The 21st Century Piano Student

Listening to this TED lecture by cyborg anthropologist, Amber Case about the compression of time and space, ambient intimacy and simultaneous time interfaces got me thinking about how our teaching methods will have to evolve in the next decades if we are to keep up with the 21st century students. It’s hard to imagine that the traditional private piano lesson where students progress through method books, slowly but solidly building up their knowledge of music theory, technique and repertoire may someday be obsolete. But it’s starting to seem more and more obvious that the teacher who doesn’t at least acknowledge the changes in his or her students learning styles, may find their rosters shrinking.

I have a mixed studio. Some students are not allowed to surf the web. They do not have cell phones or video games and they are not allowed to watch excessive TV.  Their parents stress academics, reading, and hands on activities. They take things slowly, building up their knowledge one step at a time.

Others, mostly teens (and interestingly mostly girls), are fully immersed in technology. The silenced cell phone is the last thing to leave their hands before they start their lesson and the first thing they pick up after they finish playing. I have to admit that I find these students fascinating! On several occasions students have been so motivated to learn that I’m able to explain a concept, such as major and minor scale patterns, and they are able to construct all 12 major and minor scales and triads by the end of the first lesson. They come to their lessons with a list of composers and pieces they’d like to learn. Some have already started teaching themselves and want to make sure they are on the right track. These teens come to their lessons ready to get down to work, not to be spoon-fed information.

Elissa Milne, creator of the P Plate Piano series, talks about teaching the new generation of children and the “deeper-sideways kind of learning” that’s going on.  I think she hits the nail on the head here.

These iPad children interact to learn. They are not waiting to be passively filled with information (as if children ever were), but are actively engaged in constructing their own learning experiences through this technology that does not rely on advanced literacy in the user for functionality. Instead of exploring broadly, children can explore deeply, changing direction and focus as it suits them, not as suits their parents or older siblings. They are simultaneously more prepared to spend time engaging with learning and more prepared to move on to a new challenge if the present activity fails to exhilarate.

This changes the way we can teach, and it must change the way we do teach.

One of the most exciting aspects of P Plate Piano is the range of activities designed for this 21st century style of learning: experimentation, exploration, reconfiguration, extension. This deeper-sideways kind of learning looks like ‘mucking around’ to the traditional teacher or the exam-obsessed parent. But this kind of learning is the kind that creates musicians out of piano students, and unless you become a musician your piano lessons (and your examination certificates) won’t be worth much in the long run.

So, if you’re a piano teacher and you’re reading this you’ve already got a foot in the door. You know how to surf the internet and find music blogs.  Twitter and Facebook are your next step.

But I’m afraid to say, if you’re refusing to use a computer, email, or a cell phone, you might find yourself at a loss when today’s newborn comes knocking at your door for piano lessons in 14 years.

3 thoughts on “The 21st Century Piano Student

  1. Well stated. I’ve spoken to other music educators who share this theme as well – the concept that students are already exposed to so much by the time they get to the lesson.

    Here are a few blog posts that you might find interesting regarding music and technology:

    • Thanks for the links! By the way, I hope to join in on the #MusEdChat one of these weeks…seems I always miss it (coming home late from teaching.)

  2. I wish I had had some of these resources when I was studying formally. It was so hard to hear piano in anything but scratchy old Horowitz recordings … and that was just the stuff my teacher wanted me to know about. Horowitz and Chopin, force-fed constantly. At 44, I never want to play Chopin again.

    If I had had YouTube, I could have discovered Grieg, Glinka … that snowbound melancholic stuff that I really like. I could have really taken the reins of my musical development, something I didn’t do until the net made it possible really.

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