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Q What does "outside the box" mean for you?

A An intriguing and certainly thought-provoking question this is! At first thought, I believe it has to do with thinking and listening in more creative ways than those to which we are accustomed. It could mean doing something differently and in ways we might not immediately explore if we had continued on our normal path without stopping to listen to an inner voice and to act differently.

I wonder if functioning "outside the box" has to do fully with creativity? Might it deal with taking normal activities in teaching or daily life and re-shaping them to include something not predictable? It might have to do with listening to another and accepting his ideas, putting ourselves in his shoes to understand him better. It might have to do with more frequently asking the question: "What if ... ?" It could mean that we listen to students carefully and differently so that we let them give us clues regarding how to teach them. And, it could include the re-ordering of our lives so that we are balanced and stimulated in body, mind and spirit--in addition to being focused on our teaching livelihood.

Teaching inside the box means that we accept the status quo. It can easily become a formula for teacher boredom and, perhaps eventually, teacher burn out. When we're inside the box, we have reasons new ideas or activities will not work--again and again.

Outside-the-box thinking and teaching can produce excited students and engaged teachers--a formula for energy in the lesson and the entire studio. Look for a spark of an idea that intrigues you--and then follow that spark, sublimating excuses to maintain the status quo.

What are examples of "outside the box" activities for teachers? Ask students to "map" their pieces visually to help them see patterns, shapes and to secure memory. (1)

Try a new piano method with two students. Consciously plan to teach one avant-garde piece to a student. Teach different pieces from one's usual fare. Incorporate sight reading or listening/ear training into the beginning of each lesson. Plan lesson schedules to overlap by 10 minutes so students hear what another is doing. Find creative ways to use an iPod or similar device in the private lesson. Ask a student for ways to use his iPod or MP3 player as an enhancement to the lesson. Let the student practice and learn several pieces by ear. Incorporate drumming or other rhythm activities in the lesson. Use positive imagery when preparing for public performance. And one could add so many more!

Q I sometimes find it difficult to connect with my pre-college students. Their values seem quite different from those of my generation.

A Perhaps they say that about us too! I believe all humans need to connect on a human/heart level. Inevitably the most important thing is that we do connect. Listen closely, with focused attention, to what the students say, even if it seems foreign to our world. Accept them as they are, rather than allowing a tendency to judge their speech, actions, dress and so on to take over. Heightened interest has spurred a good many of the current writings discussing the tendencies and habits of individuals from the various generations. These sources can provide illuminating information and a basis for understanding. The book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation by Nell Howe and William Strauss especially has received strong publicity, both positive and negative, and can be a place to start reading about the national discussion currently taking place. (2)

What is possible is that during this pursuit, we may begin to see ourselves through the same eyes as those born after 1981 also see us. This discussion I leave for the experts on generational studies, a fascinating one at that.

One of the more difficult issues for a teacher to deal with is the situation where students want it all with little effort. We all know of students who expect quick achievement, even at a high level, and seem to lack the patience to work through stages of music study, perfecting details and practicing regularly to build a skill. And yet, skill development and artistry are built gradually and formed step-by-step. Students who want everything quickly should be surrounded with peers who are successful in music study and music making--those who are modeling the skills and habits we believe necessary for success. Preaching to the masses generally does not work, but role models, especially among peers, can provide an especially powerful stimulus. While it can take time to seek out and set up an individual student with a positive role model, the results can be powerful.

Q What would you suggest for technical exercises for a 10-year-old student studying from the John Thompson Grade One book? She has been having a difficult time working her way through this book and she is not putting in the amount of time she needs to produce a good lesson weekly. I have explained this to her, and shown her, as well as given her a typed paper with exceptional ways to work on her lesson. She insists on doing it her way and the lessons are somewhat sloppy.

A This kind of question is difficult to answer in a column since I cannot observe the student, so this response will deal with ways to get what I believe you want. I suggest that a teacher in this circumstance engage and meet regularly with other teachers locally. Your teacher colleagues in your town or area of your state can enthusiastically share concrete ideas, if you approach them. You could begin to observe lessons given by a fellow teacher, seeking a successful teacher of beginners in your area, and asking to observe some lessons regularly. Perhaps the teacher would video tape some of her lessons and then they could be discussed between the two of you. Perhaps the teacher would observe some of your lessons, and make constructive suggestions for a next step in your teaching. Seeking a mentor as you would be doing here can be immensely helpful by having two individuals work directly on something important to each of them; they share ideas and mutual respect for the process. I cannot over-emphasize the power of a successful relationship carefully set up like this. This is a step that, pursued and established for the benefit of both teachers, can be transforming.

