Wednesday, September 12, 2018

How I Structure Piano Lessons with My Kids

This is part 4 of 4 of my piano teaching series. In part 1, I explain the principles of how piano should be taught. In part 2, I draw upon those principles to list the specific skills that need to be emphasized right from the start. Part 3 is a compilation of the insights I've gained along the way to make their learning more fun and effective. And in this part, I detail my lesson structure to show how it's all implemented. If anyone has feedback, please share so I can improve my methods!

This is an area of active thought and and evolution for me as I figure out better ways to do things. Ultimately, any way of approaching the teaching of piano that implements the core principles discussed in my other posts and makes sense to the student will probably work great.

GETTING STARTED
Position. They should be sitting far enough away that their elbows aren't stuck in their sides, which will limit movement when they start playing songs that use more of the keyboard. And the bench should be low enough that their elbows are a little lower than the level of the keyboard. Most kids end up sitting too high. And they should sit up straight with good posture. Really, the key aspect of this is comfort combined with an active position so they're ready to exert some energy practicing. Teach them to get in the right position very first every time they sit down to play the piano.

Technique. There are layers and layers of technique that become more important when they are playing higher-level music. For example, should you play with fingers curved or fingers flat? Well, it depends on the type of playing you're doing. Students can start to learn those different techniques when the level of music they're playing starts to require them (not until they're playing at least at an intermediate level I'd say). And, at that time, they can read whole books about it. A good starting reference book is Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chang. It's a free PDF if you Google it. Forewarning, not everything he says in it is true, so it shouldn't be the only reference. Having said all of that, there are two super important playing techniques students should learn from the start because these will apply to all piano playing they do. First, they need to keep all their muscles (finger muscles, hand muscles, wrist muscles, arm muscles, . . .) as relaxed as possible. Stress in muscles will worsen their playing, and it's never necessary, even when they're playing loud or fast. Second, they need to avoid all unnecessary hand movements. Economy of motion will enable them to play cleaner all the time.

Intro to the keyboard. They first need to gain a good understanding of the structure of the keyboard (organized into octaves, find notes based on where they are in relation to the black key groupings, "twins" and "triplets") and be able to find any note by feel (no looking!) with either hand. I purposely teach the notes to them in random order so they don't ever rely on counting up from another note they already know. They should be able to immediately find a note purely based on their memorization of where it is in relation to the black keys. This is their foundation. I also teach them right then what a sharp and flat are (semitone up/down from the index key, which means some sharps/flats are white keys!) so they know all the notes on the entire keyboard, and I'll test them with those too. From there, it's nice to give them a few reference points, so I teach them to find Middle C, the G on the lowest line of the bass clef, and the F on the highest line of the treble clef.

Flashcards. Once they are solid on their intro to the keyboard knowledge, they need to start doing note flashcards each day. I take the treble clef and the bass clef separately so they can get a good idea of the range/location on the keyboard of where the bass clef notes are and where the treble clef notes are. I have them name the note as soon as they see it, and then next they find the note (without looking, of course) and play it. And, importantly, they should be doing these in random order so that they can look at a specific line or space on either of the clefs and know exactly what note it is without having to work their way up/down to it from another note they know better. This is their foundation of fluent music reading. Kids usually don't know how to do flashcards effectively (like knowing to just focus on a few at a time, knowing when they should move one into the "learned" stack, and that they should put one they got wrong at the back of the day's stack so they see it again a minute later), so you'll have to teach them. They will also need to start doing key signature flashcards soon too. I don't know the exact right time, but soon. Notes flashcards and key signature flashcards are the only flashcards I have them do, so they don't have to do any more once they've mastered those.

Hint about notes flashcards: Usually they come with the treble and bass clefs right there beside the note, but I find that students will integrate those clefs into their memorization of where the note is, which means they can't figure out which note they're looking at in actual music when it's not at the beginning of a line. So I used our paper cutter to cut off the left side of all our flashcards so they'll only be looking at the actual location on the grand staff to remember which notes are where.

WEEKLY LESSON STRUCTURE
1. Look at their practice log: This is the very first thing I always do so I don't forget. Make your expectation clear that they should practice six times in between lessons. This is what they need to strive for. But balance that clear expectation with love and understanding when life happens and they don't get all six practice sessions in some weeks. If necessary, this is the time I'll help troubleshoot what got in the way of practicing so they can do better next week.

2. Ear training: Before they've heard a single note played, I will test their absolute pitch by playing a B flat, B, or C and having them guess which note it is. Then I'll play that note in different octaves and have them try to lock the particular color of that note into their brain. (FYI, this isn't the only activity I do to help them develop absolute pitch, which is good since it's probably not enough on its own.) Next I play a single note or a chord and have them sing the note(s) and then find the note(s) on the keyboard. Next I'll test their interval recognition skills by playing either a solid or broken interval. This all takes only a minute, and it's really fun for them.

3. Performance: Next, I want them to get the performance aspect out of the way. This is the part they usually stress the most about, but it's an important part of accountability because they will be more motivated to work hard practicing that week if they know they'll be required to perform the songs for me at their next lesson. I will randomly choose some songs (all of them if we have time) for them to perform. And since they feel pressured with me just sitting there waiting for them to start, I remind them that it's okay and necessary to take some time to do their pre-read routine and mental play it first. The other reason I do this early on in the lesson is because, if their performance ends up being a traumatic experience for them because they didn't practice well, they'll hopefully forget those feelings and be having fun again way before the lesson ends. I try really hard to be understanding and encouraging if they play horribly and, again, troubleshoot if necessary. And if they perform awesomely, I'll let them know it!

4. Show them what they'll practice the next week: We then look through the next week's material and I make sure it's clear to them what they need to be doing. If there are new principles or theory that they might not understand just from reading their lesson books, I'll do a little explanation. The number one goal here is for them have no ambiguity about what they're practicing and learning the next week, otherwise they're unlikely to learn anything. If, on the rare occasion, they showed that they didn't learn anything from last week's material, I will consider having them re-do that material for one more week, but I make sure I understand exactly what went wrong. Did they just not practice enough times? Did I not explain everything well enough? When considering whether to have them re-do a week, keep in mind the importance of continuing to push them forward through the material. They'll pick things up along the way as they see them again and again.

