Author: Teresa Wong

How to teach piano beginners (I)

As piano students and performers, you all know the importance of piano lessons and practice, and how a great teacher can inspire you to the next new level. But as piano teachers, do you know what you have to do in order to be successful in teaching piano students?

In this series of articles , I’d like to share with you some useful ideas on how you as piano teachers to prepare yourselves on taking up this wonderful career of piano teaching.

Teaching piano beginners is a challenging task. Many might think it’s easier than teaching students of more intermediate levels. It’s crucial for piano teachers to nurture their beginner students carefully so that students start well on the merry way of music learning and enjoyment for many years to come.

The following tips are applicable for teaching piano beginners in general.

1. Use piano instruction books effectively

There are a lot of piano method books out there and many of them are quite excellent and fun. But not all of them are suitable for teaching purpose. Piano teachers should identify the books they find that are in line with their own teaching approach and choose wisely. More importantly, the piano method books out there do not teach teachers how to teach their books. So it’s up to the teachers to use the books accordingly. Even if the teachers are professionally trained musically, it doesn’t mean unfortunately that they are trained to teach music, and I know a lot of times they are frustrated with how to communicate in a way that students can understand and learn effectively.

This leads me to the second point..


2. Learn how to teach

I for a while did not understand the importance of learning how to teach. It was not until I took classes in piano pedagogy in graduate school and first-handedly received high-quality piano lessons from master piano teachers, that I understood the surprisingly distinct difference between the old-school mediocre piano teaching and the great piano teaching, which could immensely inspire a student to a great new level in piano playing and music understanding.

After finishing my master’s degree, I continued to learn and dig deeper in the subject of “teaching”. In piano teaching (or instrumental teaching for that matter), there are two main aspects one needs to learn as a teacher: teaching music and teaching in general. And in music teaching, there are piano playing (technique and repertoire) and music rudiments (theory, reading and aural ability, history). To be a successful and well-rounded piano teacher, one must not only acquire knowledge in music and piano but also learn how to teach.

Teaching is not to feed information into students’ brains- it’s rather to inform and guide the students, so that they are well-equipped with data they need to form their own judgment and apply their knowledge accordingly.

High-quality piano teaching does not have to be reserved to music students in prestige graduate schools only. As a matter of fact, children needs great teachers to learn from and be inspired by at early ages, right from the start of their music education journey.

3. Teach students how to practice

It’s important to teach students how to practice. A lot of teachers think the students automatically know that how to practice on their own, and hope that the parents would somehow take that responsibility to teach them or show them how. That cannot be more wrong.

First thing students should know is that practice is crucial for successful piano playing and repetition is important in their piano practice. And repetition does not mean playing a piece twice or the whole piece all the time. There should be guidance on how to practice and what to practice, what goals they set in each practice session and how to achieve those goals accordingly.

In our piano beginner books, we write out step-by-step instructions for students and parents to follow at home during their practice, so that they know what to do and what to pay attention to. In piano lessons, teachers should also spend time to explain to students how to practice certain phrases and what they themselves should pay attention to during their practice at home. Students need to know what they are looking for in their own practice and playing, instead of teachers pointing out their mistakes and them rectifying them afterwards. A lot of self-awareness and attention to details are required in students in their own practice (and playing) to make that practice session effective and productive.

When students know how to practice and what to look for during practice, it’s time to be creative in their practice. Teachers can demonstrate different ways of tackling a problem, whether it be a rhythmic, harmonic or coordination aspect. Teaching students to understand the components and make-up of a music piece would tremendously help them practice more effectively. No one gets far with practice or playing without understanding the musical content of a piece they are learning.

To Adult Piano Beginners

If you are between 18 and 100 and are looking into taking piano lessons as an absolute beginner, CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve made the first step to starting this wonderful musical journey with a magical and (literally) majestic instrument.

I am certainly biased here, being a classically trained pianist for so many years. I basically live, breathe and sleep with piano/music in my head 24/7. I love playing, teaching and writing about it/them.

I have to admit though, it was not love at the first sight, and I was no child prodigy. I just went through the early period of my “piano life” because I was told to like every other obedient child. My brothers played piano and I also played it, with it being part of our education curriculum.

All those early years I spent at the piano with a few piano teachers were not all that enjoyable or educational really – no offense, but I believe most of them didn’t know what they were doing. I have perfect pitch (which can be a blessing and a curse), and my teachers didn’t even know or take advantage of that to teach me. They just went through the books (“play louder, play correct, play faster, and then some more!”) and thought they did their jobs, one of them occasionally comparing me to my brother (who was doing much better than I back then) and implying that I was a disappointment to her as my piano exam grades were not as good.

