I’m not the same piano teacher I was 20 years ago. After two decades of teaching, I have learned many valuable lessons. You might be surprised to know that I didn’t learn any of them by reading a book or taking a class.
The principles I’m about to share with you are most often acquired through experience. In some cases, I arrived at them painfully, by making mistakes and learning from them.
One thing is for sure, they have been proven over time and I can confidently tell you that they have worked for me and countless other piano teachers. Hopefully, if you haven’t already, you will consider implementing them into your teaching as well.
Here are 5 mistakes rookie teachers often make and some advice for what to do instead.
1. You spend your time teaching your students how to play without ever teaching them how to practice.
A wise man once told me, “Never assume.” Sometimes, as piano teachers, we assume that our students know how to practice. We conclude that if they don’t know how to practice, their parents can make sure they are developing skills to learn their music.
Unfortunately, in many cases, neither of these are true. Years ago, people learned the basics in music by playing an instrument in the school band or singing from the hymnbook in church.
In the last couple of decades, some schools have cut their music programs due to budget constraints leaving fewer kids who are getting a good musical education. Most churches have traded hymnbooks for video projectors and screens.
All of this has left kids and parents who are musically illiterate. Neither have the knowledge or experience from which to draw.
Because of all this, it’s important that we as teachers are intentional about educating our students about how to practice. I tell my students that one day I will not be there to help them. This is why I choose to teach them how to help themselves.
If you’re interested in knowing what I tell them, read one of my recent posts called How to Help Your Child Get the Most Out of Piano Lessons.
Pianists who know how to practice not only perform well but equip themselves with the tools to learn music in an efficient and thorough way.
2. You believe that teaching piano is limited to teaching piano.
Let me explain what I mean by this. I love talking to musicians about their past experiences. Inevitably, we talk about the people they studied with and the impact they had on them.
As I think back on these conversations, I don’t ever remember someone saying that they loved a certain teacher because they helped them strengthen their left hand or taught them their scales.
In many cases, pianists have told me that their teachers impacted their lives far beyond what they taught them about the piano.
One of the more prominent stories about this comes from those who have studied the piano with Phil Cohen. Cohen served as a music professor for 50 years at Concordia University.
He is best known by outsiders as the one who built the music department from the ground up, created a graduate diploma in performance, and, with psychologist Norman Segalowitz, co-founded the Leonardo Project, an interdisciplinary inquiry into the nature of musical performance.
Cohen, who is now 90 years-old and has been teaching for 70 years, impacted his students on many different levels. One student named Fenster, a concert pianist, was 11 years-old when she first started studying with Cohen.
“He was someone I could talk to. It wasn’t only piano, it was always a friendship. He had respect for everyone.” Fenster had vision problems that affected her balance and her ability to read. “He understood how to work with that. It’s not about technique but about how you use your body to do music in a musical way.”
Composer-pianist, Peter Manning Robinson, also had physical problems. Like Fenster and others, he traveled from out of town to see his teacher. “Quite simply, Phil Cohen saved my life,” he says.
“By the time I was in my mid-20s I had developed a severe case of tendonitis in both wrists, so painful I could only play for two minutes at a time and had to stop touring.” Told that he would have to unlearn everything he knew about music, Robinson took up the challenge.
“Phil taught me a very unconventional approach, using an extremely flat wrist, sitting very low in the chair, martial arts postures, and utilizing standing, kneeling, hands upside-down, cross-handed, and many other techniques to avoid my original injury.”
You can make a difference
Whether you realize it or not, if you teach piano (or anything else for that matter), you are impacting your students far beyond what you teach them about the piano. For some, you may be the only one that affirms them. You may be teaching them how to solve problems or what a positive outlook on life can do for you.
Your job is not just to teach piano lessons!
3. You take the same teaching approach with every one of your students.
I think it goes without saying that we are all unique. Anyone who has multiple children can attest to this. I have 3 children and my 2 boys who are just 3 years apart couldn’t be any more different.
My oldest, Zachary, took piano lessons for 4 years. After studying the piano this long with excellent teachers, Zachary couldn’t tell me the name of the notes on the staff.
