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September 2, 2016

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Creating Pianists for Life

January 22, 2015

This article is dedicated to teachers who want to create a positive learning experience for the everyday students who have no desire to major in music or play in prestigious competitions. These are the students who love to play the piano and will hopefully keep playing long after formal lessons have stopped and will have a lifelong appreciation for good music. They often take lessons until they leave for college, and continue to play and enjoy the piano. One of by biggest thrills as a teacher came a couple of years ago when a former student called from California after college graduation to say that he was getting a piano as a graduation present.


I find that showing a genuine personal interest in each student creates a strong bond that can last through many of the frustrations and times of waning interest. I like to start each lesson with a question or statement that shows I have been paying attention to who they are, such as: "How is the new puppy?" or "How was your soccer game?" It also helps to be sensitive to a student's mood.. If a student is frustrated with a concept, I try to accept the responsibility and say "I'm not explaining this well. Let's look at it a different way."

Each student is different, and it's important to be able to be flexible in order to keep a variety of personality types motivated and interested. I always try to have a supply of "immediate gratification" pieces on hand to present when I sense that a student needs a boost. These are short, impressive pieces that use patterns so that they sound more impressive than they are. A flexible teacher is always trying to keep communication open with the student and to sense when it's time to change direction. If a student really wants to play a certain popular piece, I make an effort to find a suitable arrangement, and sometimes use this as a reward for completing a piece or book that I feel is important to their development.

Most teachers would agree that providing performing opportunities, both casual and more structured, is very important in keeping students motivated and interested. Students without goals find it hard to stay motivated. Any activity that makes piano study more social can keep the more outgoing students interested. These can be group classes, camps, or pairing up students for ensemble music. If I find that one of my students has a friend studying with another teacher, I sometimes encourage them to play a duet. They can even visit each other's lessons and recitals.

Finally, all of the above-mentioned motivational strategies will eventually fail if the student is not learning actual piano skills. For a students to keep playing , they need a solid foundation in technique, sight-reading, and rhythm. Playing only popular or "immediate gratification" pieces is the equivalent of trying to live on dessert. It used to surprise me when teenagers began choosing classical pieces on their own after tending toward pop pieces, but as long as they are exposed to the classics, many do start preferring them. I try to make sight-reading accessible and time-efficient by using books such as the "Four Star Sight-Reading" series. One of my adult students credits those books with changing her life.

I realize that any teacher who is reading this is already an involved professional, and that I am preaching to the choir, but hopefully someone will feel inspired on some level. So - happy teaching and keep training pianists for life!

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