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Q How can I motivate students to practice for their weekly lesson and not just for the special events of the year?

A Try to determine why students practice only for special events. Some students become exceedingly goal oriented and begin to look for the next musical award or trophy or for another source of recognition. While some of this can be helpful in teaching, one sees instances where festivals and performance deadlines become means to "motivate" students to learn pieces.

Some students may be over-stressed in their personal lives and develop the habit of working only for deadlines. To determine this, talk with a parent, as well as observe the student and ask questions. In general, competition often dampens enthusiasm and motivation. Competition may increase interest slightly, but that generally occurs mostly in the winners.

If you perceive that your students are becoming excessively goal oriented, remember that intrinsic motivation, the desire to accomplish something for its value alone rather than for a reward, is essential to instill and foster. Begin to make each lesson an event--through the music played, the activities incorporated, unexpected changes from time to time, through your personality and commitment to the joy of the musical experience, and through your creativity in providing variety in the lesson activities and setting.

Parents need to realize that it is sufficient for the child to love what he is doing, to do well in it, and yet not to compete in that area. Reduction of stress can help free the student to work more productively and to grow and improve for the sake of fulfilling his musical potential.

Q What do you do when the student wants to continue lessons, but the harried mother wants her to quit?

A If the situation is truly that the mother is harried and pressured as a parent and does not have time to help the student with music obligations, perhaps the teacher and student could discuss possible solutions, which the teacher would present to the parent. The teacher could start by asking the student about possibilities for transportation to the lesson. The student could help the teacher learn ways to alleviate some of the situational pressure the parent evidently is feeling from having the child in music study. The goal is for the situation to be a win-win one for both parent and child. The conversation might include statements such as some of the following from the teacher. "Your mother (or father) has said that she is having a difficult time getting you to and from lessons, and is unable, with her schedule, to hear you in recital performances. Can you help me with some ideas so that you and I can continue with our lessons and your progress?" "I wonder if you have a grandparent, an aunt or a close friend who follows your music progress or who is interested in your piano playing?" "Who is your closest adult musical friend, other than me?"

Solutions might involve double lessons every two weeks, finding another individual to help take the child to the lessons such as a family member, a high school music student, a church colleague or a local MTNA Collegiate Chapter individual. With an easy give and take, the teacher can learn the true source of the parent's hassled life and help find a solution based on what the student can reveal. No solution will seem perfect, but usually one can be found with compromise. The goal is to keep the student in music study.

With all the method books available today for beginners, how do you choose the right one?

A Think about this: if you were teaching mathematics or another academic subject to a third grade student, you would not merely move from page to page, allowing the student to work the examples and read the instructions in the book without stimulus and active instruction from you. You would develop your own mode of teaching and presenting concepts so that the instruction is alive and meaningful to the student. You would have your own visual examples, in addition to those in the textbook, to illustrate various points. You may even have your own sets of practice activities, cards and drills that augment workbook activities. You would have honed in great depth your teaching skills and use the texts as an adjunct, an aid.

Many believe that it is the teacher that matters even more than the materials. That said, the materials make the teacher's job easier. Naturally, one first selects an age-appropriate beginning method, meaning that most average-age beginner methods will be best for students ages 6-8 or 9 years; in the same way, adult beginner methods may work with students in high school and older, and so on.

Many teachers are not tied to one method but will routinely teach two or three methods with different students, depending on the individual. These teachers frequently try out new methods as they come on the market to see how they fit into their style and the child's progress rate. Other teachers prefer to adhere to one method only, and individualize it according to the student. Some teachers use two methods simultaneously, to provide materials to review contrasting concepts presented in the two different methods--such as a gradual multi-key method and a landmark reading approach.

The presence of rote pieces from the beginning is important because the student will want to make music quickly at the beginning, at a pace that may exceed his reading ability. If well-constructed rote pieces are not present, that does not eliminate the method in my consideration--but I would want to have my own group of repertoire of rote pieces to teach the student in the beginning weeks to emphasize keyboard topography, technique and to allow the exhilaration of music making right from the start.

How much emphasis is found on developing strong technique? For my teaching, it is important that the first pieces begin with large motions--generally forearm motions in the playing. Full reinforcement of these large motions is essential in the coming weeks. I prefer early-level music that uses the full range of the keyboard and/or music that presents teacher's accompaniments that can provide rhythmic surety and full sound.

The quality of the music is at the heart of any piano method. How innately musical are the pieces? Is the music interesting, harmonically rich, rewarding and kinesthetically sound for the hand? Does the music sell the student and inspire him to want to play more? Is there a variety of styles presented in the later levels of the method to be studied?

I also look at pacing and for continual reinforcement of concepts in the pieces that follow. Is ample opportunity provided for the student to truly master the concept without moving too quickly, and yet does the music progress evenly and smoothly? What opportunities exist for playing in different positions and ranges on the keyboard? Does this new method progress too slowly for your teaching style and philosophy?

Don't hesitate to assign continual review of past pieces in the method, so that even while new pieces are introduced, the student has a full practice assignment at home. This allows for all pieces to be learned up to tempo and played with strong character and phrasing.

Q How do you handle a transfer student who, after two years of lessons with their former teacher, still ignores the fingering in the score, resulting in inaccurate and hesitant performance?

A Some questions come to mind. Is the student learning and performing all pieces in the assignments up to tempo, with musical phrasing and with strong characterization? Doing so helps instill patterns in the hand, and makes it so that the student is consistent with a fingering; this develops a kinesthetic feeling for patterns, including chords, scales and arpeggios.

Does the student practice consistently at home between lessons? The initial question in this section leads me to believe that the student does not demonstrate consistent practice habits that are methodic and involve looking for patterns and at the structural picture.

Does the teacher help the student with possible fingering issues, before she takes the piece home, by discussing fingering for a problematic passage and/or by writing in additional fingerings that might help the student sustain a good fingering throughout an entire passage?

And finally, does the student practice five-finger patterns, scales, chords and other technical patterns as part of the assignment and separate from the repertoire, since these not only help build fluency in technique, but also establish fingering patterns that reappear in the repertoire?

Consistent technique practice helps establish strong practice habits and attention to detail. If the teacher is working proactively with the student on fingering, pattern and technical issues in the repertoire regularly, and if the student grasps the issues in the lesson but avoids them during the week's practice then the student is not fulfilling her part of the contract and terms of study. She is not producing effective practice results that would help her progress in a smooth and systematic way. Perhaps then, the time has come for the teacher and student to re-evaluate the value of the study. But first, investigate the extent to which all of the points above are actively addressed in the lessons.

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, Att: Polyphony; 441 Vine St., Ste. 3100, Cincinnati, OH 45202-3004; fax (513) 421-2503, or e-mail to

Jane Magrath, NET, M, 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
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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