5. Extras: Some of my favorite lessons as a kid were the ones where my teacher was so excited about some music thing that he took time out of our lesson to show me--playing me a song he just found, showing the application of a principle I'd just learned, etc. That enthusiasm often made me think, as I was walking home from my lesson, "Man, I'm just so excited again about music!" Do these things as they strike you, and they may do more to motivate your students than anything else.

These lessons often go past 30 minutes, and maybe that just because I'm slow. But I keep them as short as possible so they're not super fatigued by the end and no longer focusing. I want to end the lesson before they want it to end, which will keep them coming back for more. And once I release them, I'll take a few minutes to write down in their book any instructions I feel they'll need so they can refer to that every day when they practice. For some reason they feel like it's a special surprise when they open up their practice book the next day and see what I've written. (Maybe I should start adding drawings or stickers or something to enhance that, I don't know.) What do I usually write? Usually it's just a list of the things they need to do during their practice session each day: "1. Flashcards. 2. Lesson books pages 18-19." And so on. I always add reminders as well about principles they need to focus on that week, such as to make everything they play beautiful, not look at the keyboard, remember their pre-read and post-read routines, keep the rhythm, etc.

As a parent teaching my children, it's very tempting to do lessons at different times each week, whenever it happens to be convenient. But that will almost certainly mean they don't get their lessons as regularly as they should. So we've found that it's important to have an assigned lesson day and approximate time each week on our calendar (e.g., every Wednesday after dinner).

DAILY PRACTICE ROUTINE
I have them do their flashcards at the beginning and the end of their practice sessions. And they work through their lesson books. Practicing piano using the principles I write about is really hard work, so they probably shouldn't be practicing more than 30 minutes when they're young (maybe only 15 or 20 minutes when they're really young), but I don't set a time limit on their practicing length or have them keep track; I just make sure I don't assign too much for each day and make sure they know how to practice efficiently.

As homeschoolers, we have them integrate their piano practicing into their school day, which makes them way more likely to practice, and it also allows them to do it at the best time for them each day when they have the energy they need to dedicate to it.

YEARLY ORGANIZATION
We usually only do piano lessons during school times. Vacation times are a good excuse to give them a break from piano so they don't get too fatigued from doing it week after week ad nauseam. In general, the goal is to finish one level each year, so sometimes this means we'll do piano during some non-school weeks if it means they can finish off the level before stopping for a while.

Mixed in with the regular weeks of regular lesson material, I will do an occasional week of fun ear training exercises. And I'll also have them, about once a year, stop their lesson books for a few weeks so they can learn two recital pieces. I let them choose whichever ones are at the right level of difficulty and that they will really enjoy hearing themselves play. After they have learned those (or when they're almost done), I start them up again doing their regular lessons. These breaks from the usual routine are refreshing and motivating for them, so I believe they end up learning better and faster because of them.

LEARNING RECITAL PIECES
Most people think memorizing a recital song is best done by playing it over and over and over until it's finally learned, and then playing it over and over some more until it's finally memorized. This is a recipe for them hating the song before they even get to perform it! And it's ineffective. Here's how I have my kids learn recital songs:

Step 1: Analyze the song and divide it up. Analyzing the song will help them recognize the overall structure of it and especially pick out the repeats. This makes it less daunting because they can see that even though, for example, it's 100 measures long, they only have to learn 40 or so. Next, they are ready to divide the song up into short sections for learning. These sections should be overlapping by a measure or two to allow for smooth transitions between sections.

Step 2: Start memorizing first. Have them choose the most difficult section of the song and memorize it before they ever play it. Then have them practice playing it from memory. They'll have to refer to the music often to make sure they've memorized it properly. And if it's initially too hard to memorize and play hands together, they can do hands separate and then, when each hand is solid enough that they can play even faster than performance speed, they can put them together.

Step 3: Do the other sections. Then they choose the next most difficult section and do the same thing. And proceed like that until they've memorized and can play all the sections. They are purposefully done out of order like this so it will be like a prize at the end when they're finally able to start putting together the sections to make up one amazing beautiful song. Practicing the whole thing really slowly is a good way of testing whether they really have it memorized (as opposed to just relying on finger memory to know which notes come next). They also should be able to mental play the whole song since they've learned it like this.

This process is so much more efficient because they're always playing the song from memory, and it's also more enjoyable for them because they aren't tired of the song before they even finish learning it.

There are also performance techniques to teach them, but one of the best things is to get them to do little performances for family and friends before the big recital. Performing in various settings also helps cement their memory of the song in a way that is separated from their usual environment where they learned it. And as long as they understand that they just need to do their best and have fun, they can relax about how many mistakes they make or how anxious they feel since they can't directly control those things. When they're more experienced, the overwhelming desire to show off/share a beautiful emotional song with the audience should silence most of their performance anxiety.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Piano Teaching: The Skills You Need to Focus on From the Start

This is part 2 of 4 of my piano teaching series. In part 1, I explain the principles of how piano should be taught. In this part, I draw upon those principles to list the specific skills that need to be emphasized right from the start. Part 3 is a compilation of the insights I've gained along the way to make their learning more fun and effective. And part 4 details my lesson structure to show how it's all implemented. If anyone has feedback, please share so I can improve my methods!

Regardless of the method you are using to teach piano, the following specific skills should be a continual focus. They are the core skills that can make or break anyone's effort to become a lifelong proficient pianist. If you haven't read part 1 of this series, you should do that first--it provides the context for these principles so they make sense.

1. Never look at the keyboard. My very first lesson, I show them how the black keys are grouped into "twins" and "triplets" and help them understand that repeating pattern. I then see if they can find multiple sets of twins or triplets without looking. From this point on, they are pretty much never allowed to look at the keyboard. When they place their hands to start a song, they do it without looking. When they need to jump up an octave or two, they do it without looking. And they get surprisingly fast at it very quickly! Sometimes I'll also show them videos of Stevie Wonder playing, hands flying across the keyboard, to emphasize how unnecessary looking at the keyboard is.

2. Play up among the black keys. This skill goes with the first one. To constantly know where their hands are on the keyboard without looking, they need to constantly feel the black keys.

