September. Love it or loathe it, it’s here (again). That back-to-routine month of the year.
When I was a kid, September meant blackberry-picking afternoons. The task for the evening was ‘backing’ new notebooks and textbooks from school – with anything from durable, left-over wallpaper to wrapping paper. In fact, in my mind’s eye, I can still see the shiny pink-stripe paper that I chose in year 8.
DO YOU STILL HAVE *YOUR* OLD PIANO NOTEBOOKS?
September always meant a new piano practice notebook too. Reminiscing of Septembers-past this week got me thinking. Are those little notebooks still relevant to piano pupils of the 21st century? Do we use them because they work? Do they work? (I know there are pretty mixed views out there).
Growing up, and learning to play the piano, I can’t say that I (personally) referred to my notebook between lessons – at least, not much. In a way, I wish I’d kept those notebooks because I’d be curious to browse through them now. I also have a feeling that I’d cringe if I ever stumbled across the notebooks of my pupils from a decade ago. Even 5 years ago.
And – hey! – if you’re still in possession of your own piano practice notebooks from yesteryear I’d LOVE you to share some of the things written by your former teachers in the comments below.
WHY AND HOW ARE NOTEBOOKS USED?
If you use pupil notebooks in your piano lessons, what role do they play in your pupils’ learning? And I’m not talking about them being *just* a memory-jog for your pupils (or you). There are 10,050 minutes between your pupils’ 30 minute weekly lessons and I reckon that thinking really deeply about the role of notebooks has the potential to help us, as piano teachers, to get clarity about their purpose.
If you encounter pupils who don’t appear to have spent their time between lessons particularly well, then I reckon that being curious about the role of notebooks is one – just one! – starting point.
- “Practice bars 1-8 of Gavotte.” Let’s face it, as a stand-alone statement, that’s way too vague to be helpful. It’s like taking someone on a journey, depositing them at the destination, and then asking them to find their own way home without a clear set of directions. (And if you’ve ever experienced that, you’ll recall the negative set of emotions – from fear to frustration, and from anger to acute anxiety).
- Pupil: “I couldn’t read your writing. My Mom couldn’t either” (said with either a hint of smugness or embarrassment). Fair point – especially if we struggle to read back what we’ve written one week later.
- You’re informed that the notebook has been “forgotten” – and you can usually tell by the pupil’s tone of voice whether or not that was a conscious effort. It’s got lost. It’s been (supposedly) eaten. It’s been fiercely scribbled on by a younger sibling – to the point where there’s nothing left to read. This is made worse if you don’t have a duplicate copy.
- Re-reading a set of handwritten notes can be a boring starting point. (Did you read the notes your piano teacher wrote? Why/why not?)
- To what extent are notebooks merely ‘tradition’? Might it be another ‘teach as we were taught’ thing that slips through the net without us really questioning WHY we use them?
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM
Yet here’s the biggest problem (in my opinion) with sending a pupil home with a spiral-bound notebook: there is no sound, no practical demonstration. There is no music to accompany and support what is a musical task.
The problem with piano pupils' notebooks: there is no real music to accompany & support what is a musical task - Sharon Mark-TeggartTweet quote
We model how the music will sound to pupils in lessons (perhaps with the comparison of how it should not sound). We demonstrate technical manoeuvres. We guide them through a series of steps.
So what might happen if we provide our pupils’ with more musical experiences between lessons?
Importantly, what’s done in the lesson needs to be linked to what the pupil will do between lessons. But that’s a blog post for another day!
5 THINGS TO TRY
- Get your pupils to write their own notes. If you’ve never asked pupils to do this before, typical responses include: “I thought that was your job?” or “Soooo… [long pause] what do I write?” When I first asked pupils to write their own notes some years ago, it was pretty revealing. Ethan’s response gave me an insight into how well he’d understood the concept (I also got clarity on the aspects he wasn’t so sure about). It became obvious that, although Bridget could tell me what she’d done, she was going to struggle to practice independently. Meanwhile, Polly didn’t appear to remember anything she’d done within the past 30 minutes! However, over time (it doesn’t happen overnight), pupils start to take responsibility for this part of their learning when we persist. In my experience, pupils start to take greater ownership of what they do in those 10,050 minutes between lessons when they’re consciously switched on to HOW in-the-lesson learning translates into at-home learning: so there’s increased pupil understanding and independence – and it’s this that leads to better engagement and better learning.
- Record straight to your pupil’s iPad or phone. This can be instead of – or in addition – to writing. It can be a voice memo or, even better, a video. This allows pupils’ to take home a sound recording of the music they’re learning – and enables them to observe those technical manoeuvres. IMPORTANT NOTE: if you’re recording a pupil on your device (iPhone/iPad) then you *must* comply with child protection and safeguarding policies, obtaining signed, written permission from parents.
- Go digital. Use Evernote. This is a free app that will allow you and your pupil – and their parents – to create and share notes. You can add in photos, upload files (these can be your own templates), include web links and create audio recordings on the spot. Everyone (you/pupil/parent) has a copy, which can be edited and updated by all parties. It keeps everything in one place and you can have the app on your phone, your iPad and your computer. There’s even a search facility – which is great for tracking progress.
- Practice Workbooks. Earlier I referred to the ‘series of steps’ that we use in lessons. So exactly how to practice bars 1-8 of the Gavotte will have been broken down in the lesson: we’ve asked our pupils questions, we’ve demonstrated, we’ve guided them to think about fingering, rhythm and technical issues. (This is why that vague statement “Practice bars 1-8” can feel utterly challenging to a pupil at home. Even when we guide them through HOW to practice in the lesson). That’s where practice workbooks can help. If you’re curious about what a practice workbook is, we’re giving away 100 sample practice workbooks based on Stephen Baron’s Cowboy Song from Piano Explorer Book 1. To access your free, downloadable practice workbook which provides a template of step-by-step learning activities that pupils can do at home click here. [Oooops, all copies have gone!]
- Incorporate writing/recording *throughout* the lesson. In other words, don’t leave this to the end of the lesson. Taking ‘snapshots’ of learning activities throughout the lesson will help pupils get the clarity they need on each task.
Shout out to piano teachers: curious to know if you still have *your* old notebooks?! YES? Share something! - The Curious Piano TeachersTweet quote
Here’s hoping that you’re able to dig up some of your old piano notebooks and share the contents with me in the comments or on Twitter. I’m also curious to hear your thoughts and opinions regarding the points raised in this blog post and look forward to reading and responding to your comments below.