Music in the Conservatory: The Piano Marvel Lab
A personal reflection by Matt Schukis
As a Music teacher with 20+ years of teaching experience, I had become increasingly more and more aware of the drop in numbers of students who were participating in Music across the United States. It was easy to put the blame on the increase in popularity with video games and the continual distractions of the internet and smart phones, but I wasn’t satisfied with that.
It became clear to me that although music is still very important in brain development (cognitive, reasoning, problem solving, creativity, etc.), somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the importance that music should be fun. We PLAY music after all, don’t we? Isn’t “play” supposed to be fun?
About a decade ago, there was a study done in a school district somewhere on the east coast, where psychologists asked a bank of questions to all of the students by grade (Kindergarten through 12th grade). All of the questions were of the “yes” or “no” variety by a simple “show of hands”. When the question of “Are you a musician?” was posed…in Kindergarten, every child raised his or her hand. Why? Well, they played rhythm sticks, percussion instruments, Boomwhackers, etc. So…clearly they were musicians. Yet, as the age increased, fewer and fewer hands were raised, in conjunction with the realization that “I’m not as good as Johnny or Suzie”…or “I’m an athlete, poet, etc.” Now some of this is due to the fact that some children just aren’t drawn to music and would rather spend their time doing other things. But, the bigger issue here for me is the belief that EVERYONE loves music, yet for some reason all of us make a decision at some point in our development that we’re either a musician or we are not. It seems black and white, like the keys on the piano. But where is the grey?
With the addition of our new Music Conservatory building at Wasatch Academy, and the implementation of the new schedule model for the 2015-2016 academic year, I decided to throw caution to the wind and completely change how we offer our piano class. Sticking with the belief that “everyone loves music,” I wanted to find a way to attract more students into the class. I wanted students from every level of experience from “I never played” to “I’ve been playing piano since I was 5.” I wanted to have a flexible enough schedule in order to make it possible for the students to take class whenever it would fit. How could I do that without losing one group or another? The advanced students would be extremely bored starting at the beginning and the beginning students would be lost otherwise.
The answer lay in the capabilities of our Piano Lab. I was able to secure the equipment to have all of our Kawai keyboards paired with a Mac desktop computer, allowing the students to have access to any computer piano methods program. But which program would be the best fit? I researched a lot of programs, and trust me…there are plenty out there. But, when I discovered a program called Piano Marvel, I was sold. Piano Marvel was unlike any other program, because it had the flexibility for each student to work at his or her own pace while I, the teacher, could monitor individual progress and give guidance where needed. Not only were piano methods covered in the program, but techniques such as sight reading and rhythm recognition, along with periodic Student Assessments of Sight Reading (SASR) which would serve as “tests” to see exactly what the students were retaining throughout the process. And…it is VERY student friendly. AND IT IS FUN!!
Each student can earn “trophies” ranging from bronze, silver, gold, and gold star, depending on the grade average they earn as they finish levels in the program. All of this is supported by “instant feedback” from the computer. When you complete an exercise, you receive a number grade and indications of what you missed (notes, rhythms, etc.). The student can then play through the exercise again for an unlimited number of times until he or she feels content with the grade. The highest grade trumps every other grade and wipes out any record of a lower grade existing. So only the student knows how much he or she has worked on the exercise to earn their high mark. Piano Marvel removes any stigmas attached to learning to play the piano. Mistakes such as wrong notes or incorrect rhythms are known only to the student wearing the headphone. Piano Marvel also comes with an extensive music library which allows student choice in what pieces to play. Each piece can also be minced into many practice parts (with grades) to show the students how to break down a complete song for practice.
Does it all work? I must admit that I was very skeptical at the beginning of the process. My concerns ranged from wondering how I could ensure that the students were working and learning, to wondering if I was really still being a teacher. From my high school days, every teacher stood in front of the room and lectured. You learned from listening to the teacher speak (or play the piano) and you followed along in kind. This method is nothing like that. Piano Marvel allows the teacher to monitor everything from graded levels to practice time for each student. At the click of the mouse, I can see who has completed which level and which color trophy was earned, along with who practiced over the weekend and for how long. It allows the student to pick and choose where they go next; do they want to go to the next method, or skip to a technique section or work on the song they started last week or search for something else? It is up to the individual student, not the teacher. It is true student directed learning.
But what does it all look like? How do I, the teacher, know if it is working? I was surprised and amazed when I compared the numbers to this year’s progress with the progress of the students from last year. In six weeks, the students I had last year completed an average of 14 lessons from the method book we used. This year, with Piano Marvel, students have completed an average of 50 lessons in the same 6-week time frame. Some students have complete over 120 lessons. 120 LESSONS??? How amazing is that?
For me, the real proof that it is working is the amount of times that I have to tell the students “It’s time to go to your next class” – instead of having to say “You still have more to practice.” The vast majority of the students are working longer and harder because they are self-motivated and are having fun! I find that our piano students are much more engaged and will even log in to begin working even before I get into the classroom myself. I have witnessed students bringing friends into the Piano Lab to show them what they are working on.
Our participation numbers have more than doubled. That’s right… more than double the number are taking Piano Class this year than took the class last year.
So what about me as a teacher? Do I feel as if the computer replaced me? My main objective was to “attract more students into music classes while breaking down the self-built barriers of “I’m not a musician”, and still make it possible for EVERY student to thrive regardless of experience or level of achievement. From my perspective, this is being achieved. I may be speaking less during class (which if you know me, this is no small feat in and of itself) but I feel like more of an educator because now it is possible for us to “meet the students where they are” in Piano Class. By the end of this school year, there will be more students who define themselves as “musicians!” Shouldn’t that be the goal of every music educator?