3. Absolute pitch. This is not something that "people are just born with." There's nothing about 440 Hz that is organically connected with our inner ear; rather, some people have just learned to remember what arbitrarily chosen pitch corresponds with what arbitrarily named note. And this means that, for most youngsters especially, it can be learned. How to teach it deserves its own blog post, but the general idea is, first, to have a piano that is always super in tune (perks of an electric piano!). And then, second, to get them to listen to and remember a specific note in multiple octaves. I start with C. Then I move to B, then B flat. Then I'll randomly choose one of the three and ask them what note it is. Once they've memorized those three, you can add in the other notes one by one. This skill is much more than a party trick! It allows you to mental play any song anywhere. It allows you to compose in your head when the idea strikes you and no piano is around. It allows you to understand the music you're hearing in a more intimate way because you can also hear all the different chords being used, which allows you to learn even just by listening. It allows you to always sing in pitch, and to play a fretless instrument in pitch. That's just a start.

4. Mental play. This is the process of seeing the music in your head and also hearing each note as you play the song in your head. It's a huge skill for practicing memorized pieces in a way that doesn't rely on the oh-so-fallable finger memory, which helps improve performance. It's also a way to look through music you've never heard before and learn it all in your head quickly before you've even played it. Even without absolute pitch, everyone can develop relative pitch so they can hear the intervals in their head from their chosen starting note. So, teaching quick interval recognition is part of this. I've heard stories of some of the great pianists who have been known to memorize whole pieces on a single flight and then play it perfectly the first time when they arrive and are practicing prior to their concert. If the ability to mental play is combined with absolute pitch, incredible musical potential is unlocked. Integrating mental play into their daily practice is easy when it's part of their pre-read routine, explained next.

5. Pre-read routine. How should a student approach a new piece they've never seen before? There is a set process they should be taught to go through every time. First, look at the title and the lyrics to get a feel for the song's emotion. Next, look at the clefs, key signature, and time signature. Then look through the music itself, especially looking for things like dynamics, harmonic and rhythmic patterns and repeats, potentially tricky notes or rhythms, which kinds of chords are being used, bass patterns--basically all the theory they've learned up to that time so they can make sense of the song and chunk their sightreading a ton. Once they've looked through it, they should mental play it once. After that, they are ready to play the song, so I tell them not to worry about remembering all that stuff they just went through and to trust their brains to remember it for them so they can focus on enjoying the beautiful song they're playing, which will make their playing more musical and their practicing more enjoyable for them.

6. Post-read routine. I usually only have them play a song twice on any given day. After they play it the first time, I have them go through a post-read routine of looking through the song again to see where they made mistakes and to diagnose what went wrong. Then they play it the second time, and the goal is to have fewer mistakes. By that point, they've probably exhausted the majority of the sight reading learning they can get from the song that day, so it's time to move on to the next song. I usually only have them play a song a few days (2 or 3) before they need to move on to another one. Luckily, the piano method I use is designed that way.

7. Keep the rhythm. When playing a song, nothing is worse than stutters and pauses for killing the musicality of it. And stutters and pauses are an absolute no-go when you're playing with a band or for vocalists! The student needs to know from the start that, for every song they play, they need to decide their tempo and stick to it. Even when it's their first time ever playing the song, they need to set the tempo and keep it. If they make mistakes, they should play right through them. It's more important to keep the rhythm than it is to get every note right. The right tempo is fast enough that it's challenging but slow enough that they can get most notes right, which is usually pretty slow for the first few plays through. Determining the right tempo is a skill they'll have to develop. I will often have them use a metronome when I'm seeing them slack on sticking to their chosen tempo, but make sure you don't have them use it any more than is necessary for a song or it will interfere with them feeling the movement and rhythm of the song.

8. Everything they play should be musical. Even beginners doing scales or sight reading a new song can play musically. The unfortunate normal process of learning songs is to get the notes and rhythms right first, then to focus (if you get to it) on all the other things. The problem with that method is that all they're learning is to hit notes on a piano in the right order for the right length of time rather than learning to make music. I remind them often of my expectation that even their scales and their first read-throughs should sound beautiful with dynamics and feeling and all. This is admittedly tough for them early on, but the pre-read routine helps immensely. I believe this will make the process of learning piano much more enjoyable because they'll be experiencing beautiful music every time they sit down to practice.

Check out part 3 of the series for the other most important things I try to do when I'm teaching.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Strategies for Making Piano Lessons with Your Kids Successful

This is part 3 of 4 of my piano teaching series. In part 1, I explain the principles of how piano should be taught. Part 2 draws upon those principles to list the specific skills that need to be emphasized right from the start. In this part, I have compiled all of the insights I've gained along the way to make their learning more fun and effective. I add to the bottom of this post whenever I figure out something new and important. In part 4, I detail my lesson structure to show how it's all implemented. If anyone has feedback, please share so I can improve my methods!

Accountability for practicing is crazy super important. Every piano student should have a daily practice log that allows them to check off whether they've done a full practice session that day. And I make it a point to look at it first thing every lesson. I don't have them write how long they practiced because I don't want them to be thinking about the length of time they're practicing; instead, I want them to be focusing on getting a quality focused practice session in 6 days a week, which could take 15 minutes some days and 35 minutes other days. The other part of accountability is making them perform during every lesson. They need to know that they will be required to play for me the songs they worked on that week, so I have them play them every lesson.

Sidenote: I avoid bribes because those have been proven through quality research to take something they're intrinsically motivated to do (or we hope will eventually be intrinsically motivated!) and turn it into an extrinsically motivated thing, causing them to lose the intrinsic enjoyment of the thing. We don't want them to choose to practice only because they want a treat or a prize--we want them to choose to practice because they have a desire to continue progressing and experiencing playing beautiful music.

No mnemonics for memorizing notes. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (and the others) should burn. A mnemonic adds an extra mental step to identifying the note. First they see the note, then they go through the mnenomic, then they finally identify its name. Instead, they need to be able to know right when they see the note exactly which note it is without any extra mental steps that will slow down their sight reading. People may think that those mnemonics gradually get dropped with time, but they often don't. I know from personal experience, and from medical training, that they become a mental habit. Sure, going through that extra step gets really fast over time, but it's still slower than just sight recognition without any need to mentally go through a mnemonic. So instead use randomly ordered flash cards. While sitting at the piano, they should be able to see the flashcard, immediately name it, and then find the note and play it without looking at the keyboard. It will take them longer to learn them, but it's one of the best time investments a young pianist can make. And if flashcards just aren't working, Treble Cat and Bass Cat are some pretty helpful iPad apps for them to do in addition to the flash cards.

