Did you know the way music is taught hasn’t changed since you were a kid?
If you think about the advancements in technology, how much content you can access at the click of a finger or swipe of a thumb, and how every industry has grown as a result – it’s sad to see that music has been left behind.
The adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is something you hear regularly when discussing how the way we teach music can be improved.
To which I’d like to counter with a question – looking back; Did you love piano lessons? And do you still play today?
Typically, it’s an overwhelming double NO.
But rather than hear it from me, I sat down with our boss, Miss Anika, and asked all the questions that we typically get.
We speak about her experiences learning piano, how it didn’t really teach her how to understand music, and what Sneaky Keys is doing to make learning music something kids love.
Thanks for your time Anika, I know you’re super busy, so we’ll dive straight in. What was your experience like learning the piano?
Thanks Ben, let’s get stuck in!
I had a ‘love-hate’ relationship with learning the piano.
I started at the age of 5 years old, firstly taking lessons with my older cousin.
It then progressed to me learning at a local lady’s house prepping for piano exams which was all very daunting and confusing to me.
I found the lessons so dry and the theory too hard to understand but was so shy that I would pretend I understood the content.
I changed teachers about three times after that, one of which was super strict and made me cry almost every lesson, so my mum decided to give me a break from lessons before I completely lost my love for music.
With that in mind, what did you and didn’t you like about the way you learnt?
I did enjoy listening and learning to play classical songs, but I also found them a bit restrictive in terms of creative flare.
I finished lessons and didn’t know how to apply my music skills to other styles of music I enjoyed singing and listening to.
And what led you to wanting to stop teaching someone else’s program and creating your own?
I had been teaching another program for about two years, and throughout that period it became more and more clear that it was too restrictive and repetitive.
The students were not at the forefront of the program.
It was very much of that old school mentality – there is only one way to learn music and it was for students to learn in a group until they were ready to ‘graduate’ into a private setting and undertake AMEB exams.
It just felt so counterintuitive to me.
And I speak to so many parents who, like me, hated piano lessons. I don’t want this generation to feel like we did.
So my goal with Sneaky Keys was to create a program that is not so focused on learning the “piano” but rather, learning to make music in a holistic sense.
Couple that with us working to position ourselves more like a sport – where our students learn how to play music, but also a set of skills that will benefit them regardless of the direction they end up going in as they grow.
We’re using the piano as the tool to apply our music skills and creative output.
The piano is so great for this reason. We can look at the piano keys to help explain complex music theory ideas. We can use the piano to record music digitally (using a midi keyboard and laptop).
We have the opportunity to allow young musicians to really showcase their creativity and love for music by composing their own music using the skills they learn in our classes and through our Keys + Creators programs.
In a way, I’m trying to give the next generation the opportunities I never had growing up.
Okay, for the “musically uneducated” like me, isn’t learning an instrument and learning music the same thing?
You would think so, but not quite. It really depends on how you are taught, and by who.
There are piano technicians who are incredibly skilful at manipulating the sounds of the piano and playing super-fast etc. This is more what I would say is learning to play the instrument, the piano.
Traditional lessons typically focus on learning to play the songs that are put in front of you, not so much the skills to be able to understand and play a wide range of music, by ear, improvising, and freely.
Whereas our focus at Sneaky Keys is not so much how to play the instrument, but how to use it to make music. We don’t drill hand and finger technique, it’s not why students come to our classes.
We don’t want to limit their creative expression and love for music.
We drill ear training through musical games and solfege singing to help students develop a strong recognition of pitch – Some even develop perfect pitch which is so amazing to see as a teacher.
We cover note reading and learning chords, why certain sounds work better together than others, understanding music as sound and its many wonderful possibilities to shape our emotions.
From the outside looking in there seems to be such an emphasis on learning piano in a Private Lesson, why is this the case?
I believe it’s the traditional approach to learning music.
But to me it’s quite funny because music is an aural artform – it was originally passed through the generations via concerts and rote learning by ear.
The birth of the printing press and the subsequent print revolution led to an emphasis on being able to ‘read’ the notes before listening to the music.
Teaching ‘reading’ first as opposed to by ear lends itself to the private/one-to-one learning setting as students learn to read at such different paces.
I think private lessons also appear more prestigious because of the individual attention on the student. I think for certain students, 100% they will be a better fit for private lessons.
So, we’re not saying groups are the only way and that they are for everyone. Rather, I believe that the majority of students would benefit more from a group lesson than a private one.
When you look at things like ear training, the social encouragement to continue practising, and the ability to share their progress with their new-found friends. Throw in the vibe of the group environment – it is so much more fun, engaging, funny, and fast-paced, it becomes a bit of a no brainer.
A 45-min group class absolutely flies by, whereas a 30-min private lesson feels like a lifetime!
From our experience the retention rate of a private lesson is about half that of our group students – with the average group lifetime between 3 and 4 years.
With that in mind, why are exams seen as a necessity?
Exams are seen as a necessity to keep students interested in their learning.
It’s seen as a goal to work towards to say you are at a certain level or grade in your skills.
Essentially, it’s a grading system. However, you don’t have to sit your exams in order to get into a Bachelor of Music, or any degree for that matter, it just looks good on paper – but isn’t a prerequisite.
So, we know why Sneaky Keys is different, dare I say better? Though while you don’t have to answer that first part, I’d like to know where you see the business in 5 years?
I see Sneaky Keys as being a well-known and respected hub for young musicians to really flourish.
I’d love to have special artists be involved in our school, to help inspire our young musicians to stick with their music in whichever direction they want to take it. Be it performance, production, or for their own personal pleasure.
I don’t want them to have the love/hate relationship I, and so many people I speak to had.
Other locations are also something we’re looking into – we feel that more kids can benefit from the way we teach and it’s unrealistic to think that everyone can travel to our current Northbridge location.
Technology is something else we’re looking into. An app that students could use on their keyboard while delivering the structure of our program to those in remote or disadvantaged communities is something we’re really excited to bring to life over the next few years.