Making Transitions Smooth and Enjoyable
We've all been there. Confused, excited, thankful and frustrated. On the one hand, we're fortunate enough to work with a new student who has had a teacher (or teachers) before. You see the potential in the student, you see that they love making music, but more or less you're not really sure where to even start because while you are grateful for the new learner in your presence, you have a lot of things that you want to "fix" but still keep their interest up and not quite sure where to begin.
I've recently had quite a few transfer students. As the owner of the Centre for Musical Minds, when a long-term faculty member departs, or special circumstances arise, I take on the role of stabilizer. 2019 was a huge transition year for us at CMM and i've been stabilizing more than I would really like, but simultaneously I am SO thankful because we have a lot of amazing students! Really cool young people and wonderful young artists that really care about making beautiful music, with phenomenal support systems. With transfer students, you have to pick what's most important. It's important to prioritize their love and increase their level of interest, over technical prowess or rhythmic perfection. Basically, my best advice is to get comfortable with letting some things go while you train your student how to approach the instrument with a new way of thinking and style. That said, here is my best advice to keep transfer students moving forward with joy.
- "In the beginning, there was rhythm." This doesn't mean we have to count everything verbatim, but it does mean that my goal is to get this student to make sure they are playing steadily, with the correct number of beats in each measure. If the transfer student is of middle or high school age, it's IMPERATIVE they not feel 'stupid' because they aren't able to do things we are asking. So, play short phrases, or sections, or a few measures at a time and get your student hearing what you're asking of him/her. Include recordings of sections in their assignment (we use Tonara) so they can hear what you are asking them to do at any given point in the week. Then, once they can play it correctly, you can go back and show them how the beats line up and let the rest go. The goal isn't perfection, it's understanding little by little. Be sure not to beat the concept to death on each piece. Rather, incorporate these things slowly so that rhythm simply becomes a part of the process of learning. For little kids, get them off the bench, moving from side to side, marching in place, clapping/tapping, whatever you need to do to get them to "feel" the beats before they play them.
- Technique is important, but it's not the most important. One of the elements I find challenging in working with high-level classical pianists is that they prioritize classical technique over enjoyment. Yes, technique is important, but it's not THE most important aspect to focus on. Elementary students in particular need to keep learning new music, and middle and high school students need to feel like they are moving forward and improving. Aim to get big motions first, and then the little things can fall into place. I always assume the student will be with me for years, so the big aspects I focus on are loose wrists, arms about a fist-distance away from the side body, relaxed shoulders and wrists above the white keys. Time on technical aspects should not be more than 5 minutes or so worth of work at any given lesson for elementary kids. I know...it's hard to let go, but it's necessary to keep students moving forward. For middle and high school students, I choose repertoire very carefully and focus really on the same things. Adding scales in there is also great, but don't start with something like Bb...start with B major or a C formula scale so it's easy for them to feel good about what they're doing. For elementary students, 5-finger patterns with "walking fingers" and falling into the keys seems to work best.
- 80% of the teacher's job is choosing the right music at the right time. Pieces/repertoire is the most important aspect of teaching! This means that most children while they may enjoy learning and feeling like they are good at piano, they also have to enjoy the sounds they are creating. Most method books focus too heavily on classical and folk melodies that the kids don't quite recognize. The point is to make connections with your student to the music. If they aren't connected to the music, they likely won't be connected to the process of learning how to play. If you have high-achievers, that might be fine because they care more about achieving than they do having fun. However, for the majority of students, the enjoyment and decision of whether to stay with it or quit, lies mostly in the music. It's important to find music that the student likes, that's patterned and allows for the student to feel like they are doing something REALLY good. This may mean incorporating some 'ear' pieces that you teach more by rote alongside something that's popular and familiar. I default to popular music, or music that they know. MusicNotes is a fantastic resource! Whatever you do, don't rely on a method book to provide all of the music.
- Playing hands together. I get the reason why we don't use hands together in the method books, (technical reasons mostly) however, I think it's backward thinking. Using both hands at the same time just sounds better! I use lead sheets ALL the time to get the LH playing single notes along with the melody. The kids feel like they're really good, it sounds WAY better than single notes and it gets them tracking better right away. If they are a little more advanced, then have them play 5ths, or 5ths plus octaves. See an example below.
- Tracking Tracking Tracking. I am continually floored at how many students who are intermediate and advanced simply can't read basic music with their hands together. This is not okay! It's not for lack of student ability, it's for lack of teacher having them do this. Hands separate all the time is a crutch and it cripples the learner. The student can play beautifully and can play music that seems quite difficult, but they can't read basic music that's 3 levels below. Students should be able to sight-read through the piece they are working on, slowly, at first sight. They can PRACTICE hands apart at home in certain passages, but if they can't put hands together at the lesson, the music is too hard for them. It's like having a student/child that can win speech competitions through memorization and eloquent speaking, but has to sound out words that you might find in The Cat and the Hat. Not okay!
- Balance. A good assignment will have a mix of reading pieces that can be learned in a week or two, and performance pieces that take 4-6 weeks to learn. For intermediate and advanced students, it's the same thing, except maybe to get the piece to a high level, it may take 8 weeks instead of 4. If it takes a student 4 months to learn a piece, they probably shouldn't be playing it. Likewise with a small technical assignment each week. Scale practice shouldn't be more than a few minutes unless they're preparing for an exam or really enjoy technical work. Those of us with classical backgrounds seem to think we need to be spending a lot of time on that stuff, but the reality is, our students really don't. The goal in teaching is to cultivate lifelong learners and instill a sense of joy. The majority of our students will play for the rest of their lives for fun and fulfillment.
What do you think are the most important aspects of teaching and especially, working with transfer students?