I teach an adorable 9 year old piano student. She’s spunky, funny, and excitable… a real darling. But in the weeks leading up to our recital she was driving. me. crazy.
In the midst of our final preparations she decided that her new habit would be to grasp whatever writing utensil she could get her hands on and then spend several long minutes adding extensive “doodles” to her music page. Arrows, stars, smiley faces, underlines, dots, highlighting… she’d add them all… with glee.
I’d let it go for a few minutes (secretly frustrated) and then attempt to re-direct her to a different activity that I deemed to be a better use of our time. I’d remove all of the pencils from her reach and carry on… until she’d find a way to get her hands on a pen…
But last week I suddenly realized how silly I was being. This whole time she had been waving a very important piano teaching tool right in front of my face, and I was passing it off as poor behaviour… ugh!
Hand Over The Pencil And Learn!
At the first lesson back following our recital, my doodling piano student started working on a new piece and I started working on a new teaching strategy.
We hadn’t been chatting about the new piece for very long when her eager fingers reached over to the pencil I held in my hand. But this time, instead of attempting to avoid the inevitable doodling, I instead happily handed her my pencil plus three brightly-colored gel pens I’d set aside for this occasion. She literally squealed with delight.
As we continued to chat about her piece for the next three minutes (I timed it) I watched her draw on her piece and analyzed what she was doing and what I could learn from it as her teacher.
As it turns out, in amongst some fairly random doodles, she had actually sketched out a few very meaningful markings. Sure she was a little scattered, but still, in her own way, she had the beginnings of a personal system of powerful visual reminders.
She wasn’t just doodling… she was teaching herself. What I had incorrectly assumed would be wasted lesson time was actually the opposite. This was efficiency at it’s best.
Why Your Student Should Have Full Doodle Rights
In the past, I had always been the one to mark up a piano piece with reminders. I had been the one to indicate where to pay close attention to dynamics, rhythm and articulation. I would decide what notes I thought she’d need help with. I would remind her of repeat signs and 8va markings and fingering.
But what I realized as I watched her “doodle” was that many of the things that I felt she needed to be reminded of were not things that she deemed important to her learning process. She chose different things to highlight, circle, and star than I would have. And, of course, she also still chose to make a bunch of arbitrary zigs, zags and smiley faces… but we’re working on that 🙂
Her leap into self-directed learning was exactly what I had aimed to achieve with my students… but hello?!… I had been previously discouraging it by being the “guardian of the writing instruments”. Not anymore…
Tips for Handing Over The Reins
I now use the phrase “Doodle Study” to refer to student-led music marking. This takes place as I first introduce a piece and before we do a more formal score study (typically using this printable).
My piano students now have a small pencil case that they keep in their music bag. Inside the case is a pencil, a highlighter and an assortment of colored pencils that they can use for “Doodle Study” either in a lesson or at home. Needless to say, they LOVE this… it’s much more exciting than I ever thought pencils could be 😉
Lately, as I watch my students Doodle Study, I learn invaluable things about how they learn as individuals… what they themselves identify as their “problem areas” and what they feel confident in knowing already. This then translates into what we focus on in their lesson times… what piano games I select in order to reinforce problem areas and what repertoire I choose to supplement their learning. It’s efficient, focused and and completely tailored to individual needs in the simplest way possible.
Speaking of repertoire selection. If you have struggling little note readers, our recent release from PianoBookClub, Smells Like Treble… Starring Maxwell A. Skunk, is an unforgettable musical experience designed to make note reading a hilarious hit.
If you’re itching to give Doodle Study a try, here are some things I’ve learned that you may find helpful:
- Some students are naturals at this and some are not. Don’t give up on the kids who put a few pencil lines on the page and look at you and shrug. Prompt them with some ideas and keep trying with each new opportunity. Show them examples of what other students have done to get their doodle juices flowing.
- Giving your piano students their own pencil case gives Doodle Study an air of importance. Your local Dollar Store is perfect for this – it cost me $2.25 to completely outfit a student with her own Doodle Study Kit. Well worth it in my opinion! Plus… it keeps germs off my own writing utensils…
- Don’t assume (at least in the beginning) that anything your piano students add to their page is a waste of time. Instead, do your best to see the intent behind the doodle. Later in the process you can make suggestions for more effective markings if you like, or, if it’s working, you can chalk it up to differences in learning style!
- Set a time limit – 3 minutes is plenty. Some kids will keep going until their entire page is covered… and then Doodle Study’s effectiveness ceases to exist… and it becomes art class 😉
- As your piano students become expert Doodle Studiers, encourage them to begin using a predictable system that remains the same from piece to piece. This doesn’t have to happen right away, but as they practice this more and more the benefit then comes from developing a cohesive system.
- Doodle Study doesn’t mean that you can’t also add your two cents. If you notice that a visual reminder would be helpful, feel free to add your own artistic talents.