Piano Lesson Format 1: Practice Review
After the first few lessons are out of the way, I try to have a similar format for each one. In my view the best piano lessons are the ones where I achieve all five aspects of my piano lesson plan: a practice review, scales, current piece, new/old piece and finally a quick reminder.
I start my ideal piano lesson with some kind of ‘chatty’ question (such as: “did you have a good weekend?” or something following on from a subject brought up the previous week). Then, I’m likely to ask: “How’s the practising going?” I always encourage children to be truthful when they answer this, so if they say: “I haven’t managed to do much/any this week” I make a point of commending them on their honesty. However, I’d feel I’d failed in my duty if I didn’t try to encourage better practice habits and I endeavour to achieve this without shouting or nagging – both of which could easily put them off for life.
Usually I’ll ask them to name something they do every day (e.g. getting dressed, turning on the television etc.) and discuss if it would be possible to use this as a trigger for remembering their piano practice. One child, for example, told me he always eats a packet of crisps when he arrives home from school, so I suggested that he associates that packet of crisps with his piano practice and goes straight to the piano when he’s finished eating them (ideally after a quick hand-wash). I then add that if he doesn’t eat his packet of crisps one day and this causes him to forget, he should consider something else as a more reliable trigger. Of course, just saying this once isn’t enough: you have to keep tabs on what’s actually happening and ask every week or so: “how’s the practising after crisps working out?”
Even with adults, it’s important to discuss practice routines. Obviously, you have to be careful not to patronise or start telling people how to organise their daily lives but sometimes by talking they become aware that they need to take some time for themselves and occasionally put their families and other responsibilities aside for a short time.
Straight After the Lesson
One of the most important things about piano practice is that it should be done as soon as possible after the lesson – before the pupil has time to forget what he has learned and therefore lose confidence. Of course, many pupils fail to do this – no matter how much the teacher recommends it: they obviously feel that – having just had a lesson – they deserve the rest of the day ‘off’. If so, I hope they will at least practise the very next day – rather than leaving it until just before the following lesson, which is never going to be very successful and can also make the pupil feel anxious (I’m speaking from my own experience here).
It’s often easy to tell when a pupil has practised as soon as he arrives for his lesson: the ones who have worked hard exude enthusiasm; they can’t wait to tell and show what they’ve achieved, whereas the ones who haven’t are often subdued and uncommunicative. In some cases when I say: “Open your book at the piece we’re on”, the pupil really hasn’t a clue which piece this is and has obviously not even bothered to read what I’ve written in his notebook all week. Much as I find this extremely frustrating, I feel there is little is to be gained by nagging or shouting; instead I will always persevere with finding a solution.
Some pupils find a practice timetable helps. The idea is that the pupil ticks underneath the day each time he has practised (I would consider 10 minutes to be a ‘proper’ practice in the early stages but if for some reason he decides to do 20 minutes he can put two ticks).
If I feel it’s appropriate, I will also show the timetable to the pupil’s parent. (In some cases, where there is strong parental involvement, it’s actually one of the parents who fills in the timetable). The following week I’ll make a point of checking the timetable – maybe discussing whether or not it’s working – and award a sticker if I feel it’s deserved.
I always stock up with a variety of stickers and have a different selection available to my young pupils each week. Some like my Doctor Who stickers, some prefer the animal ones and others choose ones which say: “You did it!” or “What a star!” The stickers can be earned for various things including a ‘good practice week’ or successfully correcting a tricky rhythm in a specific bar of music.
The stickers idea was given to me by my own piano teacher (who I went to in adulthood): she teaches in a primary school and was therefore aware of its value. I couldn’t believe that – in these days of computers and hi-tech – youngsters would still find little colourful stickers so appealing … but they do. Some prefer to stick them on their clothing but the majority put them in their notebooks alongside my comments on the work which has earned this reward.
They then delight in showing their parents that they have done well enough for a sticker. (There is even greater excitement at Christmas time when I bring out my very special sparkly Christmas stickers … even I get excited about those!)