By the way, he is a straight-A student in high school and is applying to colleges to be a commercial airline pilot. What I’m trying to say is that he’s a pretty smart kid.
So why does he have a mental block to learning the notes? I believe much of it has to do with the fact that he can play the piano by ear. This is a strength but it’s also a weakness.
If I could somehow go back to those early years in his life, I would have most likely found a teacher that teaches the Suzuki Method. This method puts a heavy emphasis on playing by ear when first learning an instrument. I think he would have flourished in this.
Trevor, who is 3 years younger, also had piano lessons for 3 or 4 years. Unlike his brother, Trevor can tell you the notes on the staff and he knows a good amount of music theory for his age.
While he doesn’t play the piano anymore, he was able to play percussion in his school band for 3 years because he had a good foundation in piano. The traditional approach to teaching the piano worked well for Trevor.
It’s important that we take a step back and try to understand how each of our students learns. Once we know this, we can tailor our teaching to them so that they get the most out of their piano lessons.
4. You refuse to teach anyone that is over 40 because you believe that older people can’t learn to play the piano well.
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This is a cute little phrase but it’s not completely true. As technological advances cause human beings to live longer, people are trying new things at older ages.
According to Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist (an ENT doctor), there are few things that stimulate the brain the way music does.” “If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the aging process, listening to or playing music is a great tool. It provides a total brain workout.
Research has shown that listening to music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness, and memory.”
Sometimes we discount the ability of older people to learn new things because it seems to take a longer time. Compare a 5-year-old boy who learns a second language in his home to someone who is 60 and moves to a country where their native language is not spoken.
The 5-year-old is going to pick up the language more quickly, but this doesn’t mean it’s impossible for the 60-year-old to learn to speak it.
In a recent post called 3 Ways Adult Piano Students Get the Most Out of Lessons, I outlined the difference between the brain of an adult and the brain of a child.
While our brains are different and learning comes slower to older adults, it still is possible for adults to learn to play the piano. Let’s face it, most adults who start the piano at an older age are looking for something new to learn.
Learning new things often brings joy to our lives. A younger student will learn more quickly, but an older student will appreciate what it takes to play the piano well. Two completely different perspectives!
5. You try to motivate your students by showing them how talented you are.
Show me someone who has played the piano many years and I will show you a person who genuinely loves to play. How do I know this?
I know this because learning how to play an instrument has its ups and downs. When I was in high school, I entered a talent contest for piano at a state level.
I arranged a hymn called How Great Thou Art. It was filled with runs, arpeggios and key changes. I had no doubt that it would sound impressive to anyone who heard it.
Sometime soon before the contest, my dad who was a music director at our church, asked me if I wanted to play it during one of the Sunday morning services. I immediately said yes!
Something I will never forget
Soon enough, that day came. I was a bit nervous but excited as well. As I started to play the piece everything was going smoothly. The music was building and I could tell people were engaged as I played.
For whatever reason, about 60% into the piece I started losing my bearings. I couldn’t remember the chords to the modulation I had worked out. Instead of stopping dead, I just kept playing until somehow I landed in another key and finished the piece out.
I remember everyone clapping at the end. I felt my face flush and I quickly exited the building. Suffice it to say, I was ready to never touch a piano again.
Thankfully, a few wise adults found me outside and we talked about it. Through their encouragement, I played the piece for the competition and was asked to move on to the next level.
If I didn’t really love to play, I would most likely have quit. Thankfully, my love for playing overcame my embarrassing moment. I share this story at times with my students to help them know that everyone messes up at times.
It should never be our ability alone that becomes our greatest motivation. Why? Because we all will have times just like I had where our ability falls short. That’s when we need to remember how much joy playing brings to our life.
Learn from your mistakes
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am a different teacher now than I was 20 years ago. I have learned a lot from my life experience and I have no doubt that I will continue to learn things as long as I keep an open mind.
I encourage you to do the same. Life has a way of teaching us valuable lessons, most of which can only be learned by going through the school of hard knocks!
Don’t be discouraged by your failures. Learn from them and become a better teacher.
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