As a teacher, understanding each student as a person and also as a learner can be often challenging. It could be anything related to behaviour, listening skill, technical skill, aural skill, reading skill, observing skill, etc. Each individual has her/his own way of understanding and processing certain elements of what s/he is learning during the lesson. How each student feels about the lesson itself is also different. For a small children, it’s often necessary to liaison with the parent(s) outside the lesson time to fully understand how they feel about the lesson to make some improvements if the necessity arises. It’s a teacher’s important job to pick up little details that are particular to each individual, whether it’s a habit or attitude. It could be something as simple as how the students perceive certain subjects. By observing how each student responds and learns, a teacher tries and uses different tactics; by guiding them via asking simple questions or suggestions, visually guiding them or using analogy, so that a student can ‘see’ what a teacher means, etc. Or very often, physically using tactile tools to ‘understand’ the fact. It’s vital for a teacher to find a unique approach suited to each student, which can allow her/him to be able to tackle what seems to be the problem. I’d like to share a couple of cases that I found the most challenging but managed to find the way forward in both cases. One case is about the change in personal feeling about the piano lesson. The other about finding the way to turn impossible to possible in relation to aural test preparation for the practical exam.
Case 1: 8 years old student who’s been coming to the lessons for 4 years
She’s very shy but has a strong character, wanting to do well. Making mistakes can be very distressful to her. She’s learned over the years that making mistakes is part of the learning process because it gives her way to learn how to fix the problems and try different ways to improve her playing. It was fine for a while, then suddenly, I couldn’t get a word out of her to whatever question or suggestion, or even to a yes-or-no question. She eventually went into tears. I thought she started to loose her interests in piano and to feel that attending the piano lesson is becoming a painful experience. After a while, I suggested we maybe should give piano lessons a little break for a few week, then I asked her mother to discuss with her what her true feelings about coming to the lesson, how she feels during the lesson, etc. It turned out all she wanted to do was to have a lesson with me alone, without the presence of her mother or sister. She simply didn’t want to make mistakes in front of them. She’ll be turning 9 years old soon. I think her ‘self’ as an individual is coming out and she’s now ready to be responsible for her own work as far as piano lessons are concerned. She came to the lesson the other day on her own. She had a big smile on her face and we had a very positive and forward lesson. She’s all right now.
Case 2: 12 years old piano grade exam candidate, who been playing the piano for 6 years.
Although, she’s been always encouraged to sing while playing whilst learning the new pieces, she seems to have problems with singing back simple unfamiliar melodies she just heard. We’ve tried all sorts of ways to fix the problem but none seemed to help. As I thought it could be one of those very rare cases that you can’t relate to pitch you hear in sound, I came up with a different approach by going through what she’s actually very good at. She plays pieces by heart mostly, but this doesn’t mean she learns by ear. When I discovered that her way of learning pieces is very visual, by that I mean ‘by the movement of fingers’, not ‘by the notation’.
I asked her to sit at the piano and ‘play back’ what I sing. Then, I discovered that in her mind all the intervals are much wider than she thought she heard. Gradually she made herself realise that the intervals are much smaller and started to play back correct melodic phrases. Now that she made a link between the sound and interval with a help from her own finger movements, we moved onto another approach so that she can sing back without the help of a piano.
I played a smallest fragment of a melodic phrase to start with, say just 3 notes stepwise, and at the same time asked her to move her finger as if she plays over every note on the piano. After she’s done that, she managed to sing back perfectly. As long as she can imagine herself playing what she’s hearing, she can now sing back with correct pitch. For a week, she practised this way with the help from her mother (to check all the intervals are correct), she can now almost perfectly do ‘echo’ section of the aural exam. It was truly remarkable improvement. It made me realise how important it is for a teacher to focus on the strong points of a student when s/he is showing the weakest point. The exam result just came back, and she passed with a distinction. All the hard work has certainly paid off.
I hope these lesson episodes will help some teachers out there who are facing similar challenges with their students. Best wishes!