Archive for category Teaching

Walking a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes – Teaching Autistic Students

I am getting a growing number of enquiries from parents of autistic children (and autistic adults) looking for piano lessons*. But how does teaching an autistic learner differ to teaching a non-autistic learner? Or perhaps a better question would be, how does being an autistic learner differ from being a non-autistic learner?

The first thing for any teacher to understand is that autistic students are not a homogenous group. There is no ‘autistic piano method’. As a teacher working with autistic students, you may come across learners who are non-verbal, communicate through echolalia (repeating phrases or sounds), can’t-get-a-word-in-edgeways-chatty, socially anxious, quiet, noisy, sound-averse, shy, confident, instantly good readers, struggle with notation, have great aural memories, have poor aural memories, highly creative, thrive on accuracy and detail, you get the idea…

None of which actually answers the question of learning and teaching.

Except in a way, it does.

Autism still has a lot of stigma attached to it, and a great deal of myths. Language is important too, and many autistic adults (who it should be remembered were autistic children once) are now saying that professionals working with autistic children need to look beyond the commonly used ‘deficit’ or ‘medical’ model of comparing autistic behaviours to non-autistic behaviours and marking anything different as ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’ and in need of ‘intervention’. Instead, we should be supporting autistic people where they need support, and understanding autistic ways of communicating, socialising, and self-care, as being different to non-autistic, but not necessarily problematic.

All of which should give a small idea of how to approach teaching through an ‘autistic lens’, i.e. from the viewpoint of the autistic learner, rather than from a point of a professional providing piano lessons with supporting ‘interventions’ or ‘behavioural management strategies’.

The following 10 points may help:

  1. Autistic children can experience high levels of stress with new environments, and the experience of new piano lessons is one of them. It may take your autistic learner far longer to settle into lessons than a non-autistic learner. If you offer a trial period as standard, it’s worth you considering extending this for autistic newcomers.

2.  Also regarding stress and anxiety, your new autistic learner may not learn anything constructive at all in the first few weeks, as the barrier of experiencing new environment and new people (i.e., you) may be a hurdle that they need to get used to before they are able to begin the process of learning. Be extra patient.

3.  Autistic children do not always express emotions in ways which non-autistic people do. For instance, I have two students currently who, when stressed with the prospect of being asked to do something that is new and potentially quite tricky, self-soothe by playing glissandos, or playing every note on the piano. This is a form of ‘stimming’ (self stimulating behaviour) and is a way of dealing with emotions. It is important that students are allowed to express themselves however they choose to do so.

4.  Autistic children may need frequent breaks during the lessons so they do not become overwhelmed with environment, sensory input, or demands of tasks. For very young children, this may need to be scheduled in with a visual timer app on a phone and a pictorial timetable, so that the child knows they have an upcoming break. The parent/carer, if in the lesson, needs to be on board with this so they do not think the child is simply wasting time.

5.  A young autistic child (pre-teen certainly) may need to be taught by ear, either fully, or just temporarily, even if they are perfectly capable of reading notation. This may be because the additional barrier of the notation is simply one barrier too many, on top of an already overwhelming environment of sensory overload, task demands, and very possibly tiredness after a day at school.

6.  An autistic child may be unable to handle you sitting near them at the piano, or playing the piano at the same time as them or near them – this is due to sensory overload, either aural or physical.  If so, it is worth recording demonstration tracks on a laptop, possibly on a loop, that can be played away from the piano, at a quieter volume that the child is comfortable with.

7.  An autistic child may enjoy repetition much more than you do! And they may wish to return to continually pieces that they know well, particularly in the beginning, sometimes repeating them continually throughout the lesson. As their teacher, you need to allow this, as this is your student enjoying the learning process. Mix their repetition with occasional new tasks, rather than barring old pieces completely.

