Why Learn to Play The Piano?

December 28, 2015 Comments Off on Why Learn to Play The Piano?

“What are piano lessons FOR? ” This question from a parent of a talented student once stumped me. It’s in the category of If You Have To Ask You Won’t Understand The Answer. But I’ve been looking for answers to it anyway, ever since.

Here’s an excellent one: If you are in a French train station with time on your hands, you can start improvising on the station piano. Some stranger who also knows something about the piano might show up and play along.

You can make music together. That sentence is loaded with metaphorical meanings old and new. The literal meaning is rich enough, however, to warrant learning to play the piano.

Why learn to play the piano? You can make music with a complete stranger in a French train station.

 

 

Whatever Are Piano Lessons For?

August 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

Piano Lessons

This question was posed to me by a parent many years ago and I have been trying to answer it ever since. Is it just my imagination, or does studying music actually improve your life? Do you get smarter, live longer, will you be better adjusted or happier if you play the piano?

This fall, families everywhere will be wondering whether to stretch the calendar and the budget to include piano lessons. Many parents recognize the need for arts study to counterbalance the academic emphasis in most schools. But when it is time to get in the car and write the checks, it is easy to wonder whether it is worth it all.

Don’t get me wrong, music for me is first, last and always its own reward. But I have noticed that pianists tend to be quite bright. Do they start out that way or does piano study somehow help things along?

Our friends The Scientists have recently set aside their investigations into pathology to study how we learn and how to improve it.  The next time I have to justify piano lessons, I will have some real answers instead of just  opinions.  I will be posting a whole slew of articles on the benefits of music study. Here’s one to start off the fall piano lesson season:

How Music Training Primes Nervous System and Boosts Learning    A review of many research papers on the effects of music study reveals music study improves listening, speech processing, attention, memory, vocabulary, reading. So anecdotal evidence that piano students do better in school is supported by some real data. Children with dyslexia, in particular, benefit from music study because it strengthens brain function in areas that in which they are weak.

You CAN improve without practicing much.

August 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

piano practice

Burning the midnight oil.

I have a number of students who don’t practice. Yet they continue to improve at the piano.

Yeah, right, you say. It’s a semantic problem: no practice must mean putting in several hours a week.

Wrong. Their idea of no practice is NO PRACTICE. I know they are reporting the truth, because they are often out of the country when the no practice occurs. Hard to practice when you are working in a hospital around the clock in Africa.

They come to their lessons religiously and work hard when they are here. And they continue to improve. Some are rank beginners, some are playing the Chopin Ballades.

I’ve never had a rational explanation for this phenomenon, but my teacher shocked me when he told me about it.  When I began teaching, he said, “Don’t worry too much about practice. If they come to their lessons every week, they will get better”. I didn’t really believe him until I  heard it with my own ears. But it is hard to convince anyone else that this happens. It seems at least self-serving, or maybe delusional.

But  science is coming to my rescue.  Here is a little article that describes a similar phenomenon in auditory perception.

I think the best summary of the findings was by one of the authors, Beverly Wright: “Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain”. Less pain and more gain is what all musicians are looking for.

Which group do you think did best on the sound discrimination task in the study? You have a choice between 1 group who practiced listening for 20 minutes every day and then spent 20 minutes just passively listening to the sounds while they did something else. The other group spent twice as long but only practiced every day.

After a week, it was test time. The winners were not the heavy practicers but the ones who spent just 20 minutes “working” and another 20 minutes fooling around with puzzles with the relevant sounds piped into their ears.

This is like my students who leave for Africa after their lesson and come back in two weeks playing noticeably improved.

“It’s as though once you get your system revved up by practicing a particular skill, the brain acts as though you are still engaged in the task when you are not, and learning still takes place,” according to Wright.

Now, if you read the  research article you will find some ifs, ands and buts, especially if you are trying to extrapolate to Chopin. For example, the researchers found no difference in the heavy practicers and the light ones when they delayed fooling around with puzzles phase more than a few minutes. This doesn’t exactly correlate with the trip to Africa.

Still, science is taking some steps to clarify what exactly improves  learning. Does more work always mean more progress?  My students’ improvements are not just a  fantasy. They really do get better. The lessons keep the connections going, their brains keep learning something about piano playing even away from the piano and my teacher was right: I don’t have to worry too much about students’ practicing.

Practicing

August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Still from the "Piano Lessons" music...

One way to get the kids to practice

Other parents gripe about getting their kids to practice the piano. We have enough problems getting dinner on the table and homework done. Are piano lessons going to add one more struggle to our family life?

Boy, I hope not. I would hate to see music turn into misery. The point of music study is to move beyond all that.

In many families, piano lesson peace is as elusive as peace in the Middle East. Teachers insist on a certain amount of practice and demand  well-prepared lessons each week. When there are syllabus exams looming or recitals scheduled, pressure mounts. Student performance is critical to a teacher’s professional standing and self-respect.  The only way to get kids to do more work at home is to get parents more involved. Kids get harassed  about practicing at home, and again at their lessons. Parents feel caught between the teacher and the kids.

I’m a parent, too.  I never liked being the both the enforcer, cheer leader AND the auxiliary teacher with my kids.  I thought keeping them fed and rested and delivered to lessons on time and the bills paid with a smile was the end of my involvement. Mostly what I did about practicing was say, “Gee, that was great! Do it again!” Or, “WHEN you finish  practicing THEN you can play video games until your eyeballs drop out of your head”.

I wasn’t very good at teaching my own kids.  They needed to learn this stuff from someone else. And I  didn’t want some teacher’s demands adding more conflict to our family. We have had plenty of that, thank you very much. Why pay for it when you can get it for free?

As a teacher, the 3-way antagonism has never worked for me. I take a more moderate position on practicing. Home practice is good. More is better. Conflict around practicing that threatens family peace is not good. More conflict, even if it results in more piano playing, is really not good.  And quitting the piano because of practice conflicts is very bad.

Every family is different. It’s possible for parents to encourage, insist, and help with piano practice. But not all parents want or can do this. Not all children accept parental help gracefully. Parental help is the last thing many children want.

Teachers can also have a helpful, non-adversarial role in piano practice. Learning how to practice is really the whole point of piano lessons: how do you learn with the brain and body and time you have. It won’t happen well if the teacher just requires it. It needs to be carefully taught.

Peace. Music. Learning. Isn’t that enough?

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