Teaching seems to demand flexibility in us. Extreme flexibility; sometime it seems like super-human flexibility. I’ve been teaching for some time now, and have survived… maybe even prevailed. That extreme flexibility is still a challenge.
Piano teachers are perhaps unique, in that we meet our “class” often on an individual basis. It is we, the teachers, that have to meet our students… their personalities, their moods, their intellects… and lead them to something new. Some days it seems as if the gears were almost stripped!
I remember once being asked what ages I teach. “My youngest is six, and my oldest eighty-two”, was the response. What merely seems amusing to the questioner is actually the heart of my profession. I don’t teach piano, I teach people. And it’s not about how well I teach, but about how well my students learn.
Yesterday, the beginning week of my winter term, I taught a first lesson to a little girl, five years old. She’s very bright, reads and speaks on the level of, perhaps, a second-grade student. It was no trouble to engage this bright, young mind. She was able to participate in, and lead her lesson, and I merely grabbed hold of my seat and enjoyed the ride.
Part of the fun is in learning how to speak to each new student. In pursuing this, I like to have each student read a few directions from their method book. “Circle a character at the bottom of the page each time you play this song.” CHARACTER! A flawless reading from a five-year-old! One doesn’t talk down to a child that is that impressive. But good teachers always remember that, no matter how precocious, a kindergartener is a child, too.
I always like to watch for two things with a new student: First, what are they like at the conclusion of the first lesson. My little prodigy was calm, and engaged through the entire lesson; when she finished, she was “pumped”. She could hardly focus on finding her shoes, and when she did, she was out the door, leaving her mom to wonder where she went. The second thing I will watch for, next week, and in the ensuing weeks, will be how she approaches my studio. I expect that she will run ahead of her mother, and bounce into my house.
Yesterday, I also taught a last lesson to another young lady. I think she was more than ready to leave piano behind. I think the two of us got along well, but piano brought her no joy. She was an exacting girl, and could never handle the constant frustrations of learning to play the piano. Piano practice can be brutal; it’s an almost endless succession of self-criticism, if done properly. That is sometimes my “downfall”, because I teach my students how to practice, how to criticize their playing, and how to solve their practice problems. For this girl, who almost always came well prepared for her lessons, the joy of conquering her mistakes was not enough to override her exasperation and frustration at constantly having to criticize herself.
I once told a parent that, for some students, I would be the worst teacher in the world. He was taken aback at that; he had been one of my “cheerleaders”, referring me to countless other families. A psychologist by profession, he was curious how I could be a “worst teacher” for anyone. I explained to him that I was most interested in the PROCESS of practicing. I work hardest in every lesson to help students analyze what is wrong when they are having difficulties. We work to link a process of solution to every problem. We work, tirelessly, on the process of practicing.
I told the psychologist that I believe that for most individuals the discovery that they have the power to overcome their problems is compelling. Learning to practice is a discovery that we can control our destiny. This, added to the ultimate thrill of making music, and expressing ones self, sums up the joy of playing the piano. However, not everyone wants to invest the time in self-criticism, even if they know that they can overcome their problems. I think that for certain students, realizing that they know how to practice, that they have been taught what to do, and how to approach their music, makes piano lessons a worse experience for them. If they have decided that they don’t want to work that hard, they will begin to hate the thought of approaching the piano.
I don’t always know exactly why a student finds no joy in playing the piano. For me, it has always been a joy. Maybe this is one of the lessons I have yet to learn. I do know that it takes much energy, and much flexibility to teach both a FIRST lesson and a LAST lesson on the same day.