Paul Harris and Taking the Time to Learn Well

Thanks so much to Frances Wilson for her clear and comprehensive notes from ‘The Virtuoso Teacher’ seminar with Paul Harris. It is so good to hear from a music teacher who through his teaching has explored all the many aspects of learning to get to the nub of what music is, what enables a student to learn it well, and therefore how we should teach it.

I am currently reading Paul Harris’ ‘Simultaneous Learning’ and find it encouraging me to go further into the tangents that I like to take based on the musical elements of whatever the students are learning, and question myself much more whenever I find myself in that awful conventional rut of starting proceedings from the notes on the page first. Harris describes this as ‘waiting for things to go wrong and then correcting them.’ Put like this, it’s so obvious. This is exactly what we are doing when we take the traditional route. It is the way most of us were taught. Some of us who really took music on as our own thing continued, but the vast majority gave up.

‘The quality of our students’ understanding is better than the quantity of their work’.

Recently a mother stopped one of my student’s lessons because the student wasn’t ‘where she should be by her age’. This girl (who was nine) could transpose her tunes into any key, change the modality (minor/major), accompany the tunes using chords in the right hand and a bass line in the left, play the 12 bar blues pattern and improvise in the two pentatonic scales and the blues scale, switching them on request. She was also doing well with note reading and classical scales. I’m sure if I had started her on the grade exams and pushed her along that conveyor belt the mother would have been satisfied. But the way we were building up to it, she would have been able to play her three pieces no problem and any others of that standard, with a real understanding of the music and the reasons behind why you’d bother to learn it in the first place.

Contrasted with this, on Saturdays I teach a whole family of four. All from scratch apart from the mum, who took exams when she was younger and plays to a competent level, but felt something was missing. Because I teach them all on the same day, and seeing them all together gives me so many options for collaboration, they get the full force of the Conrad’s Chords style! They are all very different in personality and how they approach things, and because they are learning as a family they can see how aspects of music (which I might teach in varying ways according to these differences) fit together to make a whole.

After the disappointment of the first student being removed from lessons, I was so happy to hear the mum of this family telling me how the older sibling who hadn’t appeared to embrace piano as fully as the other, had taken up clarinet lessons at school and was amazing her teacher by picking out tunes straight away having only been shown a few notes. Subsequently she is full of confidence with the instrument and is progressing with enthusiasm. ‘I’m sure it’s down to the way you are teaching us’. I couldn’t have hoped to hear a better vote of confidence. This family feel no pressure for anyone to be at a certain level at a certain time. The parents are happy that the children understand and enjoy it.

It’s not always easy to strike a balance between going at the pace a student needs to take in order to fully understand what they are doing, and feeling a need to achieve visible progress to keep the parents happy. I have had many students whose parents ask me every single week how their child is progressing.

I was talking about this recently to a friend who founded his own company, and I was really interested to hear him talk about his experience of how long it takes employees to assimilate into the company and achieve their full potential. He cited two cases of employees who did not seem to be good at their job at all until about two years in, when they made a remarkable shift and became indispensable. His take on it was that it takes that long for a lot of people to process all the requirements put on them by a situation. They need that time to internalise it all and find their feet. When his company had influence from some US based investors, they suggested sacking people after a short time period if they were not seen to be achieving. But he knew that if he had done that with these two people  he would never have known what a great asset they were to become.

What sort of a world is being created here, where people aren’t given the time they need to learn things well? When you can be dropped long before you had chance to prove yourself?

Seeing the difference with my Saturday family, I realise I need to make much more of an effort to bring all parents on board, so they can see for themselves the journey that their child is traveling, and come along with them.

Reading the inspiring words of Paul Harris makes me want to do my job better; be more thoughtful about everything I ask my students to do. Always have a mind for the bigger picture, and instead of feeling reigned in by the expectation of parents, jump on those tangents with both feet and enjoy the journey.

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About Rosa Conrad

Teacher, writer, performer.
This entry was posted in music teaching, piano, theory and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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