Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning
Written by ANDREW EALES
Every aspect of music is personal.
A good performance depends on the player’s personal interpretation of the music. Enjoyment, for the listener, depends on their personal response to the music, which in turn is informed by their personal taste, familiarity and musical experience.
And in the same way, learning to play a musical instrument is a highly personalised experience. In this post we’ll consider why that is true, and what it means in practice.
Every individual who takes up an instrument has their own reasons for doing so, their personal agenda for learning. It may be the desire to play a particular favourite piece of music, join a band, work through graded examinations, or perform in public. Some take up piano because “Aunt Agatha was good at it”, or in the hope of gaining a place at a certain school. Many learn purely for pleasure, personal enrichment and simply to enjoy the musical journey.
Some love playing classical music, while others prefer to play pop songs, jazz, or music from shows and films. And while some start aged 6, others take up lessons aged 60+. Older learners may have more concrete goals and tastes, but even the youngest learner will hopefully have started to develop their own individual, personal response to music.
A good teacher will always take account of a pupil’s prior learning, and their personal musical ambitions. It is important to establish:
- Why the pupil wants to learn
- What music they enjoy
- What they can already do
- What they hope to achieve, and
- Whether I am the teacher to help them on that journey.
This informs the teaching that follows, providing the basis for personalised learning. And this in turn enables students to make their best progress and stay motivated.
As well as having personal tastes and goals, it is widely understood that people seem to learn in different ways. For example, while some learn particularly well by listening to and following instructions, others may appear to learn more quickly and effectively by reading, or watching demonstrations, by applying logic, or by “trial and error”.
That said, I’m not a fan of the popular (but disputed) notion of “learning styles”, and it seems to me unhelpful to casually pigeon-hole people. Every student is an individual, bringing a unique mix of approach, aptitude and commitment.
Teachers must learn to spot and develop the best approach for each and every player in order to help them learn as effectively as possible. We need to foster and mobilise each individual’s strengths while also carefully addressing their overall development, so as to help them succeed in their aims and musical goals.
Playing the piano involves a large number of skills at the same time. For one pupil, coordination will be an issue, while for another the problem might be staying in time. The next perhaps struggles to read notation, while another again has issues with tension that need to be addressed.
Each player will face different obstacles and learn at a different pace. And most pupils will present their own unique cocktail of all these issues. A personalised approach is needed to help pupils overcome these difficulties, especially during the beginner phase of learning.
What about Group Lessons?
Many children who take up an instrument do so at school, and learn in groups. The group might consist of three carefully matched pupils, or could be a class of a dozen or more children. Beyond school, many attend courses and clubs where group tuition is the norm, such as the Yamaha schools. Adults may well start their lessons at a local night class.
There are clearly many benefits to learning alongside others, and not just economic. But is it possible for personalised needs to be met within these groups?
Any musician will want to applaud efforts to provide wider opportunities for music tuition in schools. I enjoyed teaching small groups in primary schools earlier in my teaching career, especially knowing that it made it possible for children to have a first encounter with music which might otherwise have been unavailable.
I also recognised that there are unique benefits to learning in a group, including the social interaction that takes place, shared motivation, and the chance to play pieces actually written specifically for groups and ensembles.
When working with groups I still recognised the need to provide personalised learning for each student. But of course the larger the group, the more difficult this inevitably became.
Even in a small group of three students, one in a group might find it hard to read the notes, while a second may read well but struggle with finger independence. The third, meanwhile, may find timing really difficult. Playing musicianship games with the group may help all three towards overcoming such challenges, but each of them would ultimately benefit more from having individual, personalised input.
My wide experience of teaching both groups and individuals has fairly consistently shown me that those learning as individuals tend to do so much faster and more effectively than pupils learning in a group. I have also observed that pupils receiving personalised tuition are far more likely to remain enthusiastic about their musical progression and goals.
Of course, a group music-making experience can be an enormous additional benefit in enriching the musical life of those who have an individual personalised lesson. Music should ultimately not be promoted as an individuated and solitary experience.
For those of us who predominantly work with individuals, I believe that finding ways to foster a sense of community within our teaching studios should be an ongoing goal, and this can be helped by also offering group workshops, shared concert performances, theory classes, duet pairings and more social events, so bringing us closer to the ideal of providing both individual tuition and group music-making activity.
The Challenge we face
This vision for providing personalised learning contrasts with the experiences of some children who learn an instrument in a group at school, and too many never reach a level where they become confident players or gain sufficient satisfaction to carry on.
Of the students who learn in my studio, however, many will continue lessons throughout their school years and beyond. Adults often also enjoy learning here from one year to the next, continuing their piano journey through life’s many stages.
As one parent recently wrote in a review of my teaching:
“I was very happy to find Andrew as a piano teacher for my two sons. He works hard to engage them in the subject and tailors the lessons to their individual needs, making sure they make progress whilst still enjoying playing music.”
And in another review, my former student Bradley Jordan, who is now a media composer working full-time in the entertainment industry, wrote:
“It’s hard to express in words just how grateful I am to Andrew for all the lessons and all the guidance. I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for Andrew never giving up on me, and pushing to get the very best out of me. I couldn’t have hoped for a better teacher, or a better friend … Andrew Rocks!”
Personalised learning can help you and your children become confident independent players with a lifelong love of music.
But how Personalised?
To what extent should piano lessons be personalised, and shouldn’t all students ultimately cover the same basic core learning?
There are a number of areas where I believe learning should be personalised. I see piano education as a lifetime journey, rather than a tick-box set of skills to acquire, or as a means to feed the exam machine or classical performing industry with fresh players and audiences.
Personalisation should in my view include:
- Each player being taught with an awareness, and in the context of, their own prior learning.
- Each player learning at their own pace, rather than being made to conform to a contrived average.
- Each player being encouraged to play to their strengths while also addressing their distinct areas of developmental need.
- Each player using resources and learning music that they can relate to, and which suits their present needs and enthusiasms.
- Each player being encouraged to celebrate their identity rather than compete against or conform to others.
Within these goals there are of course core skills and understanding which I believe must underpin all piano playing education, and which ensure players develop independence in their learning. Piano lessons should not be simply a commodity in which the student alone determines the course.
In my article The Three-Dimensional Pianist, I identify what I believe these core essentials are: the same essential basics that I taught Bradley and so many others.
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