One teacher’s answer to preventing ‘negative self talk’ within music learning…
I have been teaching the piano now for over 27 years and over that time piano teaching has seen huge changes in the UK.
One big area of change I’ve witnessed is the availability of technology (particularly mobile phones, tablets, the use of YouTube and social media forums).
However, another change that I’ve noticed is a growing lack of emotional resilience of students in the learning process.
This can be more outwardly displayed by girls (in my experience) – I am no expert, but I’ve found girls tend to articulate their feelings more readily. But I have also witnessed this lack of resilience present within boys. My experience is that they don’t articulate it in the moment, or in words (the same way as girls) but lack of practice and reduced interest in learning tells a similar story.
I’ve noticed that children, as a whole, appear to want quicker results. I’ve heard many term this ‘The X Factor Generation’ – they see people go from nothing to stardom in a matter of weeks. And the idea that achievement requires large amounts of time and commitment is not one that many young children want to embrace. The reasons for this would take an entirely separate blog post, but here’s an interesting article on the topic.
Added to that, this generation are perhaps one of the most scrutinised. A very wise Publishing Director has articulated her observations on this topic several times to me. She has made me think:
Assessment in school is ongoing.
In nursery, from three years old, children’s progress is evidenced.
Photographs taken of how they draw human figures.
Statements they make about their friends are recorded.
Do they know their colours?
When did they first write their name?
At home parents can have a full range of videos from their first crawling to every school performance – from one sentence in an assembly to their appearance in the Nativity. Their Sports Day activities, their solo performance in a music concert. The mobile phone means that photos and videos can be taken anywhere and instantly.
And added to all that, social media displays everyone else’s achievements for all to see too.
We are in the age of the selfie. Thinking about ‘self’ constantly can be a very common .
What effects does all this scrutiny have on our children?
I would never claim to have the answer to that question, but I think it is one that we all need to think about. It is commonly accepted that the mental health of our children is a growing crisis.
A sobering summary of the UK’s current mental health statistics
What are the solutions?
As a practitioner and educator, I have always seen my role as ‘to do’. Academic researchers do a very valuable role on identifying and articulating the problems.
My Piano Friend has been something that I’ve trialed now for the past 9 months and it is my practical tool for helping children develop greater resilience in their music learning.
The results have been so positive that I want to share the tool. In the hope that other children may benefit – with the careful use and care of their teachers working with their parents. The comfort it has given to my students has been so special I really hope others may benefit.
Disclaimer: I do not have any psychology qualifications and “My Piano Friend” was used with permission of parents. Teachers need to sensitively work with children to see if this is the right tool for them in partnership with parents.
What is ‘My Piano friend’?
The child is asked to come up with a friend in their imagination that they would want to have with them when practising the piano. They are instructed to draw that image, think about the hair colour, skin type (many have given their friends rosy cheeks) think about what they are wearing and give them a name.
The child is then asked to come up with messages they would want their practice friend to say – these are listed around the image for the child to read when they are practising and want extra reassurance. Care is taken to make sure these statements are attainable.
“If I keep on trying in time I will be able to play my piece.”
“What do you like about the piano?”
“I really enjoy listening to you learning a new piece and hearing it get better as you practice more.”
“Remember it can take weeks or even months to learn a new piece, it’s like eating a chocolate cake – you can only do it one piece at a time.”
“I really like the way you make the piano talk.”
“Sometimes the piano can feel tricky – that’s okay because it is tricky, if you keep doing a little bit at a time it can get easier.”
“Are you being kind to (child’s name ………….) when you practise the piano?”
“You are musical, you played (put a piece a child loves and already plays well ………….) very musically!
“Remember to have a rest if you need to and come back later.”
The statements aim to reflect a growth mindset.
At the school I work in, the children had done some significant work in the classroom with their teachers on ‘growth mindset’ by Dr Carol Dweck (you can read about it here) – I think that was really helpful.
The idea of a “friend in the imagination” is taken from Compassionate Focus Therapy by Paul Gilbert, which includes a concept of a ‘Perfect Nurturer’ often used in trauma (although none of the children here were suffering from specific trauma).
Rather, perhaps, our current education system can encourage children to experience feelings of threat – ‘you are not good enough’ – due to all the ‘expected’ levels given in the classroom?
Paul Gilbert has devised the ‘Three Emotional Regulation Systems’ found here.
This is an area I would certainly hope education academics will now start to look at more.
The aim of My Piano Friend was to encourage ‘self soothing’. That when they experienced anxiety from doing something new and struggling to succeed, the Piano Friend (in their imagination) could provide the same support a teacher or parent could if they were by their side.
A case study
Emma was a younger beginner pianist. She began with nearly a year of musicianship classes before moving properly onto the instrument. Her older sibling played well, and Emma was aware of her brother’s ability, comparing herself on a regular basis.
Regularly when Emma was given a new piece, before she began she would say ‘I don’t like that piece, it looks really tricky or sounds really hard’.
This was with or without music notation, using the stave or just the letter names. Even when things were broken up into the smallest of tasks, if one wrong note was played (and she noticed) she would burst into tears and say she just couldn’t do it.
My heart broke for this little girl, who was in her SATS year. She’d told me about doing lots of groups (I presume booster groups, to achieve the highest levels).
With a loving family and wonderful parents, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the UK education system had some part to play in this child’s demands of herself? We will never know; but working with Mum we were able to come up with just the right Piano Friend for Emma.
The results were remarkable. Emma’s Mum said:
“She simply isn’t frustrated practising the piano anymore. It’s so lovely to see her enjoying the instrument and not beating herself up if she makes a mistake.”
Very quickly Emma simply came to the piano lesson, and when new things were presented just smiled. If she played a wrong note she would just turn and say, ‘can I play it again?’ The anxiety appeared to leave overnight. We were all thrilled.
When asked how Emma was finding learning the piano in later weeks, she actually vocalised: “Much easier now I have a Piano Friend to help me at home.”
I was a little stunned how something so small could make such a difference.
Other children have responded in a similar way.
One mum brought the Piano Friend to the pupil concert. The child (who’d struggled the year before) played with huge confidence with beautiful musical articulation.
Another child began to embrace much more difficult repertoire without question. Some children simply practised the piano more, and parents would without prompt credit the Piano Friend as the reason.
A final thought ……..
Perhaps the really important message to me as a teacher using the Piano Friend was that it was my role to get the child to find something within themselves to be resilient.
That in reality, all my pupils were simply creating the right imagery within their minds to succeed.
The answer to the problem was there all the time. It was my job as a teacher to simply help them discover it.
Karen Marshall is co-author of ‘Get Set! Piano’ and ‘The Intermediate Pianist’ with Heather Hammond. She has also compiled the ABRSM ‘Encore’ series, and co-authored ‘How to Teach Instrumental and singing lessons: 100 Inspiring Ideas’ with Penny Sterling.
Karen teaches students of all ages and abilities as a peripatetic, private and classroom music teacher (primary) in York. She is a specialist in Music and Special needs.