The Impact of our High Expectations

Today, I want to talk about the importance of our expectations of what children can do and how they can do it.


It is crucially important that we understand that students can only progress at a rate that our expectations allow. If we don't expect them to be able to play a certain piece or acquire a certain skill, we won't teach it to them, therefore they won't have an opportunity to show us otherwise!

There is far more danger in this than there is in starting with high expectations and then having to adjust our approach.


I think this idea of high expectations is relevant in two main contexts. The first is our expectations of how beginners access the foundations of piano learning, how we actually teach them keyboard geography, finger numbers, letter names etc.


The second is in terms of the repertoire we can expect them to learn and play.


How children learn and the impact of their first experience


I am a firm believer that the impact of children's first experience with piano learning is crucial. It sets up their understanding from the very start, and usually what/how they first learn is what sticks. It's what they will always remember and impacts their understanding of something that is completely new to them.


This is why my first, perhaps controversial, view, is that we shouldn't be using gimmicks and props. By using gimmicks (character names, animals etc) we are trying to teach them a language, by teaching them a different language. We shouldn't name things something that they're not. Kids know the alphabet and so are perfectly happy to call the notes A, B C etc.


They can also see a pattern of two and three black keys, so no need to call them anything different.


I think this matter of expectation has been so much more prevalent in my group piano lessons than it ever was in my school classroom teaching. Particularly for our very youngest students. We are most likely giving them their first experience of music learning.


In the school classroom, the kinds of tasks I was delivering were set out in such a way that allowed students to self-direct towards their own level of challenge, and way of learning.


But with my group lessons, I have the huge responsibility, where they are at an age where they rely on me to steer them, to ensure that I am delivering the key aspects of piano learning in a clear and concise way.


So no gimmicks that delay the eventual learning.


Back to the correlation with language - a big part of Dr Suzuki's philosophy addresses how we learn to speak a language. We learn by listening, starting with the consonants and vowel sounds that are easiest for us to make (there is a rough order), gradually forming some of the most important words that we hear a lot, and that help us to communicate - Mummy, Daddy, Yes, No etc. In piano, what would you consider to be the equivalents of those consonants and vowels? How should we build upon them? What should we keep repeating, reinforcing and consolidating?


There are no gimmicks - we don't call something, something else and then as they get older say, actually scrap that, that doesn't apply anymore; here's a whole new set of words that replace the ones you thought you knew!


So we shouldn't do this in piano learning. Instead we play (children listen), repeat the basics until they are secure, and use building blocks of knowledge (vocab) over time.


It might be argued that characters, names etc. help to make the learning more fun and accessible, but there are many other ways you can achieve this, whilst still calling a C a C!


Then there's the question of motivation. Children have got to enjoy what they're playing, it should sound pleasing to them. This is exactly why the Suzuki method starts with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and why nearly all of the first book is full of folk songs and nursery rhymes. They are playing real music straight away. Not endless middle Cs like in some other method books.


This is also why I don't get beginners reading pitch notation straight away. Yes I have high expectations, but these are geared towards what they are playing and how they are learning.


However, I do believe they need to understand that notes written on a page, can communicate what should be played on the piano. From the start they need to be interpreting and applying. But just not everything that they will eventually know in one go!


And by breaking it down, they can use up more of their energy on playing more complex pieces. I remember one Christmas my beginners, some of whom had only been learning for a few weeks, were able to play Jingle Bells! I did not expect that! Have you ever had that before? Where they play a piece that they know really well and is far more complex than anything you have ever given them. The familiarity with the piece is key; so lots of singing and listening to each piece is a must!


So by using an approach that is going to be built upon and layered up, rather than changed altogether or unlearnt and relearnt at a later date, we can make the music-making more advanced and more engaging.


The matter of high expectations should permeate through every stage, particularly when we are giving different difficulty levels. In the last few years of my classroom teaching, it became a requirement that with differentiation we plan exactly who is doing which level of challenge. Well this is now not good practice because then we are setting our expectations onto their outcomes. It is the teacher who gets to decide how far a student is going to progress. So now, we let them choose how far they go.


So when I set difficulty levels and introduce them to students, I don't tell each individual which one they should do. They work through them in order, getting to the one that suits them best and helps them to reach their potential. As I mentioned above, I steer some of the younger ones if I can see that they have completed a particular version of the piece and I can move them on to the next one.


I'll tell you another reason I have high expectations and don't want my limited expectations to impact students and it's going back to Suzuki. I have seen both of my piano-playing children learn Twinkle as their first piece, and all those things that we normally wouldn't dream of attempting in a very first piece, they are able to do. Leap of a 5th, hand shifts, different rhythms and articulations, finger technique etc (there are several variations on the theme). With the right introduction and the fact that they know the song very well, they are able to achieve all these things!


So to summarise, my high expectations manifests itself in two ways:


- It means that I don't use gimmicks to teach them the foundations in those beginner stages, and at their first point of contact with the piano. Instead I break the learning down in a sequence of skills and knowledge and in an order that makes sense, building up those skills over time (like with language).


- And it means that, with the right systems of using building blocks, they can play and achieve more complexity than so many method books allow for.


All the best, Melanie x💜x

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