They should look forward to their lesson every week and come out of it excited to learn the next week's material and excited about music in general. The most important way to accomplish this is you, as the teacher, being full of excitement and energy about piano and music in general. Laughing and joking with them during the lesson--just enjoying the time together--is another way to accomplish this. Of course, they'll dread their lesson if they didn't practice hard that week, but hopefully the accountability pieces will help with that.

The combination of being encouraging/understanding and concomitantly having high expectations is a tricky one. I want them to know that I expect their best effort, that nothing else is acceptable. So if they don't practice that week or if their practice sessions were ineffective and the didn't end up learning what I think they could have, I don't tell them it's ok, and I make sure I'm clear that I expect better from them. There have been tears. That doesn't mean we can't still have fun during the lesson, but it's ok for them to feel that shame, sadness, and regret that always come in life after we don't do our best at something. I have them perform near the beginning of the lesson to get it all out there and they can go through that (if necessary) early on, and then hopefully by the end of the lesson they'll be having fun and leave feeling excited about the piano again. A big part of that is reassuring them that I know they can practice every day and work hard, and emphasizing the reasons they're learning piano in the first place and also the improvement I've seen in them recently.

Teaching them how to practice effectively is huge. Getting a full practice session in every day is only half the battle--they also need to know how to spend that time effectively. The for-with-by principle applies. First you have to do something FOR them, then WITH them, then eventually they can do it BY themselves. Sitting down with them and giving direct instructions on how to do each part of their practice session is how it starts. Then, after they've learned those things, you scale back how much you direct and let them do some of it on their own but with your frequent directions. And, eventually (after a month or so, probably), they can do it by themselves. But your work isn't finished there! You need to "audit" their practice sessions occasionally (every couple months, or sooner if you notice they're not learning much from lesson to lesson). I will just sit there and not say anything. Of course they act differently when I'm sitting there, but it's still an enlightening endeavor. I will try to look like I'm not actually focusing much on what they're doing, and I'll also furtively take notes on my phone about things I noticed that they should do better and how much time they wasted on different things. The most common time waster is what Adam Smith called "sauntering." It's the moments in between switching tasks where we get distracted instead of just moving right to the next task. After the practicing audit, I will talk to them about what I saw and what they did well and can do differently. And, optimally, I will sit with them the next couple practice sessions and not say anything except to gently remind them of those things when they're doing them wrong again. This skill of knowing how to practice effectively may determine their trajectory of improvement as much as any other thing you teach them.

The find-the-note game. To hone their note-finding skills, I occasionally play a game with them where I point to a single note or chord in a song and they have to first immediately name the notes. Then, without looking at the keyboard, they put their hand on the keyboard and find the right notes and play them. It's practicing both note identification and location awareness.

If they're just getting tired of moving through the piano books week after week, give them a break! This can be in the form of an actual week or two off, or it can be in the form of switching up what they're learning for a few weeks. I like to help them choose a song they like listening to that has an easy piano section, and then each day for their piano practice they listen to the song and figure out as much of it as they can and play it for me during the next week's lesson. This aural training is super important, so it's time well spent. Another option is to help them choose a couple recital pieces to start memorizing over the next few weeks as a change of pace. These breaks from the usual will help them be refreshed and more excited about it when they come back to it.

They need experience performing regularly, even informally. Opportunities can include accompanying the family when you sing the opening song during a family home evening, performing a song for friends, and also doing an occasional mini-recital with a few other kids plus friends/neighbours. These opportunities are important for a lot of reasons: they help them be motivated to work hard looking forward to that goal, they give them performance experience, and they remember that the piano is a useful skill in our culture. All of these serve to help them remember why they're working so hard learning the piano.

Don't get stuck trying to over-explain things and expect them to understand it perfectly the first time. They'll see it again and will understand better each time they come across it.

Have an end goal in mind, and remind them of it occasionally. For our kids, it's to finish level 3 (maybe level 4--I haven't decided exactly) of the books we're using. Then they will be free to quit piano and take on any instrument they want because they'll have enough of a base (i.e., sight reading abilities) that they can play piano for the rest of their lives, and they'll have a solid foundation in music that will carry over to any other instrument.

Any endeavor that takes years of hard work to become proficient is susceptible to frustration and discouragement. Remember: more than anything, they need a teacher who can cheer them on, recognize their accomplishments and growth, and just make it as fun as possible during that long long process. Feeling like they're learning and doing well will be more motivating than almost anything else, and much of that comes from the teacher.

If they love a song and it has piano sheet music, splurge to get the official version so they can learn to play that song just like the real thing. Motivation is way higher when it's a song they really want to be able to play. They're more likely to get into that "flow" state of being and really experience the song. And moments like that are the best reward for learning the piano, so they need to experience it as much as possible.

Teach them that the person who composed any given song had a feeling or emotion or idea that they wanted to convey. That is expressed in their notes and notations, and it's amazing to get to hear that by playing the song beautifully as they envisioned it.

Prophylax against the frustration of making mistakes. If a child is a perfectionist or is just generally intolerant of mistakes, you can prevent many tears but reassuring beforehand that, each time they play a song, the purpose is not to do it mistake-free, but rather to get better at reading music (practicing all the skills they are being taught). So making a million mistakes is totally okay as long as they are doing their best at implementing the skills you're teaching them. So tell them to choose beforehand to have a good attitude and have fun doing their best and not to worry about making mistakes.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Gasp! Why We Are Trying Homeschooling

People have started hearing that we're going to try homeschooling, and they always have two questions/concerns: (1) why!? and (2) what about your kids' social development? I'd like to respond to those.

Why!?
When we lived in Cleveland, we knew we'd only live there for about 2/3 of our eldest's kindergarten year (we'd be in Thailand for the rest of it, and then moving elsewhere after that); we also heard very concerning things about the elementary school we were zoned for. These two factors led us to first consider homeschooling her for her kindergarten year. Whenever we're delving into something new, we like to be informed, so we read some books about homeschooling. Had it not been for this unique circumstance and this reading, I don't think homeschool ever would have crossed our minds. Thinking back, it strikes me as strange that I never would have thought, "My children's education is crazy important--I should understand and seriously consider all my options before I decide which one is the best." Instead, I would have continued to think that homeschooling was only chosen by parents who think their children couldn't thrive socially in public schools, as if it's the obvious worse option. But now I have found that there are tons of parents who choose to homeschool their children for a different reason: they've considered their options and decided homeschooling is the best one for their family at that time.