Long story short, I thought I was not good at piano. In fact, quite the contrary, and not until I met my first real Teacher, that I realized I loved playing the piano and I was actually quite good at it.

She opened my eyes, ears and mind to this whole new magical world of music. I mean, I never thought playing the piano was that fun and literally, colorful! (She made me draw a picture about the piece I was playing, and even though I was super bad at drawing and she teased me about it, it was an amazing experience to know that music had image and story and color and so much more…)

And I was 13.

Piano has taken me to many places, met many people and experienced many things I would have otherwise never had. I went to Europe for music festival before 18, spent a summer playing music in ancient castles and opera houses in Italy and sang in the Vatican Church. I got invited to France and all the amazing countries to perform in concerts. I also wrote books on piano, started a piano school and a charity organization, and did a lot of interesting fun concerts all these years.

I am writing about my experiences to show how grateful I feel to have all these opportunities, just because I play the piano.

I guess what I am saying is, I have a lot of passion for piano, not just playing it, but promoting it, writing about it, and teaching it. I spent a lot of waking (and sleepy) hours thinking about how to help students play better. I wrote articles and make videos sharing for free about how others can play and teach better. I do all these only because I love it.

So whenever someone new – whether they be 3 or 93 – is coming to take piano lessons with me, I am always feel with anticipation and excitement, thinking, “great, another opportunity to share my passion with a new student!”. And when they feel frustrated with how it goes at the beginning, I always remind them, “it’s just a start, don’t worry, it’s okay to not know how and make mistake, because that’s how we learn!”.

All these years in my piano teaching career, I have so many adult students, including those who start from scratch as an absolute beginner, advanced players and piano teachers. Those who are “successful” in learning how to play – meaning they have good progress and enjoy their playing and learning – are always the ones who love the challenges, who put effort into learning and practice, and who are not afraid to make mistakes and keep going.

I know I have been long winded in this post, but what I want to really say to you is, if you still are thinking about whether you should start playing the piano or not, I say “go for it”. There’s nothing to lose but time wasted in pondering upon what could happen if you’ve tried your hands at the piano – and hey, if you’ve tried it and found out you don’t like it, great, no need to pursue it. Move on to the next project!

Let’s make some music together!

Training Piano Teachers

Lately I have been preoccupied with training piano teachers on my online teaching platform and one-to-one private consultation basis.

I find it very fulfilling and satisfying to train piano teachers (and music teachers) to become successful in their teaching career. After years of my own training and teaching students in the area of piano performance, I realized how important it was to help piano teachers to become better in the way they understand and teach music/piano. I personally can only teach that many students privately; but if I could train others to teach well, we would have a lot more wonderful piano teachers out there to educate, inspire and encourage students to learn, enjoy and flourish in their music journey.

The first thing I want to get piano teachers understand is that they need to get themselves “out there”, especially when they are new in their teaching career. What that means is that they need to find their own channels to promote their teaching. It can be a blog, a Facebook page, or a YouTube channel. It is important for the teachers to share their thoughts, knowledge and experience on piano teaching and performing. It is a great way for the teachers to not only let new students know about their availability, but also to educate and connect with current students outside their lessons.

Another thing about training new teachers is to show them that there is a huge difference between learning to play piano and learning to teach piano. Surely there are some similarities between the two, but knowing how to play doesn’t mean one knows how to teach. There certainly is a lot to learn when it comes to the art of teaching. Other than all the music books I have studied throughout the years, I have also educated myself by reading a lot of books on communication and psychology. Learning how to communicate with students (and parents), encourage them and inspire them to learn and succeed, and above all, understand each student’s personality and their strength and take advantage of that knowledge in one’s teaching are all very powerful tools for a successful piano teacher.

Before I teach my piano teachers anything, I always ask them this question, “why do you teach?”. I want them to really think and feel deeply, and understand the reason they want to start their teaching career. For me, I was inspired by a couple of the most amazing piano teachers during my formative years: their passion in piano, their expertise in teaching, as well as their compassion for students (which I truly cherish till this day). They showed me how a real teacher could dramatically change a life for the better.

A real teacher is inspiring, caring, and respectable. I hope I am one and I can train many more in years to come.

