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To Play and to Study: The Thrill of Discovery

Learning is thrilling. As we feel our own potential expand, we seek to develop our capabilities even further. We feel excitement when a concept clicks into understanding. Our curiosity is piqued when a new challenge reveals itself. The satisfaction of learning is amplified when we are thoroughly engaged in discovery and exploration.

Watching a student learn is equally thrilling. Some of the most delightful moments of teaching occur when a student has a "light bulb" moment, masters new technical feats, or effortlessly uses knowledge that results from years of development.

Teaching piano lessons filled with the thrill of discovery is a formidable and achievable goal—there is a multitude of ideas and skills to unlock, from the beginner learning to read on the staff to the advanced student exploring style and form in Beethoven sonatas.

To Play and to Study is to Discover
At the heart of humanness is curiosity in the world and capability as a learner. Humans enjoy—from infancy—picking up an object, exploring it with senses and intellect, and discovering its features and possibilities. Observation, exploration, experimentation, and analysis; around the world young children "play with" and adults "study." I enjoy the different perspectives of the phrases playing the piano and studying the piano because what they share is most important—discovering music at the piano.

While "playing" the piano, a child may discover that it can make really loud sounds and that the right pedal magically expands this. While "studying" the piano, an adult may discover that there are multiple degrees of forte tonal production, and that the degree of depression of the damper pedal dramatically changes the affect. How exciting and motivating those moments are—suddenly a more profound artistic expression is unveiled! The pianist can hardly wait to play and discover more: motivation, curiosity, and creativity all sparked by the newness of an idea or a sound. Through application  f the three pedagogical secrets which follow, teachers can wisely tap into this thrill of discovery, capitalizing on each student's role as a capable learner.

Discovery Secret 1: The Student Is a Capable Learner
The most important aspect of teaching through discovery is that the teacher engages the student as a capable self-teacher. For example, one of the first questions I ask a group of beginners is, "What parts of the body do we use to play the piano?" My goal is for all the students to realize that playing the piano requires the whole self—mind and body. The first response is obvious: the fingers. I let them watch me play, and the list gets longer. There is often one child in the room who identifies the not-so-obvious: the ears, the eyes, the mind, and the heart. Although, sometimes I must dig into the topic and ask more questions to get the depth I am seeking. It would be quite easy for me to tell the students this information, but it is so much more inspiring for the students to expand their own awareness and realize they will use their whole self—except the senses of smell and taste—every time they play the piano.

I relish this discussion. Why? For as much as my students learn through discovery, it is more that I learn about them as people and learners; eager, tentative, active, passive, abstract, concrete, precocious, timid, serious, silly, etc. Silly learners may volunteer to play the piano with their nose, and the precocious ones might say "ears" from the start.

As this discussion about use of the body suggests, teaching through discovery is unpredictable, but it is supported through clear objectives. It may require a quick wit (e.g., a good pianist never smells). It almost always requires a lot of silence, giving time for students to ponder the possibilities.

Discovery Secret 2: Instruction Is Richest When Principle-Based
The second-most import aspect of teaching through discovery is that the goal of instruction is based in a larger, significant principle. Instead of the objective being to correct wrong notes, it is to develop careful listening skills for self-detection of errors. Instead of showing a student how to play a tricky passage, it is experimenting with fundamental technical concepts that make playing the passage possible. Instead of improving the dynamics, it is exploring depth of expression to connect the player and listener to the music. These larger principles engage the deepest parts of music making and playing the piano. Furthermore, this creates a fertile environment, rife with opportunities for the student to explore.

When teaching fundamental principles, the process with the student can be surprisingly direct or extremely divergent. Some students will be able to experiment with different sounds and technical gestures with relative ease, demonstrating a high level of intuition and body awareness. Yet, other students will need multiple guided, sequential experiences to accomplish a similar task. With principle-based instruction, all students leave the lesson with a heightened awareness (e.g., of how to use the arm and hand holistically as a pianist). Furthermore, the teacher develops a clearer picture of a student's intuitive aptitude and ability to learn though active experimentation.

Discovery Secret 3: The Teacher Is Flexible and Responsive
Lastly, the teacher models open-minded inquiry and active exploration, enjoying each discovery with the learner as if it is the first. The path of the instruction follows the child, as the child's answers and actions guide the next steps. Right, wrong, and unexpected answers (and notes!) are all welcome. Anything wrong, including answers and poor playing, are approached from a positive, solution-seeking viewpoint. Curiosity is encouraged and harnessed to meet pedagogical aims. The teacher guides the learner to think, observe, listen, and try.

For this to occur, the teacher must always respond to the unique perspectives of each student. For instance, children might use a common name for a new symbol—a sharp looks like a hashtag—or create fanciful descriptions—a flat looks like a heart cut in half by a stem. The teacher does not correct these but rather integrates these thoughts readily into the discussion. The teacher may gain a student-named practice technique, a creative analogy for good hand shape, or an improved process of discovering how sharps and flats work. The teacher may even learn something new about playing or teaching! More importantly, the student will leave feeling like a capable learner who enjoys piano lessons.

Discovery-Based Processes
The following two tables provide examples of teacher and student activities that indicate high and low levels of discovery. The subsequent lesson outlines demonstrate discovery-based teaching processes.

