So you’ve decided to teach piano. Welcome to your new career! What could be more rewarding than guiding aspiring musicians young and old to experience the same satisfaction that we ourselves find in musical expression?
As an “old” teacher (27 years in the business and counting), I sometimes look back at my early experiences and think, “Ah, if only I had known…”. So when Tim and Sean invited me to write about new teachers, I pondered, “What if I had started out as a new teacher with the ‘old teacher wisdom’ I’ve gained over the years?”
Whether you are a new or old teacher yourself, please read through to the end – that’s where I put my greatest wisdom (and true confession).
Which “new” are you?
New teachers generally fall into two camps:
- Eager, confident, head swimming with innovative ideas to revolutionize the piano teaching world!
- Timid, terrified – “How am I going to communicate the sublime beauty of music with those… children!?”
Well, these may be extremes – most of us tend to blend the two.
However, I was definitely leaning towards camp No. 1.
Who wouldn’t want that? I pictured myself swaggering into the room with all my magnetism, sweeping my students into the love of music with my amazing creative plans. Moreover, after working in the mental health field for a number of years, I was convinced of my ability to see into their little minds.
Most of all, I wasn’t going to put my students through the struggle that I suffered as a young piano student.
It didn’t work out exactly as planned. And I slipped into camp No. 2 more often than I care to admit.
The truth is, the two camps are really the mirror image of each other. Both camps focused my attention on me, the teacher. And successful teaching is all about focusing on the student.
This is understandable – without experience, what does a new teacher have to go on? That’s why I am grateful that I learned early on the importance of getting my face out of the mirror to watch and listen to my students – and to my own intuition.
In fact, even after my years of teaching, every day I learn anew the importance prime importance of listening.
The Musician’s Mindset
Even as a new piano teacher, you are already equipped with this most important skill: you love music, and therefore you love to listen.
As a musician, you live in the intersection of structure and momentary expression. As a classical musician, every note may be “pre-programmed” – yet each living moment brings new opportunities for bringing forth shades of emotional expression.
If you’re an improviser, you may have more freedom in choice of notes in the moment, but you are still grounding your decisions in your knowledge of musical structure.
These structures form the foundation of our ability to make music with others, and with the expression comes the pleasure meaningful musical interaction.
You have this experience, and as a new teacher you have the opportunity to adapt it to your relationships with your students.
See your lessons as a musical experience.
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Your lessons have a set structure. Generally, a set beginning and ending time, review old material, and introduce new material. Regardless of the style of music, you may introduce more structure, as with a classical music piece – or you may be looser, more improvisatory.
This will depend on you – and your students. Some students are going to be much more comfortable and productive with more structure, some will flower more with less.
In addition to the lesson structure, there are larger “movements” in the year echoing the seasons, competitions, festivals, recitals, vacations, holidays… As the “conductor” of the lessons, be mindful of these larger structures.
Remember, this is a music lesson. While we know firsthand how important technique is to providing tools for greater expression, there can be expression all along the journey. Find ways to encourage your students to put some emotion into whatever they’re playing, or set aside part of the lesson for a free piano improv.
The expressive part of your musician’s mindset will factor into your interaction with your students – the way you draw out the shy ones and channel the energy of the exuberant ones. As in any musical ensemble, you will adjust your response to the student you are “playing” with.
“You say you want a revolution?”
What about those amazing ideas you had about how you were going to revolutionize piano teaching?
During my beginning years of teaching, I was finishing my Master’s degree at a major conservatory. I was surrounded by amazing avant-garde free improvisation masters, studying microtonal composition, atonal ear training, and jazz theory.
I was convinced that my mission was to enlighten the masses with the power of tonal gravity to organize the Lydian chromatic universe for the free musical expression of all.
I had plans, exercises – all adapted to be “age appropriate”, and I was itching to implement them in my piano lessons.
My students? They wanted to play “Für Elise”.
Now, to be fair to myself, I did put my passion and my education to good use. For example, my theoretical understandings and experience help me immensely when freely improvising with students, where I am able to wordlessly direct and organize our masses of sound into deeply satisfying musical expressions.
Listening on Three Levels
As musicians – especially polyphonic pianists – we are accustomed to listening to melody, chords, and bass all at one time.
As in music, so in life.
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When you listen to your students (musically, mentally, emotionally), your own intuition, and the families, you will not only find more effective ways of sharing your own ideas, but you will learn new things to teach and new ways of teaching.
1. Listen to your students
Our students are multi-level masterpieces in and of themselves. Remember to listen to them on all levels.
Don’t just dive right in to teach them what you believe they “should” know. The trick is, students are often stuck in what they think they “should” know as well. So how do you get past that?