Teresa Wong

To My Old Piano Students

Dear Students,

How are you? I wonder how you’ve been doing. When’s the last time you played your piano? When’s the last time you shared music with others?

I think about you often. I do. 

I remember how our first piano lessons together, and how that evolved to become a long-term relationship as teacher and students, as well as friends. 

I remember we had the first breakthrough in one of our lessons, it was amazing.

I remember how I felt so emotional and touched when I heard you play in some occasions, thinking I was really blessed to have all these lovely students who wanted to share music with me for so many years.

I remember how I told you to have a haircut because your hair was frankly, messy (you see, your teacher, aka moi, also have the same problem from time to time when life gets hectic, still do).

I remember we had that talk, and I really hoped it resonated with you and helped you through.

I remember we had all those performance classes, masterclasses, concerts, all the rehearsals and performances – some frustrating moments, but always so many more good ones. 

I remember we would go to concerts together, and discussed about the concert afterwards with a drink each in our hands.

We also had lunch, dinner, barbecue and all sorts of gathering. There were never short of laughters. 

We had a lot of music gatherings and parties at my place.. it was a lot of fun. I love having parties and you all come over. 

I remember I cared. And I still do.

Frankly, I really miss all of you.

I hope you are good, and still play the piano.

Have a happy Chinese New Year,

Your Teacher,

TW

Must I learn to read music to play piano?

Some new piano students ask me this when we first meet, “Do I really have to read music? I just want to play the piano.” My answer is, “yes and no”. It depends on what you want to learn and play. There are a lot of great musicians who never learn to read music and yet they play marvellously. And then there are a lot of other great musicians who learn to read music and they play spectacularly. The first group of musicians is usually in the jazz/blues/pop/world music genre. They play by ear, they understand music differently the way those who read music. They usually improvise and create music more freely. The second group of musicians is the classically trained ones. These musicians learnt to read since they were young. They went through all the strict and traditional training. They understand music deeply and through various means. It is not just the reading that they need to learn, but they also know the theory, form and structure behind those notes. All these help them listen and play better. So, if you want to just play pop music and never care to bother with the classical pieces, then “no” I say you probably don’t really need to read music at all, and find someone who can teach you just like that (not the strictly classical piano teachers because they probably don’t know what to do with you!). But, if you ever want to learn something more complicated like a prelude and fugue by Bach or a nocturne by Chopin, then “yes” you would want to learn how to read. I always compare music learning to language learning. It’s really quite similar. Did you learn to read English? I am sure you did because you are now reading my article :) Did you ever wonder, “can I learn to speak English without learning to read English?” It sounds absurd. But the truth is, I bet you learnt to speak before you actually read it – you would probably know more words in your speech way ahead of your reading. It’s the chicken and egg theory. For me, I love to read (I’m an absolute bookworm). So I love to read music as well. I devoured a lot of new music just by playing through them the first second I see them. It’s an amazing feeling to have the ability to be able to sight-read in no time. It’s a lot of fun. But at the same time I like how some jazz and blues musicians who can improvise like mad – that’s really amazing to watch and listen to as well. In fact, I started improvising (and composing) a few years ago. At first, I found it hard to play random things because I was so used to read everything from the score and play exactly that. I was a bit “confused” (a popular word commonly used by my students). I was feeling that I couldn’t make mistake or “ugly sound” like that as I improvised, “that’s embarrassing!”. But I got over it, that’s the only way to learn to play differently. And it got better and was a lot of fun since then. Now I learn to play some blues because it’s just fun to learn something new, and I get to teach students that. For me, it’s not about just strictly “how you must read!” or “it doesn’t matter whether you read or not”, it’s rather what benefits that student the most. After all, music is about enjoyment (not so much for professional musicians all the time! Just like anyone in their field doing it professionally). It’s about people expressing themselves and sharing it with others. Of course there are times it’s challenging in the process of learning – there are obstacles and hurdles, there are setbacks and disappointment. But most important of all, we make progress by making mistakes, getting over them and moving onward and forward. With the new students, I combine listening and reading. Learning by rote is important for any beginners. With listening, memorizing patterns by sight and sound, as well as remembering notes one or two at a time, students make progress very quickly. It’s important for students to gain confidence by being able to play something simply successfully at the beginning, that sense of enjoyment and satisfaction, knowing that they can actually play the piano and make music, is the motive that moves them forward and keep learning. I could go on and on about music learning and piano playing, but I shall stop here and continue with another post on how teachers can motivate students in a positive direction with very simple cues in their piano journey. Teresa Wong