What I Learned From My Daughter’s Piano Teacher

The other day I tweeted that I was learning so much from watching my daughter’s piano teacher in action. My friend Down Under @mnjorgenson messaged back to me that I should blog about it. A butterfly must have flapped its wings somewhere because I was literally thinking of doing it when I read his message. Here’s the deal with Yumi’s music class.

You go to a nondescript house and walk to the basement where a slightly cramped and most definitely humble little room awaits. Yamaha or Cosmo Music it is not, but it is painted in cheerful primary colours. You sit down with your child at one of the keyboards. There are eight kid-parent pairs in all. Ms. Lin sits up front at her piano. For one hour, you act as something of an Educational Assistant sitting beside your child as they take lessons from the formidable Ms. Lin.

Ms Lin is not the piano teacher of my childhood, of course. She does not hit my daughter with a ruler. She is friendly, but is so in a slightly distant way. In other words, she means business, and wants the kids to know that she means business. The hour burns by. Speaking as someone who is fairly confident in his educative capabilities, I would say that I am consistently amazed by Ms. Lin’s teaching methods. More importantly, I learn heaps from her.

‘Gradual Release of Responsibility’ is not just jargon; it works

Ms Lin probably doesn’t even know it, but she uses the GRR model of teaching an learning in her class. Everything revolves around a circular process of MODELED explicit instruction, SHARED/GUIDED practice, and INDEPENDENT work. It’s so bloody effective and reassures me that what I’m doing in my class is not just something invented by school teachers.

Kids can learn anything if you take it slow

When we first started in the class, Janet and I were a little mystified as to how Yumi ( a 5-year-old at the time) could possibly learn to, say, play a melody with the right hand while the left hand played a chord. Just pressing a key with one finger seemed to be a challenge. But after just one year of weekly lessons, she can now play an entire song doing that. Why? Because Ms. Lin never jumps to step 11 if the children have not confidently grasped step 9 and 10. I don’t think this means that all learning happens in a sequential, linear fashion. Rather, I think it means that you shouldn’t put students in positions to where they cannot possibly succeed.

Repitition is important

Nuff said.

Kids can’t sit for long

The children in the class do not ever sit at the keyboard for longer than 5 minutes at a time. Ms. Lin constantly alternates between stand-up activities at the front and sit down practice at the keyboard. It’s like she’s using a 6-year-old’s natural distractability against him/herself. In my own class, I’ve noticed that even something as simple as getting students to stand up out of their seat to be enormously beneficial. It’s like a metaphorical cigarette break without the lung cancer.

Homework is useful when it’s consistent and is merely practicing concepts from class

I don’t like homework. I don’t like doing it, assigning it, checking it, marking it, helping my kid with it, or giving it to the dog to eat. But, surely, the polarized debate surrounding it is a tad simplistic. Homework is just plain necessary for development in music, and it’s sometimes necessary for our classroom students as well.

Kids want to impress peers far more than their teachers/parents (and rightfully so)

When we mention to people that Yumi takes a piano class, instead of private lessons, they are often surprised. We ourselves even wondered about the efficacy of this model when we first began, but, wow, have we found it effective. The students in Ms. Lin’s class are constantly on display, accountable to an audience of their peers. I am not even certain if Yumi would practice at all if it weren’t for the fact that she has to (as they say in hip hop culture) represent. This is precisely why I use Web 2.0 tools like Moodle in my class program: Kids. Need. To. See. And respond to. Each others work/ideas. All the time.

There are most certainly a plethora of contextual and curricular differences between Yumi’s class and an average public school classroom. Not the least of these is are the differences in class size, parental involvement, and strictly skill-based nature of the piano class. I also realise that Ms. Lin is by no means breaking massive ground or telling us something any good teacher should already know. But sometimes it’s the little stuff that really matters.

Ms. Lin, I am sorry if you are horrified that one of the parents in your class is deconstructing your pedagogy on a weekly basis (no less blogging about it!) I just hope you know that at least one person gets what you’re doing.


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