Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why Most Piano Students Quit


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In my 20+ years of teaching piano lessons, I have found that most students quit before they reach a level of playing that would allow them to continue playing on their own in any capacity.  WHY?  This should be disturbing to every teacher and parent alike.  If the goal is to reach a certain proficiency on the instrument that would ensure a lifelong love of music expressed by actually playing the instrument you’re taking lessons on, then that goal is rarely reached.  Again, WHY?
First of all, learning to play any instrument is difficult and requires some level of dedication for life.  That rules out quite a few right off the bat.  And may I say here that most adults quit lessons because they simply just don’t have the time because they are wrapped up in their kid’s lives, not a bad thing by the way.  But what about the rest?  What about the kids who are quite talented, practice from time to time, and show much promise in the beginning?  They have parents who are dedicated to getting them to lessons on time and every week, are encouraging and involved in the weekly assignments issued by the teacher.  Why do THESE kids all seem to hit a brick wall at year 3, and eventually quit lessons in frustration and tears?

I know why.  Are you ready for this?  Listen up.  First we must understand the difference between a student’s PLAYING LEVEL and READING LEVEL.  The Playing Level is the level at which the student is capable of physically performing.  It includes not only the physical ability to play something, but the raw aural talent as well.  Musicians who play by ear have very high Playing Levels, drawing from their wealth of experience on the instrument, finely tuned motor skills,  and their keen, developed ear.  Many 5 year old children have a PLAYING LEVEL equivalent of playing Mary Had A Little Lamb on the black keys.  Many 12 year olds have a PLAYING LEVEL high enough to play Heart And Soul.  It doesn’t matter HOW they learned it, whether by reading music notation or learning by rote from a friend.  If you can physically play something, that’s another notch on your playing level ability.  The Playing Level requires some degree of musical talent.

The READING LEVEL is the SPEED at which you can correctly convert the dots and dashes from the five lines and four spaces into pitch experienced through time, what we call music.  IT TAKES NO MUSICAL TALENT WHATSOEVER TO MEMORIZE THE NOTES ON THE STAFF, COUNT, AND PUSH THE RIGHT KEYS AT THE RIGHT TIME.  Certainly musical talent and a sensitive ear can aid us  in our music reading, but it is not required.  The Reading Level is defined in simplest terms as data entry.

Here’s the problem.  I’ve seen it hundreds of times.  A brand new student typically starts out with their Playing Level and their Reading Level fairly close.  They can play nothing, they can read nothing.  As the lessons progress, especially if the teacher is playing the assignments for the student and the assignments are pleasing and catchy tunes, the student will begin to rely heavily upon their ear.  Instead of ‘reading’ the notes, they fall into a pattern of copying what they hear and memorization.  Many times the teacher is not even aware of this, and the student thinks everything is OK because they receive praise for being able to play an assignment well.  IMITATION, MEMORIZATION….. over and over…. over and over.

The Reading Level suffers greatly from this.  The student is not reading the notes because he doesn’t know how.  Moreover, he doesn’t need to read the notes because he learns his assignments by imitation and memorization.  As the assignments become longer and more complex, the problem compounds itself.  The Playing Level becomes a strong right arm, and the Reading Level becomes a weak left arm.  At about Level 3 in most method books, or the 2nd or 3rd year of lessons, the student hits a brick wall.  No longer can he get by just trying to imitate and memorize.  It’s just too difficult now.  He quits.
Here is the solution.  2 Things.  Use flashcards, and play LOTS and LOTS of easy pieces.  Why flash cards?  Because flash cards don’t make music.  Take the music away, and you will really know in a flash (ha, ha) if the students knows the notes on the staff or not.  It’s pure data entry, boring, but necessary.  Don’t bore the student to death with them, though.  Just a couple of minutes at a time on them please.  Why LOTS and LOTS of easy pieces?  Because if they are easy enough, and I do mean EASY, then they can play them at sight without much repetition.  Then…..
MOVE ON!! Don’t stay on the piece, because the student will memorize it quickly, and the reading elements are of no use anymore.  I say again, MOVE ON!  Another, Another, easy, easy piece.  As long as you are continually putting something new in front of the student, they will be on their toes and reading like crazy.  Now, teachers, don’t get excited about the talent of this kid and ruin everything by giving them something too difficult at this point.  SO WHAT if they can play it due to their high Playing Level, but you will catapult them back to the old habit of imitation and memorization.  When the student becomes excellent at data entry for their current reading level, then they should be given something just a LITTLE more difficult. Don’t raise the bar too high too fast, and don’t pound away at dynamics, phrasing, tone, and posture.  If they don’t learn to read the notes on the staff, posture will be of little importance.

2 comments:

Paul Lackman said...

Shawn, you described my experience to a T. I got 3/4 through Alfred's Adult Lesson 3 Book and my struggling with the music reached a insurmountable level using my memorization method. I stopped playing the piano for a few years and am now back working at it. I've been reviewing your website and courses and are considering joining.

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