Monday, October 27, 2008

#52 Understand your student's needs.

I've had students cry in the middle of their lesson in the past year. Usually I regard that as a complete failure on my part. It usually comes from applying too much pressure on students who are not aiming at being professional musicians. I've come to expect a certain level from my college students, the ones that want to make a living as musicians. Sometimes, when one of my other, younger, students starts slacking off, I have a hard time changing gears and treat them as I would treat a career musician (especially when their lessons are right next to each other). I yell and I mock them until they crack and then, I feel like dirt.

If you have a student that is generally responsible and respectful, but isn't looking for a professional career, what is the use in getting angry, and making him feel bad? It took me a while to come to that conclusion, but once made, it puts a lot of things into perspective. As a teacher, I can only have a couple of students break down and cry in the middle of a lesson before I have to stop and try and figure out what I'm doing wrong.

If a teacher is not willing to work at anything less than professional level, then he should not take other kinds of students and expect them to work at that level all the time.

I had to go back and think about each student's situation; why is he studying with me? is someone else making him do it? what does he expect from the class? how much time does he reasonably dedicate to the piano?

You can't go into each lesson and act like one of those old-school Russian teachers, throwing tantrums and smashing furniture into the walls; expecting everything to be absolutely perfect and every single student practicing eight hours a day. There are moments when that kind of attitude might be justified--- maybe if one of the more professional students is getting lazy with absolutely no good reason--- but for the most part, it is a lazy way to teach, because there is no actual teaching going on. Just bullying.

Even so, bullying works to some extent. If you doubt that, just look at Cuba or the level of piano playing that came out of communist Russia. There were some amazing musicians teaching there but, as a few of my teachers used to say--- a couple of them a product of the Neuhaus era Moscow Conservatory--- a big part of the success of the "Russian school" of piano from back then was more the result of coercion and an extremely oppressive environment than of any specific kind of technique.

In short, if you take students that are not going to grow up to be professional musicians, make sure you adapt. I'm not saying that you should dumb things down, but when they don't study as much as a career musician would, it at least shouldn't surprise you.


  1. Since I don't teach on the college level yet, I cannot comment on the comparison of that - but I have taken college level piano lessons and would expect that to have a few bad days would mean that the teacher is very good and expects the best (of each particular student).

    My 'forte' is younger students and a few intermediate students. I come from a philosophy that excellence comes from joy of learning and that is self-motivated after a while. When a teacher plays something (and not just a few bars) that can be very motivating. So...I try to practice my students pieces as well as my own and then, if they cannot understand a passage, sit down and play it as i hear it. Somehow, this helped me - and it solves the problem of 'what to do' when not enough work has been completed for a full lesson. I also start right into some theory after going as far as we can with the repertoire. I figure they won't forget to practice next time because I always have something for them to do.

    Girls tend to be the ones to cry, don't you think? I've never heard or seen very many guys coming out of a lesson - sobbing. However, I did have one eight year old many years ago who's mother might have threatened her if she had not practiced (and the mom was in the kitchen) - who started crying when she couldn't get something right. She said she had practiced - so it might have been nerves - but i told her some days go well and others don't. If a student starts crying - just keep talking and reassurring them - and then they'll finally stop. I just picked some random thing and started talking about it - pretending that whatever it was - wasn't THAT important. Probably something about how nobody ever really plays perfectly anyways.

  2. In my case, I usually try to go on as if nothing is happening, but since part of the solution involves me calming down as well as the student, I usually just let them go get themselves together and continue the lesson where we left off at another time.

  3. You seem to give the impression that you would 'push' more with students that are looking at becoming proffessionals. I have some friends in college who tell me that there are students that are looking at just getting the degree and then there are others that are looking at careers, the latter group are often the ones that get the 'pushy' treatment, their lessons are also often higher in quality.

    It still makes me question though, how do you know if a person is going to be a concert artist? What if a person has that goal but finds something else? What if a person isn't looking at that for that as a career but then makes the decision later? I have heard of countless stories where people pursue their degrees in other areas (science, literature, etc) then they take a detour and audition for a competition and realise that that is their dream all along.There are others that get distinctions and fellowship diplomas with more than enough talent and ablity who decide that they don't want to do it. One of my teachers (who is a performer) said that we never make that decision we just realise we can do it and we'd love to do it for the rest of our lives.

    I get this 'pushy' treatment, get yelled at, screamed at, told off by and then by the end of the lessons I get this: "I didn't do it to pick on you, I know you can pass with flying colours, that's why I push you, I'm not doing it to be brutal, that's just cruel" I know its just so I can push past my own technical limits and boundaries although I don't think it has anything to do with want to be a proffessional.

    So the question is posed ... how can you be so sure?

  4. It's not so much about whether the student will actually become a practicing professional. You should always do what is possible so that every student does the absolute best they can at any given moment.

    Some students's "best" is on a much higher level than others. Some students are also a lot more dedicated to the diligent practice of their instrument. These are the ones I think one should push the most as a teacher, not because we want them to be professional musicians, but because not letting them realise their potential is to do them an injustice.