After helping Lexi with her spelling dictation last night, Trevor’s tongue is sufficiently twisted. The night involved Trevor reciting the sentences she had brought home while Lexi attempted to record them accurately. It went something like this…
Trevor says (with a puzzled look): “It is bad to gab and rap in the lab.”
Lexi says (with an even more puzzled look): “What’s a lab Dad? What does rap mean? What does gab mean? Dad, why would someone be rapping in a lab?” *sigh*… next one.
Trevor says (once again puzzled): “The chap grabbed a scrap of rag.”… this was getting ridiculous.
Lexi says (with a completely confused look): “What’s a chap Dad?… And why did he want a scrap of rag?” Good point. Why would someone dashing enough to be called a “chap”, want a scrap of rag anyway? Surely he could afford a piece of cloth in its entirety.
But we defaulted to “I don’t know Lexi… just memorize it.” and sent her upstairs to get ready for bed. As she galloped up the stairs Trevor and I looked at each other. And, as always, our minds immediately went to piano education.
The Value of In-Context Learning
How many times do we ask our piano students to learn something that is completely separate and totally unrelated to what they are playing in other parts of their lesson?
Often! For example: “This is a D Major scale. Let’s learn it and memorize it.” (This is the word ‘chap’ let’s memorize it.)
To beginning piano students, the concept of a “D Major Scale” when learned on its own is as foreign as the word “chap”. Do they memorize it? Usually. But are we teaching these concepts in an efficient and meaningful way? Not really.
4 Ways To Teach Piano Concepts “In Context”
1) Use your student’s current piece as a “theory workbook”. Learning theory away from your students’ pieces means that they memorize, but don’t often automatically then apply this knowledge to what they are playing. Note spellers, pages of naming intervals, rhythm matching sheets… these are fun, but they can all be effectively replaced with some inventive ways of using a current piece as the learning material.
2) Look for ways to provide relate learning to real life. Relevancy is king when teaching kids. Why should this particular student want to know what a minor second is? Because it sounds like the “Jaws” theme! Why would your student want to know how to play a D major scale? Because it will make that difficult section in their sonatina finally make sense. Children really respond when they are told the “why” behind the need to learn something.
3) Provide opportunities for children to create. Had Lexi been asked to make up her own sentences using words that ended in “ap” or “ag”, then she would have been required to really engage in the learning process; searching for words that have those endings, figuring out how to spell them, and then deciding how to relate them to each other in a sentence that makes sense… these efforts would leave a lasting impression. Having your students regularly compose and improvise results in many, many opportunities for theory instruction that they will remember and understand because they were truly invested in the process.
4) Make use of game-based learning. Learning through play is one of the most effective ways to teach anything in context. Students are required to learn a concept because it will effect the outcome of their game and therefore they are motivated and will automatically use varied mental strategies to figure out what they need to know to complete the game’s tasks.
Going Beyond Has Big Payoffs
But doesn’t simple “drill and memorize work”? Yes. Lexi spelled “chap” correctly on her spelling test. And there are some concepts that simply have to be memorized. But there are always opportunities to then take this knowledge and apply it in a “real life” way that will truly engage your students. And in doing so, not only will your students better understand these important concepts, but they’ll also be able to easily apply them to their playing… and that is the single most important reason for teaching anything in the first place.