As adults, we have it easy. We have mastered our craft. Of course we are always learning new things, but we rarely encounter the struggles of our beginning students. That stage of our music learning was decades ago. By now, we probably have fond memories of our first lessons and how much we loved our first teachers, but the memory of really starting from scratch is far removed. Learning a new skill, especially a foreign language, can offer a much-needed reminder of how it feels to be a beginner.
To truly empathize with our students, we have to really understand their struggles and their frustrations: how challenging it is to learn a dozen new symbols and terms each week, to control your fingers with super-human precision, to do everything simultaneously (while your teacher uses words that you still don’t fully understand), to understand that notes moving vertically on a page represent horizontal motion with your hands, and to remember that this “steady beat” your teacher keeps referencing is apparently not optional. In addition to so much complex activity, we expect our students to also remember that their real goal is to try to communicate something. Talk about overwhelming!
About 18 months ago, I started learning German. My husband and I had decided to continue our studies in Germany, and we wanted to make our move as soon as possible. Suddenly every spare moment was devoted to learning a foreign language faster than sane person really considers reasonable. This frantic learning pace gave me invaluable reminders about what it means to be a complete beginner, and how I can use these lessons to improve my teaching.
- Balanced Challenges
Before: A core part of my teaching philosophy is offering my students challenges. Many times I have given students pieces that are just out of reach. They are not 100% prepared for everything within the piece, but the process of stretching beyond their comfort zone in order to play music they adore offers incredibly satisfying performances on recital day.
Lesson: Learning a foreign language in just one year, particularly one with complicated grammar rules such as German, is a bit insane. There is such a thing as acquiring too much information too quickly. In the end you learn the information, but without the confidence you would have acquired with a more balanced learning path. I can read and understand essentially every German text I encounter, but I struggle to apply my knowledge when I speak because everything is still so new and uncertain.
Application: I still firmly believe that students need to receive challenging pieces that push them just beyond their comfort zone, but I have tempered my approach. Rather than allowing a student to sink or swim in a piece that is too far above their head, I give students sections of challenging pieces that we work through gradually together. After working through a few sections together and increasing a student’s confidence with the new material, I then assign a small section for the student to work through alone. This helps develop independent learning and confidence further, without overwhelming students and producing nasty side-effects.
2. Walk before you run
Before: In my desire to challenge students, I often underestimated the value of making things easy. Too much of a challenge is disheartening and can hinder long-term performance psychology. Although in the back of my mind I knew this, I was so distracted by pushing students forward that I lost sight of the concept.
Lesson: Through my German-learning process, I was always 1-3 steps ahead of where I should have been. As a result, I was continually frustrated, and it was virtually impossible to gauge if I was making progress or not. It certainly never felt like I was making progress, because everything was always so terribly difficult. I was continually bombarded with too many new vocabulary words and grammar concepts. Mastery seemed inconceivable, and I always lacked the confidence to begin a conversation.
Application: In psychology, there is a term called a “flow-state”. When we experience the right balance of accomplishment and challenge, the learning process flows like water: it is easy, natural, and happens without too much resistance from any direction. When there is too little challenge, we experience no mental stimulation and feel as though we are stagnating. When there is too much challenging material, we feel we are drowning in new information with no way to stay afloat.
As teachers, it is vital for us to experience and understand each of these states. We need to know what it feels like to be under-, over-, and properly stimulated in order to accurately diagnose a student’s experiences and, most importantly, adjust the material we are presenting in order to optimize a student’s progress.
3. Organized Learning
Before: It was always my intention to carefully construct my students’ learning process. In the course of assigning pieces and preparing for recitals, my orderly learning plan usually got derailed sometime mid-semester.
Lesson: Learning German while living in Texas was no easy task. I had given my studies a jump-start by taking a three-week course in Berlin, but once I completed the textbook from that course and the textbook used in the German classes at a neighboring university, my studies lost focus. Without resources containing well-organized grammar and vocabulary lessons, I failed to achieve a universal understanding of the language. Instead, I developed the ability to work my way through texts, but every new reading or listening sample was a struggle.
Application: Using a variety of well-organized, complementary resources is essential to the learning process. It is not necessary to use the same resources with every student (in fact, I am a strong advocate for individualizing material choices for each student). However, it is vital to have a clear plan of which resources you are going to use, how you are going to use them, and how (and when) you are going to present new concepts. Andrea and Trevor Dow at Teach Piano Today have a great post on how to easily organize your teaching/material plans for an entire school-year. (And if you want more suggestions for lesson planning in general, this article is also immensely helpful.) Have a plan, or plan to fail.
