Independent Learning

Independent Learning

I am in the middle of my Master’s in Composition through the University of Birmingham, UK. During this final semester, I need to finish a piano concerto, clean up several shorter works, and write a 5000 word commentary on my portfolio of 45 minutes of new music.  To help make time for this, I have shortened my semester of private teaching, scheduled no fall nor winter recitals, and challenged all of my older students to learn three new works largely independently from me.

The idea of independent learning with my older students originates in the concept of the Accomplished Learner – the graduating high school student who is both an accomplished pianist and a capable self-learner. This concept, first introduced to me at a  Suzuki Principles in Action course, has proved a useful metric for my teaching.

My need to lighten my teaching load became an opportunity to push my students closer to becoming an Accomplished Learner. Using the guidelines offered in the Gerald Klickstein’s fabulous book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness, I created a packet intended to lead my students through the steps of learning a piece independently.

Here is my Independent Learning Packet.

Within the packet are the steps for planning the learning process.  The process as envisioned is as follows:

  • Lesson 1
    • Review the packet
    • Review the music
    • Demonstrate how the first week’s score preparation is to be done.
  • Week 1 at home: Prepare the score
    • Listen to the work regularly
    • Learn something about the context of the piece (composer, dates, etc.)
    • Identify and understand all of the markings in the score
    • Identify the piece’s musical shape
    • Chunk the piece into learnable segments and identify any especially hard chunks
    • Write in the fingerings, any extra dynamics and articulations the student may want
  • Lesson 2
    • Review the score preparation and make any necessary fixes (e.g., fingerings)
    • Work together to identify the weekly goals for learning the piece from this week to the end of the semester
    • Demonstrate and practice creating the daily goals for the week
    • Review how to practice towards these daily goals
    • Schedule the next lesson some weeks into the process, based upon the goals defined and the student’s and teacher’s confidence
  • Successive weeks at home: Achieve each week’s goals through daily intentional practicing
    • At the beginning of each week, identify each day’s goals for that week
    • Email the teacher a copy of these goals
    • Each day, achieve the goals identified in as little or as much time needed
    • Continue listening to the work
  • Successive Lessons
    • Review the progress
    • Offer any teaching where necessary regarding technique, musicality, or even practice strategies.
    • Schedule the next lesson
  • Final Lesson
    • Review and grade the semester

Most of my students will be assigned three works to learn. While all of the works are well within each students’ grasp, one will be more difficult (in length or technique) than the other two.  I am making memorization optional, because that could be an impediment to some of my transfer students. I do not wish to prevent success in this experiment.

I usually do not offer grades for piano lessons (although I have considered it many times), but this project offers a very clean opportunity to grade the student.  Assuming the student is asked to learn three works over the course of the semester, the grading is simple:

  • A- to A+ : All three works learned to performance level, with consideration of the level of refinement.
  • B- to B+: Two works learned to performance level.
  • C- to C+: One work learned to performance level.

I will not offer partial credit, since an incompletely learned piece is not one that could be performed on a recital.

I am hopeful that most, if not all, of my students will rise to the challenge of learning a piece independently.  Even if a student successfully learns only one of the works, the student will have had the experience of taking a piece from beginning to end on their own.  Once a student sees that this is possible, then I will consider his or her door towards being an accomplished learner a bit more open.

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