Lately I’ve been participating in some discussions over at the Piano World Forums. In the Piano Teacher’s Forum, dozens (even hundreds) of participants debate topics as wide ranging as handling challenging students, to smart billing practices to getting kids to practice. The crowd is mixed. Expert teachers, part-time teachers, aspiring teachers and even students all make up the personal landscape of this forum.
One recent post Too much focus on technique really caught my attention when the topic quickly veered off course into a split debate on one’s basic approach to teaching. When one teacher made the analogy to teaching being similar to that of building with bricks (spend time upfront showing the student how to lay the first brick really well and let them do the rest vs. lay all the bricks with them but really quickly thus doing a poor job)…. well, some seemed to get the analogy just fine but others taking it too literally or skewing it far from the context seemed unusually perplexed by it.
I’m on the side of “teach the student to lay one brick really well and let them finish the rest”. The following is an outline of my basic approach, something I have been wanting to put into writing for some time. I’m finally doing just that as a result of the split in opinions evident in the aforementioned post as it supports the analogy that if you show the student how to lay one brick really well, they can do the rest on their own.
I take no credit for the term “Stewardship Delegation”. It came from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“, the book by Dr. Stephen Covey. Dr. Covey uses the term “Stewardship Delegation” to illustrate a style of management, but it really sums up my approach to teaching piano pretty darn close.
Dr. Covey breaks it into five steps.
1. Desired Results - Spend the most time on this step! Be certain the expected end results are 100% clear. This is akin to spending the most time showing how to lay the first brick.
2. Guidelines – Set a few restrictions on methods that are off limits to achieving these results. Don’t say how or what TO do, but suggestions of what has failed in the past. You’d probably point out a few ways to not lay the brick, to avoid injury or the wall falling apart.
3. Resources - Identify any resources that can help along the way. Use human resources and technical/information resources. In anticipation of the student having to lay the rest of the bricks, you’d probably point out places they could go for reference or help. You’d be sure they know how to use all available tools. For brick laying this might be mason’s tools, or for a musician this tool might be a metronome.
4. Accountability – Provide standards of evaluation and a set time of evaluation. You’d probably expect the person building the wall to be able judge how they did without you telling them. The STUDENT is expected to self evaluate their work.
5. Consequences – Describe all possible types of consequences; physical, intellectual, emotional and natural. Someone building a brick wall would know that, for example, if they build it well it will stand the test of time. If they build it poorly it will fall down.
Lets apply this to teaching piano.
The whole spirit of “Stewardship Delegation” is to place the accountability ON the person you are delegating to. The goal is for them to take charge and “own” their learning process. It lets the student choose the means to achieve the result.
In the following example, we’re simply teaching how to read music and play songs from their method book.
Be sure the student knows what the correct notes, rhythms, basic dynamics/articulation should sound like. Check this, check twice and check again. There are literally hundreds of way to ensure the student knows desired results. Suggestions are;
- Do they really understand how to read music? Can they explain to you why they played notes correctly? Can they identify if you play a note incorrectly on purpose? Can they switch roles and be your teacher?
- Do lots of rhythm games where they clap or tap rhythms from their songs. Have them count or tap their foot to be sure they can feel the beat at the same time. Make sure they are not just getting the rhythm by accident or imitation!
- Provide them with a recording of how the song should sound. Let them HEAR what it should sound like.
- Provide a video or pictures of someone playing/sitting with good posture and good technique. SHOW them what this looks like.
Establish some basic “not to do’s”.
- They can not just have someone show them the notes in the song.
- They can not write the note names above every note in the song.
- They shouldn’t try to learn the song just by ear.
- They shouldn’t use just two fingers or ignore fingering.
- Point out other possible traps or obstacles but let the student choose the means to achieve the result.
Identify as many places the student can go for help. You’re showing them how to be resourceful instead of just asking for the answer.
- They can ask you for help at the lesson.
- They could ask their music teacher at school, a parent or peer who knows enough about music.
- If they can not identify a note, show them where they can look it up, such as a note chart or flash cards.
- If they do not know what a marking is such as “dim.” or “8va” show them how to use a music dictionary or even the internet to look it up.
- Show them they can refer to a recording or video of someone playing the song.
Set up an agreed upon time that the student will show you how they are progressing. This is the most challenging part for the teacher. The teacher is NOT to “check up” on the student. The student is to report back to the teacher as to how they are doing.
- At the agreed upon time, the student shall play for the teacher and show them how their progress is going. It is up the the STUDENT to self evaluate. Identify places of strength and weakness. The student should be able to tell the teacher if they played wrong notes or wrong rhythms. The student should be able to decide if they need to continue working on the song. And the student should have an internal sense if it sounds “good” or “bad”.
Step Five: Consequences
The teacher should be certain the student knows all the possible consequences, good or bad, of learning the music or not. These consequences fall into four categories.
Intellectual – An intellectual consequence would be they are strengthening their mind, their ability to think in abstractions, or to think about the big picture and small picture at the same time.
Emotional – The internal satisfaction of working at something and making progress, or the joy that comes from expression through music. They also may connect more with their own internal emotions, or better yet, channel and release negative emotions in a way that does not harm others.
“Natural” – This is my favorite. It’s the opposite of “social”. Social consequences of playing well might be praise, awards or passing tests. Natural consequences are governed by natural truths. Playing well and progressing over time could result in happiness or a sense of purpose and meaning… of connecting with something bigger then yourself. After all, isn’t this what music is really about?