When one of my students has a hard time finding the right note or playing the right note, I feel like I should step in and show them how, but I also feel like I should give them some time to figure it out on their own. Should I help them or should I let them figure it out on their own? If so, how long before I step in?
The Struggle Moments; How To Help
At first glance it would appear as though there are two ways to deal with piano student “struggle moments”. 1) Jump in immediately to “rescue” them and feed them the correction or 2) Leave them to their own devices and only assist once it becomes clear that they will not find the correct answer.
There is a 3rd option, however, and it has to do with what happens before the struggle moment occurs.
Pre-emptive Struggle Striking
Before any of my piano students even touch a single key for a new piece, we spend a great deal of time taking it apart and talking about it from a theory perspective first. Remember, theory doesn’t need to be boring (and here’s a great activity as proof!) Here’s how:
1) Piano Piece Scavenger Hunts – Arm your piano students with a set of colorful markers and send them on a scavenger hunt on their page. Ask “Can you find all of the intervals of a 3rd and color them green?” or “Can you find all of the notes that are affected by the key signature and circle them?” or “Can you find all of the measures where the F# repeats?” etc.
2) Pattern Blocks – Help your students to discover how pieces are made up of patterns that repeat. Most pieces in method books are built from 2-3 different blocks of material that repeat. If you circle each of those blocks in a color to show which are the same, then you can spend time learning and drilling just those small parts of each piece before you put the whole thing together (“Play me a green circle. Now, play me a pink circle. Now play me a green circle followed by a pink circle.” etc.)
3) Tricky Bits – Help your student to identify what they believe to be the “hardest” part of the piece. In method book pieces there is usually a measure or two (or an entire line) of music that is slightly different than the rest of the patterns, or that you can tell will require some more coordination than other parts. Go to that first, take it apart, discuss any patterns you can find within that section (for example, “Look! The left hand is really only moving between E and G”) and teach it until they can play it comfortably. Without doing this, you’ll end up with a part they are cautious about or that always causes a stumble.
Struggle Moments Be Gone!
If you approach pieces in this way then it’s less likely that your students will have struggle moments because their whole piece will “make sense” to them. Now, if they need help, you can assist in a way that continues your teaching. Instead of “That note is D”, you can use language like “Remember this measure is the same as the one you’ve just played” or “What was the pattern for this section?” or “Why is that note circled in green?”. This means that your help is actually giving them strategies they’ll need to play this piece at home, rather than just giving them the answer. Feeding your students the notes as they play gets them through the piece in the lesson, but it doesn’t give them the tools they need to do it without you.
Struggle Moments Don’t Build Character
I always err on the side of not leaving my students feeling uncomfortable or inadequate ever. That’s my style as a piano teacher – I prefer to use music as a self-esteem building tool. As someone who understands anxious children, I know that their silence in these struggle moments are not because they are quietly figuring it out on their own; it’s because they’re nervous to give you the wrong answer and are internally fretting. Not a lot of learning is happening in these moments, and as a teacher it’s my job to cultivate learning moments. If there is ever a time my students need help, I’m there to assist; but in a meaningful and “teachable-moment” way.