How Motherhood changed the way I teach piano (Piano Teacher Confessions)

It’s a tale of two teachers.

Beginner-teacher-me and post-children-teacher-me. I almost pity my first students, poor little things.

Piano students are children, not just piano students. Children. Not future piano teachers, not future performers, not future professional musicians. Children. Today.

Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

I realize that our job as piano teachers is to teach piano, and to teach music skills. We are professionals and we’re all striving to give the best of our professional selves to our students.

But…

Have you ever visited a doctor who knew everything about medicine and the science of human anatomy, and yet didn’t know a thing about how to just be in the room with you and understand what you needed in that moment? I’ll bet anything that that doctor hadn’t experienced much real life yet. So much changes in a physician’s approach with patients after losing a loved one to cancer, losing a parent, or major personal illnesses; in short, after living a little real life.

In my piano teaching journey, so much has changed in my approach with piano students since motherhood helped me understand children from a more personal viewpoint. I feel I’ve learned intangible skills that have changed everything about the way I teach.

I started my piano business like any young person, with gusto. I was younger than all of my piano parents, and I’m sure they thought my youth would appeal to their children. Here was a young, imaginative, energetic piano teacher! Some of my transfer students were almost my age. They were in late high school and I was freshly graduated from university and 21 years old.

As I’m writing this post I’ve been teaching for…muffled voice/fudged numbers…years and I’m in the middle of raising three children. There’s nothing like experiencing the ‘home side’ of things and making mistakes with your own kids to put everything in perspective: what’s important and what’s not, for my piano students.

I’m more patient

All good things take time. The development of good posture takes time. A beautiful piano hand takes time. The child’s own desire to want to make music (apart from their parent’s desire for them to make music) often takes time. Learning to read music, learning technique, learning the basics of theory and harmony and different musical styles — all this takes time.

I used to get impatient with students. If I taught them one week how to relax their hand and they came back to the following lesson with poor hand shape, collapsed palm bridge, pinky fingers sticking up, thumbs hanging off the edges of the keys, I’d think, “But I corrected this last week! Why do I need to correct the same thing again this week? This child wasn’t listening at all.”

My own children taught me that kids are too busy being kids to hear that kind of instruction once and assimilate it like some kind of Matrix program that uploads instantly.

Here is Instant Piano Hand. Ziiiiiip. Got it. What’s next?

Here are the notes for the Middle Two Piano Octaves and where to play them and intervals and sign post notes. Ziiiiiiiip. Got it. Next?

Nope. Now I understand that teaching and learning are a process, a gradual exchange. It takes some kids years to develop an overall relaxed, poised, technically functional and beautiful approach to playing the piano. I notice my new students’ awkward little hands and reshape them weekly. “Oops! What’s your thumb doing there?” I’ll cheerfully chime in. Cheerfully. Every. Single. Time. Does it get tiresome to remind the same person of the same thing week after week? No. Because they are a human being on a journey on this earth and the piano hand I am now teaching them is only one tiny element of their whole entire real life.

Patience with the child fills our lessons with a calm, cooperative atmosphere. Everyone wants a doctor with a good bedside manner. Motherhood reinvented my ‘pianoside’ manner.

My little son tried to fit his hand over the tracing of a student’s hand one year when we had a fun learning incentive.

I care more…

Before raising my own children, all I wanted for my piano students was for them to learn what I taught them. To practice the number of days I told them to, to complete their theory assignments diligently, to learn to tell intervals apart by ear and learn to read well and play expressively and to have all the skills lined up in a row to 1) prove that I was doing a good job as a teacher and 2) in case they were ever a professional musician in the future, to give them the best foundation that I could.

All noble intentions.

But I was treating my students like little empty containers. Here was someone empty of music, and it was my job to fill them up.

I believe it was Frances Clark who pointed out the hierarchy of the importance of what we teach: teach the child first, music second and piano third. Only after raising my own children and making big mistakes am I able to fully grasp the meaning of this wisdom.

