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Some Thoughts About Learning

I just finished my piano practice and it occurred to me that my approach to my piano work is really relevant to the work I do with my students.  I am genuinely putting into practice the approach I ask them to take.  I constantly tell students that they don’t need to get the work “right”, that if they are perfectionists they will never be satisfied, they should only aim to be a little bit better than the last time they did the work, (whilst being aware that there will be days when everything sounds and feels awful, those days are normal too, just don’t let them put you off).


I think I have always known this but there have been a couple of things that I have read recently that have taught me more about this approach in theory.


Firstly a book called “Bounce” by Matthew Syed.  The main points that stuck with me from the book were about putting in the hours and then purposeful practice.


There is great value to just turning up to do the work, day after day, with the faith that you will get better.  However this isn’t actually true.  There is no point repeating mistakes day after day as that only reinforces bad habits.  It is no wonder that I didn’t practice much for my singing teacher when I was at University.  I had no piano and no recordings of the lessons, how was I meant to practice?  Through osmosis by looking at the page?  I recall she was disappointed that I got a Merit in my grade.  Looking back that is a miracle as I did no practice at all in between lessons.


It is clearly really important that students have the tools to work alone in the correct manner and that the practice has to be purposeful.


This is where I really use the information in the book and apply it.  Work slightly beyond your capabilities.  Get guidance on how to get there and, something I have seen over and over with my different students, keep the faith in your capabilities.


Years ago I used to teach study skills workshops and I used to tell the students the mantra “if you think you can, or you think you can’t you’re right”.   I used to talk about Madonna to illustrate my point.  I would say that she has always gone for her dreams even when her abilities didn’t seem to match her ambitions.  But she worked hard, with self belief and she got there.


I remember being amazed at the rate of improvement I saw in a student whose ability wasn’t great but who had infinite confidence, she improved incredibly fast so that after two lessons the change was audible to everyone who heard her sing, (which was everyone).  I also see, lesson after lesson, singers who have lovely voices but just don’t believe me.  I record them, I force them into public performances and I do whatever I can to disprove their lack of self belief, but it’s much harder to teach someone whose inner critic keeps drowning out my genuine praise.


I decided last year that I would achieve my Grade 5 piano, ABRSM grade in 2014.  This is a pretty crazy thing to do.  I can accompany my students as my right hand is pretty clever and I just play bass notes from the guitar chords.  My inner critic says that I am not a piano player and if anyone says I am I will argue with them, but I can, however get by enough to support my students.  So I thought, let’s go for it.


I had met a lady at my son’s swimming lessons whose daughter is a piano teacher and who lives nearby.  I went for a lesson and have seen Kirsty Field for regular 30 minute lessons every 2 weeks during term time for 9 months now.  That is probably about 6 hours of piano lessons.


At the first lesson I couldn’t really play Grade 3 pieces at all.  They were tricky, really tricky.  I took them away and I practiced them (almost), every day, one hand at a time, taking loads time over my terribly slow left hand.  I also practiced my scales and I found that they got easier.


I did the same thing with the grade 4 pieces although I didn’t bother with the scales at that point, (I wish I had now).  Then, in May I started working towards my Grade 5.


Kirsty thinks that I will pass and I keep that in mind when I look at the enormous list of scales that I need to learn.  I remember that when I feel like I can’t play the pieces at all.  I am aware that musically I want them to sound like they are full of soul and passion but I’m still sounding like a note basher and not a musician at all.  I wish I sounded better, but this is where I am now. I have another 2 months to prepare.


I’m not going to say it’s not boring.  I am terrible at my current homework of “slow practice”.  Slow isn’t really in my vocabulary.  I start at a crawl and end up at the pace I always play the piece, too fast for my fingers to keep up with my brain.  But I will keep trying to slow down.  I will keep playing my scales and arpeggios.  I can play almost all of the 3 octave major and minor scales and arpeggios and some are actually starting to sound palatable to my critical ears.


But that annoying inner critic is convinced I will fail.  Every time she pipes up I try to do some practice to drown her out.  I think it’s starting to work.


I have entered myself for the Grade 5 exam.  It will be at some point in late November.  When I think about it I feel a little sick but only a little.  I hold on to the lessons I have seen from my own students.


I have seen a student who can’t sing a note in tune achieve a pass in Grade 3 Musical Theatre and, more than that even, be able to sing her warm up scales in tune, for a whole lesson’s warm  up.  She never lost faith that she could achieve it and through her I learnt that it was indeed possible.  (I should explain that I knew, in theory, it was possible, because I had heard on a Radio 4 programme that genuine tone-deafness is combined with a lack of appreciation for music, that if a person appreciates music then they can learn to sing in tune, and also I had heard other singing teachers show off that they had taught a tone deaf person to sing in tune, I just didn’t know how long it would take.)  The student never lost faith and she got there.  I have never been prouder.  Although I often come very close to it.


Seeing students transform from being terrified little girls to belting out songs in my concert with enough attitude to take on the whole of Waseley Hills High School.  Getting a text from a student who had no understanding of her high voice, telling me that she managed to stay in her high voice in her choir practice and, more than that, enjoy the choir session.  The list goes on but I will resist for risk of being boring.


All of this takes me to other thing I read.  It was an article that I saw a link to on Facebook.  It was about how to harness genuine self confidence in children and I can’t remember who wrote it or on what site I saw it.   It said that it doesn’t work to tell children that they are brilliant at everything if, in reality they are not.  When they grow up they will realise that they are, in reality, quite rubbish at lots of things, and they won’t have a clue how to work to improve.  The article said that you need to value growth and not innate ability.  The aim is to improve, to learn to grow.  Yes some people have a natural ability at something and that’s great but that’s just luck.   Why do we applaud luck?  We should reward and praise work, dedication and being brave enough to do something even if it scares you, or makes you feel out of your comfort zone.


I am so proud of my son Ben, (who has just turned 5), for sticking with gymnastics class.  I though it was too long, he looked bored and the other kids, (mostly much older girls), were kind of scary.  If I was him there is no way I would have gone back after the trial session.  I asked him over and over if he really wanted to do it before I paid for the term.  He kept saying yes.  So now I have to endure watching him being really fidgety and a bit naughty and bite my tongue to stop myself telling the teachers that they aren’t paying proper attention, because I don’t want to be a back seat driver  (read teacher).   It seems that he is ok with being a bit rubbish and has confidence that he will improve. I am much prouder of him for this than for being good at the things he finds easy.


I think this blog has become rather long so I will sign off here and if I never mention my Grade 5 piano again you can assume that my inner critic was right. I hope to be shouting about it in January 2015.

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