Depending where you teach in the world, your teaching focus in the middle and high school classrooms is generally on delivering externally-moderated academic music curriculums or leading award-wining instrumental / choral programmes. So how do we help our talented piano students excel in the classroom and find their rightful place?
It is easy to make presumptions about what our piano students can and can’t do. One of the first mistakes is presuming what their ability level is based on the amount of time they have been learning or what graded exam level they are playing at in their private music lessons. I have had students who have performed technically challenging classical repertoire to a high standard in front of their class, only to discover that they can not read simple beginner music. One student was playing a Chopin piece that they were learning by rote from their piano teacher but sadly had many missing fundamentals. This incredibly talented boy wanted to play in the school bands but struggled with playing simple music because he had only learnt by rote. Once I had this understanding it was easier for me to help him fill the gaps of missing knowledge so he could be involved and successful.
Another challenge is presuming that your piano students in the classroom can play complicated pieces because they have got to a certain grade or book. It is often the case that piano students who work on the ABRSM exam courses spend a whole year learning the three exam pieces, especially as the sight-reading, aural exam and scales can take such a long time to master. In that year the student might only play the three pieces so their progress in other areas of piano playing and musicianship could be slower than what you expect. I had a student who was taking her grade V ABRSM piano exam with her piano teacher, but in the general classroom she struggled to play simple piano pieces or apply any of her musical skills to simple composing tasks, even when working in groups. In fact, she was often the weakest member of her group, yet on paper should have been the most capable. This was something that her parents struggled to understand and always questioned during marking periods.
So how can we really help our talented piano students in our classroom succeed?
1. If you do any class performance work or keyboard skills then encourage your piano students to bring into class the music that they are learning in individual lessons. It is a great opportunity for you to assess their level and see what materials they are learning and how quickly they are making progress. If the student has been learning the same piece for 5 or 6 weeks it gives you an indication of what challenges they are having. By giving your students a chance to bring music to class it means that they are playing music appropriate to their level rather than playing beginner keyboard music. It also gives our busy piano students an opportunity to find an additional practice time within their busy week. We all know that our music students are generally those committed to other school activities – sports, debate, student council, etc. So they will be grateful of some time to practice the piano and for their individual music lessons.
2. Encourage piano students to demonstrate what they are learning to the class or if you need a concept showing to the class ask for the assistance of your piano students. Our gifted piano students will benefit from the opportunity to perform to their peers and their peers will hopefully be inspired to practice or even start an instrument.
3. If you do a lot of group composing tasks in your middle school general music classes like I do then you will want your piano students to use their skills within the topic in the same way you would encourage your woodwind or brass students to use their instruments too. It means that the piano student has the opportunity to experiment, improvise and compose using their instrument which is a great development tool in their musical progression. One thing to watch is that the piano student will want to get it right which means that they may take a long time to come up with ideas, want to notate it and edit the work for ages. In group tasks this can slow the progress of the group and might mean the work doesn’t get completed in the limited classroom time we have for these projects. It is something to monitor when you are assessing the progress being made in rehearsal time.
4. Encourage your piano students to be involved in extra-curricular. If I am truly honest, I’m totally guilty of encourage my piano students to get involved in choir, take up a second instrument or even play percussion parts in the band. Although this is a great way of stretching our students, it doesn’t really help your students develop their piano playing. I have in the past set up keyboard clubs and tried to encourage students to play duets, etc. with varying success. However, in truth, the most successful times are when I have written and tailored a part specifically to the individual student. I have had students wanting to be in jazz band. Those piano parts are, on the whole, so incredibly difficult and definitely for an advanced player. Rather than exclude the keen intermediate player who just wants to be in the band to play jazz and be with his friends, I have simplified it. It takes time but it is worth it because you can help that student make quicker progress and develop their ensemble skills.
5. Accompanying a group. Another success story I had was having some of my IB music piano students accompany the choir. They were given one piece at a time to practice and lead, which was a great challenge for them and allowed me to get away from teaching the music from the piano and being able to get in front of the choir to conduct. What it taught my IB students was that they couldn’t go back and fix a mistake, to listen, to keep the tempo consistent, to understand where they needed to help the choir feel supported and to play with more expression. The students who did this became much stronger solo performers and musicians from this experience and loved the opportunity to accompany the choir. It was also so lovely to see the respect and love from the choir members for the IB piano students. In fact it created a true student team.
6. Piano solo events. One of the hardest challenges in the big formal concerts is finding enough spaces for all the soloists who want to perform. You need to give the GCSE and IB students a chance to perform solos so they get experience and recordings for their exam coursework. You often have a totally gifted student who needs to be stretched and heard that you can’t not include them, and don’t forget that probably applies for a wide range of instrumentalists and singers in your programme, not just the pianists.
So why not include a piano solo informal evening. Put it on straight after school or early evening, make it informal, have some simple refreshments (this could even be done by a group in your school trying to raise money for an event) and invite the parents and family members of your piano students. In truth, these informal evenings are some of my favourite concerts to host. Limited amount of set up, no crazy stage management logistics, super supportive parents and a chance for your students to play and feel success. It really doesn’t matter if they are playing a 30 second version of Twinkle Little Star or a 2 minute graded piece – they get a chance to perform and their parents get to hear their child. It really is a joyous event and does wonders for marketing the value of music. Parents see what their child has learnt and is more likely to continue to support the cost of lessons for the following academic year after these events. We offered individual music lessons in school and once we started introducing these events our annual student retention increased. I would always recommend you invite the instrumental teachers to attend and make sure you introduce them to the audience / parents. Many times, the parents only communication with the instrumental teacher is via email so this is a great way to build connections.
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