Are your lessons inclusive?
Like truly inclusive? And what does that actually mean?
Is this even an aim of yours?
Well I can tell you, it is certainly an aim of mine. Perhaps my number 1 aim.
And I think if we, as music educators, truly believe in the empowering role of music in children's lives, it should be everyone's aim. We should want every child to have access to a high-quality music education.
I think music saves people. And I want to help it do that for as many people as possible.
I don't think I realised this was such a huge passion of mine until I applied for a Head of Music job at a girls grammar school. Throughout my interview, I realised that I kept returning to the idea of my music lessons being inclusive.
Being for everyone, not just the few.
And as it turned out, in a school where music had previously indeed been just for the few (minimum standards being required to take it as an exam subject is just one of many examples of how this manifested itself within the school), the Head told me that my approach to nurturing all learners, regardless of their previous musical experience, was the reason I landed the job.
And you know what, it was truly amazing to see the impact that this approach had on music-making in the school. Our uptake for the GCSE and A-Level exam classes quadrupled, we had students setting up gospel choirs and Indian ensembles, I brought someone in to take an African drumming group and budgeted for some Djembe drums. Practical music-making was brought into every single lesson.
The impact of having an inclusive approach was huge and the music department was a wonderful, vibrant and noisy (in a musical way) place to be!
A number of years later, I shifted my focus to the younger ones. I had started one-to-one lessons with my then four-year old son, and a few parents started showing an interest in music lessons for their own child but didn't want to plough all of their resources into one activity (in fact they baulked at the cost if I'm honest!). It was so clear to me that there was this enormous gap where children are ready for some more formal learning, but not ready for the MOST formal - a private lesson!
As you can see, inclusivity really has been instrumental and at the forefront of everything I do.
So when one of our lovely KeyNotes subscribers asked in our teachers' Facebook group, how long a student can use a 61-key keyboard at home for when taking the program, well this question of inclusivity came up again, as well as another, equally important concept: that of accessibility.
The answer is, for the duration of the program which, at the moment, is about 3-4 years or so (although each individual moves through at their own pace, I have had one student go through all the levels in only 1 year!).
It got me wondering about this issue of accessibility and us as practitioners, making our programs available to as many children as possible. After chatting to a few other teachers and realising that as a mum myself I was told that we categorically could not have lessons unless we had an acoustic piano with my own kids' piano teacher, I realised this really is a problem.
Some of the most popular method books out there require a pedal in the first book (how many beginners can even actually reach the pedal) and pitch-range-wise, go beyond the 61 keys that most children are more able to start with. I think this immediately throws up some elitism. Maybe that is a little strong, but it's kind of how I feel about it.
So no, I have made sure that all of the pieces throughout the program, are within the 61-key range and don't use a pedal, thereby making it accessible to more children and ensuring that all-important inclusive approach.
And do you know why I think I was so surprised, not only by the teacher's question initially, but also by my findings that some method books use way more than is needed in the foundation stages? Because I was taught that a child shouldn't be anywhere near a pedal until they have an established technique and can play legato without relying on it (which, by the way, although the outcome might not be quite the same, I think we are perfectly able to teach on a keyboard). I also think the use of the pedal and the larger pitch range are reserved for far more complex pieces, really starting from the Romantic era, that our students won't be approaching until at least a few years into their piano-learning, and at which point they have shown enough commitment to justify more investment in their instrument.
We should be doing everything we can to ensure that students are welcomed, celebrated, nurtured and enthused. Having the wrong piano would not be a good start to this essential dynamic.
And you know what: in my teeny tiny area where I teach my lessons (think Suburban English Village), at the height of my teaching, I was teaching 136 children! Mostly from just two schools and mostly from the younger year groups. There is no way that that many children would ever have been able to access piano lessons in a more traditional set-up; there aren't enough teachers for a start!
Groups help us to achieve this aim of inclusivity, but so does the way that we choose to teach, the repertoire and the order of skills that we focus on.
Finally, we, as piano teachers, have all had quite the insight into the instruments our students are playing at home, as well as their general set-up, how they are sitting, what they are sitting on etc. And actually there is a lot to be said for having a keyboard. It is always in tune (anyone heard some shockers on their students' acoustics, almost a tone out on one of mine!), they can be moved around so that students can practice in their room or perform in the living room, they can record themselves and listen back, they can get creative with their instrument sounds (something I encourage in our composition work), plus (and this is a parent benefit), they can plug headphones in!