Here’s one of my favorite icebreakers in action (I do this frequently with young students, but this case was with an adult):
Mia has played piano in the past. Her son took lessons up to level 4, then quit. She comes into her lesson with an armload of his old books, which she believes will be a good starting point.
I grab my handy-dandy magic pencil and wave it wildly in the air. “Let’s say I have a magic pencil and I could wave it at you and you could do or play anything at the piano that you only wished in your wildest dreams you could do. What would you play?”
“What was the first thing you thought of?”
“Can it be something by memory?”
Mia quickly relieves herself of the armload of books with a thud, and launches into a lush chorded arrangement of a beautiful melody. About 20 bars, some stumbles, but lots of passion.
She explains that this is Korean Gospel music, and that she sings in church and at home with her husband. Since she wants to freely express and accompany, I then knew that chording was the best place to start.
It’s always good to assess your student’s physical and emotional state at the beginning of the lesson. You can see if he slouches or she bounds into the room, ask how school was today, make some small talk. You’ll soon know whether to go heavy or light on this lesson’s teaching.
Here’s a good lesson in multi-level listening: I’ve made the mistake of putting all my attention on a student’s fingers on the keys, determinedly focused on working out a problem only to look up and see from the tears of frustration that I had shut out of my “listening” field.
One of the first questions I always ask is, “Do you sing?” Students may not even realize that you can teach them to play and sing their favorite songs. Singing is also a fantastic tool for in-lesson ear training.
2. Listen to your intuition
Relax your mind enough to be able to hear the deeper parts of you. They have a much broader perspective than your conscious mind and your five senses. When you get some crazy idea, try it (within bounds of appropriateness, of course). Introduce it light-heartedly: “Let’s try this and see if it works” – and turn their book upside down.
Many of these flashes of intuition have become staples in my teaching toolbox. For example, many piano students have issues with looking at their fingers instead of at the page when reading music. Usually I hold a book over their fingers so they can’t see them.
This did not work for one of my littler students. She struggled massively and kept trying to peek under the book. So I listened within and heard to ask her to play the passage with her eyes closed – and she rocked it! Once she realized she could play without looking – at anything! – she was much more confident with the idea of keeping her eyes on the score.
This technique has since become a staple in my studio.
3. Listen to their families
Many of our young students are highly influenced by their families and culture. Sensitizing yourself to the family rhythms may point to unexpected musical opportunities.
Does your student’s family go to church? Praise and worship, or traditional? Is there a youth band that you can prepare your student for? Hymns that the family sings at home?
Is dad a metalhead? Is mom a bolero fan? Does sister play guitar and sing (so you could teach brother to play along)?
Sometimes the family situation may seem a little bleak. Mom drags her little boy into his first lesson. “I always loved the piano and wanted to play, but my father wouldn’t pay for lessons. Now I’m hoping junior will love the piano like I did.” Junior feels all the weight and responsibility of mom’s unfulfilled dreams. Your mission? Help junior find the fun in playing the piano for his own fulfillment.
Different strokes for different folks
In truth, each student presents a unique matrix of spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, familial, and cultural levels. While you will develop skills, techniques, and tools that work for a lot of students, everything isn’t going to work with everybody.
My observation is that each student “bundles” their learning differently. Some may take to chords like a fish to water, but struggle with differentiating a quarter from a half note. Some gravitate more to notes, some to finger numbers. The list is endless.
So much of my learning as a teacher has been to look at the sticking places and tease out certain skills into much smaller steps than I ever knew existed – it sometimes feels like splitting the atom.
Spend some time observing the bouquet of aural, kinesthetic, and visual learning presented by the student and approach problems with your imagination and creativity as you untangle them.
Teaching as Learning
This is the greatest key to being a new teacher with old teacher wisdom – and also to being an old teacher with new wisdom!
You don’t have to know everything about what you’re teaching. In fact, in certain cases it might be better if you don’t know much at all! It’s more important to be willing to teach your students how to learn, and to yourself be willing to do the same.
Confession: I started out my career as a flute teacher. I hadn’t really played piano in years. But I couldn’t find enough flute students, so I thought I’d take on some beginning piano students.
I had this crazy idea that I would teach my students to play the music they wanted – in the original. An eight-year-old first-year student wanted to play Moonlight Sonata and I said ok let’s do the original. Confession #2: I had never played it.
Well, we did it. I taught him. And in the process discovered all kinds of ideas and concepts of musical learning – from aural to kinesthetic to theoretical skills – that could comprehend with my head but had not been taught as a young piano student.
The amazing experience to me was that suddenly I could play Moonlight Sonata myself – without having ever practiced it!
Micah went on to complete a piano performance degree and win distinguished prizes. I went on to become… a successful creative piano teacher and performer in my own way.
So, new teachers and old, listen and learn and enjoy the many years of happy growth and joy that await!