I have had the opportunity to observe students in private lessons with other teachers, listen to students of other teachers perform, and hear the stories of new students who come to me for help after having had bad experiences with music lessons. Throughout the years I have noticed that there are three aspects of music pedagogy and subject matter content that emerge as consistent challenges:
1. The Relationship Between Theory and Performance
2. The Process Of Active Listening
3. The Need To Internalize, Not Just Memorize
The Relationship Between Theory and Performance
In observing students of other teachers, one thing that strikes me is that the schism between theory and performance is hard to bridge, both for students and teachers alike. This is true even when the piano student takes separate theory lessons to augment an overall music education. From time to time I do substitute for other teachers, and on one occasion I noticed that the piano student (high school age studying college entrance level theory), was totally missing the execution of the natural metrical structure. After pointing this out, I asked, "You do remember this from theory class don't you?", whereupon the reply was, "Oh right, I kind of remember that". Obviously what was studied on paper did not translate into practice for this student. Needless to say, I helped this student bridge this gap!
The Process Of Active Listening
Pianists are at a disadvantage as compared to other instrumentalists. This disadvantage arises from the fact that a pianist need not "listen and tune up" when causing a musical tone to sound (hitting the piano key). Simply hitting the correct key will create the desired pitch. This simple fact often leads to habitual sloth in the listening discipline of pianists! Once I am able to get piano students of all ages to actually listen to the sound they are producing, a wonderful whole new world opens up for them!
The Need To Internalize, Not Just Memorize, Music
This is a fascinating topic and borders on psychology. In fact, much of what I discuss with students relating to practice techniques has to do with psychology and mental discipline. With respect to memorization, students tend to memorize their pieces by repetition, even by rote and blind repetition. There is also a reliance on "muscle memory". The natural consequence of this approach is to "zone out" while playing from memory (going on "auto pilot"), resulting in the inevitable performance crash. One symptom of this in learning a piece is dealing with a phrase that is repeated exactly the same at the beginning, but which ends up being different at the end of the phrase on the repetition. Interestingly, there are several things going on here: (1) the student lacks understanding (theoretical foundation) of what the phrase is actually doing (e.g., does the phrase first begin and end on the tonic, but in the repetition end on the dominant?); (2) the student plays the phrase but doesn't really hear it; (3) and last, the student typically uses brute force (rote repetition) to get beyond this speed bump. In all such cases I guide my students to thoroughly understand the music, always listen critically to the structure of the phrase, and combine these two learning tools to truly internalize the music, not just memorize.