But why do we think it's the best option for us right now? There isn't a single, all-encompassing reason. Here are the big ones though:
  • Quality of the education: Children learning at their own rate and having the freedom to spend more time on things that are of interest to them at a specific time is way more effective, not to mention that we feel strongly we can teach using methods that do a better job of fostering a love of learning and an understanding of how to learn for themselves. And, based on others' homeschooling experiences and our experience this year with public school, homeschool will only take a few hours/day, which leaves so much other time for them to read for fun, practice instruments, learn Japanese, learn how to cook and do laundry and shop for groceries, serve in the community, get to know the elderly, play outside, and even play with friends (more on that in the next section).
  • Flexibility: My job will, one glorious day, become very flexible with weeks I get off and locations of where I work. Our dream is to make the most of this by living in different places, where we will learn different languages and cultures and, most importantly, get to know the people from those places.
  • Home atmosphere: School days are tough--not only are they long and exhausting for our kids, but the mornings are stressful ordering them around to be ready on time, and the evenings are stressful when they generally come home tired and grumpy (but after-school snacks do help). They give the best of themselves to people at school and the worst of themselves to their family. And then when you add in weekday-night activities, there's very little quality and restful family time. Homeschool helps with that. Yes we're expecting homeschool to be stressful at times, but when those times come we'll have the freedom to do something else or send them outside to just be kids for a while. When we homeschooled our eldest for her kindergarten year, our home atmosphere was noticeably different. Our at-home time became more purposeful; it became a "there are exciting things to teach/learn and we're progressing in life" kind of atmosphere.

What about their social development?
This is something we've thought and prayed about a lot. First, since I'm into exhaustive mutually exclusive categories, I'll explain my categorization scheme of all the kids they come in contact of social interactions. Category 1 is their close friends, of which there are only a handful. Category 2 is their acquaintances, of which there are maybe a few dozen. Category 3 is strangers (kids they see but never actually meet), of which there are hundreds. Which ones are important to their social development? Close friends are by far the most important; from them your life is enriched and you learn how to maintain good and close relationships. Acquaintances are useful in that you get practice finding your place in and learning how to deal with social situations where there are groups of people you know only superficially. All the strangers at school probably don't contribute much to the development of social skills. But we do want our kids to practice the skill of meeting new people and forming new relationships (they need to be exposed to new people/strangers for that to happen).

How is this different in homeschool? They will absolutely have close friends, especially because we won't be homeschooling in a vacuum. There are tons of super cool families homeschooling these days, and it seems like there are more every year. We know a bunch already. We are also joining an organized homeschool thing where they'll actually have a weekly class with about 15 other kids. And we'll be doing lots of outings with other homeschool groups (Facebook is amazing for this), and then there will be playdates with friends from church and the neighborhood. Homeschool isn't the isolation sentence it used to be. Our kids might actually get more quality time (i.e., non-sitting-in-a-classroom-listening-to-a-teacher time) with their friends once we've made the switch to homeschool. And those other outings will allow for lots of acquaintances and new people to meet. Plus, when they're spending time in the community, they'll be meeting and forming relationships with so many different kinds of people (cultures, ages, etc.) rather than just the predominantly middle class white kids they have in their classes at the local public school.

For a long time I was concerned because homeschooling means our kids will have a smaller pool of people from which to make new friends--maybe they wouldn't meet that potential bestie out there in the public school! But I had an epiphany the other day. Even when there are lots of people in a public school, the people you almost always become close friends with are the kids who sit next to you in class. The making of best friends is not the rational test-all-the-flavors-and-choose-your-favorite-one process I'd always envisioned. It's actually an idiosyncratic and chance-based process from a very limited subset of people that chance (providence) places around you, whether that's the kid you get placed next to in class at public school or the kid who happens to live next door or the kid who happens to join the same homeschooling co-op. This is how friend-making works throughout life.

Conclusion
In discussing our decision with people, I've learned they have preconceived notions about homeschooling based on things they've seen, heard, or pictured in their minds--usually this involves images of kids sitting in their home all the time (with no outside social interaction and just becoming awkward) or kids playing all day every day ("wasting all their time") without actually learning anything. And I'm sure there are a lot of homeschools like that. But ours will not be like that.

There are lots of other things (i.e., people's concerns) that I haven't addressed in this blog post. I know that. But we're happy to hear and discuss all of them, on social media or in person!


I will add that, if you have/will have school-age kids and have never considered homeschooling, you should read a few select books about it so that you're not blindly making the default education decision for your kids. Most of you will still choose public school for various legitimate reasons, and that's awesome! It should always be a careful weighing of the costs and benefits of all the options. (Who knows, maybe a non-homeschool option will be better for our family in the future, too. We'll for sure continue thinking about all the educational options available to us in every location we live and decide all over again what's best for our children.) And even if you read about different ways to educate children and don't choose to homeschool, I promise you you'll approach education differently after that, which will improve how you contribute to their education when they're not at school. Ultimately a child's education is always the parent's responsibility, public school or otherwise.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Teaching Your Kids Piano? Which Books to Use (and How Piano Should Really Be Taught)

This is part 1 of 4 of my piano teaching series. This post is where I explain the principles of how piano should be taught. Part 2 draws upon those principles to list the specific skills that need to be emphasized right from the start. Part 3 is a compilation of the insights I've gained along the way to make their learning more fun and effective. And part 4 details my lesson structure to show how it's all implemented. If anyone has feedback, please share so I can improve my methods!

Before we had kids, we decided to make a rule that they all need to take piano lessons until they attain a certain level of proficiency, and then they could quit or focus on another instrument if they want. The problem is, piano lessons are crazy expensive! We can't afford them right now (thanks medical residency #indenturedservitude). But, I play the piano marginally well . . . and I like to teach . . . and that's how I just became our kids' piano teacher.

I soon realized, though, that I have no idea what books to use! Which will be the most effective and enjoyable for my hapless future students? Here's what I've learned so far after way too many hours of study and research. May it save someone a little time one day when they have to go through this same process of choosing piano books.

