Sunday, February 03, 2008

Change is Good; Questioning Truths Better.

Okay, I have to vent about my new neighbor. Pardon the burp. :-) It does have a point at the end, if you can make it through my sarcasm, LOL.

See, the current methodology and pedagogy practices out there for piano-learning pretty much ... well ... um ... suck. You know, there are MUCH better ways, but they are rarely, rarely taught and it’s taken years of talking to teachers, reaching across to other areas (I get half my ideas from "motivating employees" books, child development books, sports coaching books, child psychology, even sometimes a nugget or two from self-help), and workshops and continually improving my knowledge of teaching to achieve the knowledge I have now.

Ohmigosh, if I knew then what I know now ...

It used to take me two - three years to have a student sight-playing the whole staff fluently(method books will take up to five years), both bass and treble, fluently. Reading music is MUCH simpler than that: my students can read and play the whole staff within a week or two, and achieve fluence by three or five months. Even first graders or kindergarteners or dyslexic students.

What the hard part of teaching piano is, is that WHATEVER "mistakes" you make in the first year, EVERY TIME you ever said to yourself, "let’s just have fun, who cares about getting it right today, he’s just a four year old", will bite you in the ass, week after week, for a DECADE. Worse, it can cripple a student. (I made that mistake seven years ago. Still trying to fix it.) But NOWHERE in the world does a method exist, or the knowledge I hold now, exist. I couldn’t have acquired it without constantly questioning and constantly reaching outside the box. And, sadly, without making mistakes.

It is much better to be strict with high standards that first year and the first few months, so their foundation is rock solid. Then you can have YEARS to show them how much fun music is. (They usually automatically think it’s fun the first year, anyway, so it’s not like it’s a choice.)

In my old martial arts studio, the Master passes a lot of the teaching on to the other teachers, but he ALWAYS spends time with the beginners. Most people assume it’s so they’ll stay and pay. It’s not.

The foundation is everything.

So on to the point of this vent: my new neighbor approached me about her son taking piano lessons with a KEYBOARD. I said, no, I don’t accept students who don’t have a real piano because 1) it’s a DIFFERENT INSTRUMENT with a DIFFERENT TECHNIQUE and 2) it messes up their piano technique so that I have to spend YEARS little more than nagging them to correct it so they’ll be able to achieve the next level. Not fun.

(I then proceeded to tell her how she can buy a cheap piano "risk-free" and return it for a full refund after one year if her kid quits, so it’s not like I was suggesting she break the bank. She didn’t appreciate the information.)

The "weighted" keyboard that the salesman tells you is "just" like a piano? It is not. (And it’s even MORE expensive than a cheap "real" piano!) NO keyboard has an escapement, which the finger needs to learn to navigate even if it doesn’t even know what an escapement is, LOL! A real piano, even a dinky, cheap one, ugly one, is better than a fake piano.

When given the choice between playing on a keyboard six months and then upgrading to a piano, or just waiting six months to start on a real piano, there is no contest. Why waste two years of lessons correcting a problem you created in six months? And is the student going to be able to survive all that nagging? And you’ve just thrown 2 1/2 years of lessons out the window (that can be thousands of dollars!) and achieved what you could have achieved in a couple months if they had had a real piano.

So anyway the neighbor, after explaining this to her as well and as helpfully as I can, gets all huffy and acts like I’M personally denying her kid the JOY OF MUSIC, that playing on a keyboard didn’t matter and SHE KNEW THIS BETTER THAN ME, even though I’ve spent about thirty years accumulating this knowledge of mine for 3 - 14 (mostly 10 or so) HOURS a day?

Then I couldn’t say anything. Then I just stood there nodding dumbly, which is this annoying thing I do when everything I’m thinking gets caught in the That’s-Not-Polite-To-Say-Out-Loud filter.

What I wanted to say was, "Lady, of course. Go find a teacher who will tell you you’re right (because even though you don’t even know how to play piano, you would know about piano technique), just so they can take your money rather than tell you the truth or look after YOUR CHILD’S BEST INTERESTS. Or better yet, find a teacher who doesn’t know better and actually doesn’t know there’s a difference between a real piano and a fake piano.

"They’ll probably be much cheaper, too. So there you go.

"Even better, believe what the salesman told you who’s not a teacher and doesn’t even know how to play the piano, because of course a piano salesman would know more about teaching and piano technique than a person who’s been pursuing the mastery of it for longer than you’ve even been in the career force!"

