EP06: Nicola Cantan – Teaching kids to practice and play in a more colourful way

The Podcast

Show notes

Nicola’s Website: http://colourfulkeys.ie/

Nicola’s Opening Monologue: “The tide is gradually turning and teachers are realizing that they can’t just stick to the past. Not that we won’t teach Beethoven and Bach, but that we need to teach other things as well and that we need to teach in a different way to engage kids these days. It doesn’t work the same way that it used to.”

Standout Quotes from this interview with Nicola:

[On her early music learning experiences] “[I] started age 7 or so, but what was not fairly standard for a teacher I think, is that I had a fairly slow start. My first teacher looking back she wasn’t so good, she wasn’t very encouraging and I don’t think she really enjoyed teaching. So that’s kind of influenced the way I teach now.”

“I started teaching when I was around 16. Since I started teaching I wanted to teach what I wasn’t taught, so to try and include things in my lessons that I didn’t feel that I got out of them. So that’s why I started exploring blogging and all the different blogs out there and got into it that way. And started really enjoying teaching through that.”

“My teacher after that was just the kindest. …I’m always trying to replicate how kind she was. And the next teacher after that was extremely good technically and at analyzing situations…She really influenced how I teach technique and from sort of an analytic standpoint.”

[on teaching strategies] “Most of the strategies I use now are ones I’ve discovered online or made up myself, because I feel like even with the good teachers I had, practice wasn’t really talked about. They just told you to practice or told you what was wrong, but they didn’t really tell you specific steps of how to get there. That’s something I always felt was lacking.”

“What I want them to leave every lesson with is obviously a love of music but beyond that it’s about a sort of exploration, an exploratory sense of music all the time. So they’re not going through the motions, they’re not following exactly what I say they have to do. Obviously they need to understand what the score says but after that, they need to go on their own path.”

[on student independence] “Eventually I want to be irrelevant. I want them to keep playing after they stop lessons. So they need to have independent skills so that they can work through stuff, and feel confident doing it by themselves. I want them to look at a page and to be able to take it step by step for themselves.”

[on what she wants people to do with her book] “Read it through but then go back to it again and again. It’s supposed to be a handbook.”

“The idea being The Piano Practice Physician is looking at practice, or piano more generally, through this problem solving lens. It’s all about ailments, things that we come across all the time, that are problems, that we come across as stumbling blocks, and always trying to look at them in terms of what the cure could be…you’re actually coming up with a solution that will help them to cure that issue.”

“When you’re playing the wrong note and then the right note, you’re practicing playing the two notes one after the other. You’re not practicing playing the right note in the first place.”

“If they’re in an actual performance, what the audience remembers is the ending, right? So if that’s the shakiest part, that’s not so good.”

[on creativity] “The things I’m most excited about that things are turning towards gradually would be creativity being included in the lessons. I see teachers online talking about composing or little bits of improvising.”

“Creative skills are one of the things that are most often touted as this benefit of music lessons, and most music lessons that you would go in to are not creative at all. You can’t claim that they are if you’re sticking religiously to this score.”

[advice to teachers to build creativity] “You see all of this stuff and you end up not doing any of it because there’s so much about there and you just think that you can’t possibly include it. The biggest thing is just to start small.”

[on bringing improvisation into scale practice] “They’ll see what scales are actually for. They’re not just for improvising, but they’re the foundation of music. There’s a reason we get them to practice them…allow them opportunities to explore what the scale really means and to feel their way around it.”

“You need to get into the mindset of exploring stuff with your students. You don’t always have to be teacher from on high telling them exactly what to do. You can give yourself the liberty to explore it with them and they will appreciate it.”

[on rhythm] “That’s what comes first for me, just as a way to think about things up until say they’re 6 years old.”

[on melody for 7-8 year olds] “That’s about bringing it more into singing. They’re finding their voice and they can start to improve their aural skills a little bit more.”

[on harmony for 9 or 10 year olds] “At that stage they can now play chords properly and we need to start getting ready for when they become a tween and they need things to be cool. And chords are way cooler than anything else.

We need to start preparing them to stick it out through the teen years, and if they can play chord progressions, they’re going to be able to pick up pop songs, play them quickly and impress their friends.”

[on parent involvement] “Parent communication is key to everything. …If they didn’t learn music themselves, they’re not going to understand the progress that is being made.”

“I don’t have parents sit in on the lessons a lot, but I will invite them in for the last few minutes. That’s been a good balance for me.”

“The parent should always know where they’re at and that starts at the very first lesson with telling them what their role is and setting yourself up for success so that they understand that they’re part of this. It isn’t some isolated thing that happens between you and the student.”

[on the first lesson] “It’s really more of an interview…it’s just a chat about stuff and we do a few minutes at the piano. I immediately explain to them [that] piano practice needs to happen at a specific time every day. You need to commit to at least 5 days a week.”

“Sometimes it’s going to be hard and that’s part of the value of it.”

“You really need to lay it all out, be really clear about what you expect from them and how the whole system works just in case they don’t know. “

[On challenges as a music teacher] “The biggest challenge I always had was parent communication so that’s why I’m so big on it now and so clear on how it works in my studio.”

“If something is getting me down or not working the way it should, I focus entirely on that and make sure it’s the thing I’m best at. …It’s the same thing I tell my students to do with their piece.”

[on makeup lessons and setting boundaries] “What is that lesson going to do to you that is going to make you a weaker teacher to all your other students? It’s going to encroach upon your private time that you had to relax and regenerate yourself. If you bring it back to ‘this is going to make me a worse teacher for my other students,’ then it’s much easier to say no.”

[on the book] “It’s been the most fun just getting out into the world and getting comments back from teachers…and getting the reviews in. It’s been really wonderful to hear the feedback from teachers.”

Nicola’s recommended resources:

Book: The Savvy Music Teacher by David Cutler

The blog by Tim Topham https://www.timtopham.com/

Piano Safari mini essays section on the website


Follow Nicola

The main website is http://colourfulkeys.ie/

The website for the book and course is https://pianophysician.com/

Facebook Page and Group https://www.facebook.com/colourfulkeys or https://www.facebook.com/groups/vibrantmusicstudioteachers/

Colourful Keys and The Vibrant Studio Music Teacher’s Community

Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest @colourfulkeys