I anticipate this post will be read by former piano students and by current piano teachers. All of us were once in piano lessons. Few of us had perfect piano lesson experiences. Rather than repeat the past, let’s take a moment to reflect on your own experiences as a past student, and if you are a teacher, the experiences that your students are currently having with you.
The truth is that many piano students get broken hearts over piano lessons. Teachers are only human and sometimes make mistakes. Here are some thoughts on avoiding broken hearts in your studio.
Five things piano teachers do that break hearts are:
1. Reward only one way of learning
Without reading this section, you’ll likely be able to predict what it’s about. Most piano teachers favour visual students who easily learn to read music. Simply put, it’s easier to teach good readers. Any child who has a good ear for music and somehow cheats the system and learns music without reading it quickly learns that they aren’t as good at ‘piano lessons’ as the good readers.
What has happened in countless cases is that the teacher is unable to crack the code of how to teach auditory learners (the students whose brains are pre-wired to learn through sounds). Because the teacher is at a loss for how to teach them to read, those students feel disappointed and inadequate and often prematurely quit.
The students who typically last are the ones who read well. In time, once their skills and level of playing advance, these visual learners find themselves in performance situations that value a different skillset — memorization. Nothing they’ve done so far in piano lessons has prepared them for this. It only takes a couple of memory slips in performance for these students to become shaken and full of self-doubt. Having had their strength over-valued for so long, these students get heartbroken, as well.
The ironic thing is this: it’s very likely that if the auditory students had been nurtured all along, they would eventually have been the ones who excelled at memorizing large performance pieces. I’ve heard from so many concert pianists that they feel they are better with their ear than with reading music.
As a child, Beethoven was chastised by his father for memorizing too soon and not playing from the notes. The child Beethoven was a classic auditory learner. In our modern day, how many kids who may have the talent of Beethoven quit too soon? If you’re a piano teacher reading this:
Would you recognize a Beethoven if you were teaching him? How would he fare in your studio?
The way for teachers to avoid breaking students’ hearts this way is to educate yourself on how to teach all students to learn to read, all students to learn by ear, and all students to memorize…from the beginning stages of lessons.
Auditory students simply need a different approach to reading. They need patience and understanding that it will take them longer. Visual students need to be challenged from the start to learn effective ways of memorizing and learning by ear. It’s only fair for all students to be rewarded for what they do well and challenged to learn outside their comfort zone.
2. Yell or play condescending mind games
When my grandmother was in piano lessons at a Catholic girl’s boarding school in the 1910s, any mistake was punctuated by a ruler over the tops of her hands. When she witnessed my siblings practicing in the 1960s, if she heard a mistake, she’d seethe in her French accent (with a rolled R), “Why don’t you wrrrrrap his knuckles?”
Let’s hope things have changed overall in the past 100 years. But in some cases, teachers still play strange, hurtful games with students, or yell. It seems to happen with the top tier of teachers, concert pianists who are teaching the highest calibre of student.
It need not be said that this behaviour is abusive and not acceptable. If a teacher cannot use intelligence to communicate ideas or words of inspiration, they’re not much of a mentor.
If you are a teacher and recognize this in yourself, find a psychologist who will help you with anger management and communication skills.
If you are a student who finds yourself in lessons with this kind of teacher and you’re in tears too often over lessons, kindly inform your teacher why you cannot continue with them. Maybe if enough students do this, these teachers will realize this approach doesn’t fly these days. You’ve come too far in piano to have your musical heart broken by someone whose communication skills are so ill-developed. The problem is theirs, not yours. Walk away.
3. Compare the student to other students
Possibly the worst way to motivate someone is to hold them up to someone else’s standard. This can be done in the lesson in passing, “My student Sally learned this in five minutes, let’s see what you can do.” Or, it can be done with a studio-wide incentive or competition.
You might hope that races, games, wall boards showing everyone’s progress, and contests that pit students against each other would be fun, but in reality it benefits only some students. Others are left extremely stressed or just discouraged.