Whew. That felt better.

People have this prevailing that we should "just teach them the joy of music," and that that is an excuse to give them an INCORRECT, BAD foundation. Because, let me tell you, when they hit third - fifth grade, the only thing that’s going to keep them going is have they have some level of competence and have the reward and satisfaction of some level of mastery.

It is possible to teach someone the joy of any subject without teaching them bad habits or giving them a faulty foundation. It’s ridiculous.

The neighbor hasn’t talked to me since, even though I didn’t say any of that stuff out loud and I truly tried to explain why policy was in place to PROTECT the children and provide the best possible musical education, NOT to deny them the joy of music.


I always find it annoying that people mostly believe what they believe because they want to believe it. And they seek out people who will tell them they’re right.

I do it, too, probably lots more than I’m aware of.

I think I should entertain the idea that I’m wrong much more than I do. I’ve been struggling to put change in my writing, to find techniques and to continually look at my writing and writing-training in new and different ways. It’s how I became known, to my astonishment, as a "progressive" teacher, even though mostly everything I do is borrowed or old-fashioned, LOL. Constantly changing has been one of major keys of success and improvement in my teaching.

Any thoughts? What long-held belief have you recently questioned and honestly tried believe the opposite to be true? What radical change have you made in your writing, just as an experiment?

Of, if you’re not in the mood, LOL, how was your weekend? Anything to vent about?

12 bonus scribbles:

Erica Orloff 2/03/2008 01:08:00 PM  

J.A. Konrath recently posted a meant-to-be-funny (and it was) example of bad writing on his blog, and invited people to write and say what was wrong with it.

Anyway . . . things went back and forth, but I was surprised that a couple of things people said were WRONG, I mean dead wrong about writing, I think are a big so what. I think are about the execution. Like starting with a line of dialogue. I think it's radical to embrace the idea that a lot of writing rules ar emeant to be broken. I start sentences with BECAUSE. Because I can. Because I want to have that rhythm. And I remember the first time I embraced that as a freshman in creative writing classes--when the teacher said, "Those rules you learned? Like never startiing a sentence with a conjunction, for example? That was to learn the rules. Now you can break 'em."

I love breaking rules.

spyscribbler 2/03/2008 02:04:00 PM  

Oh yes, Erica! I didn't read the comment thread there. Like I just read a blog post that said "never start with 'and." Okay, granted, I do that WAY too much, because I just love the rhythm of it.

But never?

I thought everyone had kinda reached an understanding that those rules were meant to be understood, then broken.

Oh ... and once, I judged an entry on a contest, and everything was TOO correct. No rhythm, no style, every single grammatical rule followed to a T. I wrote (probably should've said it much better) that in fiction, everything doesn't have to be grammatically correct. I meant to encourage her to test the rules and find her style, rhythm, and voice, LOL. But she still makes fun of that statement to this day. *sigh* (She doesn't know I suggested that, because it was a blind critique contest thing.)

meljean brook 2/03/2008 02:21:00 PM  

Um, where do you live again? Because we've been thinking about starting our daughter on piano lessons, but are deathly afraid of getting her in with a crappy teacher whose work will just have to be corrected down the line.

That's really, really good to know about having a real piano, instead of letting her pick up bad habits playing around on a keyboard.

Edie 2/03/2008 02:26:00 PM  

Spy, I was on a writing loop, and someone mocked a judge who wrote on her entry: "You've already told us your h/h are sexy and great looking, you don't have to tell us again." The writer said, "It was for a Desire." She and someone else laughed about the bad comment. I shook my head -- because I'm sure I was the judge. Do she and her friend think the Desire editors want bad writing?

One of the favorite books I read in 2007 has backstory and info dumps, which I don't use in my books. But it didn't stop me from loving it in hers. The story was so rich and wonderful, I didn't care.

Stewart Sternberg 2/03/2008 08:34:00 PM  

I have recently been reading the work of Vivian Paley, a kindergarten teacher who practiced a form of inquiry with her students, allowing their natural curiousity and creativity free reign. She did something called storytelling and communal drama.

I think her techniques would be a wonderful way to introduce someone to music. But it seems to me that learning to play an instrument, regardless of how well intentioned we might be, still takes a good deal of rote and regiment.

That being said, I am teaching creative writing right now and one of the things I am doing to work on helping students discover and uncover dialogue is to have them engage in a form of improvisation similar to Paley's play activity.

spyscribbler 2/03/2008 09:15:00 PM  

Edie, SO true! If you can be aware of the challenges of breaking a rule, understand when and why the rule works or doesn't work, then you can break it and make it FABULOUSLY.

