How practicing reflection led me to abandon my ideals

“Practice reflection. What we do is important. It deserves our care, but it also deserves our revision. Can we be the surgeons of our classrooms? As if what we are doing one day will save lives. Our students our worth it. And each case is different. – Ramsey Musallam


My first lesson of 2015 was a newer adult student, Jean. This was our sixth lesson together.  Jean took lessons as a child and young adult and has taken a long break from playing. Her children both play well. She expressed a desire to revisit some of the pieces from her youth and we chose a sonatina from her past study.  She could play it with some fluency and accurate rhythm, despite her long break from playing the piano. She mentioned that she strongly prefers pieces that are in her ears already and is not a strong reader.


My plan of action was to use some “Musical Fingers” (Clark, Goss, Holland, Alfred Publishing) warm-ups, boost her recall of major and minor five-finger patterns, assign short etudes to boost her reading skills, order a sight-playing collection, and work on the sonatina.  In addition to the sonatina, I assigned other pieces, but these weren’t practiced.  In fact, nothing had been really practiced up to lesson six. Jean is an absolutely delightful person who has expressed a willingness to practice, a love of the piano, and a lack of follow-through that she does not completely understand.


I quickly tried to tap into my intuition, what this student has told me, and also recalled personal struggles with discipline.  I had to somehow help get Jean into a practice routine, and that was my only job. Everything else could wait. My “agenda” for what I thought she needed could wait. Part of what I know is that in resurrecting a piece from even the distant past, we resurrect many,  many habits. Less than optimal fingering habits, technical habits, etc. are usually right where we left them. I also know that habits are usually very difficult to change. A thought, however, kept nagging me: the only activity that Jean has shown true interest in has been this sonatina from her  youth. Therefore, this is where we needed to start.


I told Jean that I thought we should focus only on the Sonatina this week.  As far as we could get in the piece in our lesson would be as far as she would practice at home. She began with the first phrase. It was too fast and I suggested a slower tempo. Jean commented that it’s harder to play slow than it is to play fast. I didn’t argue the point, but asked her to resume with her “comfortable” tempo. In the first section, there were two trouble spots. I did my best to help Jean “solve” these problems as quickly as possible, in the lesson, so that her home practice would be easy. Getting to the cause of the problem, instead of insisting on endless repetitions was my goal.


As we worked together, I found myself asking Jean to really feel each finger playing, and listen to each sound. She automatically slowed down, without realizing it, and without my asking her to slow down. She was pleased by the accuracy, and by the short amount of time it took to improve. Instead of commenting on anything technical, I waited for a moment to present itself. Jean commented that it was difficult to play soft and staccato at the same time. I “exploited” her natural interest and used this opportunity to address staccato technique. At the end of the lesson, she said, “that was the most delightful lesson I have ever had!” This is not a bad way to begin 2015.


By giving Jean just one thing to focus upon, my hope is that the desire to practice will increase. I don’t normally assign just one piece without technical warm-ups, sight-playing, etc., but as Mr. Musallam notes, “each case is different.”


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