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Give Me Just 0.23 Percent Of Your Time, And I’ll Teach You How To Play The Piano

(This article first appeared in the “Random Access” column of the December/January 2016/2017 issue of American Music Teacher.)

One of the most contentious issues in American society today is our educational system. The general assumption is that we’re not doing enough to educate our kids or we’re not doing the right things—or both. Out of these assumptions flow all sorts of programs to remedy the problem: No Child Left Behind, Common Core, high-stakes testing, longer school days, emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and so forth.

In the midst of the controversy, a sea of money flows from place to place as educational programs are initiated at the local, state, and national levels. In the ensuing maelstrom, programs for music education are often tossed about like a paper boat on a raging sea.

Fortunately, as the surging educational waters flow uncontrollably across the lowlands, the private music studio stands on high ground—and there’s always a light on in the window. No matter what music programs are or are not available in the local schools, the private teacher stands ready to offer lessons.

What Can You Realistically Expect from Private Lessons?
If you were to examine the circumstances of the private lesson objectively, you would have to marvel at the fact that private lessons actually take place. For starters, the economics of the private lesson pose an almost insurmountable barrier: the student is paying for one-on-one time with the teacher. That’s an expensive proposition for the student. At the same time, the teacher is challenged to charge enough per hour and to work enough hours per week to make a good living.

Despite the economic challenges, private music education does, indeed, take place. But how effective can it possibly be? Let’s do the math together:

For most private teachers, an hour lesson seems like the best option for students who can afford the cost. An hour is twice as long as a half hour (obviously), and you can barely say Hello and Goodbye in the space of a half hour.

Although the hour lesson seems luxurious, let’s put that hour into perspective. There are 24 hours in a day, and 7 days in a week. The product of 24 times 7 is 168 (24 x 7 = 168). Stated another way, if we see a student for one hour of the week, we have captured the student’s attention for exactly 1/168th or 0.6% of his or her available time.

That percentage, however, does not reflect a real-world situation. Most of us don’t see students every week of the year. There are holidays, vacations, and sick days that lower the total number of teaching days.

Let’s look at a more common situation, the half-hour lesson, and apply it to a realistic teaching calendar. We’ll assume that you actually see the student 40 times out of the 52-week year. Here’s the math:

40 half-hour lessons yield a total of 20 hours of contact time. In a 365-day year, there are 8,760 hours. Divide 20 by 8,760. What do you get? OK, I’ll do it for you. The answer is 0.002283105023. If we change the number to a percent and round it up slightly, we get 0.23%.

Simply put: If you teach half-hour lessons, you get the student’s undivided attention for 0.23% of their time. And that’s plenty of time to teach the student how to play the piano, bow a cello, or sing art songs, right?

The Remarkable Private Teacher
Clearly, the effective private teacher is an educational marvel, someone who can teach a challenging subject with very little interaction with the student. Let’s pull back the curtain on the creative private studio and take a peek at what goes on during a lesson.

If we were to eavesdrop on random private lessons, we would not be surprised to see teachers explaining fingerings, drilling rhythms, tapping the beat while the student plays, or demonstrating phrasing. In other words, we would see teachers working with students on specific issues that come up in the process of learning particular pieces.

But if that is all that is taking place—specific instruction that uniquely pertains to a particular piece, long-term learning would unfold slowly. There is just not enough lesson time to teach everything that there is to learn about each piece in the planned curriculum.

No, the effective teacher does some much more profound during the lesson. In addition to doing all of the foregoing, the effective teacher teaches the student how to become his own teacher.

Planned Obsolescence
I’m sure we’re all in agreement that students cannot make much progress unless they practice between lessons. Put another way: students cannot make much progress between lessons unless they are learning independently. And the better they learn independently, the less they need us!

This observation has guided my thinking throughout my teaching career. As a teacher, I believe that it is my duty to do what I can to make myself unnecessary in the educational life of my students.

Tools for Student Engagement and Independent Learning
It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a scientific analysis of independent learning. However, based on our own collective experiences, we can probably agree that the circumstances that provide the most fertile opportunities for independent learning include:

  •  interest or excitement about the subject matter
  • the opportunity to make choices
  • an understanding of the educational challenges posed by the weekly assignment
  • a method for applying current skills to the tasks at hand
  • regular, positive feedback

Let’s imagine that a student comes to the lesson with a request to play the hit tune, Let It Go, from the movie Frozen. Such a request would provide us with the opportunity to leverage the student’s excitement and to use the piece to further our educational goals.

We could set about teaching the piece by rote. But there’s a limit to how far we would get during a 30-minute lesson, and there would be a further limit to how much the student would remember during the week.

To solve this problem, many of us would acquire a published, level-appropriate arrangement. Doing so would provide the student with a useful tool for remembering what was covered in the lesson and for exploring the portions of the piece not covered in the lesson. Although we might not customarily think of paper music as a tool, that’s really what it is.

We might also supply the student with additional tools, such as an audio recording made during the lesson, a metronome for steady practice, and a practice chart that the student would use to guide and document his practice.

If all goes well, the student would receive incremental, positive feedback derived from the joy of playing of small portions of the piece at home and would later receive even more positive feedback during the lesson when the teacher helps the student to learn more of the piece. Ultimately, the student would experience the greatest satisfaction that comes when he can play the entire piece, either just for himself or for an audience.

Modern Tools
As useful as the foregoing tools might be, modern tools provide even more opportunity for keeping the student immersively engaged, providing choices, guiding the learning process, and providing sustained positive feedback.

For example, imagine the possibility of sending the student home with an audio or MIDI recording that provides play-along backing tracks. The backing tracks can be a much more effective time-keeping tool than a metronome because they provide a musical context for the beat. And, those backing tracks provide the orchestral sounds that inspired the student when the student first saw the movie. Musically and educationally, those backing tracks will keep the student engaged.

Now, imagine that those backing tracks are embedded in a score that is viewable on a tablet. Two traditional tools—sheet music and metronome—have now become integrated into one, providing the student with a simpler but more powerful environment for learning the piece.

Of course the student may still need instruction regarding fingering, the mechanics of moving around the keyboard, as well as help deciphering the chords. Remarkably, there are quite a number of videos on YouTube and other places that offer tutorials on how to play this piece. If you search on YouTube, the top hits mostly show tutorials for piano and guitar, although one tutorial for violin made the top list in my search. If you specify a certain instrument in your search, other videos will come up.

Of course these videos can range in their quality. For example, my Random Access colleague, Mario Ajero, has posted an excellent video for this piece, complete with a perfect, overhead camera view of his hands as well as an animated, on-screen keyboard that clearly shows which notes are played and when he moves the pedal.

Some of the other videos are far less formal but interesting in their own right. I found a video from clarinetist of apparent middle school age, recorded on her phone in her bedroom. I could easily see a child of similar age becoming quite engaged with this video. And it was no doubt a very educational experience for this kid to have shared her knowledge in this way. She is clearly becoming her own teacher!

With Changing Times Come New Opportunities
As times change, so do our tools. And, like it or not, our students are connected to a modern culture that brings these opportunities and challenges into their homes.

In these sometimes confusing times, it is useful to reflect upon our fundamental teaching goals and ask ourselves what opportunities these new technologies bring to us and our students.