‘My Piano Friend’

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

One teacher’s answer to preventing negative self talkwithin music learning…

Emotional Resilience

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 Ive witnessed is the availability of technology (particularly mobile phones, tablets, the use of YouTube and social media forums).

However, another change that Ive 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 Ive 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 dont 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.

Ive noticed that children, as a whole, appear to want quicker results. Ive heard many term this The X Factor Generationthey 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, childrens 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 elses achievements for all to see too.

We are in the age of the selfie. Thinking about selfconstantly 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 UKs current mental health statistics can be found here.

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 Ive 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’?

Step 1

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.

Step 2

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.

Some examples: 

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, its 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 – thats okay because it is tricky, if you keep doing a little bit at a time it can get easier.

Are you being kind to (childs 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.

Piano-Friend

The Psychology

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 expectedlevels 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 brothers ability, comparing herself on a regular basis. 

Regularly when Emma was given a new piece, before she began she would say I dont 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 couldnt do it.

My heart broke for this little girl, who was in her SATS year.  Shed told me about doing lots of groups (I presume booster groups, to achieve the highest levels).

With a loving family and wonderful parents, I couldnt help but think that perhaps the UK education system had some part to play in this childs 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. Emmas 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 (whod 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

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.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

11 thoughts on “‘My Piano Friend’”

    1. Garreth – sorry for the delay in replying. Just got back from a trip away. Many thanks for your kind words and really hope it helps some of your students.

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    1. Markrei, just back from a trip away so sorry for the delay in replying. The oldest student I’ve used this successfully with is 13 years. 9 year olds have all successfully worked with having a piano friend. Do let me know how you get one. Many thanks for your interest.

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    1. Mair, just back from a trip away so apologies for not answering sooner. Many thanks for your kind words and I really hope it helps some of your students.

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  1. Great idea – I must try it! Have you tried it in your music classroom? I teach private piano & Primary classroom music & another helpful strategy is always welcome!

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    1. Felicity, just back from a weekend away so apologies for not answering sooner. Thank you for your kind words. I also teach primary music in a classroom. I haven’t used this in the classroom yet however have practiced some of the growth mindset statements and also had one of the class rules as ‘being kind to yourself’ after training what it means. Children in the lesson (when they become frustrated) are asked whether they are being kind to themselves. When they answer no, I discuss how they could be kinder. It does really help the resilience. The children even correct each other saying things like: “You need to be kinder to yourself, if we keep trying we will get there.” I do however plan to introduce ‘music friend’ into the classroom the beginning of this academic year! If you do try it, please let me know how you get on.

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  2. Great idea – I must try it! Have you tried it in your music classroom? I teach private piano & Primary classroom music & another helpful strategy is always welcome!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s very insightful Andrew. Many of us experienced ‘piano enemies’ as children e.g. adjudicators, teachers, examiners, even peers who all discouraged us with negative comments. Sometimes a piano friend is found in the strangest of places .. I bought a piano for the first time in my early 20s having played the family piano for years. I borrowed from the bank to buy it ( I was working as a junior doctor at the time ) and the bank manager at the time really encouraged me – said he remembered my playing as a teenager in a concert and thought it was really important I should never stop playing – unexpected words of praise at a time when life was so busy I might have let it go if he hadn’t made borrowing the money to buy it so easy. (He was more circumspect when I wanted to buy a car!) So probably thanks to Christy Smith the bank manager I still play. He’s dead now sadly so I need a new piano friend 🎹😉.

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