WHAT IS A PIANO METHOD?
First, for beginner students, you should get a "piano method," which is a collection of piano books all written by the same author(s) and designed to take a new piano student sequentially through all the basics of what they need to learn. You could instead use random books and make up your own method, but a formal method makes it easy because it organizes and sequences the lessons for you AND it gives your child an easy way to track their progress, which is critical for sustaining motivation ("I've finished the first of four levels! I'm actually accomplishing something!").

HOW TO CHOOSE A PIANO METHOD
So which of the tons of methods should you choose? When I read reviews or asked people myself, I was overwhelmed with information. The ocean of opinions basically boils down to this: piano teachers are pretty much pleased with any method that has fun music, is sequenced logically, and does a reasonably good job with how it goes about explaining things; they will rave about any method that additionally focuses on "comprehensive musicianship" (integrating other skills like ear training, improv, theory, composition, and so forth). When only considering those criteria, most of today's popular methods seem pretty equal, so just choose the one that is catered to your child's age and that progresses at the rate you think they'll learn, right? Wrong. There's much more to it than that.

THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL A PIANO METHOD SHOULD TEACH
When I started thinking harder about what I wanted my children to get out of lessons, I thought about all the people in the world who took thousands of dollars' worth of piano lessons as kids and now have nothing to show for it. Why? Because they didn't learn to sight read well enough, so tackling any new intermediate to advanced song (i.e., pretty much every song they would want to play) requires way too much practice time and effort for them. They can't sight read Christmas sing-alongs at a Christmas party, they can't accompany a congregation or a soloist without way-in-advance notice, they can't just sit down and play beautiful-sounding music for catharsis. So they don't play anything for the rest of their lives except for maybe a few songs they memorized for recitals decades ago. I want to emphasize this: A student's level of sight-reading skills is the number one thing that determines how much piano playing will become a part of their future life.

And even if your dream is for your child to become more than just a piano hobbyist (say, a professional pianist), sight-reading-focused training will maximize their chances of ending up there as well. (But maybe you should fork out the dough to get a professional teacher . . . who teaches the stuff explained below.)

Therefore, regardless of the goals you have for your child's piano lessons, if you understand what goes into high-level sight reading, you can start to separate out the best methods from the rest because you know which playing habits they should be fostering from the start. Here are the main skills that determine someone's sight-reading ability:

1. Intervallic note reading: Finding their next note based on its distance from the last one

This is faster than individual note identification, and they should be able to rely on this skill for reading most notes in a song--not that this means they shouldn't be lightning fast at individual note identification as well! But a good piano method will provide lots of practice--often in the form of transposition activities--targeted at helping them recognize all different kinds of intervals so they will naturally read most notes this way.

2. Chunking: Recognizing groups/configurations of notes rather than just seeing individual notes (this is akin to reading word by word rather than letter by letter)

This requires a firm grasp of theory so they can see the chords in the music rather than just seeing a bunch of random notes. The theory taught should directly relate to the next songs they will play so they can see it in action.

Additionally (and this may be a shock to you), they also need experience playing in all the key signatures pretty early on (a "multi-key" method), which will help them start to recognize how different key signatures' note groups/configurations look on the staff and feel in their hands. If they get used to seeing the note groups/configurations in the music for only a select number of key signatures, they will only be able to chunk well in those key signatures, so the number of songs they'll eventually be able to sight read fluently will be limited significantly. Piano methods that start out almost exclusively in C major, plus an occasional G major or F major, perpetuate the myth that songs with more sharps or flats are harder.

And nothing opens their eyes up to the specific chords that a song is built on better than practicing improvisation, whether it's making variations on the song they're playing or even adding their own chords like a fake book.

3. Predictive fingering: Basing their fingering on the notes they're playing now and the notes they'll be playing next

Predictive fingering is mostly developed via technique activities that help their fingers automatically know the right places to go; but, again, they need to be doing technique activities in all key signatures, or else playing in that unpracticed key will feel foreign to their fingers. The idea is to have their level of technique always a little ahead of their playing abilities so they can focus on all the other challenges inherent in sight reading without also having to worry about the technical challenges.

The other aspect of predictive fingering is seeing beforehand the upcoming fingering challenges and adjusting their fingering accordingly. This happens when they're looking ahead in the music, which they can only do well when they keep their eyes on the music rather than looking down at the keyboard all the time (explained next). It also comes from them doing a pre-read routine before they sightread any song (discussed more in another post).

4. Location awareness: Always knowing exactly where their hands are on the keyboard and being able to find the next notes without looking down

The only way to develop this location awareness is to play with their fingers amongst the black keys; the pattern of black key groupings will always tell them exactly where they are. Without this skill, they are left relying solely on their memory of where their hand was last placed, which is ineffective because everyone forgets so quickly on account of thinking about so many other things while they're trying to sightread! And, even in those times when they do happen to remember where their hands are, they still have no means of jumping to semi-distant keys without looking down.

Piano methods that start out only in the key of C (plus an occasional song in F or G) facilitate the bad habit of playing on the ends of the keys, and teachers aren't always around during practice time to correct this, so this is another reason to choose a multi-key method. When location awareness is trained into a beginner pianist from the start, they will soon do it automatically without having to break any of those bad habits of playing on the ends of the keys or looking down at the keyboard. This will facilitate much more fluent sight reading because they can keep their eyes focused on absorbing all the musical symbols on the page and looking ahead in the music rather than constantly interrupting that focus by glancing (even peripherally) at the keyboard.

Another sidenote: I want to mention "position playing" here as well because it's a hotly debated teaching strategy, and it's used by many piano methods. Position playing is when the student plants their hands in one place on the keyboard and never has to move them from that base position for the whole song. I understand why methods use this technique. They're trying to get students to be able to play nice-sounding songs right from the get-go so they enjoy playing piano right from the start. They're also trying to implement the super-important principle of teaching one skill at a time (first learn to play notes you see written on a staff, then move on to more complex skills like moving your hands to different places on the keyboard). It also helps build intervallic note-reading skills early on. But the downside is that they really aren't truly reading music yet. You can tell because if they get even one note wrong, the rest of the song will be wrong because they're basing their intervals off the wrong note. All in all, position playing does seem to have its place very early on for the reasons mentioned above, but it should be transitioned away from pretty soon after they've gotten those initial skills down.

