Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Teaching Music Literacy Vs. Teaching Pieces

An 8-year-old student cried at her lesson with me last week, and it broke my heart. It hurt that she was sad enough to cry, but I was hurt and annoyed by the problem that precipitated the tears. Here follows a small rant that is probably a little rambling because I'm frustrated and strapped for time to write. Please indulge me and read it anyway.

The child came to me as a transfer student about a month ago. She is playing in the Faber Piano Adventures, Book 1. She played a decent rendition of Lightly Row, using both hands. Her rhythm was perfect. Her hand position decent. Her sense of line was good - she is very capable of making music. However, when I began to point to notes on the page, I discovered that she could not name a single note in the piece. Not one. At least not within a good 10 seconds per note, which means not knowing it, as far as I'm concerned. As the first lesson continued, I also discovered that she wasn't even very confident about naming the white keys on the piano. Now this kid is plenty bright. She has no learning problems.

At her lesson last week, she was reading through a piece for me and, reaching a point where the hand needed to change position, she played the note under the given finger number, not the actual note on the staff.

"Aha!" I said. "I just learned something about you. Your eyes look at the finger number first instead of looking at the note on the staff first."

She acknowledged a bit sheepishly that this was true.

"You know what, hon? The difficulty you're having with reading music is not your fault."

And the tears came.

Have you ever had someone offer you a bit of sympathy when you weren't expecting it, and you just totally fell apart? I have. Those moments usually involve something we feel extremely sensitive or insecure about. This child has been conditioned from her pre-reading notation days to look first at the finger number to tell her what to play. And the teacher who started her as a beginner did not work hard enough, or maybe at all, to counteract that conditioning once she began staff reading. Also, even though the books teach intervallic reading, this child needed much more reinforcement in that area in the lesson and didn't get it. She may have used flashcards for a while for note names, but whether the method of flashcard practice didn't work or there just wasn't enough of it, or it was simply the wrong learning approach for this child, she did not master her note names. And the teacher did not insist on either note naming or intervallic mastery before moving on through the method. Now, we have a child who is asked to play both hands together on most of the staff but can't read music and thinks that the problems she is having are her fault. She isn't good enough. She's a slow learner. These are the messages she is internalizing. And when a teacher who understands offers her some sympathy, she cries out of relief.

Lack of practicing may have been a factor. But, that means you have a conference with the parent and say, "We simply can't move on to new material without mastery of these concepts. That would be like trying to teach multiplication when she hasn't learned addition facts. I can't get the knowledge to stick in only 45 minutes a week. She'll have to reinforce it regularly at home and show me that she can do it before we move on to something new." If you don't have the stomach to do this, you are just taking somebody's money and leading the child down a deadend road to a place where, even if she tries to practice, she feels incompetent and incapable and will eventually quit.

This child is a victim of two things:  the visual conditioning to look at finger numbers that I've already mentioned, and what I call "turn the page" teaching. In turn the page teaching, the only educational objective is that the child can play a passable rendition of the song on the page, and when she can, the teacher turns the page and starts a new piece. A bright kid with a good ear can use trial and error to eventually figure out at home what to play and fake their way through it. This works about through Level 1, maybe part of Level 2, and then it doesn't work any more. That's when they quit piano.

Teaching piano is not just about turning out pieces like products.  At the early stages of instrumental instruction, pieces of music are tools that we use to teach music literacy. And of course, there are even more aspects of being a musician that we teach, such as improvisation, harmony and theory, technique, etc. But, if we are not teaching basic music literacy in the first two years of piano instruction, we are failing.

If I had to identify the biggest problem in elementary piano teaching today, and the number one reason that students quit (at least in the towns I've lived in), it's that they reach level 2 and still can't read music. 

I'm tired of transfer students crying when I absolve them of being conditioned by past teaching because I've had it happen way too often. We must teach note recognition in time (not just with flashcards), intervallic reading in time (aka sight-reading). We teachers must establish educational objectives for our own studios that support music literacy, not just piece-learning. We must have some kind of criteria by which we measure whether those objectives have been met. We need to have a backup plan for how we will teach mastery of that objective when the method book wasn't sufficient. We need to own our role as teachers and come up with creative solutions, not just serve as tour guides through the method book. And the method books themselves need to do a much better job. How about a small check list on the page that says, "You are ready to move on when you can...?" I have a degree in education. I understand objectives and mastery criteria, but most piano teachers don't have that degree. They look at the page and see a piece of music to play, and they don't see a need to buy a teacher guide since they already know how to play that piece. The method books need to more clearly spell out objectives for both the student and the teacher.

Stay tuned. I'll tell you how I work with, around, and beyond these methods to teach music literacy, because I use those methods, too. But, the truth is that presenting these ideas here is just preaching to the choir. Teachers who read blogs are already supplementing their method books with games, activities, supplemental music, worksheets and all sorts of other things. Many are resorting to methods only sold on the internet rather than the best-selling ones from the music stores because these independent methods are addressing the problems the big name books don't. Therefore, maybe I'm not really writing this for my blog readers but for the publishers. The fact that there are so many blogs being written with ideas for how to supplement their methods is testament to the fact that the methods are not enough.

Rant over. Thank you for reading.

Image credit:  public domain

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