Comprehensive Musicianship

PianoKids Academy looks at each child’s cognitive developmental level when implementing teaching methods and interventions. At the same time, we follow a comprehensive musicianship approach that promotes cognitive integration of sensory modalities by integrating multiple components of the music learning process at the same time. By comprehensive musicianship, we are referring to continual training and maintenance in terms of performance skills, sight-reading skills, technique, aural skills, harmonization, transposition, as well as written music theory. Teaching these musical processes simultaneously results in greater conceptual understanding, increased cognitive flexibility, and better overall musical autonomy.

Performance Skills

PianoKids Academy prides itself on the solid performance skills we develop for all students. The main outcome of piano lessons is to learn performance skills requisite to play in various situations and venues. Whether playing in recitals, playing for one’s self, playing school talent show, or just playing for family and friends, successful performance is critical due to one’s perception of competency derived from engaging in mastery experiences. Therefore, we take appropriate steps to ensure and guarantee the student’s attempts to perform are successful. We account for the factors involved in the perceived threat of the performance situation, including their feelings about performance, their cognitive development level, and a myriad of other individual factors for each and every student.

Performance accomplishments can be a major boost to self-efficacy. However, perceived failure either during or after performance can be a lingering source of self-doubt. PianoKids program takes steps to ensure students are not only ready in terms of their musical preparation, but also they feel they are ready. For instance, we do not let students to perform in recital situations without prior experiences of playing in other, low-threat performance situations. We also do not have students perform pieces that above their current skill level. Finally, we do not “force” students to perform to “teach them a lesson” (a tactic employed by numerous instructors in the music field). When children are forced to “go through with it,” particularly if the child is not ready, it “sets the stage” for negative performance outcome, acute feelings of anxiety about future performance, and at worst, a traumatic experience.

One reason we provide group classes for students to learn to know when they are ready and when they are not ready to perform. Group classes also give students repeated low-threat performance situations that contribute to feelings high self-efficacy. Students also learn important coping skills they will call upon to play well before any audience. Self-efficacy beliefs operate especially in performance because people will only perform well as a function of what they know plus what they believe they can do with what they know. Feelings of competency are derived from these beliefs as a key factor in their ability to perform at peak levels. Failure undermines self efficacy, especially if it occurs before a strong sense of self efficacy has been established. Performance successes generally raise beliefs of personal efficacy; failures lower them. However, what really lowers self-efficacy is their cognitive appraisal or interpretation of the situation. Students can regard the “failure” as information, something from which we all learn from to do better in the future.

Sight-reading Skills

Being able to look at a whole series of notes and play them at sight is an extraordinary cognitive challenge involving many skills and subskills. Certain teaching systems postpone sight-reading, or they avoid it completely. Here at PianoKids Academy, we introduce the subskills to students in a well-paced, age-appropriate manner. Subskills for early beginners involve learning pre-staff notation, key-names and finger numbers, and understanding note values, and playing short music patterns. Concepts are further reinforced with our system of incentives.

To assist in building crucial skills, we teach students to use certain strategies that involve Think Aloud Problem Solving (TAPS). This is a self-regulatory skill which aids the student in defining, focusing and self-correcting during sight-reading. The end result is the increased accuracy and consistent concentration on the sight-reading task being performed. TAPS has been shown to be incredibly effective in other populations of school-age chilidren for other classroom tasks.*

Computer-based music instruction is an important way to reinforce reading subskills. Students will run software programs which target key aspects of basic music reading including key names, time signatures, key signatures, staff notation, key signatures, intervals. Since the concepts are shown in multiple ways, students experience novelty even though they are “drilling” the same concept. The time aspect is also important. Fluency is increased through animations, game-like rules, scoring and random conditional graphic events.

Aural Skills

A very important part our program involves teaching listening skills and aural acuity that goes along with being able to play “by ear” without dependence on the musical score.  With individual differences among students, there are some who start out in lessons playing primarily by ear.  Our extensive teaching experience has taught us that most students need to be shown specifically what to “listen” for and they need to be taught how to recognize and discriminate certain attributes of the sounds they hear. All students have to be taught to play “by ear” in a manner that professional musicians already know; that is, when presented with a musical score (notes), students learn to automatically synthesize and integrate the notes, rhythms, nuances, etc. simultaneously to create an accurate mental representation of the entire piece. In other words, they learn look at the attributes of the score and then immediately transform the notes into the sound production we call “music.” All professional musicians have mastered the entire process, doing so seamlessly and unconsciously, since it requires thinking mostly in a non-verbal manner.

