A message to piano students

Flickr Creative Commons – photo by Johnny Grim

My piano teaching has changed over the years, partly due to a general mellowing that’s occurred after (I hate to admit it) thirty years… but also partly due to the technological upheaval of the past decade. As I’ve talked about before, this new generation of piano students is a generation that has grown up with immediate access to information. Instant gratification has become their way of life.

As Andrew Hickey, blogger behind Faster than Light says:

My generation is starving for useful, thoughtful, intelligent, and inspiring information. If we want to learn how to do something – anything – we can google it, and be on our way; there’s even a how-to-do-everything podcast. If that weren’t enough, Wikipedia has an entry on just about everything, with all links eventually leading back to philosophy. We can learn about the fundamental stuff of the universe – or whatever philosophers ramble about — with a few mouse clicks. For those of us that don’t like reading, there are infographics and videos on every topic out there. When we aren’t absorbing information, we’re expressing ourselves by the millions, through sites like DeviantArt, Flickr, Tumblr, Etsy, WordPress, and more. Perhaps we are too entitled, too lazy, or too impatient, but, we aren’t stupid. I don’t accept that. We have access to more information than any other generation, and we are using it. We are becoming smarter with the information we are using, even if much of it drips through the cracks of obnoxious YouTube videos and incomprehensible memes. Perhaps I’m being sophomoric, but I think the internet is fundamentally good, because knowledge is fundamentally good. Maybe that crazy greek bastard was onto something when he said, “The only good is knowledge, the only evil is ignorance”. And, if you don’t know who I’m talking about, just google it.

I hate to admit it, but I have become one of those people he describes…apparently the exception to the rule considering my age. (Read Andrew’s entire post here.)

Twenty tabs open. Music playing. Headphones on. Lukewarm coffee on desk. Occasionally, I feel less like a person, and more like an amoeba that feeds on tweets, notifications, and followers.

So, to all you piano students, how has this changed my teaching over the past few years? Here are a few things that are important to me as a teacher as we immerse ourselves deeper into the digital age.

Read: The ability to sightread music has become my number one goal for you. If you learn nothing else I want you to be able to pick up a piece of music, any music, and play it. With all the classics available on IMSLP there’s a world of music at our fingertips (and you won’t be able to play any of it if you’re depending on YouTube video tutorials.)

Listen: There’s no excuse for not listening to music. With hundreds of thousands of sound files available online I can’t accept a blank stare when I ask you what you’ve been listening to lately.

Scales and Chords: Most Western music is written using the diatonic scale. There are 24 possible keys that a piece can be written in. Practicing your scales will make it easier for your fingers to find the right notes and for your ears to correct the wrong notes.

Anything Goes:  When it comes to choosing repertoire, I try to introduce you to as many different composers and musical genres as I can but I love when you bring me something I’ve never heard.  And you won’t surprise me with something new unless you listen. (see above)

Random Access: There’s no rule that says we have to finish Book One before we go to Book Two. There’s also no rule that says we can’t skip Book Two all together. Or Book One for that matter. Method books aren’t for everyone.

Creativity:  Most of you high school students have a senior project due this year. Let’s see something that represents real out-of-the-box thinking and entrepreneurship.

Play: If you’re taking piano lessons and don’t take the time to practice, ask yourself why. Would you practice if you were working on different pieces? Is there something you don’t understand? Do you remember what drew you to piano lessons in the first place? Maybe you’d go to the piano more often if you improved your sight reading skills, listened to more music, skipped around a bit in your book, gave yourself an interesting goal…get the picture?

7 thoughts on “A message to piano students

  1. I enjoy reading this article post – you are absolutely right – this generation is a generation that has no patience. Everything is instant gratification. The so-called “i” generation.

    Sight reading music is a skill that takes time and discipline to develop; just like learning a new language. We, as piano teachers, has a great mission, to cultivate the passions for good music among younger generation. Thanks again for sharing your article and, may I say, a great blog devoted for piano playing.

  2. I wonder if the “instant gratification” factor has aided in the demise of me practicing piano. I start to learn it, and everyone comments on how I’m doing well and I’m a “fast learner”, but I always feel inadequate. The youtube videos of five year old kids playing masterpieces probably doesn’t help.

    No matter, I can always stick to my first love, drums. There is no sight-reading, after all. ;]

    • Hon, I’m 45 and I felt and still feel the same way. Believe me, that’s just normal human nature to feel like an impostor who is fooling everyone into thinking they’re competent.

  3. I do have one question: where is composition and improv in all this? “Creativity” isn’t enough to denote that. Where do you teach the kids how to babble their own musical ideas, and then how to write them down? Where do you teach them something like, “Hum the first few bars of your favorite pop song. Now, let’s work that out on the piano. Now next week, come back with that written down on paper, and we’ll start working out a left hand for it.”

    I’d put all of that — composition and if the kid has the bent for it, improv — well ahead of sightreading in importance, which is just a very, very fast way of doing what classical students have had to do for the last century: flawlessly recite the fruits of someone else’s brilliance.

    I know what was missing in my own musical education, and I know what should have been there, and to be honest, sightreading and scales were not in that box. (Although I do think that both are important, and in the case of scales, EXTREMELY important.) What was missing was … when there was no sheet music in front of me, what then? I think they’d go to the piano more often — and I know that I wouldn’t have been so cavalier about stopping — had there been some means of saying something that I wanted to say through the piano, something particular to me. But take away my sheet music, and I was rendered completely mute — and on an instrument that I had taken eight years to master! That’s crazy.

    • You’re absolutely right about the improvisation! I too have been dependent on reading music all my life… unless I happened to have something by memory. That is a huge gap in my own musical education and is definitely an important part of teaching. I’ve touched on playing by ear with a few of my students… but I’m determined to make more time for it in 2012. Thanks for the reminder!!

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