5. Sight reading practice: No matter how good they are at those other skills, this is what will make the biggest difference in sight-reading skill level

A piano method should have sight-reading practice built into every practice session. That is what the student needs to help pull all the other sight-reading skills together and hone them.

Optimally, when a student goes to sight read a song in their piano method, they'll have already learned all the rhythms, base patterns, fingering, chords, etc. that are used in the song so that they're not trying to figure those out at the same time they're trying to sight read. This allows them to focus on the sight reading skill much more. Again, it's that principle of teaching one skill at a time as much as possible. Simple skill after simple skill eventually becomes masterful playing.

Short songs tend to be better for sight reading because long songs are too fatiguing for beginner students and because that will allow them to sight read a greater variety of music.

THE PROBLEM WITH MOST PIANO METHODS
With most methods, not only do they not teach many of the sight-reading skills listed above, but also students get very little sight-reading practice because all the songs they're assigned are way above their sight-reading ability, which has a number of downsides. First, they end up playing that same song over and over dozens of times until they've finally just memorized all the parts that were difficult; therefore, much of the time spent learning that song ends up only being beneficial in playing that specific song rather than improving their skill base and their sight-reading skills. The sharpening-the-saw analogy applies here--time spent sight reading is sharpening their saw to be able to cut down future trees (i.e., learn to play future songs) more quickly. Second, by the time they can finally play the song well enough to sound musical, they're completely tired of it, so they miss out on their greatest reward of learning a new song--the satisfaction of making beautiful music. Third, they're daunted by every new song assignment because they see it as a long uphill slog to learn the darn thing.

I'm not saying they should never spend time memorizing and perfecting a difficult song. There is an appropriate method to learning and memorizing difficult (recital) songs, and they need to learn that method, which means they should be doing a couple difficult songs each year. (For more on that method, Google "Fundamentals of Piano Practice" by Chang.) But for the rest of their practice time, it should be with sight-readable songs. You know you're assigning songs that are the right difficulty level if they can sight read the songs you assign to them with not too many mistakes and pretty musically (albeit under tempo) the first time through.

THE PERFECT PIANO METHOD
Of all the things written about above, many of them are specific skills that a teacher needs to teach independent of what piano method they use. There are, however, a few things above that would be hard for a teacher to add in if they're not built into the method already:
  • Experience (in the form of songs and other practice activities) with all the key signatures right from the start (i.e., a "multi-key" piano method)
  • A specific focus on sight reading, which means there will be new songs for the student to play each week, and each week's song assignments will be the right difficulty level for sight reading
  • Preparation for playing each week's assigned songs in the form of activities that allow the student to practice individually all the skills that will go into sight reading those songs (theory, rhythms, chords, etc.)
  • Improv experiences that coordinate with the theory and songs they're learning
  • Early transition away from position playing
At a minimum, a method I choose needs all of those. And it would be even better if it has other desirables integrated as well, such as composition activities, transposition activities, aural skill-developing activities, explanations of music history, and training on how different styles should be played.

CONCLUSION
Think how easy it is to plant a student's hands in the C position, "teach" them to play a bunch of kitschy tunes (all in the key of C, of course), and then declare that they're making great progress. That's not what I want for my children. I want deliberate, sound, permanent piano training.

If a student is taught using the principles described above, their apparent progress will be slower because they initially won't be learning (wasting time on) as many difficult songs to impress their friends and extended family members. Going back to the sharpening-the-saw analogy, teaching piano in this way means they'll be spending the majority of their time sharpening their saw, so the number of trees they are cutting down will intially be few. But once that saw is crazy super sharp, they'll be able to cut down a tree so super fast any time, anywhere, their whole life.

You may be wondering if I've found any piano methods that look good. So far, the only one that meets all those core requirements (plus many of the optional ones) is the Robert Pace Piano Method. Never heard of it, right? I hadn't either. It's not widely used. It certainly has a cult following among teachers who use it (and former students who have been trained in it), but I think it's not popular because (1) it's not heavily marketed, (2) it's seen as dated (not new and flashy), (3) teachers believe it requires special training to use (there are Robert Pace teacher training workshops--a byproduct of having a cult following), and (4) some teachers think they'd have to teach it in groups (Robert Pace also wrote a lot about the benefits of teaching in various-sized groups).

So, we'll see how it goes. Let me know if any other good methods are out there. And check out part 2 for the simplified list of skills I have been focusing on daily with my kids to apply all this stuff.

UPDATE 12/4/16
I allude to the analogy of teaching a child to read, but I don't discuss it explicitly in my post. Think how similar learning to sight read music is to learning to read. Both involve training the mind to see symbols on a page and convert them into movements that produce sounds (one with your mouth, one with your fingers). And when we're teaching a child to read, they have to start by reading letter by agonizing letter, but with practice they get faster as they see words in different contexts and can soon glance at a whole word or line even and read it all at once. Same with reading music.

But what if we taught children to read the same way we teach them to play piano? It would involve assigning them to read something way above their reading level, taking weeks to learn to read it fluently as they ultimately rely on a lot of memorizing of the too-difficult words and phrasings (and then probably not even recognize them in a different context). Eventually they'd be able perform that reading with all the right words and intonations, but their reading level would only be marginally better than it was weeks ago before they started. That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Everyone knows you don't teach a child to read by making them read (over and over) only a couple different stories per month. We instead give them a new story every time they practice, each one adding in slightly more difficult elements (that, optimally, they've practiced individually right before they read the story). Occasionally we might have them learn something above their level so they can perform it, but this is more an exercise in memorization and performance skills than it is in reading improvement. So why do we teach children to play piano the way we do? Piano teaching is stuck in the dark ages. It's no wonder so many students never learn to sight read music well and are therefore music illiterate their whole lives despite years of training and practice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Other Tips for Helping Kids to Eat Right

In my last post, I discussed the main principles you need to follow to prevent or fix picky eating. Here are some other things we’ve discovered along the way that help them learn good food habits.

You need to model a good food relationship. If you are binging and snacking and trying various diets and complaining of being hungry and being preoccupied with your body image, your kids will notice and assume that’s a normal and acceptable way to live. They will pick up those habits, and their risk of having an eating disorder (or, at a minimum, a bad relationship with food) will be much, much higher. It’s a struggle in life you can prevent for them by following for yourself the principles outlined in the last post.