8.  Some autistic children are extremely demand avoidant, and some have a diagnosis, or identification, of PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). This avoidance of demand means your student becomes extremely stressed and anxious when faced with demands from you (even ones you believe to be mild and completely reasonable) and you may also get reports from their parents/carers that practising is quite a challenge at times. It is absolutely crucial to understand that demand avoidant children are not being manipulative, difficult, or naughty. Instead, they are faced with extreme anxiety and stress when they feel out of control and under pressure of being ‘told what to do’. These children need an abundance of positive reinforcement as their confidence is often on the floor, and lots of choice to prevent them feeling backed up against the wall. For example, rather than giving them a piece to practice, play them 3 pieces and ask them to choose which one they would like to learn. Rather than asking them to play the right hand first, ask them whether they want to try the piece first, with which hand (or both) or whether they want to listen to you demonstrate it again. Choice, choice, choice.

9.  An autistic child may not be able to sit well on a piano stool, or perhaps not at all at first. It may be that you start off with the piano stool completely out of the way and your student stands to play, gradually introducing the stool as lessons slowly progress. Equally, your student may feel uncomfortable at the piano without their coat on, or a hat. If so, this is probably a sensory necessity or a comfort, and needs to be respected, even if it looks unusual to you.

10.  If your autistic student comes into the lesson when your studio is empty, and that changes due to a timetable change, let the parents know as soon as practicable. Your student may be completely thrown by the presence of someone unknown (another student, and potentially their parent and/or sibling also) coming and going as they get to their lesson, and this might cause significant distress and anxiety.

To create an autism friendly learning environment, we as teachers need to be looking at our teaching through the lens of autism, rather than simply trying to make our autistic students fit in with our usual practices. We need to step into the shoes of our autistic students and walk around in them for a bit, then adapt our teaching accordingly to be as constructive, positive, and supportive as we possibly can.

And in doing this, we can help to create a society with a truly inclusive music education system.

 

*I have based this on autistic children as the majority of my students are children, but most of what I have written could easily be applied to adults as well.

 

 

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Music Exams – an Open Letter to Parents

Another post on exams! (I know, I know, but the number of times the subject of ‘but, but, EXAMS!’ crops up with new or transferring students is, sadly, increasing.) This post originally comes from a private email I wrote to a parent, but has been edited to transform it into an ‘open letter’ to all parents and students.

 

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Exams really are quite useful things, and many (if not most) of my students enjoy preparing for and sitting them, but they are far from the learning method that they are often used as.  To give you some idea, at the time of writing, I have nearly 50 students on my books, and only three of them are currently working towards a practical exam (with a further one working towards sitting his Grade 4 Theory in March).  The other students are learning repertoire, and developing their skills in this way.

I should mention at this point, that it is not necessary to take every grade exam.  Again, with my long term students, you would find that the vast majority of them skip grades (in order to spend additional time learning different styles, genres, and technical skills).  It is also worth bearing in mind that, should a student rarely work at music away from an exam syllabus, once they have passed grade 8, most of them haven’t a clue how to work towards anything from that point forward, as their only method of progression has now gone.  You may be interested to know that I work with a great many post-grade 8 students who have only rarely learnt non-exam pieces, and they are, without exception, wholly unprepared for how to cope at this point.  I appreciate this is not a way of learning that you are used to, but learning repertoire and understanding music is the key to not only progressing, but realising full potential, and perhaps most importantly, really enjoying the piano.

With this in mind, we are really looking at a minimum of 1 year after sitting a grade exam before even beginning work on the next one.  It is possible that once this time has passed, a student may be past the level of the next grade up, in which case, we would either begin the one following that, or spend a little more time developing skills to get him or her to that point.   A typical progression ‘through the grades’ for my students is often – grades 1,3,4,6 then 8, with the remaining grades skipped.

