Sometimes, the most creative ideas come from throwing away the rule book and trying something different and entirely unexpected.
When boisterous brothers, Harry and Mark arrived for their most recent piano lessons already engaged in a heated debate about who should go first, I silenced them with a call and response clapping game. Inspired by their immediate attention I pointed to Mark and then pointed in the direction of the music room. He obediently picked up his book bag and trundled happily off to the piano, whilst Harry quietly opened his homework folder. I shared a look of amused disbelief with my childminder and followed Mark.
As I sat down, Mark started to explain "Mum didn't make me, so I haven't ...". I put a finger to my lips and shook my head, I've heard it before. I think this was the point at which I decided to try to deliver a mute lesson. Or not to speak for as long as possible. Those who know me will appreciate that this is not as easy as it might first appear!
We started with some simple warm ups using Edna Mae Burnam's Dozen a Day Mini and as usual Mark went charging off with little thought for the pulse, rhythmic accuracy or tidy fingering. I opened my mouth; "slow down" I thought, "keep a steady pulse". I closed my mouth and set a clear, steady beat by tapping my hand on the piano. Mark's next attempt was not much better; in fairness he was rather perturbed that his usually chatty and animated piano teacher had developed a new brand of bonkers and I'm sure he was still trying to figure out how to justify why he hadn't practised enough. I gave him an encouraging smile, then touched my ear and pointed to my beating hand; listen. I played the exercise with my right hand whilst maintaining the beat with my left. I wanted us to play together but needed to count us in - without counting aloud. I pointed to my eyes and then my metronomic hand. I struck the first beat with one finger, then two fingers, three and finally four fingers for the fourth beat. I repeated it and then started to play. I gestured that Mark should be ready to play and repeated the "count in". He started at exactly the right moment and maintained a steady pulse throughout the entire exercise. We finished together and celebrated with ear to ear grins and high fives all round.
Although I didn't stipulate that Mark shouldn't speak, after his initial statement he didn't say another word. Perhaps he felt that he couldn't ask for clarification, which meant he had to concentrate much harder on what I was 'saying'. Because I didn't stop to speak, my beat was more or less constant throughout the session but it was not numerical.
At the end of the lesson I did speak to Mark, to congratulate him on his hard work and clarify my practice expectations for the forthcoming week. I asked him if he had enjoyed the lesson and he admitted that although it was "weird at first", he thought it was fun and would like to do it again. I asked him to send Harry in for his lesson and heard him whisper ominously "she's not talking!".
Even before Harry sat down; "I haven't had time...". I held up my hand to silence him. "But I didn't...". I shook my head. "But Mum didn't..." I put a finger to my lips and gestured towards the piano stool. Empowered by my success with Mark, I resolved to try a second mute lesson. To be honest, I just didn't want to hear a list of defensive excuses. It seemed a painful exercise that we could both do without!
I played C major scale with my right hand and indicated that Harry should do the same. He looked confused. "What note should I start on?" I played it again. "Oh, C major" he said and charged at it like a bull in a china shop! As I played the scale again I drew a smooth arc on a piece of paper. "It looks like a rainbow" Harry observed. When Harry played C major scale again, I drew a series of ascending and descending steps. "A sandcastle?" said Harry. I wrote a tick, a cross and a question mark and handed Harry the pen. He ticked the rainbow, crossed the sandcastle and with the aid of my metronomic hand played a beautifully even C major scale. I glanced down at my lesson plan.
· Introduce G major scale. Explain key signature.
· Link to IYSR1, pg 12. Work through rhythmic and melodic exercises. Set pg 13 for hw
· Sing She'll be coming round the mountain, PT1, pg 38. Use C&R. What key is it in? Are there any F#s?
At this point I nearly lost my resolve. I've explained the Grade 1 scales many, many times incorporating varying degrees of theory, depending on the aptitude of the student. But the prospect of tackling this challenge without the use of words seemed a step too far.
Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go and played a G. Harry copied. "G" he said. You could be forgiven for missing the significance of this exchange. I can say with almost absolute certainty that if I had said to Harry "what note is this?" his response would have been very similar to "D, no F, I mean A, er E, oh it's G". He knows, he absolutely knows, but he usually says the first thing that comes into his head. I played G major scale. Harry's next question "Was that G major scale?" was rewarded with a big thumbs up. I played the first three notes and paused whilst Harry copied. I made a big show of tucking my thumb under and played the next three notes. I went back to G and played the first six notes smoothly ("like the rainbow") and Harry copied. I returned to G again and played an octave scale, exaggerating the movement of my fourth finger onto F#. Apparently, I did not exaggerate enough as Harry played F natural, but wait... "that sounded weird" he said. I wanted to do a little dance, but instead I played G major scale again, making a fuss of the F#. "Oh, it's got a black one" Harry said and rattled off G major scale.
Harry's response to a non-verbal lesson was quite different to Mark's. Harry talked less than usual, but did not stop speaking completely. He asked questions, sought clarification and made observations throughout the lesson. He seemed more relaxed than usual, perhaps because I was not asking him any questions, nor was I telling him if he was right or wrong. Harry returned the following week and played C major and G major scales "rainbow-style" as he has chosen to call it. I couldn't have put it better myself!
I don't think I could teach without words on a regular basis. But this experiment did make me think about more creative ways to tackle some musical challenges. This approach engages the right brain, learning intuitively, guessing solutions, hands on, responding to demonstration, pictures, diagrams. It also employs the three main learning styles; visual, audio and kinaesthetic. The student is watching, listening and doing, all at the same time. The only thing missing is the verbal instructions, along with the need to listen to, understand, digest, apply, question, reply to and sometimes argue with them. It seems to me that a little less conversation and a little more action is an extremely effective teaching strategy.
 Improve Your Sight Reading, Grade 1 by Paul Harris
 Piano Time 1, Pauline Hall