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The Transfer Student

Seeing our Students as Collections of Strengths

· Practical Pedagogy

Magic can often happen with transfer students. Here's a brief video of a zippy student I had the opportunity to work with for two years, playing and singing Haven't Met You Yet. There was a time in the beginning part of my career when I thought transfer students were products of slightly-less-than-stellar teachers. I realize now that I was too quick to judge, and simply because a teacher didn't lay the foundation in the way that I would have, does not make him/her less valuable.

We've all been there. A child that has had five years of lessons and he/she is barely able to read, doesn't have much technical facility and struggles with a steady beat. I have one student that I have had for many, many years; he is only at a 2Bish reading level and does not have any theory or technique as part of his assignment. With this student, we play 90% popular music, and the other 10% is Christmas music. This particular student practices but not well (he plays, and repeats) and yet he shows up every week with a smile on his face. His parents always make sure he does what I ask. If I were being judged by this one student, I'm pretty sure you'd think I could barely play the piano and had no idea what I was doing. The thing is though, he has learning challenges, tracking challenges in reading, no interest in the classical genres and is highly skilled and interested in sports. I see my most important task as making music come to life and making it meaningful/relevant to him and his family. First I teach the student, then the music, THEN the piano.

Teachers have different backgrounds, priorities and experience levels. It's important to be kind in our thoughts toward them and quickly develop a plan of action forward for the transfer student that has these three priorities leading the way:

  1. Feelings. Making the student (and parents) feel good about what they know, in particular if they liked their previous teacher. Don't emphasize what they don't know. What good does that do? 
  2. Values. Do you have a questionnaire for transfer students about their likes/dislikes, favorite pieces or musical experiences and if they have requests? How will you incorporate their values and what was working well, into your new roadmap for their musical journey? 
  3. Direction. What can you do on a weekly basis, that would be most meaningful to this new student that propels them forward with joy and excitement? 

For ease, let's look at a roadmap for transfer students by level; beginner, late beginner, early intermediate, intermediate and advanced. The first 6-8 weeks will be a time where you really learn how their brains, family priorities and their individual style shine. This period of time is important to not push too much, just enough, and really listen and learn about your student. Make their priorities more important than your own.

Beginner

This is the time to focus on what the student knows and is good at. Keep the interest level engaging and ensure a solid reading foundation. I am in love with The Music Tree, so any beginner transfer students I have had, I always transition over to this series for the sheer reading brilliance than comes along with this method. These are reading pieces, not performance pieces. You need to supplement with a minimum of one other book at all times. Of course if your student is older, don't use this...use something like Hal Leonard for Adults (equally fantastic.)

  • Make sure they are in a good core book that teaches intervallic reading, and reinforce notes with an app like Flash Note Derby. Be sure NOT to overwhelm, and ONLY focus on the notes being used in the lesson for that week.
  • Choose two pieces to have on their assignment sheet that are more fun. I recommend something popular that they like, as well as something in the familiar classical genre. Faber has great options for supplemental music here, or Piano Pronto.The key here is keeping interest up and not too difficult. They should be able to learn all of their pieces in less than 2-3 weeks per piece, with 3-4 pieces on their assignment sheet, rotating new ones in as you see fit. 
  • Review the new processes you have, such as assignment binders, assignment sheets and a practice chart and make sure you follow them in the same way, every week for the first few months so that they are able to see your consistent expectations.

Late Beginner

This is a time when above all else, ensure reading ability and technical facility are solidly developing.

  • Keep the core book, and reinforce note-reading by having those familiar pieces ready at all times.
  • In The Music Tree, the warm-ups are phenomenal. If you aren't using The Music Tree, consider simple 5-finger pattern warm-ups. 
  • If the student is challenged notationally, make sure you are using some good pattern pieces that you can teach by ear such as Elvina Pearce's Solo Flight, or some easy popular tunes that you might find in the Hal Leonard First 50 Popular Songs book. There are plenty of options here!
  • Keep reviewing the new processes you have to ensure your student understands what you expect consistently.
Early Intermediate
This is when music starts to really open up and become enjoyable. A challenge you might run into is that the foundation is a little shaky. A student may not have steady rhythm, or understand how music works. It's IMPERATIVE you not make the student feel like he/she is moving backward.
  • These students still need a core book and you should be reinforcing whatever their weakest skills are, on a weekly basis, so they are no longer considered a weakness.
  • Choose a few 'easy' reading but patterned pieces such as Night Train by Chris Goldston, or Gillock's Evening Concerto. This is not the time to experiment with what a student 'might' be able to do, nor is it a time to challenge them unless they show incredible talents. 
  • Each week use 2-3 minutes of the lesson to sight read at a level below where you think they are and make sure they are comfortable with these pieces/exercises. For sight-reading, I love the Four Star series. 
  • Students in this level should be working on popular music where they make up the LH part with the given chord symbols. This could be 5ths, 5ths + octave, octaves, or some combination of the two.
  • Students who like to sing should start playing blocked chords in the RH, shells in the LH and sing the melody. Some rhythmic comping can be taught here, but don't over do it. 
  • Process process process! Make sure you have your assignment sheet laid out how you expect them to work going forward. This should include their warm-up, 1-3 pieces in the beginning, building up to 5-6, and a theory assignment that is manageable and achievable in under 10-15 minutes total for the week.
Intermediate
We can and should stay at this level for years!
  • Everything listed above.
  • Each student here should be getting comfortable with popular music reading and now working on improvising with the RH. 
  • Students who like to sing should be encouraged to play chords with inversions in the RH, shells in the LH and sing the melody. 
  • Students should also be encouraged to explore outside of only notated music. Think chord charts, arranging, composing and playing in an ensemble. 
  • Here's a fun video featuring a transfer student who had a VERY traditional background (very strong teacher) but came to us because he wanted something more. This is an arrangement of Neighborhood Theme that he came up with from a chord chart. 

Late Intermediate/Early Advanced

This is really when we can tell what the student knows by how creative he/she has become. This usually indicates the variety (or lack of) in musical experiences.

  • My best advice here is refer to The Royal Conservatory series for some wonderfully graded repertoire and technical suggestions for scales and patterns. Choose a classical piece and choose a romantic or contemporary piece to begin with. Again, Four Star sight-reading is your friend.
  • Build on the Intermediate Level suggestions above to ensure interest and investment from the student. 
  • Here are two video examples featuring transfer students who had shaky foundations. The first is a duet of Take Me To Church and the second is a little Improv with C Jam Blues. All students here were in the 7th or 8th grade at the time of their recording, and each student had reached an intermediate level with significant foundational gaps with no improvising or off-the-page activities prior to their studies at CMM. Pretty remarkable, isn't it when we see our students as collections of strengths, and not weaknesses. 
  • Here's another video example of a transfer student who came to me after she had learned a lot of really bad technique, but her love of music sure was strong! This was after about 3 years of study with me, and she had the opportunity to make one of her favorite songs come to life, Bohemian Rhapsody. We bought the music on MusicNotes.com and arranged it ourselves, then I had to write the hardest chord chart I've ever had to write. Sheesh! That was a good growing experience for me.

Summary: View your transfer students as they are: a collection of strengths. Enhance their innate abilities and help them be their best selves by guiding them in the best way you know how. Student first, music second, and piano third.

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