Of course it’s difficult to know at what age to stop the stickers as you don’t want to embarrass or patronise the older ones. When stickers start to receive a less enthusiastic reception, I tend to stop giving them. Occasionally I may say: “That should really merit a sticker but I assume you’re too old for stickers now aren’t you?” and gauge their reaction. (To be honest, I teach plenty of teenagers who are still more than happy to receive them: I suppose if nothing else, taking time to choose a sticker breaks up the lesson a bit).
Aim for Perfection
Apart from the fact that practice should be a regular or habitual occurrence, the other important thing about it (in ideal world at least) is it should be ‘perfect’. Of course, in the real world this doesn’t happen – piano practice is generally a series of scales with misplaced fingers and wrong notes or pieces with inconsistent rhythms or absent dynamics. However, the aim must be perfection. I’m sure I’ve stolen this from someone else, but it’s worth saying anyway: “It’s not practice that makes perfect: it’s perfect practice that makes perfect.”
One of the main ways to achieve this is to take everything very slowly to start with. Unfortunately, the vast majority of my pupils have a problem with the word ‘slowly’. They play something, make a mistake, I say: “Try again but more slowly this time” and they repeat it at exactly the same speed (and generally with exactly the same mistake).
I then try to explain (possibly by demonstrating) that the only way to play something more slowly is to start off with a big time gap between the first two notes. Usually once this ‘gap’ has been established, the rest of the scale, or piece, will continue at a more steady pace.
I tell my pupil that by starting a new piece or scale at an incredibly slow speed he should – in theory at least – be able to play it without a single mistake because he’ll be allowing himself sufficient thinking time. If, however, he chooses to ignore this advice, he’s far more likely to make a mistake. That’s bad enough but what’s far worse is if he makes the same mistake the second time he plays it because by doing this he’s actually ‘practising in’ a mistake. (I sometimes refer to this as ‘negative practising’).
Three Rights for Every Wrong
What most pupils fail to realise is that practising incorrectly has as much impact as practising correctly. So, if a pupil has practised with the same mistake every day for a whole week he will be fairly proficient at playing it badly. So, the following week, he needs to practise it correctly more times than he had done incorrectly in the previous one – ideally at least twice as many – to have any positive effect. With scales, I am even stricter about this and will often make a pupil play a scale ‘three times right for every one time wrong’.
Of course, when a pupil tells you he’s done lots of practice, it’s very difficult to make him see that he’s completely wasted his time and actually done more harm than good. All you can do really is reiterate: ‘Spend a long time thinking about it before you start, then play very slowly, thinking carefully between each note.”
Sometimes the mistakes made are not in failing to hit the correct key, but in failing to read the note correctly in the first place. In some cases, there has actually been no attempt to read the note at all and the pupil has just made a guess at it – or allowed his finger to randomly press another key. When I suspect this is happening, I stop him and say: “point to that note you’re playing on the score”. Of course, if he’s just guessed, he usually has to admit that the note he’s playing isn’t actually there at all. Alternatively, he may point to a note which differs from the one he’s playing and I’ll help him to understand why he’s reading the music incorrectly.
Never Say Always
With both scales and pieces, I advise my pupil to be aware of frequent mistakes but to avoid saying either to me or to himself: “I always play a wrong note/use a wrong finger there”. Instead, he should say: “Oh no – I played a wrong note – OK, I’m never doing that again!”
Also, I discourage my pupil from actually showing me what he does wrong. There’s no point in him saying: “Look, I keep playing EFG here instead of EFF” because by demonstrating the mistake he is actually giving it yet another chance to become deep-rooted in his memory.
If reading from a score, he should circle the ‘problem’ note and – to make doubly sure – write himself a little message at the top of the page (such as: “NB. Bar 5 play G not F!”) Then he should get into the habit of reading such messages before starting to play – rather than realising the mistake after he’s done it which is, again, ‘practising in a mistake’.
What is it they say? – once is a mistake, twice is a habit … three times is unforgiveable! (There are many variations on this saying, but I think you’ll get the gist).