This post was written by Stephany Tiernan, chair of the Piano department at Berklee. She teaches private piano lessons.

Learning a new instrument is always difficult and challenging, particularly in the beginning. Developing good technique and practice habits is really important, as it lays the foundation for everything to come. Doing all this in a class of 15 is and will always be a less than optimum learning experience for students for a number of reasons: 

  1. Students need weekly feedback on their performances.
  2. Students need a lot of demonstration of concepts and technical details.
  3. Students need to learn music that is musically interesting and relevant.
  4. Students need to have a practice plan that makes daily practicing musical and fun.
  5. Students need to experience progress and success!

That’s a tall order and very difficult to accomplish in a two-hour class that meets once a week with 15 students. Just listening to, critiquing, and grading 15 students takes more than half the class time and the other 14 students are necessarily left on their own while this is happening. During the other class hour, the teacher often demonstrates and discusses various concepts and technical details, such as scale fingerings, hand positions, arpeggios with thumb crossings, chord voicings, etc. Generally there is no time to repeat instructions and students really need to pay attention to catch everything. Then, there is invariably some group playing of materials and assignments that are in the book. Sometimes there is supplementary material. There are inevitably some students who can play the material with no effort and some who feel buried and left behind. Everyone learns at a different pace, and there is a limit to how much group playing can be effective. The student leaves the class with an assignment, including technique exercises, chord drills/voicings, and tunes to practice. Some feel overwhelmed and others feel bored or unchallenged.
In a blended Basic Keys class there are only 10 students clambering for the teacher’s attention. Each week, every student submits his or her assignments and the teacher listens, critiques and grades the performances on without holding all the other students hostage while he/she is doing it. Clearly a better use of everyone’s time. Students who have to record and submit a piece each week tend to feel more goal oriented, and focused, and generally progress much more quickly. They also experience the satisfaction of having accomplished something very concrete—a performance of a piece—that can be preserved and serve as a marker to judge their future progress. They also have more flexibility with the deadline for the assignment and can take a little longer to prepare their piece if necessary. This allows them to work more at their own pace. There is generally a window of time in which they can submit their performance, as opposed to the day and time their class meets.

Each lesson has an online component. The portion that resides on has video material that explains technical details and demonstrates concepts, and each video can be played as many times as a student needs to see it and listen to it. They can see close-ups of the teacher’s hands and technical demonstrations that show greater detail than in a class. This allows students to absorb the material at their own pace and not feel frustrated as they might if the teacher seems to be going too quickly in class.

The online portion of the blended course guides students through practice sessions that will help a student learn how to practice effectively and accomplish more. Each week they encounter new scales, arpeggios, chord voicings, and repertoire. Many of the exercises and tunes have sequenced play-alongs to help the student play in time and give them a sense of the time-feel and style. These play-alongs make practicing more enjoyable and they can usually be played at a couple of different tempos.

In addition, the students meet each week in the classroom for one hour. This is a great opportunity to review any parts of an assignment that were problematic. It also allows for a less pressured class time and more opportunity to try out the students’ developing piano skills with more creative group playing, part playing, and sight-reading of new materials. It becomes kind of a master class for beginners and the class time is more intense and focused.

Our blended Basic Keys faculty have been prototyping this new way of teaching piano for many years now and generally agree that students are becoming more proficient on the keyboard in less time. Thanks to a lot of help from our friends in technology and the ubiquitous laptop computers, we may be on to something here. Technology really can offer some solutions! Even when it comes to learning an acoustic instrument! I am really looking forward to next fall when all our Basic Keyboard classes will be offered in a blended format.

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