Supporting Teachers • Promoting Learning
Written by ANDREW EALES
During a recent discussion I mentioned that I prefer to teach my students for 45 minutes weekly or fortnightly, even when they are beginners (more advanced students often come for a consultation lesson once a month for 90 minutes).
The question was asked,
“45 minutes for somebody on Grade One is a lot, surely… isn’t 30 minutes long enough?”
Styles of Teaching
I believe that determining an appropriate length for lessons partly has to do with our style of teaching and, in particular, what we expect to achieve in a lesson. Most importantly of all, to what extent is the student an independent learner, and for what (and to what extent) do they rely on the teacher?
Many of us probably had 30 minute lessons ourselves when we were in the early stages of learning to play. But those of us who developed into good players were probably very motivated and enjoyed music.
What about those others who didn’t manage so well on 30 minute lessons, and who didn’t build up enough momentum to develop their enjoyment and sense of achievement? Might some of them have developed better had they received longer lessons? I am sure that all teachers are aware of the problem of student drop off, and are keen to find ways to stem it.
When I was a beginner, my teacher would suggest I learn a piece or two during the week, on my own at home. This undoubtedly encouraged independence, but could I handle it? In the lessons she would check that I had practised my scales, then hear the piece she had set, point out the many mistakes, and set me to work at putting right the various things that, without her help, I had learnt wrong.
This approach at least compensated for the fact that her expectations of me learning the piece independently were probably a little misplaced! And provided I didn’t make a complete mess of the piece, there might be time left at the end of the lesson, in which case we could fit in a bit of aural training and/or sight reading.
It’s easy to shoot down that approach, but let’s remember that many of us have learnt that way and lived to tell the tale! Clearly it’s not all bad. But can we offer something better?
In the early stages of learning, I generally find that students learn faster and more securely if we work on a new piece during the lesson. There is little doubt that a more holistic approach is both possible and hugely beneficial. And longer lessons leave time to leverage the benefits of learning music “sound before symbol“, surely the most effective approach.
The student can then play at home to consolidate and enjoy the piece, which they have at least partially learnt with my help. This means that the balance between lesson and practice is shifted, with less expectation of independent learning in the early stages of musical development.
I also feel that it is important to try including quite a wide range of activities in the lesson which foster that ability to learn independently.
For example, it is great to have sufficient time to include plenty of aural activities, sight reading / flash cards, improvisation, exploration, duets, games, basic techniques, and so on. It is great to integrate some theory work and musicianship as soon as possible rather than regularly postponing them due to lack of time.
It is of course possible to cover all of this stuff in a 30 minute lesson using an integrated “simultaneous learning” approach, but it’s important to plan well and not try to include every activity in every lesson. And I must confess that I have noticed such lessons often feel rushed.
In my Music Service management days I observed a number of lessons where there was simply too much content for the allocated time, apparently leaving the student ultimately confused by “too much information” (verbal and/or musical).
As a private piano teacher, I am not shackled by the same issues of funding, and am able to give my students the best independent advice about maximising the benefits of tuition.
In my view 45 minutes is not too long for a student working on the early grades. On the contrary: it is ideal. I have found that it allows enough time to cover a wide variety of material and try to establish the best foundations for future playing. And above all, it gives sufficient space for a love of music to take root.
I still sometimes provide 30 minute lessons for the younger beginner, for example to siblings whose lesson is part of a family’s shared musical journey. And it’s worth repeating that many of us have thrived on 30 minute lessons in the past, and many continue to do so today!
So the final decision about what works best will no doubt be a personal one.
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