I am a classically-trained pianist who had “traditional piano lessons” growing up. I majored in piano, received a Master’s Degree in Piano Pedagogy, and then began teaching my own students. Like many teachers I meet, I started teaching the way I had been taught: the same basic lesson format, similar repertoire, and “classical goals” for all students. But I soon encountered the typical challenges – students losing interest, not coming to lessons prepared, and not making progress. I was afraid of losing students – and I did lose some. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening, and then it clicked: These students aren’t all the same, so why am I teaching them the same way? I needed to find different tools for different students, and I needed to make piano fun again!
Around that time I attended a workshop and learned that my method books came with orchestrated accompaniments for each song. They were midi files – a format that I could play through my piano so that I could adjust the tempo and track playback. I immediately knew this would be really fun and motivating for students. But I had no idea how great an impact it would have on their musical development.
Playing along with midi files is like playing in the band. It’s so important for pianists to learn how to be collaborative players, but sometimes the traditional lesson format doesn’t focus on these skills. In an ensemble, you listen to the other players, their parts, their tempo, their intonation. You hear your part not as an individual line, but as part of something bigger. You begin to understand how all of the parts musically interact, and you work on blending, balancing, and playing in time.
We began using midi files by incorporating them into the existing lesson plans. We didn’t change anything – we just changed the way we played. Every time we played our lesson songs, we played with the background. If the song was new, we slowed the tempo down and increased as it got better. My students were listening while playing and this led to really great results. They didn’t happen immediately for everyone (for some they did), but I soon noticed the following improvements: They kept a steady and consistent tempo. They didn’t have counting problems, or issues skipping rests, because they were developing an understanding of time signature and meter. If they had trouble with a passage, they had to work on it. Because of these improvements, we spent less time correcting mistakes and more time learning new things. The students who practiced this way at home had substantially faster progress than those who only practiced this way in the lesson. In addition, they avoided the dreaded “I practiced it wrong all week” situation, because it’s difficult to learn a piece wrong when you are playing with an accompaniment. Mistakes are obvious and students are able to self-correct. Not having to correct these mistakes that had become habits freed up more lesson time and also contributed to happier, more motivated students.
In addition to the musical benefits, students were having fun practicing! Beginner songs sounded impressive, we were incorporating different styles, and they were seeing results! They were happy, their parents were happy, and I was happy. I still rely on midi files and today it’s even easier to access them via online downloads or apps. So on top of everything else, students can now use their technology devices when practicing piano! It’s a fun time to be a teacher. There are so many exciting tools out there, really something for everyone. Technology is making it easier to find these tools and students love that technology is now a legitimate part of their piano study. It’s a win-win!
About the Author:
Education Division, Piano Division, Roland Corporation U.S.