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Developing sound expectations: Does the sound match the picture?

How do we develop a student's sense of musical awareness in performance? So often the wonderfully phrased and dynamically diverse musical performance in a lesson becomes a lifeless memory of its former glory when presented in public. How do we help our students develop the ability to maintain this musicality when performing for their families and friends? When I began pondering these questions, I began thinking about successful strategies I use to encourage my students to think about and listen to their sound at the piano. 

Consider the sound first

The "sound" or tone production created at the piano should be considered from the very first lesson. Frances Clark believed that this can be developed in beginners by setting up sound expectations for each piece. The way a teacher presents new music can make students aware of sound based on the style and the musical markings. By asking the right questions, we can draw their attention and ears to the sound expectations in the music. Frances Clark also stated, "The beginning of good reading is developing students who listen, are aware of and understand everything they see in the score, and have the technique to bring what they see into sound at the piano." Making students aware of sound expectations should be a part of every lesson. As music teachers, we should identify important musical moments in the score and develop physical gestures that will represent that sound. One of the most important questions I ask is: "Did the sound match the picture on the page?" That picture includes all the other stuff besides the black dots and lines. I define this "stuff" as dynamics, articulation, tempo, character of sound, mood, and anything other than correct notes and rhythm. If a picture is worth a thousand words, in music sound is worth a thousand words. 

What is learning?

In Intelligent Music Teaching, Dr. Robert Duke discusses how teaching and learning are not always or necessarily related. What if teaching does not necessarily cause learning?1 How is that possible? It is possible when the musical material is presented in such a way that it does not function or seem relevant to the piano student. If the musical material is not presented logically or does not become an active and integral part of the students' experience, it will soon be forgotten. Children are always "learning" something while in an educational environment. How those students engage in the activity after the "learning" takes place will determine how well the information is "learned." Here is another wonderful thought-provoking concept from Intelligent Music Teaching: Learning—true and substantive learning—is not a passive activity. This should continually guide us when we think about how to structure our piano lessons, music classes, or any learning situation for which we are responsible.

As Frances Clark so famously stated: "Teaching is not telling. Tellers belong in banks, behind bars." Our instruction should be skill-based and student-centered in nature. In The Independent Piano Teacher's Studio Handbook, Beth Gigante Klingenstein states we should be "teaching skills—not pieces."2

Taking into consideration the active nature of true learning, we must consider the student and her best learning state. The most difficult aspect of teaching beginning piano is being able to structure the learning environment so that it meets the students where they are and leads them to a vision of being accomplished learners. It is not an easy task when you are working primarily with very busy students. There has to be a sense of creativity, discovery, and even efficiency in the types of tasks that will lead these busy young people to become beautiful music-making, sound-exploring pianists. 

Musical understanding

Engage in musical listening activities that sound like what the finished performance product should be. Every young musician should be able to perform repertoire with a sense of beauty, with an understanding of sound expectations, and with musical understanding. It should be every teacher's goal to develop students who, from the very beginning, will be able to play with this sense of musical understanding and communicate the score's markings. These goals are ever present and constantly assessed. When teaching beginning students, all habits are being developed and reinforced and may affect the rest of their musical lives. This can seem incredibly daunting.

Teaching novice musicians is difficult teaching. It requires a complete understanding of the many facets of musical concepts and pianistic technique. Not only should we be developing model habits for them to follow when they practice, but we should also be teaching them to ask musical questions. In essence we are teaching ourselves out of a job. By incorporating these important tenents into our teaching, we can ensure that lessons and the learning environment will be stimulating, successful, and self-motivating. As Duke states in his book, we can "get to the good stuff" immediately and foster the analytical skills in all students that will enable them to enjoy their musical lives well beyond lessons.3 Getting to the good stuff involves beautiful music making in every lesson.

As teachers, our goal is to utilize strategies that cultivate musical playing and critical listening skills from the very beginning. Applying the concept that true and substantive learning is not passive; we search for pedagogically sound approaches that will encourage students to think and listen as they perform. These strategies lead to piano students becoming self-aware and critical in their understanding of sound expectations. We engage in activities that develop an efficient technical approach to beautiful sound at the piano. 

