Students’ Playing Deteriorating
Beth S., Tennessee
I have noticed with a number of my students that when they have first learned a song, they play it well; i.e. clean, mistake-free, musical, etc. Then when it becomes a part of the playlist and they play it repeatedly over a period of time that the song starts breaking down. It gets fast, sloppy, mechanical, etc. It seems to me that I can remember doing the same thing as a kid when I took lessons. After a point, particular songs lost their interest and inspiration, and it was hard to play them well anymore.
Most troubling to me is one certain student of mine — boy, aged 11 — who started about a year and a half ago. I’ve always considered him one of my prize students, because he picks things up so quickly with no trouble. Lately, however, when testing him on the playlist, I’ve noticed a large number of songs that have deteriorated terribly. While he knows the notes, they no longer sound good. For example, this past spring he played “Pipes” at my piano party. It was his favorite song and he played it perfectly. Now, however, six months later, when he plays it, while the notes are accurate, his left hand has become stiff and robotic. It looks cramped and unnatural. I’ve done loosening-up exercises to no avail. It seems that it’s impossible for him to play it naturally anymore.
Has anyone else experienced this and found a solution?
From Elaine F.
Good question. I see a bit of in my studio too. Do you think they CAN play it well but choose not to? Or have the forgotten how and/or what to play?
Sometimes I play a few bars of the song and then they can get right back into it. Or I ask them to tell me what the mood is, what issues we worked on with the song, and then play it.- but this is not as successful.
As I write this I wonder why and it seems like it’s a territory thing. They don’t want to do the work of remembering and playing the piece. They want it done for them… so that could lead to a long discussion and I don’t always want to go there….
From Sue C., Australia
Have you tried recording this student? I have found some children love to be recorded and as soon as I have the digital recorder going, they are prepared to clearly say their name and title of song and then play the song the best they can. Build it up a bit first by saying, “I know you can play level one, but do you think it is ready for recording? Next week we will record say 3 songs”. You can use this method until you get the whole of level one recorded and then say that you want to record the whole of level one at one sitting. (If you do this digitally, you can email the recording back to them.).
This will get the student practising for the recording and then playing again playing for the actual recording. I have used this even in the early stages and said “I think we’re ready to record the right hand of Dreams Come True or FSS.” At a later lesson I could record all the song and a few weeks later, an improved song. I am using the recording as a motivation to improve the quality of the song.
From Hilary C., Western Australia
I think there is more than one reason for this to happen – The once-loved piece has been displaced by a more recently learned piece and now seems too simple and not as showy, and as you say ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. For we humans of all ages relevance is always an issue.
Some suggestions to counter ennui and retain relevance might be:
- Teaching the arrangements and asking for these at times rather than the original,especially playing duets with students where possible
- Encouraging the student to use the originals as departures for their own improvisations/compositions
- Reminding students that some specific pieces are part of the reading process and targeting those – and insisting on them being good – these are itemised in the TTP Reading Notes.
- Use the playlist self-assessment sheet enabling students to listen and honestly assess their playing.The longer I teach the more I can see where one can CP using earlier songs, drawing on them and hence keeping them alive.
- Keeping fingers developing strength and dexterity – repetition is a sneaky way to do finger exercises – point out how much stronger they are than when they started – it has to be true whatever level they are at.
Having said all that, I think there is going to be a time when the early pieces, particularly those that haven’t captured the imagination of the student, will die or need resuscitation from time to time to keep them in shape as foundation for something that’s coming up. I believe in letting students know why I’m asking this of them and that it’s in their best interest to do as I ask. I do move on if I know they can play those things well but for some reason have lost interest, on the proviso that they will practice them, particularly if I can see an improvement the next week – I call it reward for effort. And there is also the idea of ‘quit while you’re ahead’ which you are if a student has responded +vely to you.
I think we need to remember that at school if they have gone up a grade students will not , in all probability, still be doing the same particular tasks.
While I do envisage that from here on in people will push their Zimmer frames around a nursing home singing ‘Sitting here with you’ as it will be un-eraseable from their long-term memory, i think we need to be aware not to alienate students from their potential, development of which is our long term aim, by insisting on needless repetition. Neil has said that at Level 7 students can choose what they wish to maintain as a playlist anyway and suggests ~30 pieces.
Dixie C., Washington
Sometimes when a student has “forgotten” how to play a piece they once knew, I take them back to the keypad & coach them in remembering the patterns, sentences, sequences, etc. Usually they remember & are able to play it through just fine. I think, in those instances, their muscle memory & ear have taken over, & we just need to access where the original learning is stored. I think, also, that sometimes the lesson environment can cause a bit of stress that can interfere in the automatic playing of a piece that came easily & thoughtlessly at home. I play by ear as well as by note, & have had occasions when distracted by nervousness, or other stresses, when I couldn’t remember the chord progressions in an arrangement of my own that I may have known for years.
The sloppiness, I believe, is a typical “kid” response that we can train out of a student by talking through what happens when we don’t play our pieces with care, giving our students ownership of their practice & progress, expressing belief in their abiility, etc.
Sometimes, too, a student may just be having an “off day”. We all have them. These are my thoughts, but I’m interested in what others have to share.
Beth S., Tennessee
I’m not really referring to the forgetting of how to play a piece. All notes are perfect, and I usually stay on top of the playlist, making sure students remember notes. What I’m specifically concerned about is the adding of things into a piece that were never there before, most likely due to bored, repetitive playing — in this case a cramped, robotic arm, or in other cases a fast, sloppy approach or ugly expression. I remember Neil saying that beautiful playing and expression comes when a song has moved into the “thoughtlessness arena”. This is what I’m expecting of my kids. But what has been happening with mine instead is the deterioration of a piece. I work and work with my students on making their songs sound beautiful, but it seems they get worse the more time goes on. It drives me crazy, but maybe I should just leave it alone and let it be?
Winnie B., Colorado
I do know what you mean….several little ones came in from summer break with their songs played too fast and’
carelessly. It worked in this case to assign them to play along with the audio recordings, (too fast for most beginners, but their speed had far surpassed the audio recording demands.) I was surprised to hear the improvement almost immediately.