Child’s Play: Why do parents send children to music lessons?

Guest Author: Simon Reich

There we sat in the dark. My Mum and I had been looking at the local Church hall for half an hour now and nobody had arrived, the building still in darkness.

I could tell my mum was getting more and more upset as the minutes ticked by. But to understand the full gravity of the situation, we now found ourselves in, we need to go back in time a little bit.

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Returning to Learning

What can piano teachers learn from stepping into the shoes of the beginner and taking up a new skill or pastime? Quite a lot, in my experience…

Like many adults, I periodically look to introduce a new discipline or hobby into my life. And as a teacher, it is always fascinating to put myself in the position of student.

The latest activity to find its way onto my list of exploits is Pilates, the exercise system developed by Joseph Pilates and often mentioned in the same breath as Yoga (though I think, quite different!)

This lot are learning Pilates too. They look happy, don’t they?

Pilates-1

And certainly I was hoping that I would find Pilates enjoyable – and hopefully beneficial for my health and fitness too.

And inevitably I also hoped that putting myself in the shoes of the complete beginner, there would be teaching parallels that I could reflect on, and which would give me fresh insight.

In this post I am going to list a few observations I made, followed by questions which make connections to piano teaching – these are for self-reflection only.

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Personalised Learning

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 personal musical taste and 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.

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A policy for the use of touch

The hottest potato on UK Piano Forums within the last couple of weeks has been the issue of using touch in our teaching.

One good thing to come from the discussion has been the reminder that some UK professional associations advise teachers to obtain written permission from parents before using touch with students under the age of 18.

This post considers how we can create such a policy, and why it is actually useful to do so.

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Pedal your way to Perfection!

Sheet Music Review

Over the last couple of decades I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching many teenage beginners, but have often found it difficult selecting the best material for them. These days we have become somewhat spoilt for choice when it comes to child-friendly beginner material, but music and method for the teenager remains a bit more thin on the ground.

Composer and teacher Marcel Zidani believes his new publication Hey Presto! Pedal your way to Piano Perfection offers a solution to the problem of older beginners losing interest due to musically dull method books. Describing the book as a “Fast-track Piano Method for ages 11 to Adult” which will help the beginner “sound like a pro in minutes”, he writes:

“You will find that this method is a modern approach to learning the piano and is designed to help beginner pianists create a professional sound very quickly. With the use of the sustain pedal, a good piano teacher and the creative writing of this composer, you will be inspired to complete the course.”

From the outset, it is clear that the unique selling point of Hey Presto! is the immediate use of the sustain pedal. But just how does this work in practice?

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Does piano playing make children ‘smarter’?

Responding to a new research study.

In recent years a succession of academic papers, blog posts and media articles have pushed the view that learning a musical instrument can have the knock-on effect of essentially making children “smarter”.

One line of thinking is that many of the skills fostered through learning to play and practising a musical instrument have “transfer benefits” in other areas of cognitive development and academic attainment.

However, that view is now challenged in a research paper by Giovanni Sala, a PhD candidate in cognitive psychology, and Fernand Gobet, Professor of Decision Making and Expertise, both at the University of Liverpool, and published in the Journal of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI), February 2017.

One difficulty in responding to Sala & Gobet’s findings is that alongside their strongly evidenced research paper they have also written a short blog post with the eye-catching title,  No proof music lessons make children any smarter, which is aimed at the general reader, and is now being widely shared online via social media.

I am grateful to my friend Mark Polishook for sharing it, albeit with the disclaimer, “Don’t blame me – I’m only the messenger” – a sentiment I would very much like to echo in sharing this research here!

That said, there are just so many great reasons for learning to play a musical instrument that I’ve never felt the need for spurious ones – and if it turns out that the notion of “transfer benefits” is such, then I hardly think musicians and educators need to lose sleep over it. Better to know the truth – and to focus on genuine benefits when extolling the tremendous value of music education.

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