Aural modeling

One of the most basic and effective teaching strategies that we can use to develop sound awareness is aural modeling.4 Teachers should provide good aural models for students to emulate. Teachers often worry that students will not be able to learn independently and will simply learn by rote if we play their repertoire for them. While playing everything for students is not a good idea, it is possible to use this technique to set up sound expectations for repertoire. Providing a wonderful aural model of a piece can be invaluable, and an exciting performance can truly inspire a student. Students will learn good tone production from teacher demonstrations. We must be very consistent with our physical approach to the instrument, and we must have adequately prepared our students technically to play with ease, good tone production, and awareness of the relationship between physical gesture and sound. The technique needs to be in the fingers. If the work with sound is a part of every lesson, this will be just another step in the learning process that leads us to the "good stuff." Incorporating this technique into the weekly piano lesson will also include an opportunity for students to listen, perform, and evaluate their performances through direct comparisons with the teacher's performance. Just like any good model, you are setting students up for success. 


Developing our students' independence should be a priority. One of my personal favorite techniques for developing critical listening skills is regular self-assessment. Have you ever had a student who constantly ends a performance in the lesson, and before the student even finishes the last note turns her head to you with that "How did I do" look? Though it is very difficult to not say anything, resist giving feedback for every performance. Occasionally, have the student rate a specific aspect of her performance based on a rating scale (1-10 works well). Before the performance, have her decide where she will focus her listening, and after the performance evaluate the success of that element.

Teaching students to think independently can be very motivating, and it provides them with an opportunity to take ownership of their progress. Another way to self-assess is to ask students what they felt was the most successful aspect of their performance. Give them some options such as rhythm, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, and so forth. You could even ask what aspect of their playing needs to be improved. More than likely, they will have answers to the "improvement" question, but not be as comfortable with the "successful" question. As teachers, we need to encourage students to develop the ability to assess the success of their performances and identify the musical elements that need improvement. Engaging our students in the process gives them an opportunity to "control" their progress and develop their sense of self-efficacy. 

Focused feedback

Consider carefully the form and function of the feedback you give.5 Be specific—if the comments are positive, list what went well, not just "That was great." What made it successful? Does the student understand why? We are very good at providing specific feedback for problem areas or things to fix; we should be equally specific about wonderful aspects of our students' playing. Celebrate a musical moment and make it special.

To further develop independent thinking musicians, be creative in how you make them aware of signs and symbols. Don't just tell them, but have them interact with the sounds through creative, engaging activities. For instance, I like to do an activity called "Editing." Write out a segment of the score where a student is not performing the composer's musical markings very well. Have the student perform, then edit the score to reflect the sound that she is playing. The next task would be to compare her edited version with the actual score through a teacher performance, score analysis, or self-assessment video. Compare her performance to what is actually in the score and you will observe a big "A-ha" moment. 

Performance checklists

Provide students with a performance checklist to direct their listening to specific performance aspects. I start this checklist with my beginning students. When we are working on hand position, they have a checklist: strong knuckles, space under the hand, loose thumb. We advance that idea with a checklist for listening and evaluating performances: correct notes, correct rhythm, dynamics, articulation, hand position. It is so exciting to see students evaluating themselves without my even saying a word. They become so used to using a performing checklist that it is just another aspect of their lesson or class time. In the group setting, I assign individual students to listen for specific aspects of the performance and give a report afterward. They love to do this (see Examples 1 and 2). 

The teaching techniques discussed in this article all relate to the fundamental concept of student-centered teaching strategies that nurture critical listening skills in our students. The teaching techniques foster an awareness of what students are doing during performance and encourage self assesment. Our ultimate goal as music teachers is to help each person become a fully developed musician who posseseses the ability to listen, to think, and to assess what is being shared in performance. Through active learning, it is possible to engage each student in making "sound" an important aspect of performing music at the piano. Creating opportunities for self-analysis in every lesson will foster their creativity and sense of ownership. Developing critical listening skills will make sure that students understand how to assess their playing, ensuring their effective communication of the musical score in performance. We want to get "to the good stuff" and celebrate the intrinsic joy of making music at the piano. Sound expectations all start with the teacher and how we raise our students' awareness of sound from the first lesson. Does the sound match the picture on the page? 

1 Duke, R. (2009). Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction. Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources, pp. 9-15

2 Klingenstein, B. G. (2009). The Independent Piano Teacher's Studio Handbook. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, p. 191.

3 Duke, p. 14.

4 Suzuki, S., Mills, E., Ferro, M., Schreiber, M., Behrend, L., Jempelis, A., Kendall, J., Mills, H., Rowell, M., Tillson, D., & the American Suzuki Institute-West. (1973). The Suzuki Concept: An Introduction to a Successful Method for Early Music Education. Berkely, CA: Diablo Press, Inc., p. 39.

5 Duke, pp. 121-137. 

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Comments 2

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Amy Glennon on Wednesday, 29 August 2018 12:52

Wonderful article!

Wonderful article!
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