I once held a year-long incentive with composer bucks (play money). Students earned different amounts of money for accomplishing different things. The end prize was a small scholarship for the following year of lessons. It sounded like fun in theory. My hope was that everyone would work harder.
But when it came right down to it, the top two kids took it way too seriously and it detracted from their piano lesson experience. They both got so stressed. In the end, they were only about $10 apart (so, nearly a tie), but I awarded the prize to only one. The other student had worked just as hard, so when she didn’t win, I feel her heart was broken.
It isn’t worth it to ever compare one student with another. Never mention other students in a student’s lesson.
Each student should have client privilege with you. What they do in their lessons is between the two of you only.
Incentives are fine as long as the student is working on their own, beating their own best, or just for their own progress. There is no need to break hearts over comparisons.
4. Photocopy music
Several times in every piano teacher’s career they come across a student who has an unusual talent for composing music. Piano teachers teach these young musicians many things about the music world.
First, you are teaching this young composer (and all of your other students), to respect you as a teacher. You are teaching them that a teaching musician deserves to be paid fairly for their expertise and work.
If you turn around and give that same student a photocopy, and they see you giving photocopies to all of your other students, the thing you are teaching them about your fellow musician composers and publishers is that they are not quite as deserving of pay for expertise or work.
In fact, you’re breaking the young composer’s heart inside of your student, because they will secretly question (whether they tell you or not) whether it is worth it for them to pursue what they truly want to do — composition.
As a composer myself, and as a former student who had my musical heart broken by teachers who gave me photocopies, I’ve wondered why intelligent musicians stoop to doing this when they know it’s wrong. My current theory goes like this:
Teachers who photocopy music secretly feel guilty about how much they are charging for piano lessons, so they “do their students a favour” by saving them money on books by photocopying.
First, no musician should feel guilty about the price they charge. Typically women’s work is undervalued and women are underpaid. The music teaching industry is highly represented by female teachers, and women have a difficult time believing that they are fully worth what they are charging. Let me dispel that myth right now — you ARE worth the price you are charging, and possibly more.
Furthermore, a quality studio uses quality materials. Every sport or activity involves pay for the coaching or teaching plus the gear. Buying materials is simply part of the package, and parents can afford it! If they can’t, maybe grandparents can help out.
Photocopying is a clear message to your very talented creative students that the thing they most want to do — compose — is so undervalued that perhaps they shouldn’t even bother. Do you really want to break a young composer’s heart?
5. End it over a one-time dispute with parents
Lately I’ve been blessed with parents I can easily get along with. But over the years I’ve been reading about puzzling experiences of fellow teachers who post online about difficulties with some piano parents.
In each case I feel true sympathy for the teacher. One difficult parent can truly ruin things. But lately I’ve been feeling a bit of sympathy for the child of that difficult parent.
I cannot rightly expect any teacher to continue working with a difficult or demanding parent. And I do understand when teachers let students go when situations become ridiculous.
However, in some cases you might truly like the student. Maybe the student is working hard and loves music. Perhaps you are one of the only sane adults in the student’s life. To end lessons with this kind of student because their parent is acting weird might actually break their heart. Maybe they need you.
There’s not much more I can say on this point except that the relationship with the student matters. Maybe you could be a good influence and make a difference.
This has been a bit of an emotional post for me to write, and I hope you have survived it. Self-reflection is a necessary part of teaching. At one time or another I have personally failed at most or all of these points.* But I reflected on my actions and reinvented my approach to teaching.
If you recognize any of these heartbreaking things in yourself, there’s always time to mend broken hearts.
*With the exception of hitting or yelling.
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Video of the week
Over the Moon (Level 5), is a gorgeous Intermediate piano solo. There’s no question that Beethoven is a huge motivator for piano students. I took his original Moonlight Sonata (mvt. I) as “found object” art and turned it into a new piece. This gives younger performers a chance to play, not an arrangement, but a quality piece that evokes the original. It is called “Over the Moon” because the LH plays the bass notes as well as the high melody notes, going over the RH. Take a listen!