One of the biggest privileges of being a piano teacher is the opportunity to become a consistent part of a student’s life. Each school week for maybe even a decade or longer the piano teacher and the piano student have time one-on-one (more or less) to explore musical puzzles, pianistic tricks, and challenges both physical and imaginative.
This is not a relationship in the knowledge-transmission model (where the teacher pours knowledge into student until student is all full up) but rather a relationship that is built on the teacher tweaking the learning experience to match the interests and accomplishments of the student. This teacher-student relationship is usually nurturing and supportive, in the sense of helping the student achieve their musical/pianistic goals and ambitions and substantially beyond. Piano teachers get to notice things about their students that can be missed in the hurly-burly of classroom activity, and piano teachers participate in building a sense of achievement in students who might otherwise never feel as if they shine….
So piano teachers are in a tremendous position to work with students who fall outside the bell curve; teaching can be modified to fit the precise needs of the student and without a class of other students to manage the teacher can organise the learning process to be perfectly timed for the individual student.
That’s the theory.
In real life, as always, it’s more complicated. And the number one thing that gets in the way of this perfectly customised learning experience is the idea (held by both parents and teachers) that the job of the teacher is to teach.
The job of the teacher is in fact not to teach but to help the student learn. And there is a massive difference between the role of ‘teaching’ and the role of ‘facilitating learning’.
When you think your job is to teach you begin with a list of all the things you want to ‘teach’ to your student, a catalogue of the things they should know or be able to do by the time you are done with them. Piano teachers who work in exam cultures (half the planet, at least) even have this big list of all the things you want to teach broken down into examinable chunks (“Last year you learned D Major? OK, this year we’ll work on E flat…”, etc.). Things that aren’t on that list are deemed either of secondary or of no importance (particularly once students start taking annual exams).
But when you begin with the idea of facilitating learning you begin with a desire to discover what makes your student tick, what intrigues them, what doesn’t, what they yearn to master, what they hanker to understand. You also, over time, begin to understand how the student sees themselves in relation to their family, their school and classmates, in relation to their future (and their past), and in relation to their culture (and this might be simple through to extremely complicated). These understandings then feed into your understanding of what drives their learning, and you can better facilitate learning.
You still have a checklist in relation to skills, vocabulary, literacy, experience, recognition, and so forth, but this list is always at the service of maximising learning, rather than the learning experience of the student serving you as you, the teacher, work your way through that checklist.
Let’s make up some examples: a very intelligent but not very socially mature 8 year old who has been learning for about a year suddenly decides to figure out how to play every single major and harmonic minor scale – all 24 of them. If you are tied to your piano teacher checklists you’ll be thinking to yourself ‘You don’t need all these scales for years yet!! Why don’t we just keep learning the pieces in your method book and we’ll come back to these scales when you’re ready?!’.
You can see the problem here plain as day: the student is ready to learn how to play all these scales – in fact, they’ve basically mastered them all just for fun while you weren’t watching! It’s not that they are not ready to learn – it’s that you are not ready to teach. Yep, this is the moment where you can choose to make the piano lesson all about you, or all about your student. Your call.
Another example: you have a 12-year-old student with a sunny disposition, learning for 4 years already, they’ve done a Preliminary exam at the end of the previous year, just started high school (Australia), they have no particular academic gifts, but they love playing the piano, and they’ve just returned after the school holidays with nine piano pieces they’ve composed since the last lesson 8 weeks ago. They begin to show you their (not-so-well notated) compositions as the minutes of the lesson begin to click over. You know how hard it was to get through that Preliminary exam at the end of last year, and you don’t want to waste a term working on ‘composing’ (which truth be told you don’t feel that comfortable dealing with) because you’d like them to do well in their Grade One exam at the end of the school year.
This is the moment where you can make the lesson all about your checklist (getting the student ready for Grade One) or you can make the lesson all about the student’s musical experiences (and learning) over the holidays. Is it going to be about them? Or about you?
Of course, there’s always that 5-15% of students who appear to have no interest in learning whatsoever, the kind who ask “Do we have to do this?”. The challenge here for teachers is how to tempt students into having a more robust appetite for learning without falling into the trap of creating new kinds of checklists (what kinds of learning the student should want to engage in). I really do regard these children (adults just don’t have this problem, in my experience) as being ‘learning anorexic’ – for some reason they feel it’s a Good Thing to restrict their learning experiences and opportunities, and it’s really, really hard to convince them otherwise.
I’ve been becoming more and more hardline on this issue the more experienced I’ve become in my teaching: once upon a time I really would have insisted on students struggling through a piece for some number of weeks rather than ‘give in’ to the student and just move on to a new piece of repertoire; once upon a time I would have politely listened to a student enthuse about this great new piece they’d discovered that they’d been trying to learn to play, and then after no more than 10 minutes (probably 4) I’d have steered the lesson back to the repertoire I had assigned; once upon a time I’d have left activities generally deemed to be ‘creative’ til the end of the lesson because we had to get the ‘real’ work done first. But all these once-upon-a-times represent woeful educational practice, and I’m ashamed of every single example of this in my teaching history.
Then we have the rare 1-4% who love to learn things in the order we plan to teach things, who practice regularly and consistently for their entire learning lives, who explore new kinds of learning in their own time, but prepare for lessons so well that we can fit nearly everything into 45 minute lessons each week, and whose parents are keen for them to have extra lessons as their learning requires. And I think (deep down in a little part of our hearts) we piano teachers think that in an ideal world the other 96-99% of our students would just morph into this kind of a student.
But we only think that because we (deep down in our hearts) believe our focus should be on our teaching, not on the student’s learning.
As soon as we shift into a learning-centric focus the fun of the piano lesson becomes all about connecting with our students, with their unique gifts, challenges, contexts and needs.
And all those lists of requirements, prerequisites and checklists begin to gather a little more dust each week as we work to meet the evolving and unfolding learning needs of our students.