Teaching Observations: A Mindful Approach

The third post in my new series, Teaching Observations, focuses on a perennial issue; ensuring students can find the necessary focus, discipline, and concentration required for real progress.  

Over the past few years, I have taught pupils who were most able and could find their way around the keyboard with relative ease. Notes were generally not a problem and neither was finding the motivation to practice. The issue was that some were practising too much (if that’s possible!). Yet little progress was sometimes made and therefore I could only conclude that they weren’t working fruitfully. This is a difficult reality for a teacher, and in some ways, worse than not practising enough, as the issue requires delving fairly deeply and delicately into the psyche of a pupil, trying to ascertain where and how they might be missing the point. 

The piano is an all-consuming instrument and those who have the time may be found playing for numerous hours per day. One might expect retired adults to have this time as well as the interest, and if you are a member of my popular and ever-expanding Facebook piano group, Piano Adult Returners, you may deduce from the comments, that a large cohort of members can sit and play for hours per day if they so choose. 

However, I had a school-age student who was known to practice well into the night, after school, with homework, perhaps sport, and several hours of piano practice already under his belt. Piano playing had become an obsession. Playing the piano is certainly lots of fun and can be ‘relaxing’ for some players, but this type of ‘enjoyment’ often doesn’t result in progress. That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t engage in this type of practice – it can be helpful and is a great way to learn to sight-read, too. But, as teachers know, progress only comes from the hard slog that is known as mindful concentration; applying what has been taught during the lesson very specifically and with careful, direct application. That is, observing body movements ensure flexibility, paying particular attention to firm fingers, alongside slow deliberate practice solidifying note patterns, plenty of rhythmic tapping and metronome use until rhythmic patterns become second nature, exploring tonal palates to expand and project sound, as well as learning about each composer’s style and intention – there’s a lot to do!

This is demanding work and can take a long time, often many months. But it won’t happen at all without students finding the necessary acumen to change and improve the way they work within themselves, and then finding a way to achieve that change. After all, once a student can play the piano, improvement is about deciding what is lacking and then acting on the issue by finding helpful solutions. This concept usually needs teacher intervention as many students, quite understandably, don’t know what they need to do in their practice sessions or what they have yet to learn. 

Some reading this will perhaps wonder how this is of relevance to those who work with small children. This is a different situation. It requires a specialist teacher who is used to dealing with 3 – 6-year-olds and, in my experience, demands full corporation from parents as well (this can be true for older children, too). Small children can find piano playing quite ‘straightforward’ as they don’t question what they are doing in the same way as an older child, teenager or an adult. They don’t ‘overthink’ it. And if lessons are interesting and ‘fun’ then the small child flourishes.

Older children and adults need a disparate approach, particularly those who take their piano playing seriously and are preparing for performances or exams, where progress is essential. In some cases, students aren’t capable of progressing in the manner with which they envisage, and in this case, I have found it beneficial to adjust repertoire to make sure they aren’t playing pieces beyond their capacity, which is a common problem. Repertoire can be a prominent stumbling block in the progress conundrum, which is why, as a teacher, it can help to have mental lists of stock pieces for various levels; this is a constantly evolving list. By more or less sticking to this list, students won’t venture too far beyond their capabilities, which can lead to a destructive path of upset and depression when progress stalls. One can’t be so rigid with all students, of course, as they must also work on their favourite ‘star’ pieces as well so that they play music of their choice; we just need to be sure that those pieces are not out-of-reach either. A confession; with my able students who do know how to work fruitfully, I usually venture out of my stock list, as picking works beyond their current level can, with thorough coaching, be a great way to advance their playing. 

For the majority, however, it’s ‘how’ they are working that’s the issue. Playing passages or pieces over and over again in the hope of improvement can be a complete waste of energy, yet we are all guilty of this mistake at some point or other. So, what can be done to encourage total profitable concentration during practice times? Here are a few basic suggestions:

  • Aim to study fewer pieces – perhaps just one or two, and work at these in a far more detailed manner than you have previously as opposed to ‘playing through’ lots of pieces; although playing through easier pieces at the end of a session is great for sight-reading. 
  • Set a time limit on your practice; 45 minutes in one sitting is quite enough (30 minutes will be sufficient for some) and will be exhausting if you’ve been working profitably.
  • Before you start, write down what you must achieve. You might choose to work on a small section of your piece – the smaller the better. Only allow yourself to work on that section and work at it until you are happy with it. It may not be as good as you might wish, but it will have improved if you work effectively.
  • Pay attention to every aspect of your playing, from your body movements to tempo; have a checklist for which facets you must work at within a section of a piece. I find my students usually need to ‘focus’ on how their fingers are working, and ‘how’ they are playing each key (that is, how they are using their hand, wrist, arm weight etc.). It’s a good idea to memorise the particular passage in question, just so you can observe your fingers, as lack of precision here can be the cause of strife for many.
  • Try to work out why a particular passage isn’t working – be your teacher. What are you finding tricky? You may need to work with a teacher during the lesson to find out what’s causing your grief. Students aren’t always aware of where their shortcomings lie, and even if they are, they frequently don’t possess the knowledge to know how to combat these issues. Wherever the shortcoming is within the piece, it nearly always requires much slower work than has previously been undertaken, which will normally demand more careful, detailed, mindful concentration. Break it all down in to small manageable chunks. When working, your mind should ideally be completely engrossed in your activity at the piano – don’t let it wander! 
  • Be sure that your teacher demonstrates what you must do to attain fluency within a passage or a whole section of a piece. It may be that you can’t ‘imagine’ the necessary touch, feel, sound, depth of key, etc. If you don’t know what you are trying to achieve, the practice of it will probably be a waste of time. It must be shown in detail and worked at in the lesson, so that you know precisely ‘what’ and ‘how’ to practice when you are alone. 
  • Write down a few elements that you want to improve during your weekly practice. Next, set a practice time limit for each one. Perhaps you will work on a particular element for 5 minutes per day. It can help to work with a stopwatch so that you don’t allocate more time than necessary, as it’s easy to get carried away. Challenge yourself to get it done in that time. You will be pleased that you were so unforgiving on yourself, and it may set a precedent for new concentrated practice. 
  • Once you are playing your passage smoothly, try not to go back to how you were playing previously; this is easy to do as habits are hard to break – keep focused and be mindful of your new practice habits every time you play. 
  • Finally, test yourself at the end of a practice session – just briefly. Has your work resulted in some progress? Can you feel or hear the difference?

If a student doesn’t know ‘how’ to work then there will be little progress. These suggestions demonstrate just how flexible teachers need to be and how their approach should offer a bespoke experience to every student. It also illustrates the omnipresent need for a teacher, and one who knows how to encourage, coax, as well as point out issues – it’s all a matter of balance when teaching. Not everyone can afford the luxury of a teacher, but for those who can, progress – providing focused concentration is honed – can be dramatic. 

Read other posts in this series, here.

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Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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