4. Tracking Progress
Before: It is easy to lose sight of how students feel as they are learning to play the piano. How does it feel to want to play a piece perfectly, but you are still struggling after months of practice?
Lesson: Learning an instrument is richly rewarding, just like learning a language. But also like learning an instrument, learning a language is an unwieldly, overwhelming process. I studied for months and couldn’t objectively tell if I had made progress. I finally felt I was making progress, just to write an essay in German, and receive it back from my teacher completely covered with errors. This experience was very disheartening before I found ways to track my progress.
Application: Nobody wants to feel they are wasting their time. No matter how interested and motivated our students are, they will lose their desire to work if they feel they are spinning their wheels. It is very difficult for students to gauge this independently, especially the very young students. As teachers, we know exactly which steps they need to take in order to make progress and achieve mastery. We can help our students track their progress with achievement charts, periodic feedback, keeping lists of memorized pieces and performances, or setting a list of goals and checking off each one that is accomplished. Spring Seals and Whitney Hawker of 4D Piano Teaching have wonderfully designed memorized pieces and goal setting printables on their website that are a huge help with this.
5. Theory = Grammar, and neither one is optional
Before: For many years, I have valued the importance of using music theory as a crucial element within music lessons, but always struggled to implement the information in a coherent way.
Lesson: After studying German alone with limited resources for 10 months, I was in for quite a shock when I returned to formal studies in Germany. I thought I had a reasonable understanding of German grammar, but in reality I had missed many steps along the way. It was quite defeating trying to compensate for a lacking vocabulary and limited grammatical understanding. I was able to do it, but with much more struggle than necessary.
Application: Asking our piano students to learn Beethoven Sonatas (or even Sonatinas) without the proper theoretical background is much like asking them to write a scientific paper in German without understanding the grammar. When students know the words (notes), but the grammar (theory) is completely indecipherable, they have no way to understand how the words in a sentence (notes in a phrase) relate to one another. And then to go a step further and speak (perform) without the words (notes) in hand? No one would want to be in that situation!
As students advance to more difficult pieces, having a proper understanding of theory is vital to their success. There is no question that they can learn the pieces this way, but it will take them much longer, and their confidence in the final result will not be as secure. I am continually looking for theory resources that work effectively in lessons, but one that I have enjoyed recently is Eik Mar’s Fun and Learn Music. The page offers hundreds of free downloadable theory sheets, including seasonal pages that are fun for everyone.
6. Dealing with Fear
Before: We all know how it feels to be uncertain from time to time, but it is particularly terrifying when everything is brand new. How can we help our students, particularly beginners, deal with this?
Lesson: I hate (HATE!) making mistakes. I hate not understanding everything that is happening around me. Naturally, moving to a foreign country where a foreign language is spoken challenged these mentalities, and prompted a fair amount of anxiety. But I survived. Not only did I survive, I learned that it is ok to feel uncomfortable, and that going through this process helped grow in ways that my fears had previously limited.
Application: We can help our students grow, not only as musicians, but also as people, when we allow them “safe” ways to step out of their comfort zone. Sometimes it is learning that piece they think is too difficult. Sometimes it is having a student perform on a recital or studio class when you know they deal with some degree of performance anxiety. Sometimes it is as simple as letting students know it doesn’t matter if they made a mistake in a lesson. One of my favorite resources for music psychology is Dr. Noa Kageyama’s blog, The Bulletproof Musician. Be sure to read his article about how mistakes can help accelerate learning.
7. Understanding not understanding
Before: It can be frustrating to understand why someone doesn’t understand something. (Everyone who has attempted helping a member of an older generation operate technology, I’m looking at you!) After seeing something a certain way for such a long time, it can be hard to understand how someone else can’t see it exactly the way you do.
Lesson: Starting my university studies in German is the hardest, most frustrating thing I have ever done. Never before had I attended a lecture and only understood half of what was happening. And then once I reviewed at home and understood everything, I still struggled to convey what I had learned in my own words.
Application: We learn best when we experience things for ourselves. Having such a personal struggle with learning has indelibly altered my teaching perspective. I have improved my ability to ask questions that lead students to answers, instead of just, “Does that make sense?” (Hint: Whether it makes sense or not, the student’s answer is always) It is not just a matter of empathy or understanding. By really struggling to learn something, I also learned how to make it through the struggle to a successful learning experience and how to help my students go through the same process.
So do you have to learn German? No, but do try learning something that challenges you in new ways. Languages offer many parallels to music learning, and the process is richly rewarding, but if you have had the burning desire to start a new hobby, you will certainly not regret giving it a try. Bonus points if you journal your experiences and the applications you find for your teaching. Whatever you choose, your teaching and your approach to learning will be changed forever. Please share your experiences in the comment section below!