The World According to Ms. Alison
I read a Scholarly Pedagogical Article recently about the timing, content and degree of teacher feedback found to be most helpful in facilitating learning, independent learning in particular. There were charts and stuff and everything. The gist of it though was that to comment too much, too often and too soon is one of the primary hallmarks of unskillful teaching.
Fortunately for me, pretty much all my students are quite forthcoming about how annoying it is when I over-participate. Even the more subtle ones tend to swing their legs in frustration over something as benign as my offering to point with my magic pointing baton at those notes on the page which are mysteriously invisible to all eyes but mine.
"Ms. Alison!", they protest, "I know how to do it myself!". And if I ask them a particularly relevant question such as "are you sure that is your left hand third finger and is it really on C", they invariably correct it with much more grace than if I just tell them it is incorrect (and point, annoyingly). I always find it hilarious when they insist they WERE doing that, to which I can only reply "I must be going deaf" and/or "I guess I need new glasses". This is invariably taken as the honest truth which is even more amusing.
Anyway, this oblique approach not only facilitates a useful (and entertaining) flow of information in both directions, it saves me from crouching over the student in question, pointing at every single note and possibly also singing the note names for them while tapping the beat AND continually correcting their hand position. This is bad for morale and hell on the back, but exactly what I see the vast majority of my colleagues doing at work. Except for one guy who cunningly sits behind the student and I swear is fiddling with his iPhone behind the friendly shelter of a music stand.
It is very difficult to refrain from interjection in those moments that feel like forever, when it would be so much easier to just say "no, it should be this". In my most desperate moments I must even fight the urge to just pick up their tiny hands and put them in the right place. However, the better I become at waiting and watching, giving them the time and space to determine for themselves if they do in fact need some help, the more I realize that the student will almost always figure it out. Some of them must be forced to do so by my unhelpful silence. At the beginning they tend to figure it out verrrry sloooowly and need lots of hints. But soon all it will take is an innocuous "if I'm not going deaf, I think I heard something you need to double check in measure 11". And hey presto, without even having to wave my magic pointing baton.
It's too bad they're not into that, really, as it has the capacity to make showers of glitter stars, rainbows and particularly delicious candy unicorns. All the more for Ms. Alison.
Much has been written about the spiritual implications of music, singing in particular. Less has been written about Ms. Alison's other cunning capitalistic venture, I mean, educational initiative, "SINGtegration". Website to be unveiled in the near future.
So yes, I teach voice. And I have a couple favourite songs, both for teaching as they are pedagogically apt for beginners- and just because they are some of my favourite songs. As I feel it is imperative that everyone have an easily singable, heartfelt song to take home from their very first lesson, I often start with "Stay Awake", from Mary Poppins. After all, everyone needs a lullaby to call upon.
Last week my theory came home to roost. I have a new voice student who is already a favourite due to her proclivity for adding beatbox to keep the rhythm of sequential reiterations of warmup patterns. (Yes, teachers do have favourites). She apologized for being late, then explained her Grandmother had just died yesterday, adding in the same sentence, "you know my new song?" "Of course!" I said, "it's one of the best songs in the entire world". "I've been singing it to my Grandma all week. I was singing it to her when she died".
Can there be anything more beautiful for a singing teacher to hear? Yes- that student then singing for me what is now OUR favourite song, with more genuine expression and musicality in the first two syllables than any opera could ever hope to convey in two whole hours.
After just two lessons, she is now officially, definitely and irrevocably one of my all time most memorable (and favourite) students.
One of the things I find endlessly amusing about my littler students is their complete guilelessness re. practice events (or non-events). Perhaps I should be more perturbed by the non-events. But. Lots of parents want their kids to be (simultaneously) exposed to lots of different activities from a young age, in the hope that their child will find something they truly enjoy and maybe even become passionate about. Most parents work. Lots of students have attention-sucking younger siblings. Put these together and you have a situation where there truly is very limited time and energy for practice. At this particular phase in that student's musical like. NOT forever.
Focusing on the realities of where the student and their family are actually at, rather than on what is ideal, may seem counter-intuitive to the achievement of high standards. But in the long term, it's much more effective than nagging, bribing or guilting. To whit, today one of my most charming little girls struck a triple whammy in her response to my usual casual inquiry of "How was piano this week? Any questions?"
"Ms. Alison!" she exclaimed, eyes shining. "I practiced ONCE! Piano is so easy! I love piano! It could never be boring!!!" "Mmmmm", I say, trying not to laugh. "So why only one practice session this week?" Wait for it: "My Mom organizes my life so I can't practice. "Oh yes?" I say, trying really REALLY hard not to laugh. "On Monday I have ballet. On Tuesday I have.." and so on. Fair enough, the kid makes a valid point. "So, how DID you find a way to practice?" "On my Barbie keyboard, in the car on the way here".
I had a choice: dive into the endless pit of piano teacher existentialist despair, or remember that this was the same child who a couple of months ago found the very idea of repetition, a.k.a. practice, totally incomprehensible and rather exhausting. And so I had her show me exactly HOW she had practiced. (Once. In the car).
First time: counted out loud (correctly and with a rock solid steady beat).
Second time: sang the note names (in tune).
Third time: slow motion "turtle speed" (paying extra attention to technique).
Fourth time: eyes closed (best one so far).
Fifth time: with my accompaniment (oblivious to the distraction)
Sixth time: "Can I show you what I made up with the left hand?" (application of thirds and seconds at inopportune moments).
Seventh time: singing the words she'd made up (something about poodles. Hilarity ensues).
Eighth time "Can I do it again???"
Yes, she could be playing something much more complex and practicing much (much!!!) more often. However, the pertinent short term question is: has she acquired the study/practice skills that will serve her so well in later years? Has she learned HOW to learn?
It would appear so. And hopefully, one day, she will choose piano over the other activities currently on the introductory menu...if and ONLY if she still "loves piano" and finds that it "could never be boring". Facilitating a life-long non-dysfunctional relationship with music, and all that implies, is the heart and ultimate purpose of my job. I try to achieve this with pedagogical cunning, an appreciation for the realities of modern family life, and lots of affection, warmth and humor.
Because it works. If do say so myself. And it's much more fun than that pit of piano teacher existential despair about things I cannot control.