In this guest blog post, Barbara Kennedy, creator of the Piano TRACKS Project, shares three pupil case studies which demonstrate how the framework can be applied in practice. We hope this is useful not just for existing users of the Piano TRACKS materials, but also for those who’ve not yet explored this fantastic resource for piano teachers.
The piano TRACKS (pT) project provides piano teachers with a formal, but flexible way of assessing their students, along with tools to help support their development. In this blog post I will be focussing on how I, the creator of the project, use the pT checklists to maximise student attainment.
Our checklists provide a way to identify progress as students develop at the piano. They are based on the pT curriculum which has been designed to break down learning into manageable chunks. The curriculum has eight progressive levels (Stages A – H), and for each stage there are two checklists, one for skills development and one for knowledge acquisition. This helps students to build on their theoretical and practical skills concurrently. These eight stages take students from the very beginnings of their piano journey through to intermediate level (approximately Grade 5 standard).
There is no right or wrong way to use these checklists, and teachers are encouraged to use them within their preferred approach to teaching, in a way that best supports the learning styles of individual students. Students are likely to span several levels of the curriculum at once, as they develop different skills at different times. The project is designed as a framework that teachers are encouraged to adapt, adding or removing items of learning that they feel are necessary.
1. Seven-year-old: shows potential, but lacks motivation
I expect I am not the only teacher with a young student who has plenty of potential, but finds it difficult to concentrate in lessons, rarely practises at home, and often forgets their books. I have been teaching this particular student, Katie, for two years, and progress has been somewhat slow, although the student enjoys lessons. I thought the checklists might be a good fit for Katie as a motivational tool. It can take a long time for students to reach the level where they are preparing for a graded exam, but with the pT checklists there are three pre-Grade 1 levels which can fill in that gap. There are also certificates free to download from our website that can be presented to students when they complete a stage.
When I first introduced the checklist book to Katie, she could see almost all of Stage A was completed. Together, we agreed that there were some terms relating to the stave that she could be more confident of, and I sent her off with a worksheet (from the pT range) to practice the names. The following week she was able to name all the elements required to complete Stage A, and proudly left the lesson with her certificate.
Since then, Katie has been more confident about her abilities, and more focussed in lessons. As a teacher, I have been able to get a better idea of what she is capable of. I have been impressed by the things she will now do independently because she knows she can, and what she is willing to try.
2. Transfer student: who, what, and where?
It can often be difficult to ascertain what level a transfer student is truly working at. Often, the student isn’t clear themselves, even if they have previously taken exams. Robert, 11, recently came to my studio from another teacher. He was playing pieces from the first Up-Grade book, so I estimated him to be around, or approaching, Grade 1 level. For the first term of lessons, I used different activities, games, and repertoire to subtly ascertain Robert’s knowledge and practical capabilities. This was an interesting process as it highlighted that he was able to work at a higher level than we had previously realised.
As a teacher, I also found that the checklists helped me to plan lessons in a structured way, to inform progress. It allows me to easily identify what areas a student needs to work on, giving me quick ideas of what to include in a lesson. For Robert the checklists provided a crucial turning point, as he had been held back by working on material that was too easy for him. Being able to methodically assess Robert in this way meant that I was quickly able to see his real level of ability.
For planning and logistical purposes, I keep hold of students’ checklist books. Robert will sadly be leaving me at the end of the academic year due to the family relocating. At this point, I will give him his checklist book to keep and to pass on to his next teacher. I hope that the next teacher will be able to use it as a starting point for Robert’s future lessons.
3. Adult beginner: enthusiasm and pacing
The final student I am going to talk about in this blog post, is an adult beginner who recently started having lessons with me. In my experience, adult learners are some of the most committed and ambitious learners. They often sprint through the beginning stages of learning and then reach a plateau which can leave them feeling discouraged. I think this can often lead to adults giving up lessons quickly, which is a real shame.
I introduced the checklist to my adult student, Jamie, within the first few lessons. Jamie is a dedicated learner and his enthusiasm for the piano shines through at every session. The checklists gave Jamie a truthful insight into how much there was to learn from the start of his piano journey.
Jamie has found the checklists useful because he has been able to visualise his progress. During weeks where he has felt that his achievement has been less than usual, we have been able to look back at how much he has already grown as a musician, and it helps us to concentrate on the road ahead.
With all my students, I have found that the checklists increase motivation in students in a meaningful way. They like to have specific, bite-sized, goals to work towards (alongside their ‘bigger picture’ aims). It saves me time when lesson planning and helps me to plan solid activities and select appropriate repertoire that truly aids all-round musical development.
I think it is fair to say that assessment within the creative arts is a tricky business. Questions are often asked about the appropriateness of current systems in popular use, or whether we should use assessment at all. I believe that the right kind of assessment, at the right time has a positive effect on student progress. These checklists provide a flexible, tangible, and meaningful way of showing achievement.
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