As a younger piano mom I still saw my own biological children as little empty containers. I went to ridiculous lengths to make them practice the number of days they were told, to teach them self-discipline with practicing repeats and fixing mistakes and striving to play everything exactly perfectly every single time. After all, if they left wrong notes or articulations unattended then –gasp– it might mess them up in performance. I expected my children to practice before they did anything else. I fixed things mid-week between lessons because I thought I was helping. I knew what piano teachers expected and by golly, my own children were going to live up to that. It may sound obnoxious, but I genuinely felt I was doing the best thing for my children.

How do you spell regret? Irreversible? No do-overs? Yes, I have big regrets about my older kids’ piano years. Things are better now for my youngest child (and my piano students) because I’ve learned from my earlier mistakes.

So much has changed. Now I care more. Some days kids are tired. Overwhelmed. Having difficulty with regular life (if you get what I mean). At times the best thing for the child is for the adult to realize they have needs that are bigger than just fulfilling goals. Sometimes the child just needs a little rest and understanding, and if that is granted graciously, in time they’ll have the energy to jump back into practicing.

Some kids have true logistical barriers to reaching certain goals. They spend their weeks divided between mom’s house and dad’s house (and usually their dad doesn’t have a piano). Kids are dealing with so much real life and now, rather than holding everyone to one single arbitrary ‘piano teacher’s’ standard, I see a larger picture. I’m just glad they can find any time at all to make music. In short, I now see each student as a whole person, not just a piano student. When a person becomes real to you, you care more.

…But I also take everything less personally.

Sometimes my students don’t reach their practice goal. Sometimes a student has a bad week and can’t practice. Or a bad month. Or a bad year. When progress slows or stops, is this a sign that the student is no longer right for music-making?

Or, should they choose to stop lessons altogether, have they failed?

Or, if a student puts something else above piano, should that irk me? Should I expect every one of my students to put piano first? Should I say proudly that I will only teach students who can practice X hours a day and X days a week?

It used to upset me when students came unprepared (even though it was usually a rare occurrence).

Over the years I’ve seen students stop lessons then start again. I’ve seen adults come to me after years away from formal lessons. I’ve seen kids who started with other teachers at the age of four, and because they weren’t old enough to practice diligently the parent decided that piano lessons weren’t right for them (at the age of four), so they never tried piano lessons again. I’ve seen just about every scenario.

What I’ve learned is that I can use my knowledge, skills and intuition to teach a student where they are right now, but then it’s up to them to run with it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t…but it doesn’t hinge on me and I don’t take it personally anymore. They are on their own journey and I’m grateful for the chance to be part of it. With this attitude, I’m so much more relaxed.

There’s so much more joy in my studio. If a student hasn’t been able to practice, all they’ll get from me now is compassion, empathy and understanding that it was a bad week. My message will be, “I realize this isn’t your best and I hope things go better for you in the coming week because I know how much you love these pieces and want to get back to them.” No disappointment. No reprimands. Just moving on to the best lesson we can have to prepare them for a better week ahead.

Joy surpasses discipline

My own older children were disciplined (or, I tried to ingrain personal discipline in them). Piano practice was like a job. I wanted my students and children to be responsible and to do their work. Progress was their due reward.

This approach failed miserably. Sure, my daughter won her classes at our local music festival and was chosen to play in the Stars of the Festival concert. She played every nuance she’d been told to play. But then the entire experience was so negative and demanding (read: the pressure I put on her at home as a piano mom), that she stopped playing altogether. Such a shame. She was (is) so musical, and when she describes to me what she remembers of her piano lesson experience, she tears up knowing that she lost the thing she should have loved because it was muddled with too many expectations.

Have you ever gone through a near-fatal experience with someone you love? And after that, all other problems you used to think were problems no longer seem like problems at all and you wonder how you ever worried about them?

