Help Your Students Less to Help Them More

Weekly Teaching Tip – Sep. 2, 2013
By Dean Kaelin

On numerous occasions I have had teachers express concern that they would never be able to become a great teacher because they can’t play the piano like I do. I must admit that playing the piano well does have many advantages; it speeds things up in the lesson, I can change keys immediately, I can work on specific parts of songs and not waste time searching through a minus track, etc.

However, I have had the thought many times over the years that at times my piano skills can actually hurt the progress of a student. I know that many of you are saying, “Oh sure, how could being a better piano player diminish the progress of a student?” The answer is, I tend to help my students too much! Whenever they “get in trouble” on a song I automatically start playing their melody note stronger to help them find their pitch and get them back on track.

While that might be good for a live performance I have decided that it is not a good thing for their training. I have realized over the years that singers have three stages in their vocal development regarding pitch. First, they learn to match the pitch of another voice. This is the easiest for them since they not only match the pitch, but also the timbre and overall sound which helps them find the pitches in the easiest way. After the singer can match another voice they then move on to matching pitches on an instrument. This is a bit more difficult as the timbre of the instrument they are matching is often different than the sound of their own voice.

The third and final stage, and the most important, is the ability to match the “voice inside their head”. The first two stages deal with what I call the “outer ear” and the third stage deals with the “inner ear”. In order to become a good singer, every singer needs to develop the ability to hear the pitch “inside” his/her head and match it with their voice. Here is where “over-helping” can become a problem.

I have discovered that overall my “phone and internet students” have much better pitch then my students that take lesson at my studio. I think that a lot of this has to do with the fact that when I teach phone and internet lessons it is not possible to play the scales and have the student sing them at the same time because of either a significant delay or insufficient band width. Because of this I usually demonstrate the exercise to be sung, then I play a chord and it is up to the singer to sing the exercise accapella. This forces the singer to rely on matching the pitch in their head and not simply matching the piano and relying on the piano to give them their pitch.

If at all possible I always like a student to do their first lesson in the studio so that they have a good recording of the scales I use. It is often difficult for a singer to do a 1.5 octave scale accapella if they are not used to that scale. A couple of years ago I had a woman come in for a first lesson. She informed me that she was going to have to do Skype lessons. I was really doubtful that this would work because she was having rather significant problems even matching the pitches I was playing on the piano. We decided to at least give it a try, but I mentioned to her the potential problems that internet lessons would cause. I was amazed that within about 6 months her pitches were right on.

I have had several students over the years that are really great singers as long as I am playing the piano for them or they are just doing scales, but when they try and sing with a band or a minus track they really struggle. I am trying more and more to treat my “in studio” lessons like my “online lessons” and make them do exercises accapella to force them to develop better pitch and a better musical ear.

And although it is useful and often necessary for a student to learn to read music, I feel it is even more important that they develop their musical ear. So more times then not I will simply give the student lyrics and make them learn the song not by sheet music, but by ear. I am reminded of something a great, old Jazz musician told me years ago, “You’ll never become a great musician until you throw away the book!”

I know we all want to help our students as much as we can, but I have found that sometimes helping them less is the best way to really help them more in the long run.

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