When I first started teaching I had a student who would “get stuck”. She would open her book at home, decide that something about her piece was too difficult and then spend the rest of the week “spinning her tires”. Her mom would meet me before the lesson… “She just didn’t know how to (fill in the blank)”
And so another week would go by without any progress being made.
We all know that weeks without progress quickly become a full month. And that full month with little to no progress results in bored piano students and dissatisfied piano parents. It was a road I wasn’t willing to go down.
Assisting Home Piano Practice With “The 4 Tow Truck Tips”
No matter how many times I went over every aspect of Kayla’s piece, she’d find something else to get stuck on. I didn’t remember where my hands went… I couldn’t figure out what that note was… I didn’t know what that marking meant… I can’t remember how it was supposed to sound…
This kid was a never-ending source of excuses, no matter how well I prepared her in the lesson.
And while it would have been easy to be frustrated with my student, I decided that I needed to find a pro-active way to help her with the obvious angst she was experiencing during home practice. When I took a step back and looked at why she was creating excuses, it became obvious that she felt overwhelmed when she encountered any sort of obstacle. She was absolutely fine in lessons with me there to guide her but being alone and problem-solving solo was not her strong suit.
She needed something concrete that she could use to stop her from “spinning her tires”. If it couldn’t be me at home with her, it needed to be something that was a good substitute. I came up with my 4 Tow Truck Tips. It was a page she put into her binder with four things she could use to “tow herself out” of the problem and avoid spinning her tires at home. We talked about how to use the page and I sent her home with it that week.
How To Use The 4 Tow Truck Tips In Your Studio
If you too have a student who spins her tires (or if you want to avoid this from happening) then print out this sheet, discuss it with your student, and send it home in her piano binder.
If your student is feeling stuck, the 4 Tow Truck Tips are:
1. Compare it to a piece you know well – Show your student how to look back to a favorite or well-known piece to look for similarities that may help her (ie. “Does it look like it could be in the same starting position? Do you see similar patterns? Can you find the note you are “stuck on” in this piece?” etc.)
2. Collect cues from elsewhere on the page – Teach your student to look for all of the cues on her page. Finger numbers, written instructions, pictures, handwritten cues… sometimes kids forget to look beyond just the actual staff.
3. Make a smart guess – Teach your student to make educated guesses based on these two questions: “What would make sense?” and “What sounds right?”
4 Compose your own solution – If all else fails, I tell my students to compose their own solution to their problem. Don’t know how a certain measure should sound? Create your own! Don’t know your starting hand position? You choose! If nothing else, this at least gets your student playing something and often their “composed solution” is actually pretty close to the actual music!
Kayla came back the following week after using the sheet. Her piece wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t asking for perfection… I was asking for her to try. And she had! No more spinning tires. We quickly fixed what needed fixing, she headed home again that week, and the piece was complete within two weeks.
We were getting somewhere. Kayla quickly memorized the 4 Tow Truck Tips and all of sudden they became internalized strategies she was able to use whenever she came up against an obstacle. There were no more excuses and there was lots of progress. Score one for the tow truck!
Skill Acquisition… With Lots of Fun
One of my biggest passions as a piano teacher is helping students to acquire skills they will need to be able to play whatever they want, whenever they want. This includes knowing how to “unstick” themselves when they come across something they don’t know or understand. This also includes knowing how to practice efficiently.
When we created Shhh…Your Piano Teacher Thinks This is Practice we did so to make practice much more enjoyable. But we also made sure that, in using the book, students would be acquiring solid and useful practice strategies. For piano students who practice “smart” check it out here!