By Dr. Julie Knerr

Welcome to a new school year! I hope you are having a great start to the year! I am very excited about my kids at the Hartt School Community Division. I have 38 individual students and three Piano Safari Group Classes. Busy!!! Last year was my first year at Hartt, and I started from scratch with all beginners and transfer students. Last year was about establishing expectations, filling in holes in training, and showing the students what this piano thing is all about.

It is so nice this year to have returning students who I know, who know me, and who have practiced since I last saw them.

As I was choosing repertoire for my students and thinking about each student, I was thinking about how our Teaching Strategies change based on the level and age of the student. I tend to think of the students in three categories when working on a piece:

1. Beginners. For the first year or more (basically students who are in Piano Safari Levels 1 and 2), when we work on a piece, it consists of:

  • Having them focus on One Thing At a Time as we repeat a piece several times. “Can you make sure you thumb is on its corner every time you play your thumb?” On the next repetition, “Now let’s think about playing gently at the end of each phrase.” Next repetition, “Can you play a little faster?” Next, “Now I think we should try it with the teacher accompaniment!”

2. Transfer Students or Late Elementary/Intermediate Students. For transfer students, when working on a piece, I use Spot Checking. After they play the piece through, I think of three of the most crucial spots I want them to fix in practice. We then work on those spots in detail. I give them Practice Strategies from my Practice Strategy Cards to use to practice in a productive, efficient, and intelligent way. For example, they can ghost a passage for balance, or they can reverse the articulation, or they can play a small section seven times (I call it “Sevenizing.”)

Well into my college career, I did not practice efficiently, so I would return to my lesson after hours and hours of practice having not fixed a spot, partially because my ears needed refining, and also because I did not know how to concentrate well enough to fix a spot and have it stay fixed. I work on this with my students consciously through the Practice Strategy Cards.

3. For Well Trained and Intermediate/Advanced Students. For students who have mastered Spot Checking and who are able to successfully fix many spots at home and keep them fixed, we move to the next tier of working on a piece, which I call, Systematically Through Forward (you can work backwards on a piece too, but mostly I go forward). This is when the student plays a piece, and then we work through it phrase by phrase from the beginning to the end of the piece. I give corrections (and yes, I call them “corrections.” That helps both students and parents take it more seriously) and work with the student all the way through the piece.

If I try to do this kind of detailed work on a whole piece with a student who is not able adept at Spot Checking, which focuses on just a few spots to be corrected, it can be frustrating for both student and teacher. If Systematically Through Forward is not working, it might be better to go back to Spot Checking for a while.

So when I see each of my students, I think about which stage they are in.

  • Are they able just to focus on One Thing at a Time in their short pieces?
  • Are they read to Spot Check several spots in a longer piece? Or have they mastered Spot Checking and are ready for more in depth work Systematically Forward through a piece?