It’s probable that many believe musicians are born, not made. Certainly some individuals appear to have an innate “talent” for music-making and sometimes develop into superstars at an early age. They somehow seem to acquire technical prowess and the ability to play expressively — but not necessarily because of how they are taught (sometimes even in spite of it!). In this article, I am not writing about this type of “gifted” student. Instead, I want to address music-making in terms of traditional (“average”) pre-college level students – the kind that I and others who teach at this level spend most of our teaching time working with.
Back in the 60’s I was stunned by the results of a survey indicating that the majority of students who begin piano study have dropped out after no more than just two years of lessons. Since then, similar surveys reveal that this high dropout rate continues to exist.
Some Reasons for Student Dropouts
Perhaps two of the most common reasons given for student dropouts today is that children are so overly-scheduled with extracurricular activities that they simply don’t have time to practice, and that sometimes even parents seem too busy to provide the ongoing encouragement and support needed for a child’s success at the piano.
One reason which students themselves give for wanting to discontinue lessons is a dislike of practice. Because it is usually a “do-it-alone” activity, the “fun” element seems minimal, especially when compared with participating in group events with peers such as sports activities, singing in the school chorus, playing in the band, etc. In addition, when practice consists primarily of mindless repetition — just doing time at the piano and playing through pieces over and over again, often at too fast a tempo, and with few apparent goals or strategies for fulfilling them, the resulting pianistic and musical rewards are rarely satisfying enough to stimulate a desire to continue on with lessons.
“Do not think that just because you’ve told a student something that he knows it.” – Frances Clark
Charles Heber Clark (1841-1915) was a widely recognized industrial economist, owner and editor of The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia, as well as member of the board of directors of the Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers. At the inaugural ceremony for the home’s new building, Mr. Clark shared his remembrances from his first and only piano lesson which were recounted years later in an issue of Etude Magazine:
Mrs Smythe (MS): Good morning, Charles. My! What lovely clean hands you have! I can see these little fingers scampering up and down the keys like dear little kittens! Don’t frown, dear; it’s not becoming to you.
Our students are desperate for affirmation; they need to know when they’ve done a job well. Communicate this well and often. – Marvin Blickenstaff
This statement resonates with me. Can you relate? Have you ever felt desperate for affirmation? I admit that I crave affirmation. Words of affirmation can make my spirit soar, while their absence can make my heart sink. Why does affirmation mean so much?
As teachers, we model mastery of our instrument. When we inspire our students through great playing and teaching, they come to view us as trusted experts of our field. This makes our opinion valuable and even coveted. A teacher’s words hold great power in the life of a student.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to teach piano to a unique group of women. They are ex-offenders who have been incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. As they transition from prison to independent life, learning to play the piano empowers them with confidence and creativity.
“I believe (no, I know) that all children are naturally creative – until we teach it out of them. Children are born with imagination, freedom, and fearlessness. I believe there’s something really wrong with an education system that results in LESS creativity as skill and knowledge grow.” Sam Holland
“The world of reality has its bounds, the world of imagination is boundless.” John-Jacques Rousseau
Ask a five-year-old child to use the groups of of two black keys to make a piece about a frog jumping, and the child will transform the black keys into lily pads. In their magical thinking, the piano itself becomes the vessel to their imagination. Given the same assignment at age six, the child will play through a rather elaborate journey, hopping from group to group while narrating the story of the frog, which they have already come to love quite deeply. At seven, the child will count how many times the frog has jumped and may have an organized form to their creation. An eight-year-old will be full of ideas, some of which may be overly ambitious. They may be nervous about trying out these ideas and become easily frustrated. They may soon be ready to try again and want to talk about their ideas with you. At nine, the child will likely claim “That’s boring.” Having more interest in facts and science, the assignment now seems “babyish” and beneath them.