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Reflections on My Journey as a Piano Teacher

Many years ago, I used to only teach children piano lessons from the age of 7 years old. This was because I taught purely out of printed method books. You can hardly teach a child that is 4 or 5 years old to read notes i.e. count notes, use the correct finger, play the right notes, curve the fingers, just to play a simple unrecognisable piece, other than perhaps Mary Had a Little Lamb?

And then I started using the Suzuki repertoire with two students who were 5 and 6 years old. I wasn’t formally trained in Suzuki however I read that a student should play a piece (almost) perfectly before they are allowed to move on to another piece. Those two students were playing Twinkle Little Star Variations for at least two months based on my recollection. And they were bored. Since then I reverted to teaching piano by reading notes albeit with a huge difference – I started teaching piano by lead sheets. I would show students how to play chords in the left hand and read the treble clef in the right hand.

Years later, I read extensively on teaching piano by rote and decided to try it. On hindsight, that was what the Suzuki method was partly based on! I think I have had great success with teaching by rote. Students are able to play rather complex sounding music after a few lessons. To this day, teaching by rote remains one of my key teaching approach.

One of my teaching philosophies or beliefs is that students should be able to play by ear. I started “guessing games” with my students whereby for a piece, I would add a note or notes incrementally and they would have to figure out which key I had pressed and replicate the notes from the beginning of a section. Their memory skills were trained this way too.

More recently, I started to actively teach improvisation to students as that is also another one of my teaching philosophies and beliefs. I used Forrest Kinney’s books for this purpose. At first for almost all of my students I would accompany them while they create “melodies”. In other words they were the primo in duet playing. I recorded the accompaniment for them on Youtube and mp3 so that they could replicate the duet playing experience at home. However the whole thing didn’t take on much. Parents have difficulties to getting the child to doodle at home along with the recorded accompaniment. However, there were a few students whom I taught the left hand part so that they can improvise on their own at home. I discovered that they were rather motivated to practise improvising at home and would often surprised and impressed me during the next lesson. Since then, there is a two step approach that I follow when teaching improvisation:

  1. I accompany student, student improvises
  2. Immediately after step 1 which can last up to 5 minutes (this is an arbitrary number) or longer depending on the student, I show the student the left hand. The student accompanies while I improvise. This goes on for up to 10 minutes.
  3. Finally the student improvises with both hands for about 5 minutes.

During the early days of me teaching improvisation, I would try to teach a piece for improvisation in 10 minutes or less. And in the same lesson, I would be also teaching students a piece by rote AND a piece by ear. Mind you, they are mostly beginners. On reflection, an improvisation piece should be considered as a “proper” piece which requires time to teach and practice time for it to be learnt and mastered. Since then, I have often use an improvisation piece to form the bulk of a 30 minute lesson.

On the topic of comping, I was convinced that it is essential for students to learn comping as who wouldn’t like to be able to accompany singers, instrumentalists or themselves or to be playing the keyboard in a band? Apparently, most of my students do not share the same sentiment as me. Firstly, my younger and older students found it difficult to memorise the notes in a chord, especially those involving black keys e.g. Db, Gb, Ab despite me teaching chords in groups of e.g. major chords involving white white white key combination (C, F and G major), white black white key combinations (D, E, A amjor). Secondly, a lot of students are unable to keep in beat while comping to a song played on e.g. Spotify or mp3 backing track. I believe this is because some of them are still unsecure in their chord playing and they are not trained to listen to another musician playing along with them. So I have ditched teaching comping to all students other than one who is learning jazz piano. On reflection, I think in terms of sequencing when to teach the skill of comping, it should be when the student is at least of intermediate level which is when the student is reasonably secure in his/her playing of chords and rhythms before we layer in the crucial element of playing with another person, band, etc. Certainly, I can start teaching students comping when they are beginners however I run into the problem of overloading students with too much skills and information, which I am most certainly guilty of.

Recently, I was worried about my students being able to play wonderfully by rote and by ear and being able to improvise but not being able to read. I fear the comments of other teachers if and when my students transfer over to them as I know that almost all piano teachers focus almost entirely on reading and passing exams during lessons. Thus, I have started getting students to read at least one page from a piano method book during lesson time. I usually get them to read two to three pages. I think like any other skill e.g. improvising, playing by ear and memorisation, it is important to develop it over time. It’s almost impossible or challenging to expect a student to read music competently by focusing on reading in only one lesson per term (there’s usually three terms per year for my studio). Therefore, I started most students on reading on the get go so that I wouldn’t have a bad reputation in the community. I know this shouldn’t be my approach but wouldn’t you be critical of me and my teaching methods if you taught piano by reading notes and passing exams?

Back to improvising, as mentioned above, I have used Forrest Kinney’s improvisational books for maybe two months. I think it’s brilliant that students are encouraged to improvise freely using any keys, scales, etc with the superimposition of a rhythmical pattern later on. However, I wonder if there can be even more structure to the improvisational process? Just yesterday, I was reminded of the question and answer technique by Robert Pace’s Music for Piano series. This technique is also used in the ABRSM jazz piano for beginners textbook. What if I start showing students how to improvise using the question and answer format too? This would certainly help when they start composing music.

Which brings me to another point – music theory. This term, I started students on formal music theory exercises. I used ABRSM graded music theory syllabus as my guide. So typically I assign two pages of a music theory workbook to a student each week and they would complete it and correct it themselves (I have the model solution). What I have found though is that there seems to be a disconnect between what they are learning in classes and the exercises they complete in the workbooks. Of course I would use as much musical lingo with them during lesson. However I feel that I should be creating games for every theory topic in the workbooks to reinforce their understanding so that theory becomes practical and real. And to be fair I have some games relating to some of the topics, just that it’s not on every topic. I think I have to reflect further on the subject of music theory to see how I would like it to go. Ideally however I would like students to dictate the tunes they have learnt by ear and rote onto manuscript paper or into a music notation software e.g. Musescore.

Back to teaching young children who are below 7 years old, I feel that lessons are a bit dry when they are made up of only pieces learnt by rote and music theory, which are learnt through games. I think lessons should incorporate singing and movement for young children, and definitely plenty of games. Singing and movement are generally fun for most children. Lessons should be done in groups too as I think it’s more engaging to meet other children and learn from them.

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