My teaching today has been strongly influenced by my grad school professor Dr. Sylvia Coats, as well as her teacher Dr. Guy Duckworth.

Before I arrived at Wichita State University to work on my Masters in Piano Pedagogy, I was a piano teacher who was very tied to a method book. I taught one page after another, I gave clumsy explanations of concepts exactly as they appeared in the book and I struggled with how to adapt if a student didn’t understand or couldn’t do something.

I thought that my time at WSU would enlighten me to all kinds of new repertoire and book ideas. I did leave there with a much broader music repertoire, but I also left with an understanding that what I teach is far less important that how I teach.

Completing grad school equipped with all of the tools I needed in order to teach my students conceptually completely changed my approach to teaching. I no longer relied on using just the right method book to communicate ideas to my students. Instead, I was empowered to teach any musical concept or idea in any context and in any situation.

When you teach conceptually, you help your student to experience all of the foundational musical concepts that will appear in method books and sheet music. You teach these concepts in interesting and relatable ways that will help your student be successful. Then, you apply these concepts to music the student is learning to play.

Teaching conceptually means that you are very aware of your students’ unique strengths and gifts and you are very in tune with how to present new ideas to them in ways that they can internalize and transfer to all of their music.

Approaching music this way definitely takes some forethought and preparation. But, the ease at which your students will learn is absolutely worth it!

Hear Do See Label

An excellent model of conceptual teaching is found in Hear-Do-See-Label, which I first learned about through Debra Perez and Will Baily’s Recreational Music Making books.

Hear-Do-See-Label is the sequence of events that should happen when a student is learning a new concept.

To break it apart:

Your student hears music that contains the concept your are teaching.

Your student does something to experience the concept.

Your students sees how that concept looks in sheet music.

You label that concept with correct music vocabulary.

All of these steps may happen in a single lesson, or they may play out over the course of many lessons. My students hear, experience and work with many concepts from their very first lesson. Often, we don’t actually apply these concepts to working music for over a year.

One of my childhood piano teachers believed that students should never hear the music they are learning. At the time, I didn’t know any differently and I respected that my teacher was challenging me to read and interpret my music very accurately.

My discovery of Hear Do See Label really rocked my piano teaching world! Not only did it become ok to allow students to listen to their music, it actually became an invaluable part of their learning process that helped them to internalize what they were learning.

Out With The Old, In With The New

Once you become aware of how to approach piano lessons conceptually, you will start to notice a lot of flaws in your old ways of teaching.

Previously, when I felt tied to teaching strictly from a method book, there were a lot of occasions where I’d flip the page and feel panicked about a new concept that was appearing.

When students have absolutely no prior experience with a musical concept, or when concepts are presented in an unfamiliar context, the learning process can feel very clumsy and messy, for both the teacher and the student.

Introducing concepts such as scales, chords, notation, expressions, rhythms, and key signatures often don’t work well when a student is only given an academic explanation of what to do then is expected to apply that concept to new music immediately.

Instead, teachers can break down every musical concept into smaller bite-sized ideas that are constantly being integrated into a students piano study.

Flipping music study on it’s head like this results in piano students who are intuitive, creative thinkers and prepared approach music independently and take ownership over their work.

Learn More

If you’re ready to dig deeper into how to help your students become conceptual learners, I highly recommend reading Thinking As You Play, by my professor, Dr. Coats. When I first encountered many of her ideas in my pedagogy classes at WSU, I was challenged by such a different approach to teaching. Now, after having put her ideas into practice for over 10 years, I find myself constantly referring back to her book and to find new ways to refine my teaching.

In future posts, we’ll look at concrete ways that you can teach your students conceptually. We’ll use some of these concepts as a starting place.

  • Notation
  • Rhythm and Steady Beat
  • Scales
  • Sharps, Flats and Key Signatures
  • Articulation and Expression

I’ve also shared my thoughts on this topic over at timtopham.com. Be sure to check out that post for more ideas and inspiration.

More posts in this series: Teaching Notation Conceptually

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