Category: Music Teaching

Practice Makes Better

We’ve all heard of the phrase, “practice makes perfect”. I sure have, and held onto it for a really long time.

Being a professional musician means that you have to practice hard and long to perfect a piece. But more often than not, “perfection” can become a negative word.

What do I mean by that? Isn’t it what we should strive for, perfection?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t practice hard to know our music so well that we can recite it in our sleep (or maybe dream about it! – I know I have). I actually tried memorizing a piece backward – from the end back to the beginning – to test myself if I knew it well enough for my performance. But maybe that’s a bit too much? I wonder.

Anyway, my point is, sometimes we should focus on the process rather than the result, especially when you as a student – a beginner – or someone who’s just picked up the instrument again after years of hiatus. Who’s a beginner you might ask? Anyone who has less than 5 continuous years’ experience at the instrument would I consider a beginner. And if one didn’t really spend that much time practicing and playing in their years of learning, one could still be a beginner after even 10 years of lessons. A lot of times, we need to plan and achieve small goals, and in terms of the big picture, the many achievement of small goals eventually lead to one big success.

I believe in “practice makes better”. I do want my students to become better at the piano, there’s no doubt about it. But after the many years of teaching and observation, I find that those who focus too much of how well they can play at that moment often lose sight of how well they can become in the future, provided that they keep putting effort and time into their lessons and practice. Unfortunately, those who feel they are not getting better in their playing are those who lose confidence and interest, and eventually, give up on the whole music journey.

I always remember this one adult student, who was (and still is) very passionate about piano playing. He had only a few years of training with me but he showed a lot of promise right from the start. All other adult students were in awe of what he could play in a very short time. Most of all, he had fun and showed a lot of confidence in his playing. At times his performance was not on par, but he didn’t feel bad about it. One subpar performance didn’t deter him from keep going; instead, he moved on and kept doing better in the next performance. Even when he was working overseas, he told me how he would look for a piano to practice. Eventually, he decided to give up on his job and devoted himself into music. Now he works at a music conservatory and competes internationally.

One special thing about him is not about how well he plays or how devoted he is into piano, but rather that he always keeps a good spirit about his playing and doesn’t focus on one slip or two. I believe it’s his positive attitude that keeps him moving forward and progress immensely.

Obviously not everyone wants to become a professional pianist, and I don’t actually care about that. What I truly care about is that my students, no matter young or mature, beginner or advanced, enjoy their playing, their practice, their lessons, and above all, respect that they have their own special journey in music; that sometimes they progress quickly, and other times they would get stuck and feel lost. The only way to move on is to keep going. It’s okay to take a break, but after rest, it’s time to stand up and continue the journey, because, this journey is super beautiful, and it is so worth it.

Teresa Wong

P.S. I just want to say a special “thank you” to whoever is reading this. This journey for me has been great, a lot of ups and downs, has taken me to so many places in the world and met so many people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. I feel honored to have you read this, follow me, taken/taking lessons from me (as a student, a teacher, or as a parent, in person or online), read/bought my books, watched me videos. No matter what the future brings, I know I have shared with you in all honesty and that I have done something good..

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.

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

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

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