Stewart, that sounds fascinating! I want to read that book.

In your statement, though, you kinda inferred it was a choice. People assume that you must choose: either fun/inspiration/creative/etc OR correct/solid foundation/proper technique/etc.

It's NOT a choice. You can do the regimented bits with the creative teaching techniques, but you SHOULDN'T EVER do the fun without the solid teaching, especially when giving them an incorrect foundation will ruin their enjoyment of the instrument five years down the road.

Best of all is to do it all. Why not?

By the way, that teacher sounds like what I've been working on with my older kids. I like to present a possibility and make it so THEY ask me how can I ...? I've been experimenting with it a lot. I'm not so good at it with some students, but ... I do applaud the situations where the student initiates the teaching.

Bernita 2/04/2008 09:32:00 AM  

Twelve inches of snow to shovel.
But I got writing done in spite of it.

Paúl R. 2/04/2008 01:09:00 PM  

Hi, Natasha,
Finally, another soul willing to break the thick mould of self-appeasement
and complacency in piano-teaching!
You're so right about the importance of good work with beginners! I believe
that prevailing poor understanding of this issue erodes our music teaching horribly, and it has serious, if unrealized, consequences to students' health and sound perception of whole nations.
Thankfully, you are wrong in your "...NOWHERE in the world does a method exist, or the knowledge I hold now, exist." There's a whole different
teaching perspective which sees matters in the same light you do, and it's been there for some time (it's only that North America doesn't know about it, yet). So, there's hope.

spyscribbler 2/04/2008 02:30:00 PM  

Ugh, Bernita! Yuck, yuck, yuck!

Paul, tell me! I'd love to hear about it, I really would!

Paúl R. 2/05/2008 04:12:00 AM  

I'm happy to oblige - but I need to warn you: it all looks quite... utopian (even to myself).

Firstly, I must state that, as I believe, this original teaching must have started with solid recognition that there's nothing natural in neither the design of the keyboard, nor in the way our hands operate on it.
On that indisputable basis its creators must have sought the way to gradually introduce the hand/fingers to the keyboard and into their first contact with the keybs - all through the specific movement (that's what violin and ballet teachers did, long ago). Incredibly, they found and established a whole procedure to this effect. What they assured, in all willing students, was great controls, and no injuries, whatsoever.
Comparably, I see our teaching, although historic, as neglecting the needs of the hand totally (starting with the static tension construct known as "hand position"), in result inciting tension and accumulation of it, throughout. To that, how often do we complain of the quality of sound our students produce (and listen to)? And don't even get me started on the issue of injuries...

Soon after mastering the first movements, students of this approach are exposed to note-reading (limited - for a good reason), while teacher keeps continuous tabs on the hand-work. This original teaching actively discourages starting with playing tunes (or chords), as these put the student against a number of simultaneous tasks at once WHILE totally overlooking the needs of the hand.
(Like every method, this one also has a small list of objectives to be achieved - in a gradual, consecutive line-up, but with truly different: initially movement-based, assessment criteria.)

Similarly to e.g. violin playing, piano students of this method develop their true *approach* to the key (they all possess the most sensitive touch despite also developing strong fingers) and truly great timing, to that, they always play with pulsation. All of that results in their developing an incomparable sense of sound. I found that even when their beginners play legato, there's nothing to correct or even improve in in its quality, legato-wise.
(In this approach, pianist is fully responsible for the sound of the reasonable-quality piano,
not the manufacturer, or technician.)
All of these lies incredible foundation. Besides, all of it delivers perceptive experiences which I found quite different from those our students have been developing.
Altogether, it's a different pianistic world within.
Despite a number of advantages and benefits I could see in this approach, I can't imagine it succeed, or even establish itself in North America. That's because, firstly, it's demanding, and because it puts the onus
decisively on the knowledgeable teacher.
I might be wrong, I hope I am -:)

Melanie Avila 2/13/2008 11:27:00 AM  

I don't have anything productive to say, just that I really enjoy your writing. Even in your "rant" you keep it interesting and quick-paced. I learned a little piano as a kid from my grandmother (she's classically trained) but her methods were less than standard, so it's interesting to hear your take on this.

Paúl R. 2/15/2008 01:59:00 AM  

Dear Melanie,
Several people posted here, so, whose comments would you like to read? (Please, understand.)