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Reflective Responses to Piano Playing

St. Olaf College, Kent McWilliams

Summary

Research question: "Through reflective responses to their own piano playing, can students learn to pose useful questions that can be applied to improving their musical abilities?"

I have worked with my piano students to encourage them to take more ownership of their learning. I had three main goals in approaching this project:

  1. To have students be cognizant of applying the musical and pianistic skills they have already acquired,
  2. To have students consistently apply creative processes to their learning of new repertoire,
  3. To have students discover where to look if they need help in dealing with an interpretive and/or technical issue.

Context

I have been assigning this project over the past three semesters (Spring 2009, Fall 2009, Spring 2010) and I will continue to re-work the assignment for future years. I teach one-on-one piano studio lessons to approximately 25-30 students each semester (with an even balance of First Years, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors). The level of experience and proficiency varies among the students, with some being advanced Bachelor of Music in piano performance majors, others being BA music majors with piano as primary instrument and others taking piano lessons as an elective. The amount of lesson time varies from thirty minutes a week (with five hours of practice) to sixty minutes (with anywhere up to thirty hours of practice). My entire class of students also meets as a group once a week in a studio class.

Teaching Practice

The project that I originally titled, "Learn a Piece by Yourself" has since been changed to "How Do I Learn This Piece?" There have been several substantive changes as the project developed (You will find a copy of the Spring 2010 iteration of this assignment attached to this report). Students were asked to go through numerous steps in order to learn a piece of piano repertoire. They researched the historical context of the piece, recorded the piece several times and listened to several professional recordings of the same piece. They also wrote numerous reflective commentaries about how their work was proceeding. Students were asked to post recordings and commentaries on Moodle so that I could keep track of their progress.

As part of the process, I had students explore several different artistic variants of specific musical passages. In their lessons an in studio class, I had each student play the same section of a piece in at least three diverse, yet musically valid interpretations. By having them experiment with various artistic possibilities, I hoped to have them think creativelyabout the music they were playing.

In the Spring of 2009, I wrote very specific preparation guidelines, but I did not really help students prepare the piece and I did not assign a grade. In the Fall of 2009, I offered some assistance, but I still did not assign a grade. By the Spring 2010, I decided to offer more artistic/technical suggestions in order to give students an even broader range of input and I also assigned 25% of their semester's grade to the preparation and 5% of the semester's grade to the performance of their piece. I would liken this experience with that of editing a paper; therefore, I decided that it was essential that I give clear editorial advice during various stages of preparation.

At the end of the project, students were asked to complete a Post-Performance Reflection that helped them to identify specific learning strategies that they had employed during the preparation of their piece.

Conclusions and Evidence

From the evidence gathered, it is apparent that students gain tremendously from reflecting at each stage of a thoughtful and gradual process of learning new repertoire. Students posed a wide range of 'questions' of themselves as they began to become more familiar with the repertoire they were studying. These questions ran the gamut from straightforward, well-structured questions to higher-level ill-structured questions. At all levels of questioning, I have been interested to note that these students have transferred these same learning processes to other repertoire they study.

In the initial stages of becoming familiar with the music, students commented on the formal structure of the piece, they looked into external influences on the composer and they translated all foreign language terms. As I have taught students in the past, I noticed that these sorts of banalities were often overlooked (or rather, that the teacher supplied the answers). In the current semester, I have noted that every student who took part in this assignment last term has come to realize the importance of structural analysis and each one came to the first lesson on a new piece with English translations of foreign language terms (this time without being asked). It has been interesting for me to observe my new students this fall as they come to lessons without having researched these basic musical elements in their new repertoire.

Once students made a first attempt at recording their repertoire, it was clear that the reflective comments dealt almost exclusively with well-structured problems. They commented on such things as establishing a steady tempo, playing the correct articulations, differentiating between melody and accompaniment and "being able to play all the notes at the right time".

Higher level, ill-structured questions were more common after the second recording the students made. They noted details of melodic shading, long-range musical structure and artistic interpretation. Nonetheless, these sorts of comments were not universal among the students at this juncture. About half of the students were still writing reflective comments that showed a continued focus on 'getting it right' and nothing more.

Interestingly, around 90% of the students made very perceptive observations in reaction to professional recordings of their pieces. They wrote long, detailed commentaries regarding what they perceived as strengths and weaknesses of various artists' interpretations. Apparently, it was easier for these students to 'hear' the details of the music in the playing of others than it was to hear these same details in their own recordings and in their own inner perceptions of the pieces. Most of these students were then able to bring some of the musical depth they heard in the professional recordings into their own performances.

All of these data were collected from students' recordings of their practice, from their reflective commentaries given on Moodle and from the video recording of the final recital performances.

Implications

By having students reflect on the work they do at the piano, they can become more cognizant of the skills they already posses so that they can apply these skills to a wider variety of repertoire.

By taking an active role in the creation of a definitive interpretation of their repertoire, students can develop a level of originality that they had not realized before.

Have the students in this study managed to discover where to look if they need help in dealing with an interpretive and/or technical issue? I would venture to state that 90% of them have made significant progress in this area; however, luckily my job is still in place as I continue to guide their searching into new areas of inquiry.

Looking Ahead

As recommended by my colleagues in the Collegium group this summer, I am going to try to clearly identify the three goals mentioned at the top of this report at the outset of my new students' work. I am curious to see whether they will be able to make any better progress by having these goals laid out more explicitly in front of them.

In probing further into the second goal, I wonder whether it can be proven categorically that creativity studied in the area of piano performance can be brought into other fields of study that the same student explores. This would perhaps warrant further examination by professionals in the field of psychology.

As this assignment moves into future classes, I have given it a new structure that is reflected in the new title, "How Do I Learn This Piece?" (again, this was suggested by members of the Collegium group). I intend to become much more actively involved in pointing students towards specific interpretative approaches that can advance the creative learning process.

Bibliography

I would not recommend any particular resources other than the extensive resources suggested to the Collegium group. I found that these articles were of particular and immediate interest:


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