Unfortunately, with other programs and teaching methods, you often see some students attempt verbal sequential learning style with complete dependence on the notes per se without attending to their sound. Teachers often assume that since the key is being played and sound is produced, the student is attending to all the attributes of that sound. The evidence for this becomes very clear when the score is taken away and notes are removed, these students cannot play their piece and some hardly know where to begin! Sadly, making music is what everyone comes to lessons to learn to do, so if students depend on the notes, and not use the musical ear they have, they will not be able to memorize or learn their music thoroughly. They are essentially “typing” on the keyboard, learning to push down the keys in response to visual events in the score! Learning this way is a tedious experience taking enormous drudgery and, of course, students quit lessons due to major effort involved in attempting to learn music this way.

Technique

Have you ever attempted to change your hand writing? Perhaps you recall having to learn cursive in Elementary school. In the beginning the movements were slow and deliberate. In addition, there was added problem of attempting to draw the letter in the old way. The change is possible, but not without much effort and tenacity. That’s exactly what it is like to change your piano technique. Once the habits are learned, they are highly resistant to change. An enormous problem in the arts occurs when students who learn improper hand position in the early stages of learning to play their instrument. The reason is that movements are stored as “motor programs” in the brain (in particular, the cerebellum) and are highly over-learned and resistant to all attempts to change or override them later on. The result is premature drop-out, not because the student lacks ability, but instead the student reaches a point beyond which they cannot play pieces due to technical challenges. Their technique of playing habitually incorrectly simply prevents them from playing pieces beyond a certain level. Often teachers handle the problem with “side-stepping” or giving the student many pieces to play at their given level, but never going beyond that level.

At PianoKids Academy, proper playing habits are established from the beginning so that changes won’t be necessary later on. Technique training is age-appropriate and systematic manner. Proper playing of each individual finger of each hand separately is addressed and readdressed continually until the habits are well established. This area is where the supervision by parents during home practice is critical. No amount of fixing and adjustments made in the lesson will succeed in helping children learn proper technique if the children go home and grind in the old movements again and again. By addressing technique in the lesson each week and helping parents see what needs to be done at home, the correct technique habits can be estabilished.

Building a “Knowledgebase”

Beginning level music theory involves learning more basic concepts, such as staff and rhythm notation. At PianoKids Academy, the objective here is to help students learn basic skills about how to decipher a musical score so they can eventually learn a piece correctly without any help from the instructor. Music theory is about helping students to create conceptual neural networks so they can readily access those networks when attempting a complex task such as learning a new piece of music. Without these conceptual networks well established, students will struggle with simple tasks in music learning, even in pieces at the early beginning levels.

Late beginner and early intermediate level music theory requires a shift in emphasis from knowing core concepts to developing more a advanced understanding of music. Music theory is more crucial in building a vast conceptual “backdrop” for students to call upon. In addition, the child is taught to handle playing in different styles, necessitating a wider variety of skills and prior knowledge. The “knowledgebase” has to be in place largely before the child comes into contact with the piece which requires that knowledge. As the students progress into later intermediate and advanced levels of study, the same themes predominate and are expanded upon. Students go into more intricate study of harmony and voice leading, music analysis, counterpoint, music form and phrase structure, improvisation, and playing pieces from all 5 style periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic and Contemporary) that form the basis of Western music (what we know and more broadly refer to as Classical music). Students with training at the advanced level are fully capable of playing most anything they desire, easily branching out to popular music including standard pieces in Jazz, Blues, Rock, and Ragtime styles.

References:

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Binder, C., Haughton, E, Bateman B. (2002). Fluency: Achieving true mastery in the learning process. Retreived from http://curry.edschool.virginia.edu/go/specialed/papers/

Binder, C. &Watkins, C. L (1990). Precision teaching and direct instruction: Measureably superior instructional technology in schools. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 3(4), 74-76.

Manning, B. H, Glasner, S. E. & Smith, E. R. (1996). The self-regulated learning aspect of metacognition: A component of gifted education. Roeper Review, 18(3), 217-223.

Rogers, M. R. (1984). Teaching Approaches to Music Theory. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.