“My teacher told my parents that I was a ‘recital pianist,’ which made me very proud until I realized that she meant that I practiced only before recitals!”
- Nelita True
This delightful quote from the great Nelita True resonates with piano teachers and students. How comforting it is to learn that the great Nelita True wasn’t always a model of daily practice! (I heard Nelita True play at an intimate gathering at the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy may years ago. Her Schumann playing was revelatory.)
Of course, Ms. True’s statement reminded me of my own childhood piano study. One of five children, we all took lessons from Mrs. O’Connell, a dear lady who charged 3 dollars a half hour. Helicopter parenting was way, way in the future. I don’t remember anyone reminding me to practice. In high school I transferred to a Yale-educated teacher, Mrs. Delavergne (even the name sounds more imposing, yes?). I practiced more, but there was still definitely an element of “cramming.” If she said to play something 3 times a day, I might wait until the day before the lesson and play it 21 times.
For a couple of years I was Mrs. Delavergne’s only piano student until my sister and some neighborhood children joined in. I never participated in piano examinations, such as the Royal Conservatory exams. I never entered any competitions. I was isolated and insulated, having no idea that I had no business thinking of a career in piano performance. Nonetheless, I majored in piano, actually started practicing at least 3 hours a day and have never regretted to pursue music as a profession. I guess I’m one of those people for whom we designate the term “late bloomer.” In fact, I’m still waiting to bloom in a number of areas! I feel a sincere empathy for this generation’s young people who don’t seem to have that same luxury.
I’m certain that my own somewhat lax approach to piano study as a young person influences my teaching style today. I have no doubt that regular practice is very important. I have no doubt that I take my job very seriously. But I also have no doubt that certain students are on their way to “blooming.” If I may continue the analogy, these little rosebuds need continuing care and patience, and maybe even a little bit of love along with the occasional practice reminder.
In my view, the approaches shown below can be detrimental:
- Giving up on a student: “Ah, so and so doesn’t practice and it’s just never going to change!” Instead, keep on finding new ways to address the issue, including involving the parent. Parent and student education are key. We understand the challenges of establishing a regular practice routine. How can we help?
- Not addressing the problem early enough: When I was a younger teacher, I was a bit uneasy about approaching lack of practice when discussing progress with parents. It’s often quite shocking that a brief word with the parent can work wonders. I just advise making certain that the first communication with the parent is positive to set the stage for a good working relationship. Last week, I let a student’s mom know that he needs to be getting to the piano more regularly, but added that I sincerely always enjoy seeing him; he’s a wonderful boy. This week, his pieces were in much better shape.
- Taking lack of preparation personally: As diligent pianists, devoting ourselves to a career in piano performance and/or pedagogy, we longed to please our private piano teachers. We were literally graded on our lesson preparation. We may, therefore, fall into the habit of viewing our students’ preparation as a test of their dedication to the piano and to us. After a long day, that last student’s lack of preparation might feel as some sort of bad luck, a punishment from the universe. We are particularly impatient if that student has a recital or other special event looming. This is natural, but we must remember that it isn’t about the student making us happy, it is about… the student.
The following approaches can be helpful:
- Don’t dwell on lack of practice: If a student’s lack of practice becomes the theme of the lesson, mentioned often throughout, one can imagine the negative feelings that will arise toward the piano and towards the teacher.
- Involve the student in repertoire choices: Students will tend to want to practice pieces that they like. This would seem like a “no-brainer,” but I didn’t consider my student’s preferences very much when I started out, in my zeal to find pedagogically sound repertoire.
- Practice with the student. Focus on the positive result: “I know that if you continue practicing this way during the week, the results will be great. Already, can you believe that you are playing this whole section accurately after just a few minutes?” (much better than: “Gosh, if only you’d done this throughout the week, can you imagine how far you would have gone?”) Be certain that the student has a time-tested practice plan. (this involves a routine for learning new repertoire. See this link for some more ideas on this subject: Practice Steps for Successul Independent Learning
- Help with time management. Recently I used the Ipad in the lesson in way that is quite “low-tech.”Siri, set the timer for 9 minutes.” During those nine minutes, the student practiced and I acted as a “coach” might, guiding the process. Sometimes, students are overwhelmed and don’t realize what can be accomplished with short, concentrated bursts of focused practice.
- Focus on complete musicianship. Weak sight-playing can undermine a student’s confidence with learning new repertoire. Bolstering these skills are an important use of lesson time. On-own sight-playing is not wholly sufficient if we want to diagnose any difficulties and supervise the process. In addition, the lesson can be used to present new concepts coming up in repertoire, rhythm work, improvisation, technique, etc.
- Be certain to include musical coaching in each lesson. Making beautiful music is motivating!
- Plant that “purple moment:”Purple Moment: Marvin Blickenstaff, What can you do when you can’t find a purple moment? – Rebecca Pennington
- Convey to the student that you like him or her, independent of student preparation. Liking our students – Rebecca Pennington
- Take the long view: Picture your student as an accomplished learner (this is a phrase I heard from Sam Holland, and it is very helpful). Look for that “spark.” Perhaps the student sings on pitch, has an innate sense of rhythm, is unafraid of improvisation, etc. Perhaps there was a piece that was mastered and played musically. Affirm the student’s good qualities, specifically and often.
Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between students who absolutely have no interest in piano study but are being “forced” into it and students who like piano study but have yet to find a practice routine. I find that an awful lot of student fall into the second category.
Also, perhaps a disclaimer needs to be made: Contrary to this blog, I’m certain I’ve not always been a model of patience and Zen-like acceptance. In addition, I can be a task master and proud of it. But over the years, I’ve realized that I want to get closer to Louise Goss’s ideal: “(I hope) everybody would begin to grasp this notion that it’s the child first, music second, and only third is the piano.”