It took me a while to decide how to start this page since my teaching style is not fixed on one particular method and continues to develop as long as there exists new challenges to face. But I’d like to start with explaining where the inspirations and influences for developing my own teaching style are coming from. When I first came to live in the UK, I was astonished to find out that the attitude toward music learning in general was very different to what I was used to in Japan where I am from. This quickly made me realise that I had to go through a serious amount of research to be able to start piano teaching in this country where I chose to be my new home. This lead me to read quite an amount of books about education in general and teaching music written by a number of very innovative thinking educators, After that, I spent some time working out how to apply their concepts to piano teaching, through trial and error experiments. Those that I felt strongly drawn to were the methods that guide learners to use various senses to have tangible learning experiences. Some may call it a multi-sensory approach.
Here’re a selection of books amongst many others that I found most useful and that made a big impact on me:
Rhythms of Learning – Selected Lectures by Rudolf Steiner by Roberto Trostli
The Ways Children Learn Music by Eric Bluestine
Improve Your Piano Playing through Solfége (ピアノﾉ上達はソルジェージュから)
by Aki Go (Wu Xiao)
Rhythm Music & Education by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze
Music, Movement and the Young Child by Heather Gell
Applications for the Classroom by Brigitte Warner
The Rhythm Inside by Julia Schnebly-Black
Musical Performance – Learning Theory and Pedagogy by Daniel L. Kohut
Most of my piano students are children, hence my choice of books above. Reading Trostli's Rhythms of Learning and Bluestine’s The Ways Children Learn Music were probably the best read I ever had that helped me overcome with the fear of being not as good enough a teacher as I’d like. They helped me to understood the minds of children when it comes to learning, how they response to certain tasks better than others by the different ways of presenting them. We all once were children but we tend to forget what it felt to be one, especially how we learned what we know now without even thinking about it as adults. My first task was to find out how it was. But how? I started to observe in details how children respond and learn certain tasks as I taught. To be able to do that, it was inevitable to create various kinds of games and tangible materials where they can visually, kinaesthetically, aurally and intellectually absorb what they are supposed to learn in a most natural way. Over the past years, I’ve also created a large amount worksheets to hand out as a follow-up activity so that I can check whether they understand what they’re seeing and learning correctly, and often to introduce new concepts as well. Once I’m aware what’s confusing learners in a certain way, I can usually find a solution to help them ‘getting it’ in a way they can. It only becomes frustrating when you don’t know what’s causing the problem. Another purpose of providing the follow-up activities is to exercise creative thinking to explore more possibilities using the knowledge they’ve just acquired. Teachers will be surprised what comes out of this creative thinking exercise because children’s imaginations are usually bigger than adults. It’s a very inspiring experience for both teachers and learners when that happens.
One of the Rudolf Steiner’s lectures in Trostli’s Rhythm of Learning about the methods for teaching science stays strongly in my mind. Science and music are two different practices but I can’t help thinking that the way that the information is processed in learning science seems to resonate with the way we learn music or the way we should be learning music, if I may rephrase it.
Trostli writes in his Rhythm of Learning,
“...According to Steiner, thinking occurs in three stages: drawing conclusions, passing judgements, and forming concepts....
...Conclusions are perceptions that are brought to consciousness. Any sense impression can become a conclusion, but only if we become aware of the impression….
…We begin to form judgement when we become conscious of our perceptions. This process arises out of the human being’s innate desire to transform perception into knowledge…
...Concepts, on the other hand, grow gradually in the human being and should never be finished or become fixed. It is the teacher’s role to help the students cultivate the process of forming concepts in such a way that the concepts can grow and become increasingly developed and refined…”
My strong memory of early piano lessons were the piano books with coloured notations and a colour-coded strip to put on the keyboard, developed by a Japanese pedagogue, Sumiko Tanaka. I didn’t realise then how it made a different to the way I see musical notations and how it’s linked to the way I process information and transfer to the finger work. I don’t use coloured notation in my teaching but I do use colours as a code provider to link to certain information to facilitate the process of ‘getting it’ right. During my research period, I came across with the Colourstring method. It’s a Kodaly based method developed by the Hungarian brothers Geza and Csaba Szilvay. This method applies 4 different colours assigned to 10 lines on a great stave, which is linked to the position on the keyboard, indicated by a 4-colour-coded strip which spans across 4-octaves. 4 octaves range is the area that most beginners’ music stays within for some time, so it’s an ideal tool for the eye to get use to see where in the score links to which area on the keyboard. This colour-coded strip also shows a pair of two-black and three-black key pattern clearly, which is an ideal tool to use for exploring high and low range of the piano by an octave. It’s intriguing to see most children prefer the top two octaves to the lower two, except when I ask them to make the sound of thunder storm! This colour-coded strip idea certainly inspired me to develop something of my own.
My creations for helping learners to fully enjoy the whole package of music learning experience continue and are still growing. I’m currently writing many short etudes to help them develop technical skills, or should I say ‘finger dexterity’, when learners are not fully fledged in reading notation to learn pieces just yet. Reading skill and playing skill are often not well balanced; they’re usually more capable of playing than reading, hence many of them are written so that they can be learned by rote. The idea is that as they progress, reading skill will eventually catch up with playing skill. When they do, learning pieces on their own won’t be such a problem at that point because they’ve already acquired necessary technical skills to be able to cope with learning more challenging pieces of music. I hope to publish a set of beginner’s piano etudes some time in the future.
I immensely enjoy helping my piano students to learn the skill to play what they enjoy playing on the piano. When I see the smile on their faces when they mange to play something they wish to play, it makes every hard work worth a while both on my part and theirs. It’s hard to believe that when I started teaching many, many years ago, I wasn’t enjoying it very much. Like anything else, if you truly understand how a certain thing works and know what you’re doing, and you get a positive outcome, you probably enjoy doing it.