Secondly, many terrific workshops on teaching beginners are available. Local music teachers association meetings can be an important source of such workshops and also serve as valuable idea banks. Numerous music publishers offer free workshops for teachers, and the sessions given deal not only with materials of the publishers, but also with the teaching techniques. I suggest that you immerse yourself in these workshop activities. Attend every possible workshop in your state and area.

In addition, consider attending a more extended summer workshop that features sessions on the teaching of technique and repertoire to beginning and elementary students.

Attend regularly and ask questions in local music association meetings where a variety of responses and a helpful and productive exchange is the norm. These groups can become the most stimulating learning and growing of all since they are on-going, and music teachers are ever so willing to help others. We all grow during our teaching careers and I see much opportunity for that in these kinds of collaborative experiences.

Looking back at specifics of your initial question, I suggest that you look first at the student's sitting position and hand position at the piano. Does she sit up tall, with both feet flat on the floor, forearm and elbow parallel to the floor, elbow and wrist relaxed? She should be working with large movements at the piano--motions from the forearm/elbow and from the wrist, and eventually finger motions from the bridge of the hand. She should be playing short gestural exercises/activities over a wide range of the piano, at this stage with the hands alternating. Without seeing and observing her, one cannot tell whether she is ready for five-finger patterns. In my teaching, I like to include elements that may not be spelled out in a method book in addition to those that are. Regularly, I will add exercises and other technical activities that assure the student will be ready for the music to come in the next stages of her growth. I develop these from my own teaching experience over the years, my observation and work with many students in developing their playing, and my perception of where the student needs to go next in the playing. Since giving her a typed paper with ways to work on the lesson is not working, try something different. Often we use many different approaches before we find one that works for a student. Again, a fertile place to observe some ideas can be in a mentor relationship with another teacher and also in music teachers' professional association meetings and workshops.

Q Should parents be allowed or required to sit in on a lesson?

A Remember that a parent probably will not offer to sit in on lessons unless the teacher suggests or requires it in some fashion. As such, it is up to the teacher to initiate this, and in many situations parental observation, I believe, can be positive. It is important for parents to know what their children are learning. Children younger than 6 or 7 may need a parent at each lesson who is also working with the child regularly in the practice to ensure even progress. The Suzuki method for the very young child is based on the teacher-parent-child triangle, and is a wonderful model for nurturing early-age music study.

All in all, the policy of allowing or requiring parents to sit in on a lesson depends on three factors: the teacher's preference and teaching style, the student's age and the parental situation. I believe that during the year, the parents of a pre-college student of any age should sit in on at least one lesson (and ideally, two or more lessons) to allow the parents to have a glimpse into the process and mechanics of a private lesson. It allows parents to know what happens in the music lesson. Parents then begin to understand and respect many facets in music study and musical growth as they observe and become part of it. They find out what we do in lessons, what is involved.

I am aware of at least one teacher who holds classes for parents of her beginning students. The parents, meeting in a group lesson each week, master the same concepts and pieces their children are practicing, in addition to learning the philosophy of teaching and technique so they can help their child. What a wholesome approach!

The extent of parental involvement, I believe, in large part determines a student's success. Parents who do not understand what music study involves, including daily practice, performance goals, performance activities and extracurricular musical experiences (festivals, attendance at concerts and others) often are unable to do their full part in nurturing the musical experience for the child.

By Jane Magrath, NCTM


(1.) Rebecca Payne Shockley. Mapping Music: For Faster Learning and Secure Memory--A Guide far Piano Teachers and Students, (A-R Editions, Inc., Madison, WI), 1997.

(2.) Neil Howe and William Strauss. Millennials Rising." The Next Great Generation, (Vintage Books/Random House, New York, NY), 2000.

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. Questions and other items may be sent to: American Music Teacher, Attn: Polyphony; 441 Vine St., Ste. 3100, Cincinnati, OH 45202-3004; 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, Oklahoma.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Magrath, Jane
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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