It's an ongoing effort. You have to stick to the principles in the last post every day, consistently, for life. It’s a lifestyle, not a parenting trend. If you slack, your kids will slide with you, and then you’ll have to all start over establishing good habits after you finally realize what a stressor food has become again. Living with discipline all the time is much easier.

Try doing a vegetable course first. For most meals, we start by putting only the veggies on the table, and that’s all we initially dish up for them. We don’t force them to eat all of the veggies before they can have anything else (I think that would turn them off from veggies), but we wait a while before giving them the rest of the meal. This actually helps them eat more vegetables most of the time!

The bad habit of not eating dinner. If they get into a habit of regularly not eating more than their one required bite for dinner because they “don’t like it yet” and just choose to be hungry until breakfast, that may mean they’re missing out on the majority of their veggies for the day. Because we’re really nice parents, we have, on occasion, put their dinner plate in the fridge and then heated that up for them in the morning for breakfast. Amazingly, they usually eat it really well, and it’s very effective at curbing that one-bite-for-dinner habit.

There should be no such thing as "kid food." There's probably something to that whole idea that little palettes are more sensitive or something, but feeding kids "kid food" (instead of what the adults are eating) is losing out on opportunities to help them start to learn to like new, amazing, delicious food. Plus, kid food never ends up being very healthful. Our kids ate everything we ate while we lived in Thailand, and it was initially hard at times, but they came to love so many amazing Thai foods! Even now, our 4-year-old says her favorite food is khao soi, which she initially would refuse to eat (other than the one required bite, of course).

Sitting down together for meals. All these things I’m talking about work much better if you have everyone sitting down and eating together. Not only does it help you track and enforce the good eating habits more easily, but mealtime becomes a looked-forward-to time when the whole family is together interacting. To help kids stay at the table, our rule is that if you get off your chair, that means you're done, so they know to just sit and eat until their tummies are full; they can’t get away with running off to play and then coming back for more later.

Because all kids are different, there is a great variability in how well kids will respond to these tactics. Some will have a hard go of it, but your patient consistency will win out in the end.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Picky Eater? It's the Parents' Fault

Sometimes I hear parents complain about how picky their kids are, and I want to say, "It's your own darn fault--you've trained them that way!" (Sorry.) You, too, are guilty if you do any of the following:

·         If your child doesn't like a meal, you let them get away with eating something else instead
·         You avoid giving your child certain foods because you know they will refuse (and then eat something else--see above)
·         When your child complains of being hungry (which happens regularly), you give them a snack
·         You sometimes say no to a snack, but your child somehow ends up eating before the next scheduled meal anyway

Teaching kids not to be picky is so easy if you can just learn how to avoid interfering with the natural consequences* that come from being a picky eater. Here are the three principles that, if understood and followed religiously, will cure the vast majority of picky eating.

Principle 1: Kids will eat food they don't like before they will starve
If a child refuses to eat a meal you put before them, this is what you do: Explain to them that, if they don't eat, they'll be hungry until the next meal, and then CARRY THROUGH WITH THAT PROMISE, ALWAYS (think of la cadre). If, at the next meal, they again refuse to eat the meal you put before them, no worries. Just explain again that they'll be hungry until the next meal. You can keep going like this, and I promise you that you can't lose--you have 1000s of years of evolutionary physiology on your side. Your child will eventually be driven by hunger to eat food they don't like, and they will not even become malnourished in the meantime. This is not harsh--it’s good parenting.

Kathy thinks that, with the littles who are too young to understand these explanations, you can be a little bit lenient (maybe a very small healthful extra snack before the next meal sometimes if they’re super hungry and cranky from not eating the prior meal), but I believe that even the littles figure out the pattern themselves soon enough if they experience hunger after not eating their meals. You’ll have to decide for yourself on that one.

By the way, this doesn’t mean you should never feed them snacks. One small, healthful snack a day at a scheduled time (maybe in between lunch and dinner) is probably a good thing, but be careful--don’t give them a bigger snack just because they didn’t eat much of their last meal (again, that would be interfering with the natural consequence of not eating a meal).

Principle 2: Food preferences are not fixed
My favorite story that illustrates this is about a food critic who decided that disliking certain foods was unfair of him, so for a whole year he ate nothing but all the foods he disliked the most. By the end of that year, many of those foods had become his favorite foods, and he liked nearly all the rest of them. I've had the same experience with many foods (tomatoes, olives, fermented soybeans). In our house, if someone doesn't like a food, we say they don’t like it YET, which helps ingrain this principle. Kids often have to try a food more than 10 times before they start to appreciate it!

Consider also that they may be reacting to the texture or appearance, not just the flavor. So, let them try various foods that incorporate that same flavor/texture/appearance that they’re balking at, and eventually they’ll start to like it. The key to this, though, is that they have to try at least one bite of everything you put before them, every time! Force the one bite into them if you have to; it's that important. Our kids are not allowed to leave the table until they've eaten at least 1 bite of everything, and we don't push for anything more (as explained above). Same goes for spicy foods, but please do it by degrees lest you completely traumatize them.

Principle 3: You can trust your body to know how much to eat
Kids are, on the whole, really great about eating until their tummies are full. Some days, this may be very little. Other days, it may be more than you. Either way, don't worry about it! Again, 1000s of years of evolutionary physiology. But, many parents kill their child’s natural ability of knowing when to stop eating by requiring them to eat all the food on their plate. The last bite is not the magic bite. Please don’t turn eating into a goal-directed empty-your-plate process for your child, because then eating is disconnected from fullness/satiation, which opens the door to all sorts of eating disorders. Trust that, if you’re putting well-balanced meals in front of your child, they will eat the right amount and be healthy.

If you follow these three principles religiously, not only will you have healthier, happier, less-picky children, but food will cease to be a stressor in your home. Next post, I will share some other tips and tricks we’ve discovered along the way.


* Natural consequences: The negative/positive consequences that automatically come after a bad/good decision. They are inherent in the decision. For example, if you don't eat your dinner, you'll be hungry. The other kind of consequences is artificial consequences, which are extra things that the parents do to a child when they deem the natural consequences of a decision (good or bad) to be too weak or too delayed to sufficiently motivate the child to make the right decision.