As a good guide for you to refer to, a student should be completing an absolute bare minimum of one entire book of repertoire ‘between exams’.  Bear in mind that for students who skip exams, this doubles.  However, this volume of repertoire is rarely taken from one single book, as this, also, is too restrictive.  This means that most students have 1 or 2 books on the go at once, and they roughly complete half of each book before moving on.  This guide also includes duet books (duets are particularly important for piano students as it is often the only time they learn any collaborative playing skills).  For example, I would anticipate that a student who has just taken grade 4 would need to learn roughly half of a compilation book (ABRSM compilations or Lenehan KeyNotes are good for this), and roughly half of something else (possibly a Microjazz volume, or the Walton Children’s Pieces for Duet, which are excellent and great fun to play) before looking at the possibility of grade 5, and more so if we decided to skip this.  I appreciate this is very new to you, but once they are over the initial shock of learning non-exam pieces, my students all massively enjoy playing ‘normal’ repertoire, and they learn far more in terms of musical understanding and technical skills than if they were to work towards exams with only brief moments of respite.

I appreciate that parents often wish for their children to sit another exam as soon as possible after their previous one, but if I can draw your attention to other methods of measuring attainment, which you may not be aware of, this might ease your mind.  I hold a yearly concert for my students (in the Summer Term), which all students are invited (but not pressured) to perform at, with many students who are not confident about performing choosing to perform a duet with me instead of a solo piece.  Last year, this concert was held at Cardiff University concert hall, and was a great success, with nearly 250 students / parents attending.  There is also the opportunity to perform at the South Glamorgan Festival for Young Musicians which is held every May bank holiday.  Here, there are both competitive and non-competitive classes available.  At the risk of repeating myself, attainment can also (indeed it should be) measured by completion of a new piece, by a technical difficulty surmounted, or a new understanding of a musical problem.  [Edit… colleague and friend, Phil May, made the additional (and rather brilliant) suggestion that with so many people owning iPads, laptops, and smartphones, parents could record their children performing each finished piece, not just for posterity, but perhaps to send to relatives.  This would help in creating a tangible way of seeing progress without the need for exam certificates.]

Unfortunately, the world we live in now has become very much an exam-oriented one for children, with graded music exams being a not-insignificant part of this.  But focussing too much on exams in music is hugely detrimental to students, and leaves a great many young musicians, even gifted ones, without necessary technical skills and musical understanding, and often leads to a loss of enjoyment in learning music (which is heartbreaking to watch).

I am happy to answer any questions you may have on this topic – it is one which I discuss frequently so I genuinely do understand parental (and students’) concerns!  You might also be interested to know that having students staying away from exams does not mean they perform badly when they do sit them.  I have a 100% pass rate for grade exams (theory and practical), and my students have won awards from the ABRSM in the past for achieving exceptionally high marks (my most recent being a young boy of 12 years’ old who achieved the highest Grade 8 mark in Wales for the year, and also won a 4 figure scholarship award from the ABRSM to pay for his studies).

Lastly, I’d like to direct you to my soundcloud account. I have uploaded various repertoire for students.  The eventual idea is that this database covers the ‘core’ repertoire books which my students use, but it is very much a work in progress as recording and uploading takes a huge amount of time.  https://properpianofingers.com/2015/05/19/the-repertoire-project/ and https://soundcloud.com/lynnephillips/sets/the-repertoire-project_main

Very best wishes,

Lynne

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Practising on a Budget

It’s that time of year again.  Exams.  I’m sure I’m not the only piano teacher in the country seeing a sudden dearth in practice time in students who are in their final years of GCSE, AS, and A-levels.  But is there any need for practising to tail off in the way that it usually does?  In previous years, I have accepted the usual cries of, ‘I haven’t had time to practice!’ without question, but this year, I’m starting to think that there may be a way around this. So let’s start at the beginning; let’s assume that students in these critical school years genuinely do not have time to sit down for their usual practise sessions, which, depending on their playing level, will range from 15 minutes to over an hour.  But is that any reason to stop altogether? Mentally and emotionally, it can seem so.  After all, in can seem to students (indeed, this goes for most of us, I think) that they have already failed when they can’t spare enough time to do a ‘proper’ job. But what if that is a myth? What if a student  can  manage something really quite substantial in a much smaller amount of time? Take the example of an A-level student studying post-grade 8 repertoire.  Ideally, students at this level should be practising for an hour or more every day.  But that’s simply not going to happen at the moment, and any attempt to try is going to end in an awful sense of failure.  So what are the alternatives? Micro-practices! Micro-practices are ten to fifteen minute bursts of practising, as many or as few as are achievable, each one with a different goal in mind.  Here are some examples:

  1. Major, harmonic minor, and / or melodic minor scales, 1 octave only
  2. Single page of piece A, left hand only, concentrating on pedal
  3. Half a new page of piece A, working out new notation etc.
  4. Slow and steady practice of half a page of piece B
  5. First two pages of piece A, working on right hand alone, phrasing and projection
  6. Major and / or minor arpeggios, root position, two octaves
  7. Listening to both pieces on youtube, following with score
  8. Run through and individual section practise of single page of piece A
  9. Run through and individual section practice of single page of piece B
  10. Rhythmic improvisation of piece B, single page
  11. Try to figure out harmonic base / progression of piece A, single page
  12. Work on dynamics whilst only playing left hand accompaniment, piece A
  13. Double check consistency of fingering throughout, piece B

None of these are not achievable in short bursts, and looking carefully at them, they are really only one normal length practise split up into its individual components.  And with students playing at more elementary levels, these micro practices can be tailored for very short time periods (as little as three or four minutes each for beginners), with each goal worked out to roughly comprise of an individual component of the ‘usual’ longer practice session. And who knows, with achievable micro-practises to hand, busy and stressed out students might even manage to find that getting away from the pressures and strains of revision and coursework deadlines helps them to relax and cope better with their exam workload.

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com

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Sight Reading; What Are We Really Teaching? 

I teach sight reading.  I teach it because it’s a vital skill for a musician to have.  But I don’t teach sight-reading by using sight-reading method books, and here’s why:

Most of us equate sight reading as something which is assessed, either in grade exams or auditions, or some other type of assessment.  My sight reading has been assessed many, many times over the years, and every time, it has been via a solo piano performance.  But here’s the interesting thing; when I ask myself when I have actually solo sight read as a professional pianist, the answer is never. I’ll repeat that.  I think it’s important.  Not rarely, not infrequently.  Never.

I have sight read as an accompanist, as a duo, in a chamber group, in an orchestra, and I have busked my way through folk and jazz lead sheets.  But apart from the slightly odd environment of 1:1 teaching where I have to sight read bits of student-standard music, I have never needed to sight read on my own.  And as far as I can work out, nor do any other musicians.  We sight read as orchestral players, as chamber music members, as duos, and in bands, but it is quite extraordinarily rare that we have to stand up in front of an audience and sight read a solo work.  So why is so much importance placed on solo sight reading ability? Why do exams boards not accompany their sight readers to provide the same sort of support that an accompanist (or soloist) would? Why is the universally accepted form of sight reading not accompanied? Why are we as teachers mostly obsessed with this artificial construct of sight reading solo works?

These are questions I can’t answer. Or I can, but the answer I have is that I suspect the current status quo is dysfunctional and based on an outdated concept.

As for me, I’ll just keep going with the duets.

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com

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Freedom to Teach

I’m getting a bit of a reputation for not being terribly keen on my students sitting too many grade exams. And my regular readers (and my students) will already be familiar with the reasons why.  But that’s not what this post is about.

This is about two of my students, neither of whom sit grades, and how (and what) they learn instead.

The first is a young beginner who transferred from another teacher.  Slightly traumatised from starting grade 1 pieces before she was capable, she was adamant that she did not want to sit grades, and that has not changed in the two years since.  What has changed, though, are her skills and her development as a musician. We went back to the beginning together; gently and carefully, looking at notation skills, listening, and learning how to create sound colours at the piano without being ‘literal’ with the dynamics. A quick and clever child, she picked things up rapidly, and has now worked her way through an improvisation based repertoire book, half a duet book, half a Christmas carol book, nearly all of the first Dozen a Day, and has learned four pieces from ‘UpGrade 0-1’. Looking ahead, I have scales and arpeggios planned, Elissa Milne’s ‘Easy Little Peppers’, John Lenehan’s Keynotes series, the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Christopher Norton’s ‘Microjazz’, the ABRSM Keyboard Anthology series, and various duets and downloads. This student may never sit a grade exam; her family have had multiple bad experiences and they are communally happy for her to learn for the sake of learning. And if she continues to play for years to come, she will be no different a pianist at grade 8 standard than a pianist who has sat grade 8 itself.

My second student is a more unusual situation; she lives abroad and I teach her via an online client. She is (so far) my only online student, a situation which we began as she was originally a UK resident who moved abroad several years ago and was unable to find a suitable local teacher. This student is very young, and musically gifted. She is 7 years old and has so far worked her way through a list of repertoire that would make a child twice her age take a sharp breath: Piano Time 1-3, Piano Time Pieces 1-2, 2  Microjazz volumes, the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Burgmuller Studies op.100, ABRSM Keyboard Anthology 1 and 2, Clementi Sonatinas, Khatchaturian Children’s Pieces, Beatrice Quoniam Etudes (pianissimo, poco forte, and mezzo forte), three Dozen a Day books, and scales in multiple keys. She is currently working her way through the remainder of the Clementi before beginning work on Bach’s 2 part inventions, and is starting the ABRSM Mozart Early Pieces compilation book.  Through this broad repertoire, we are working intensively on sound colour, musical narrative, characterisation, physical technique, freedom and strictures of rubato, faithfulness to the score, and interpretive freedom.   For her future, I have more repertoire planned; Bach Preludes and Fugues, Mozart Variations, Chopin Waltzes, Grovlez, contemporary music including Jenni Pinnock’s ‘Rain’, and pieces from the ABRSM Spectrum series, Schumann, Scarlatti, the list is endless and my only restriction is the small size of her hands.  Grades have not been discussed, and I am not even sure if they are an option in her country (although her state education system is certainly an exam driven one, far more than the UK).

Despite this, these two students are amongst some of the most fulfilled and happy that I have the pleasure of teaching. They have learnt to understand their progress in terms of pieces learnt or skills developed, and they enjoy the process of learning and playing, without necessarily having a certificate at the end of it. And both students enjoy performing; both took part in my annual concert last year, and my foreign student regularly takes part in local concerts on her violin.

I have plans for both students; plans which involve gradually more challenging repertoire. And I keep my eye out for which pieces motivate and excited then so that I can hear their rep choices more towards their personal preference.

 

And if either of them change their mind and want to sit an exam, they can do that too.  I’m sure they’ll get an excellent mark if they do, due of their background in general musicianship skills and the broad range of repertoire they have behind them.

 

 

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com

 

 

 

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Please don’t ban the smartphone…

How often do we read that smartphones have no place in lessons? That students need to have them turned off and deposited well away from their instrument?

But what exactly is so bad about the ubiquitous smartphone?

This video was recorded during a lesson, with the intention of emailing to my student later in the day. And not only was it recorded live during lesson time, but it was quietly left to upload to YouTube during the lesson itself, ready for sending the link to the student’s parent later.  Which I may do, oh, from my smartphone.

Smartphones are part of our lives, and love them or loathe them, they are here to stay.  So rather than maligning them, why not teach our students to use them? Encourage them to record themselves (video, not just sound, so they can watch posture, fingering, placement etc.), use YouTube and SoundCloud for listening, even bring their own tablets to lessons so we can record practice ideas and tips directly onto them.

And yes, I freely admit I counted a bar wrong, but as we all know, mistakes happen, and they aren’t the end of the world.

 

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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FAQs

If you are a prospective (or current!) student who has lots of questions about piano lessons, or if you are just looking for more detailed information on how piano lessons work, I have written a list of FAQs…

FAQs

As always, feel free to get in touch if you have any additional questions about lessons, or if you have any feedback on the properpianofingers blog,

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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