "Brain Gym" was presented, and I became fascinated with this topic. I did not run into this philosophy/science again until rather recently when looking at the work of Carla Hannaford, a neurophysiologist and educator with more than twenty-eight years' teaching experience. In her best selling book Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, Hannaford devotes several chapters to explaining "Brain Gym." In Smart Moves, Hannaford states that our bodies are very much a part of all our learning, and learning is not an isolated "brain" function. Every nerve and cell

is a network contributing to our intelligence and our learning capability. Many educators have found this research quite helpful for improving overall concentration in class.

Q: How does "Brain Gym" work?

A: It is distinctive in that it prepares learners to learn. It enhances, rather than replaces, other programs or curricula. The specific research that led to "Brain Gym" was started in 1969 by Paul Dennison, Ph.D. Dennison, then-director of California's eight Valley Remedial Group Learning Centers, was looking for ways to help children and adults who had been identified as "learning disabled." "Brain Gym" consists of a series of easy and enjoyable targeted activities that bring about rapid and often dramatic improvements in concentration, memory, reading, writing, organizing, listening, physical coordination and more.

The exercises, which can be done by individuals of any age, work to encourage the various spheres of the brain to work together. They believe the "Brain Gym" movements interconnect the brain in these dimensions, allowing us to easily learn through all the senses, to remember what we learn and to participate more fully in the events of our lives. We are able to learn with less stress and to express our creativity using more of our mental and physical potential. The movements also assist with clearing emotional stress that can affect us both mentally and physically. Reported benefits include improvements in such areas as vision, listening, learning, memory, self-expression and coordination in children and adults.

Hannaford provides a description of "Brain Gym" movements and exercises in her book including brain buttons, cross crawl, hook ups and lazy 8s for eyes. These are exercises that, when correctly applied, might help students center and be able to focus better at music lessons.

Q: Where can one get more information on "Brain Gym"?

A: Check their web site at Also, Hannaford provides an excellent introduction in Smart Moves, on sale through most bookstores. Training workshops on "Brain Gym" also are available.

"Talented" Students

Q: I teach a talented student who is at the level where she easily plays several Chopin waltzes and preludes, and one or two of the nocturnes. I don't want to move her yet to more difficult music--in terms of control of sound, she is not ready--and am wondering what other romantic literature might sustain her interest and build her ability to voice and phrase at the same time?

A: Why don't you look at some of the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words? This repertoire provides excellent potential building romantic playing for the upper-intermediate and lower-advanced student. See especially "Contemplation," "Lost Happiness," "Sadness of Soul," "Retrospection," "Evening Star," and several others. The Liszt Consolations also can be useful to teach at this level, especially No. 3 in D-flat Major.

Adult Students

Q: What do you do with an adult who consistently is stiff in playing and cannot seem to relax in slurs and phrases?

A: Adults often have problems with stiffness and arthritis and joint related issues. They do not move as quickly physically in their bodies as do younger people, and they often do not move with as much finger and wrist agility as do younger students. We take our students where they are and work with them as best we can. They can improve, grow and enjoy music study and the process of music making. They often do not care about performance goals, but are primarily concerned with the ongoing process of music making itself. You may believe them to be less goal-oriented than your younger students, much more involved in the process. It is important not to teach down to adults, nor to avoid mentioning something just because the adult may seem physically limited in ability. That does not erase the need of the adult to experience the process even if they cannot execute a technique fully. It is important they play with musicality, phrasing, and appropriate style and tempo, whatever literature they attempt.

Teaching adults is quite different from teaching precollege students, and teachers who do not have the desire to teach adults can still focus on their present clientele. Our profession provides ample room for specialization and focus within various types of students seeking lessons and music study.

Final Thoughts

Recently, I read of an obituary published in the London Times for violinist and teacher Rosemary Rapaport, who had founded and guided the Purcell School. The obituary reads: "She was an exceptionally good music teacher. Uncompromising in her principles, and demanding in her standards, she was nonetheless a kind, understanding and affectionate tutor. She gave her pupils a secure foundation of good technique; she also taught them to appreciate what was best in music. She was good at encouraging her pupils to play as well as they could; she was the kind of teacher for whom the pupil wants to do his or her best." As I read this, I realized I would treasure having my students write any one of these sentences about my teaching because I believe strongly in all of the principles above. Take time to reread this. Might someone one day say this in part about all of our teaching!

We Seek Your Input

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 ideas and tips with us, or other experiences in teaching--what has given your teaching situation the most meaning? Send us your questions, and also your suggestions for future topics of exploration. 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

Wanted: Teaching Tips

MTNA has a new 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

--Jane Magrath Norman, Oklahoma Jane is internationally known as a pianist, author, clinician, teacher and professor and director of piano pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma.
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Title Annotation:question and answers
Author:Magrath, Jane
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
Previous Article:Celebrating certification: why should a music teacher become a nationally certified teacher of music?
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