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.
“As teachers, what we want is a student who owns the rhythm. He owns it, he doesn’t have to borrow it from the teacher. So that he can use it whenever needed, in any piece in the whole wide world. He’s got it for life! ” – Frances Clark
“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!”
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.