Chapter 1 – Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings

How to talk...Welcome to the pianopedagogy.org book club! I’ve been looking forward to sharing this book with you and hearing your feedback.  Join the conversation in the comments!

 

Chapter 1 begins with some notes one of the authors took down during a meeting of a parenting group:

Connection between how kids feel and how they behave.

When kids feel right, they’ll behave right.

How do we help them to feel right?

By accepting their feelings!

Parents don’t usually accept their children’s feelings. Steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids. Also teaches them NOT to know what their feelings are – not to trust them.

 

This idea of denial vs. acceptance of feelings reminds me of this commercial for Nationwide insurance. The people are depicted as children dealing with customer service. In each scenario, they aren’t being heard or acknowledged. Consequently, they sometimes don’t “behave right” (boy smashing cell phone on the ground). The tagline is, “we know how it feels when you aren’t treated like a priority.” The Nationwide agent comes to the rescue in the last scene, and the little girl is transformed into an adult. She breathes a sigh of relief – finally, she is being heard and respected.

 

Not surprisingly, many of the comments on this commercial empathize with the boy smashing the phone! We have all had the experience of having our feelings dismissed or ignored, and we understand the incredible frustration that can result. Denying children’s feelings can lead to discouragement, arguments, or tantrums.  Instead, the authors suggest that we:

  1. Listen with full attention.
  2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word – “Oh” . . . “Mmm” . . . “I see.”
  3. Give their feelings a name.
  4. Give them their wishes in fantasy.

 

Simply providing a sympathetic ear goes a long way. Allowing children to explain, describe, and name their feelings builds their emotional intelligence and can help them figure out their own solutions. As teachers of music and artistry, we, especially, must help students understand their own emotions. If we teach children to push their feelings away, how can we expect them to then play expressively?

 

For me, the most memorable quote of this chapter is one about dealing negative feelings. “The more you try to push a child’s unhappy feelings away, the more he becomes stuck in them. The more comfortably you can accept the bad feelings, the easier it is for kids to let go of them.” I asked one of my colleagues to share an experience from earlier this week, which I think illustrates this point:

 

At the end of last school year, I began working with 10 year old transfer student. Because he started late in the year, he did not enroll in a repertoire class. This past week, I saw this student for his first lesson of the school year, which started off splendidly as we reviewed concepts and repertoire. Towards the end of the lesson, however, things took a turn for the worse when I asked him what piece he would like to play for his first class next week. My question was met with a startled expression, followed by: “I have to play in front of people? I don’t do that!” Surprised by his insistence, I asked why he refused to perform. I reminded him of how great he sounded. I told him that our group classes are relaxed, fun, and collaborative, and that everyone gets the chance to play. “Doesn’t that sound like fun? Sharing a piece of music you have worked so hard on? I can guarantee that your classmates will be so impressed and will enjoy hearing you.” “No,” he answers. “I played in a recital last year and people made fun of me.” I assured him that no one would laugh at him here, and that there is nothing to worry about. There was no convincing him. He asked if we could talk to his dad at the end of lesson. As soon as we met his father, my student confronted him about the group class. “You said I wouldn’t have to do a group class! You told me I only have to learn an instrument!” His dad looked uncomfortable as he tried to convince his son of the benefits and possible enjoyment of being part of a class filled with fun activities. Unfortunately, my student had made up his mind. As we said goodbye, his dad winked and said that they would talk about it at home.

 

We’ve all been in this position before. Somehow, even our best intentions can quickly send the student into a downward spiral of negativity or defiance. How might the authors suggest handling a situation like this?

 

Here are some other “unhappy” feelings that could arise in the context of the piano studio, as well as immediate reactions we may have as teachers. Do any of these sound familiar?

 

Student: “I don’t like that piece. It’s boring.”

Teacher: “How can you not like it? This is one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed!”

 

Student: “I hate practicing. I want to play basketball with my friends instead.”

Teacher: “Well, you have to practice no matter what.”

 

Student: “I’m really nervous about playing in the recital. I’m going to mess up.”

Teacher: “Don’t be nervous, you’re not going to mess up. You have no reason to feel nervous.”

 

Student: “I messed up in the recital. I’m terrible!”