Discovery Lesson 1: Posture and Position
Beginning piano students must learn how to arrange the bench (and footstool) and sit with proper posture and position at the instrument. As an alternative to telling and showing a student the guidelines, a compare-contrast activity can be planned. Provide beginners with two images—one of good posture and one of poor posture. Ask them to discuss and analyze these, guiding them to see what is overlooked. Finally, ask them to determine which one is good and bad. Then, challenge the child to find a good position at the piano, taking a picture of the student on a tablet or phone for immediate viewing. Ask the child to self-assess and make corrections, if needed. The student has thus developed the ability to find (and remember) a good seated position at the piano.

Discovery Lesson 2: The Musical Alphabet
The following lesson dialogue demonstrates how a child can learn the letters of the musical alphabet, how the alphabet repeats, and how keys of the same letter sound similar. A precocious learner may intuit the answers with shocking ease, while a cautious learner may need much encouragement and small steps along the way. It is possible to imagine how other personalities might respond differently.

Teacher: Take these blank note cards and write the musical alphabet on them, one letter at a time, starting from A. Draw them big to fill the whole card.

Student: OK. [Writes A B C D E F G] I don't have enough.
Teacher: You have the exact number for the musical alphabet. So, how many letters are there in the musical alphabet?
Student: [Counts the cards.] Seven.
Teacher: You bet. What letters did you write on your seven musical alphabet cards?
Student: A B C D E F and G.
Teacher: That's the musical alphabet. Lay out your cards on the piano rack. These letters name the white keys on the piano. I'll get you started. Here is A. Now play white keys going up and give each a letter.
Student: A B C D E F G [said slowly while playing one of each key].
Teacher: How are you going to name the key after G?
Student: H?
Teacher: But our musical alphabet ends at G. If we listen very closely, we will notice something surprising. My ears notice that A and B sound different. [The teacher plays and sings A and B.] A and C sound different too. [The teacher plays and sings A and C.] You keep going until you find a key that sounds like the first A.
Student: [Student plays and compares several keys until landing on the next AStudent looks up, excited.] These sound the same. 
Teacher: Isn't that amazing! How might we name this key that sounds the same?
Student: We could call it A too.
Teacher: So, you are telling me, that after Gthere is another A?! This is amazing. What do you think comes after this new A?

Discovery Lesson 3: How to Shift Up an Octave
The student is learning a piece where the right hand must shift up an octave, and the student is not playing this fluently. The teacher wants the student to learn how to move the hand and arm​ freely, while maintaining rhythmic flow and while using the eyes effectively.

Teacher: I notice that the sound is choppy and not steady when your hand has to move. Let's solve this problem. Listen as I play. Is my sound steady when my hands and arms have to move? Count with me. [Teacher plays.]
Student: It's steady.
Teacher: How do I do that?
Student: [Shrugs.]
Teacher: Hmmm. Let's find the secret. Watch my eyes. Where am I looking? [Teacher plays.]
Student: At the book.
Teacher: Yeah, I need to see the notes. But, watch really closely. See if you can find the secret technique of my eyes. [Teacher plays, eyes glancing down when the hand moves.]
Student: Oh! They went down!
Teacher: Did I look with my whole head or just my eye balls?
Student: Your eyes.
Teacher: Where did my eyes then go after I glanced down?
Student: The book.
Teacher: Exactly, right back to the same spot. Now, watch my hands and arms. How do they move? [Teacher plays with an arcing arm motion.]
Student: It goes off the keys and back down.
Teacher: Yes, that's true. Does it move straight across or in a curved path? [Teacher plays again.]
Student: I don't know.
Teacher: Ride along on my wrist. [Teacher plays again with the student's hand on top of the teacher's hand.]
Student: It's like a hill.
Teacher: Exactly, our hand goes up and over a little hill.
Teacher: OK. Now you know the secrets. Listen for a steady sound, glance down quickly and back to the book, and move your hand in a curved hill shape to the new place. It's your turn.

How Students Respond
Discovery-based pedagogical methods reveal the personalities and affinities of each student, and the master teacher will find how to work with even the most challenging tendencies.

Planning for Discovery
It may be counter-intuitive to plan for discovery, when, by definition, the instruction will move in a divergent path. Yet, teachers can practice and rehearse this pedagogical mindset. Consider the following questions to help a student discover a new concept or skill:

  • ​What is the larger principle behind what is to be learned in this one piece? How can I deepen understanding about playing the piano through this one concept?
  • What are the technical secrets? How am I able to play this with ease?
  • What can the student observe in my playing that can be self-applied?
  • What is fascinating or interesting about this concept? How can I connect this to a memorable experience?
  • What activities will help a student explore this concept? What questions will require the student's use of knowledge, intuition, and observation?
  • What are the key pieces of information that I must provide my student, versus what can the student discover? 
  • What unexpected problems might my student encounter? How might I solve these problems?

It is thrilling to learn and to teach music at the piano, and it is a delight to instruct a wide variety of students, each with a unique way of experiencing the world. Embracing a pedagogical mindset of student-centered, principle-based discovery learning will enrich the lesson environment, amplify the thrill, and engage the capable learner in each child.

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