Cheryl G., Pennsylvania
One of my frustrations is that most students seem to forget the arrangements, sometimes after working hard to learn them. Naturally it’s from lack of practice, but the arrangements are easier to forget since they’re not written down. Adults especially have trouble even remembering them from one week to the next (or even a portion). Is it even important that students remember them? Or should they be considered a springboard into composition, arranging and improvisation — just the experience of seeing how simple songs can be arranged is valuable in itself for exposing us to new sounds and techniques. In other words, how important is it to teach them even if I think a student is likely to forget them?
Also, when a student plays a song not exactly as it’s taught (theoretically a mistake) but it sounds okay, how important is it to correct them and have them play the songs exactly as they are in the video?
Kevin M., California
I think this is a great question. First I would like to address the importance of the arrangements. I think it is a wonderful thing for the students to experience playing songs in different ways. My experience has been that students just love playing them. Every time I play them the students will comment on how beautiful they are. Sometimes they just have that look on their face like it sounds good but it seems hard, and then they are so proud of themselves to have learned something that seemed hard at first but ended up being easy it really boosts their confidence. With language we don’t speak from a script, our vocabulary is large enough, and we are comfortable enough with it that we are able to just express ourselves as we wish. By introducing students to different arrangements, we give our students the ability to do their own arrangements of songs and not be restricted to just playing what is written, but play the songs differently to express their own individual style, mood, etc.
I think if students are forgetting these songs, it has everything to do with managing the play list, not the fact they are not written down. I think quite possibly that managing the Playlist is one of the most important things we do as teachers, and maybe one that requires the most effort.
The songs do not have notes for a few reasons. The most important has to do with preparing them for the more advanced levels, like the fragmenting we do in Level 4 and beyond. It also has a lot to do with getting better at the Simply Music style of learning, getting better at receiving information from visual clues on the instrument, learning different patterns, etc. It really helps to prepare our students for the whole reading process and helps keep up the excitement of playing the songs. Also, the songs are learned at a deeper level. We need the songs to be as thoughtless as possible for the reading process and for the ability to play with expression. I have found without exception that my students who have learned the variations and arrangements have done better in the Simply Music program as a whole, and have been happier students.
As far as playing a song with mistakes, even though they might sound OK, but is not how it is presented on the video, I would never let that go. I would do one or two things. A lot of times I have the student return to the video and correct it themselves. We need to rely on the students being able to use the video to supplement their lessons. To me, having mistakes gives us an opportunity to coach them on how to better use the video and prevent further breakdowns later on. If it was a good student and just a one time error, I might address it in class, and then have them review the video. If they like the mistake and ask if they can play it that way as well as the original, I let them do that as long as the original is strong, because that is what I need for them to be successful in the reading part of the program.
Gordon Harvey, Melbourne, AU
For those who have come into the Simply Music program in the last 18 months or so, you might be surprised to hear that there was a time when the only thing our students had for reviewing their lessons was a single book with very few notes hand written by their teacher – no printed notes, no video and no audio recordings. We achieved great results with this, although for me, the introduction of the Home Materials, especially the videos, was a major breakthrough. Gone was the understandable anxiety expressed by some students who simply couldn’t understand how they could remember anything without written instructions. Really, though, after a short time with the method, a student was more likely to wonder how anyone could remember things with written notes. They would also look at other people who had had piano lessons and seen many of them suffering page-dependency – a debilitating condition resulting in an inability to play anything without written instruction.
The video-based materials also presented another danger – that of video-dependency. Some people used the video slavishly and spent a lot of time going over the videos before they really absorbed the pieces. This could be seen as just another kind of reliance on external instruction, rather than developing the kind of “bigger picture” of the keyboard that has the student ultimately seeing things for himself.
If an aim is for the student to be self-generating, they absolutely must develop their ability to process and memorize things at the keyboard. In my experience, in music, memory is nine-tenths of successful learning. The whole beauty of the Simply Music approach is that it reduces pieces of music to the most easily understood components and presents them in a way that makes the most of how people naturally learn, thus simplifying the memorization of the piece. However, like any skill, memory must be developed. Neil describes memory as a muscle, which, like any other muscle, must be “worked out” to be turned from a useless piece of flab to a powerful ally. I often say to my students, after maybe a year of lessons, something like “you remember when you started how anxious you were about remembering Dreams Come True? Now look at how much more complicated the pieces are that you’re learning, and you’re still playing every piece you’ve learned in that time”.
So one of the functions of the Arrangements program is to circumvent the risk of reliance on external instruction and ensure the students are buffing up that memory muscle. It’s entirely deliberate that we don’t write notes for the Arrangements. And along with that comes the danger of the memory failing the student.
So there are a few points I like to be clear on:
- Make sure you justify the process to the student. You could give them some version (hopefully shorter!) of the conversation above so they’re fully supportive of the process.
- Prepare the student for the possible additional challenge, and the genuine risk of forgetting things in the early stages. I like to reassure the student that it’s normal with these projects to forget things as they’re learning them.
The advice about practicing as soon as possible after the lesson applies doubly for Arrangements. I also make sure students know they can call me during the week. And if all else fails, they should feel that if they have to go over the project in the following lesson, it’s not a big deal.
You may also need to manage the Arrangement pieces ongoing in their Play List. For me, they are maintained in just the same way as any other piece, but because they have no back-up, the students need to keep right on top of the playing. Ensure that the students keep playing the songs often enough that they always remain well within their comfort zone. In the same way that the arrangements can provide a different challenge for some students, they can be just that little extra challenge for you to keep students committed to. Watch that you’re presenting pieces at the right level and in the best order for the student. Again, this is a matter of experience, but if you have students consistently struggling with them, it may be a sign that you’re going too fast. Remember that you don’t necessarily have to present all Level 1 Arrangements during Level 1; in fact you definitely wouldn’t, unless the student had significant prior experience. And many slower students may only cover a handful of arrangements in the first several levels.
With these points in mind, I’d say that the risk of students forgetting the Arrangements and the fact that they’re not written down are the very reasons to persist with them. They may take some more management for both student and teacher, but they serve a vital purpose for all students beyond what may seem immediately obvious. And it’s not a result until it’s on the board, so keep them on that Playlist!
(Neil Moore addresses more on this topic in his Forum post called ‘Learning Arrangements Without Using Support Materials’)