As the Semester Begins

As the Semester Begins

by Anna Ferraro | September 11, 2019

As I embark on my second full week of teaching this semester, I find myself reflecting on things in my studio that I want to be consistent with in the coming days. In reflecting, I found several themes that surfaced repeatedly through last semester. My hope is that in recording them here, I will be able to  reconnect with each of these concepts this fall, and then build off of them for greater learning in the studio as the semester progresses.

1. Assignments: Less is more. 

This year, I’ve not only said it myself, but heard it from my students. They prefer to present 1-2 songs well in their lesson, than 3-4 half-baked songs. In addition, If the song or the concept didn’t fully fit into the piano lesson, it won’t fit into a practice session. The things I may want to add onto a students’ page as they’re walking out the door are probably going to get missed, because if I haven’t looked at it with them and we’ve both gotten our hands and our heads around the assignment, then they won’t get their head and hands around it while they practice on their own during the week.

2. Technique: Show, don’t tell.

Students are talked at all day long in their classrooms. The piano lesson after a school day is not the time for lectures. I’ve spent more and more time this year thinking about how to shorten my own sentences or eliminate them completely from the lesson.

This is especially effective when showing a technical or expressive concept. If a student knows what they are watching my hands for, or listening for, it’s so much more effective for us to shut our mouths and let our hands, eyes, and ears do the work. Once the foundation has been laid, I quit talking. I play. They feel, watch, and listen. With this, I have a process I stick to when teaching concepts. Only the first step involves a little verbiage.

1– Teacher explanation (1-2 sentences)
2– Teacher demonstration (no commentary)
3- Student demonstration (no commentary) 
4– Repeat steps 2-3 until student has performed back at the teachers’ level.

In this final step, my student observes, listens, and copies, absorbing from  my performance until they have reproduced it with their hands. While this may take several tries, and bits of playing back and forth, when the lightbulb clicks on, it’s totally worth it! Some of the best studio moments this year have happened after these non-verbiage sessions!

3. Lesson-Planning: a time to pray. 

I’ve learned to set aside time each teaching day and week to pray for student that will be coming for a lesson. I think about them and the various things they have going on in their lives that will impact our meeting together. I pray about many of the factors that come to my mind, and I pray for the ways I will connect with and teach them. As I pray, I go over their assignment pages, looking at their music, and thinking through what I need to accomplish during their lesson time. This guidance and reflection process has made the foundation for many beautiful lessons where we accomplish much not just musically, but relationally as well. As an added benefit, I feel grounded and peaceful in the lesson time, feeling God’s strength, wisdom, and guidance, instead of being rushed and stressed about getting through the assignment page.

4. Curriculum: Stay the course. 

While I’m constantly on the hunt for new ideas, I’m also sticking to what I know as well, and the more I know it, the better it gets! Between using Faber’s Piano Adventures for my core curriculum, supplementing music theory studies with Michiko Yurko’s fabulous Music Mind Games, and pulling from my own classical background in the Russian school of piano playing, I am able to take my students to whatever level they have needed.

I often see that when students are struggling, they rarely need something new curriculum-wise. They usually need to visit a tried and true routine that has succeeded before, or they need me to simply change the approach to the curriculum - which is possible only when I know and practice every nuance of the curriculum. So instead of looking for new things outside of the above systems, I should devote more and more time to mastering the systems I have, and enjoying more quietly satisfying results.

5. Connecting: Be where they are. 

Whether it’s showing up at a students’ sports match, following up on how their SAT went, or just interacting a bit on social media, those out-of-lesson interactions serve to build relationships - and provide food for conversation at various points around the lessons.

Besides, it’s fun! I know what my students’ did for their birthdays and where they went on vacations. I learned about their church experiences and some of their holiday highlights through the year. I learned about their scholastic bowls and where their teams places in basketball tournaments. But mainly, I learned more about them, and more importantly, how they like to learn. And through this past year, we have learned and done much together.

I’m so grateful for every studio moment so far in 2019 - the ones where I and my students learned through laughter, and the ones where we learned through some tears. Our hard moments, and our good moments. At the end of the year, through all the curriculum, concepts, and assignment pages, I’m grateful that the individuals that study in my studio are not just my students - they are my friends.