As teachers, we all have certain ways of doing things.
We’ll teach certain pieces, we’ll put emphasis on certain aspects of teaching: technique, posture, reading, singing. We may be “exam” or “festival” teachers who always enter students for performance events. Perhaps your focus is on helping students play the music they want to or teaching sight reading.
Our ways of teaching – the things we prioritise and emphasise in lessons – are an outward reflection of our piano teaching philosophy.
But have you ever really stopped to consider your philosophy of music education? Have considered what’s most important for your students to learn? Have you asked yourself why you teach the things that you do in the ways that you do?
How do you teach?
Do you teach how you were taught or have you thought about the outcomes you’re trying to achieve in your studio and developed your teaching to match these goals?
I’d hope for many readers, these are questions that you’ve thought about and set aside time to answer, keeping in mind that your direction and philosophy is likely to change over time as you learn and grow as a teacher and respond to the impact of technology, new research and the changing dynamic of children and families.
One of the most important questions every teacher should ask themselves is:
“What am I trying to achieve?”
If you haven’t considered this, then now is the time. Your students deserve a teacher who knows why they’re teaching.
If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry. Everyone needs a place to start and we can do it right now.
Let’s call it Philosophy Zero.
Finding your Piano Teaching Philosophy Zero
To get to the bottom of this whole question of philosophy, one of the best questions to ask yourself is:
“What does a musical student look/sound like at the end of their time with me?”
If you teach in a classroom, the outcomes you are aiming for are obvious: they are set for you by school districts, governments and national curricula and generally involve successful completion of a test (whether that’s good teaching or not can be the subject of a future article).
When you’re teaching in your own studio (even if you’re teaching individual lessons in a school or college context), student outcomes are far less obvious. In fact, they’re generally non-existent until you set them yourself.
Having taught in both the classroom and instrumental context, I feel incredibly lucky that I am completely able to set the agenda for my students. The only thing is that this can also be hard. When no one is prescribing what you have to do, you’ve got to work it out yourself!
So I want you to stop what you’re doing now and ask yourself:
“What does a ‘Musical Student’ look like in my studio?”
What is a Musical Student?
We all have different views of what a musical student sounds like, looks like, what they can do and how they approach music.
It’s important to know your answer to this question before you develop your philosophy as it will likely dictate how and what you teach.
You might like to consider these categories as you define your musical student. What is your ‘musical student’ be able to do under each of these categories?
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We had a studio recital this week at school and I was particularly proud of a number of my students who performed their own compositions. These were significant works that they’d been developing over the course of the year as they developed their progressions, motifs, melodies, styles and grooves.
It was magic to hear them play and I know that the definition of a “musical student of Tim Topham” was on display in these students, as it was, in a different way, in students who were performing notated works. I was, of course, proud of all of them and hope that the audience could glimpse a little of my philosophy from the pieces chosen, the way they were played and the improvements the students had shown since their last concert.
Let’s take a look at two contrasting examples of a “Musical Student”.
For example, if being musical to you is about:
- students performing the classical repertoire:
- from memory
- with stylistic interpretation
- beautiful phrasing and melodic contour and
- a confident stage presence,
…then you’ll likely teach with a focus on reading, performance, interpretation and perhaps exams or festivals.
However, if your idea of a musical student is one who can:
- confidently play music in any situation
- play something on the spot for their friends
- understand music and play music of any genre
- accompany a singer or play in a band
- play while everyone sings “Happy Birthday”
- improvise something without music
- sight read for their next church service when the organist is away,
…then your philosophy and teaching focus will likely be completely different.
While Teacher One will likely spend lots of time teaching reading, setting students performing tasks, correcting reading and playing mistakes and working to refine students’ technique, Teacher Two will likely include more improvising, teaching about chords and progressions, accompanying, playing along with backing tracks, duets and learning pieces by rote.
Is there a Right and Wrong?
Is one “the right” approach?
It all depends on your philosophy. What are you trying to achieve?
If you like the sound of the outcomes of Teacher Two, but are teaching like Teacher One, then your methods might be in conflict with your Philosophy.
Of course, there is a sense to me that the students of both Teacher One and Two are musical in their own way and each method has it’s benefits.
My goal is to encourage you to find out what “being musical” means to you so that you may consciously and proactively direct your teaching content and style.
The worst thing you can do is simply teach how you were taught.
What do you want your students to be able to do?
If you want your students to be able to sit down and play something that their friends and family will recognise without music and without fear, then you need to teach them how to do this.
If you want them to win competitions and festivals and get the best exam grades, then you will need to focus on interpretation, performance and reading.
If you want them to be able to pick out a tune by ear and play what they hear, then you’ll need to spend time listening, singing and experimenting.
If you want your students to noodle around at the keyboard and come up with their own ideas to build into compositions, then you need to demonstrate this, encourage experimentation and devote some time to it.
Just make sure you’re doing what you’re doing for a reason.
Going back to the question that I asked you to consider: “What does a ‘Musical Student’ look like in my studio?”, what was your answer?
Has the above discussion made you reconsider what you’re doing? Are you in conflict with your own philosophy?
Let’s share our versions of a “musical student” in the comments below.
Looking forward to reading your thoughts.