Teacher: “You are not terrible! I bet no one even noticed any mistakes in your performance.”

 

These responses, however well-meaning, would likely lead to a stalemate rather than a resolution. Can you think of alternate responses that acknowledge the child’s feelings? How might a student react to such responses?  Validating our student’s feelings is essential for reducing frustration and increasing motivation. Imagine how becoming better listeners and accepting the feelings of others could improve our interactions and relationships with our students’ parents, our colleagues, and even our own families! Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments.

See you next Monday for Chapter 2!

6 thoughts on “Chapter 1 – Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings

  1. As Bob Ross says, “we don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents” 🙂

    I oftentimes hear my 6 or 7 year old students say “i hate this piece. it’s boring”. I asked them why and I found out that the piece is too slow, they hate the title of the piece, the words/lyrics are too corny etc. Children likes to play fast and flashy. If the tempo is Andante, I encourage my kids to try at a different tempo: Moderate, Fast and Very fast (steady tempo) even if the actual tempo is Andante. If they don’t like the title or the words, I ask my student to change the title and come up his own title or song lyrics. I realized that if a student has a sort of connection to the piece he is playing he is more likely to practice it and will ended up liking the piece.

    1. Ms. Uy,
      I think this is very clever! There is great value in having students experiment with different ways of playing a piece and thinking of alternate titles, and, like you said, kids need to connect with the music in order to enjoy it. I sometimes use this idea when I’d like a student to practice a fast piece slowly at first. For example, when a student was playing Martha Mier’s “Hamster Chase,” I changed the title to “Turtle Chase” for the first week!

  2. I have really enjoyed reading this book, so far! The philosophy behind the book has many, many applications – it’s almost a way of life that could positively impact relationships with children, family, co-workers, spouses, etc.!

    Regarding the response the teacher gave to student concerns, and the request to come up with alternate responses informed by the ideas of this book, it’s not that easy, is it?

    Perhaps the reason we respond the way that we do in these circumstances, is evidence of our own “wishes.” We WISH that the student didn’t dislike performing, and it’s like we have a superstition that if we SAY they really don’t dislike performing, this will make it so as if by magic!

    I do feel that chapter one opens up the possibility of a more empathetic approach, and that’s always a good thing.

    I would LOVE to hear some responses to the student statement: “I played terrible at the recital!” based on chapter one of this book.

  3. First off, thank you for starting this book club! I’m really looking forward to this method of communicating and sharing with other teachers. What an interesting book to start out with. In just the first chapter, the authors have provided me with a lot of food for thought. I also want to give the disclaimer that I’m not a parent so will be coming at this solely from the perspective of an educator.

    As teachers, we are “fixers.” We hear a wrong note, we correct it. We see poor technique, we adjust it. We assume a lack of practice, we devise a plan of action get our student back at the keyboard. We are also given the awesome responsibility of helping our students develop sensitivity, esteem, morale, and countless other important and vital attributes. It’s in my nature, as I’m sure it is for many other teachers out there, to quickly give advice or fix the problem. But Faber and Mazlish are saying that this may not always be the most beneficial route for our young students.

    Even though I’m still a little unsure of how some of these tactics might play out in the private piano studio, I can certainly see the value in letting children take control of their emotional journeys, allowing them to discover solutions on their own and work through the frustrations and embarrassments that can sometimes accompany music study and performance.

    – To the student who says the piece is boring: “It sounds like you are really bored with that piece.” Maybe followed with, “What are some of the pieces you’ve played that have been really exciting?”
    – To the student who hates practicing: You could acknowledge with a word and let them begin to talk through some of their frustrations on their own.
    – To the student nervous to play in the recital: “It’s a big deal to play in your very first recital.”
    – To the student who messed up at the recital: “You worked really hard to prepare for the recital. To feel like you didn’t do your best can be very disappointing.” Or even grant a wish in fantasy, “I wish we had a time machine so we could go back and try again!”

    This is still a work in progress for me, so some of these might be off the mark. But it’s been fun to begin to come at these scenarios from a completely different angle. See you next chapter!

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Andrew! I’m glad to have you reading along with us. I think your response to the student who messed up in the recital is great!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *