What began in March 2015 as an experimental addition to my site, has become a favourite feature, showcasing leading music teachers, bloggers, and presenters for over five years now. In this two-part article, I’m going to distil prominent themes about lessons I’ve learned from over 150 podcast episodes.
Let’s look at three main threads:
Part One will discuss motivation factors, from Jon Schmidt’s advice on motivating students with playing by ear, to student practice mindsets with Dave Simon and Philip Johnston.
I’ll also include a look at how this worked out in my own Melbourne studio with a teen student.
In Part Two (to come), we’ll continue by looking at creative pedagogy with the late iconic improviser, Forrest Kinney, look at how to make a living doing it, with David Cutler, and talk solutions about modern pianos with Susan Ogilvy.
Jon Schmidt is one of the leaders of The Piano Guys, one of the most popular groups out there on YouTube. They’ve got 6.7 million subscribers, and over a billion views and counting.
When Jon toured Australia, he joined our podcast to talk about learning by ear and how it helps motivate struggling students.
Here’s an excerpt:
When I had students who were struggling, I would ask them, ‘What is your favourite song?’ Then I would show them the chords, and we would play it together.
That was how I had started — picking songs that I really loved, and learning them by ear.
Playing by ear taught me to analyse music in a much deeper way than just reading dots on a page. I gained an understanding of how songs are built, and that taught me everything I needed to know about composing.
Jon’s advice to teachers:
Challenge your kids with a tune they really enjoy
Once they have the lowest and the highest notes within a 30-second span, I would say, “Now, go back and try these six chords. Six chords probably fit in between the low and the high.”
Jon’s pop method basically outlines our 4 Chord Composing methodology, which explores pop music with students because they absolutely love it.
Take a pop song, pull it apart, play it by ear, listen to bass lines and melodies, and identify the few chords that sound really good with that particular pop melody.
Jon Schmidt is one of the most famous performers and composers of our era, talking about doing exactly the same thing.
(Not quite an expert in this department? Explore how to teach this way with 4 Chord Composing, a course included our Pro membership.)
The practice problem is ever-present, and we teachers all struggle with it. We want to get better at retaining our students. Let’s talk about some of those issues today.
One of my guests from last year, Philip Johnston, is a fantastic author, great thinker, and amazing teacher and performer who lives in Canberra, Australia. He was talking on podcast episode #131 about several so-called heresies regarding piano teaching.
One idea: Daily practice is a bad idea that should just die already.
Here’s what Philip had to say:
The reason I think daily practice is a bad idea is because it fails the triage test. Kids now are extremely busy. Our parents were the first generation of people who were told that they could do or be anything.
Therefore, children now are expected to do and be everything. We’re terrified that we’ve got a little Tiger Woods here, except that we won’t find that out unless they try golf at some stage. And so, kids are doing a million different activities.
For something with a 20-30 minute per day requirement to work — it has to be a top personal priority. And without the high priority, this is an unrealistic expectation to have.
When dissonance happens between the teacher’s expectation about practice, and the fact that it’s not in the student’s top priorities, the student will quit. We’ll lose students.
So – key takeaway – this is a fantastic way to reframe our job as piano teachers. We can abandon the idea of compulsory practice. Instead, engage, motivate and inspire that child or adult so much that they prioritise piano as one of their top personal priorities.
That’s the only way they will actually find the time to practice because kids these days are just so busy.
I had another fascinating conversation with Dave Simon in podcast episode #129, referencing a discussion about practice. Dave talked about research which he did with parents in his studio with sports activities versus music lessons.
Dave’s questions were:
The answers Dave received are fascinating.
Parents measured hopes for both areas with personal growth outcomes (e.g. self-esteem, or teamwork) and had similar fears about possible negative experiences in either activity.
But there was a clear contradiction about success. With sports, success would solely be measured in happiness:
“Does he still enjoy soccer? Wonderful, we’ll keep going.”
However, with music lessons, Dave’s parents would say they measured if the child was practicing at home or not. So he would challenge them that they had said their hopes were about positive experiences, not about becoming soccer stars or concert pianists, initially.
This indicates a mindset problem related to practice. It’s a myth that music is only accessible through consistent independent practice.
Once we inspire and motivate the child through experiencing music they enjoy, the desire to practice on their own will follow naturally. And that’s all parents are expecting in these other activities like soccer team or karate: enjoyment first, and skills mastery secondarily.
My student, Roman, came to me after a challenging transition from primary to high school. At a point, he really just stopped practising.
Roman was at an intermediate level, and enjoying music. He loved coming to lessons, but he was doing absolutely no practice.
I was getting more and more worked up about it and was becoming frustrated. I spoke to both him and his parents: yes, he still wanted to come.
At that point, I could have said what many teachers do in this circumstance: “Sorry, mate, I can’t teach you anymore. You need to practice. It’s a waste of time and money.”
(But because I was chatting to Dave and Danny Thompson at that same time about this whole issue of practice, I decided to change my approach.)
Instead, I said, “Mate, Roman, don’t practice. Just stop practicing. I don’t want you to practice.”
And I told his mom the same thing.
And you know what happened? Suddenly, it was like a burden had been lifted from our shoulders — from the child, the parent and me.
Roman was able to come to lessons and enjoy himself without the fear of me saying, “How much have you practiced? What have you done?” And having nothing done.
We were able to continue our relationship and keep playing music, building our repertoire, and playing scales — all that kind of stuff. Sure, he wasn’t progressing particularly quickly, but he was engaged and enjoying it.
And you know what? Two years later, guess what? Roman is still having lessons, and he’s practising again.
These podcasts share a main thread — that person-focussed lessons work so much better in the long run for student growth, than the traditional “old school, hard school, best school” mentality about teaching.
So that’s a wrap on Part One of my favourite podcast themes. Upcoming, I’ll bring you more podcast highlights in a Part Two article.
What was your favourite podcast episode? And who would you like to see featured in the future?
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Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.