That’s precisely my experience after my daughter quit piano. It felt like a death to me. After that I would do anything for any child to keep their experience positive. Discipline isn’t worth the loss of joy.

Now, I’ll take a joyful student over a disciplined one any day. Ideally a little of both, but joy is the whole point! People say, “Study music. You’ll be better at math, you’ll do better on your SATs, you’ll have a better brain.” Yes. All this has been scientifically proven to be true. But my message has changed!

Music gives you JOY!

Couldn’t we all use a little more joy?

Since my daughter quit, no piano lesson problem seems like a problem at all. I fret about nothing. If the child is still in lessons, the game is still on. Bad fingering? I can handle that, joyfully. Uneven playing? Got it, joyfully. Spot we try to fix repeatedly. Done. Joyfully. Trouble with reading? I’m on it, happily.

My own joy and lack of worry has transformed the atmosphere in my studio. And guess what? My students are doing better than ever before! I never talk about discipline! They want to play the piano! They literally play the piano. Play. Play is a child’s most important work. And whatever preparation they bring to the lesson, I want them to feel like a success and that they belong with music.

That’s why I chose for my blog’s name: Piano at Play. I want to keep the playfulness and joy in my own practicing, composing and teaching, and pass this joy on like a legacy to my students and anyone who comes in contact with me musically through my blog, compositions or on social media. There’s no need to worry. Music is for everyone and everyone can experience the journey in their own way.

If things are a little messy for a while, that’s okay. It’s all part of a longer life arc and if the child just stays in lessons and feels good about music, someday the light will dawn anew and they will make up their own minds that they want this. They may be 15, 35 or 70 when they come to the realization. All it takes is a continued positive, joyful experience with music. I gladly volunteer to be that kind of piano teacher. It’s about planting little seeds of musical joy right now that will bloom in their own time.

The alternative is grim, folks. Don’t go there. It isn’t worth it. I’m not sure my teenaged daughter will ever find her way back to the piano. In the arc of another person’s lifelong experience of music, you don’t want to be the person who pulled the plug.

My voice is more expressive.

Kids just need to hear how well they’re doing. Period.

Early in my career, I was hesitant to say too much about what I liked, worried that a child might slack off and think they didn’t have to work or improve.

I focused on the “more” side of things. That passage could be more forte, that phrase could be more legato, that needs more this or that. As a diligent piano teacher, I caught all the spots. Then I was disappointed if a student didn’t hit all the targets. Nowadays I still teach to a high standard, but I now go about it the other way around.

I praise good work. I give high-fives. When a child has done something tricky, I’ll say very sincerely, “Wow! You nailed that! High-five!” I never hesitate to tell a child they are musical, that a little composition is pretty, or that they are talented. The word “talented” has gone out of fashion lately, but now with so many activities for kids to choose from, they need to hear that they are connecting with music, that their practice is getting them somewhere. “Talented” doesn’t let them off the hook to practice. On the contrary, it signals a personal requirement for them to invest in themselves. (Then, I don’t take it personally. It’s up to them to run with it.)

My voice and responses are the speaking equivalent of very musical phrases — expressive. I reach out more with my feedback, knowing this could make a difference, or tip the balance for someone unsure about their place with music.

This happened recently in a music festival I was adjudicating. At the masterclass there were five teenaged students playing at conservatory Levels 7-8. Their playing had impressed me so much throughout the festival that at one point in the masterclass, I stopped and addressed the group. “Your playing is all so very musical, I hope some of you are planning to go into music. What the world needs is more good teachers and performers.” Later, in the festival wrap-up meeting, one of the directors told me that some of the girls had been on the edge of discontinuing piano because it was such a big time commitment for them, but that my words had made a difference and now they were going to continue.

As teachers we have no idea how much our sincere words can influence our students. Remember to give a positive word. Make a difference.

Now I believe parents are trying their best.

In the past (before I had children of my own), I thought parents were walking disasters. They sometimes paid late, their children sometimes arrived late, sometimes their kids didn’t have all of their piano books (or any piano books). I had policies and gave reminders about those policies that were borderline rude, because why couldn’t they just get it? Policies were policies. I needed to protect myself from people who might ask me to give more than I had signed up to give.

Now that I’ve been a piano mom, and a mom who takes my kids to anything (medical appointments, practices, lessons), I’ve seen the other side. My child has been late occasionally (getting everyone out the door and into the car and driving is a huge hassle). We’ve forgotten music books (sometimes they’re in such random places!). In the mental haze of utter exhaustion, I’ve occasionally paid late. At times my child has gone a week or two without practicing (sometimes we’re busy with other priorities, especially with five people in the house).

Actually being a parent has helped me to relax a little bit about other parents. I certainly still have policies, but they are in place to allow everyone a chance to be successful. Sure, some things still bug me, but do I let those things fester and annoy me for long? Nope. Life is too short. I’ve learned to stop and breathe and imagine myself in their place. Maybe they aren’t having the best day or week. Maybe I should check in and see if everything is okay first, make sure they are fine, then ask if they are aware of this certain thing that I need to remind them of. Always on the phone, never in an email or text, so they can hear in my tone of voice that I want everything to turn out okay.

Motherhood helped me handle no-shows very differently. Now when I’m ten minutes into a lesson and the child isn’t here, I’ll email or call the parent. In the past my internal reaction was one of annoyance (how could they expect me to make up missed time if they simply didn’t show up without a good reason?). Now my initial feeling is one of concern. I let the parent know their child isn’t here and check to make sure everything is okay. The first priority is the child’s safety.

And speaking of safety, I make sure there is always a safe waiting area where my students can wait before and after their lessons. When you are teaching minors, you must be very careful to protect the wellbeing of the children.

I’m not the only one…

I asked other teachers how motherhood had influenced their teaching philosophies on the Facebook group, Piano Teacher Canada, and in Messenger conversations.

One of my favourite responses was from Linnea Olcott, who said, “Yes—motherhood made me a kinder teacher. The students became more important than their progress or the music. I am more sympathetic to their schedules, pressures, and workloads; consequently, I structure my recital dates and my workload expectations around their lives (i.e. prom, finals, etc.). I spend more time listening to them. I have found this makes them work harder for me. They learn well—there is a mutual respect. I realized that my job as a teacher is to teach them what they desire to learn, not necessarily what I want for them. When a student leaves my studio to pursue another instrument or be a percussionist in the high school band I count that as a victory. We were able to work together to help them achieve what they wanted. I have plenty of students—as many as I want, and I also have former students sprinkling my community’s music programs and when I am at the school for anything they welcome me with a smile and visit a few minutes about what they’re doing. I have a son with learning disabilities-this made me a better teacher too. I am more focused on strategies to support success rather than just the success. On the other hand, all this interaction with other students also has made me a better mother. I love this Zig Ziegler quote: “We get what we want when we help others get what they want.” This is how motherhood and teaching have been for me. When I’m focused on helping students and my own children get what they want I learn and grow and become a better teacher and mother. Does any of that make sense?”

Yes, it makes perfect sense.

If you have any thoughts to share on this subject, please share in the comments below. How has motherhood influenced your teaching style? Or, has teaching had an impact on your approach as a mother?

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!

Have you seen this post on boosting 2nd and 4th intervals with appealing and effective lesson warm-ups?

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3 thoughts on “How Motherhood changed the way I teach piano (Piano Teacher Confessions)

Add yours

  1. Wow, what a well thought out article. I had never looked at it from this perspective. I do feel that I was a patient teacher who praised her students with even small accomplishments but I probably could have done even more. Many of my former students are also music teachers now – something I’m very proud of. I am now retired and I do miss teaching but sometimes life brings on other challenges that don’t allow you to continue to do what you love. Thank you Rebekkah for writing this wonderful article.

    Liked by 1 person

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