Frances Clark was right when she said, “All students are transfer students. Even if our students are our own, the teacher we were last year is different from the teacher we are this year. In fact, the teacher we were last week is different from the teacher we are this week!” We are always changing and our students are always changing.” We do change from week to week, and our students are changing even more! We are constantly needing to reevaluate what is working for any given student.
However, the traditional transfer student does present a unique set of concerns to a teacher. The usual definition of a transfer student refers to a student who has studied elsewhere and then is “transferring” to a new teacher. There are a variety of reasons students may be studying with a new teacher: perhaps the family has moved to a new area and has left behind a beloved teacher, the previous teacher retired, the student took a break and is starting with a new teacher, or the chemistry between the student and previous teacher did not work.
At The New School for Music Study we interview each incoming student, beginning students included. The goal in the interview is to find the curriculum, class placement, and teacher match that will work best for each student. I find that this process is particularly important for transfer students and takes quite a lot of care and thought.
The first part of the interview is just with teacher and student. The teacher first tries to find out a bit about the student: what are his/her interests, goals, hobbies. I try to learn a bit about the student’s personality. The conversation then turns to the piano. How long has the student been studying, what music have they played, and what kind of instrument do they use at home. I then try to determine what kind of music the student absolutely loves to play. My goal is to recommend a piece for the first lesson that will be a “slam-dunk” and get the lessons started on the right foot. If I am unsure about what will grab a particular student, I sometimes play several pieces of music and ask them to “rank” them on a scale of 1-10 (10 being their favorite) so I can tell what they enjoy.
Next, I have the student play a piece they know. I respond positively no matter how well it is performedJ I do a bit of coaching on the piece, making a point to try to make a musical difference. I stay away from fixing notes and rhythms because usually these are difficult and more frustrating to correct in an interview situation. I want the student to be able to hear a difference in their own playing and give them a vision for the type of sound they can achieve. I use the grid on the attached form to evaluate the student in the areas of technique, tone, reading, rhythm, accuracy, and musicality. Please click on this link to access the form: previous study interview form – Pennington
I have the student show me some technical skills they have learned and also do sight-reading. I usually give a sight-reading piece several levels below their playing ability. Often the student is nervous and I try select the first example to be something I am sure the student can do comfortably. This gives them the confidence to try a more difficult example.
The next step is to teach a new piece to the student. I select a piece at (what I think) is the appropriate level that is patterned and relatively easy to teach. I teach it using some of our usual practice steps, perhaps adapting for the student’s needs. This is a good way to confirm the level I think is appropriate and also to get a sense for how the student learns new music. When we have finished I congratulate the student and send them to the waiting room while I conference with the parent.
I always begin by telling the parent something positive about the student. This is SO important in establishing a good relationship with the parent, and also eventually with the family. First, I try to gather any information that I am missing from the student regarding the length of previous study and the reason for the teacher change. I try to be honest, yet positive about what I have observed in the student’s study thus far. I have found it is important to give an honest opinion, as the parents may already be suspicious of a gap in their child’s learning, if there is one. I will never forget the time I explained to a couple that we would need to focus on rhythm work with their son. The father turned to the mother and exclaimed, “See! I told you something didn’t sound right at home!” Most commonly, I find that students are playing music that is too advanced for their reading or technical ability. This can be tricky because we will have them working at a lower level at NSMS then they have been used to with their previous teacher. I explain our philosophy of “comprehensive musicianship” to the parents and that we work to have technique, reading, rhythm, theory, composition, and musicality all advancing together at every lesson. The parents are usually very supportive and learn to see quite quickly that their child enjoys feeling the success of music that is exactly at the right level.
Interviewing and placing transfer students is risky business because it is important for the student to start out with success. If a student has had a bad experience previously, this likely is our last shot at saving a budding young pianist! A good initial interview helps to get the first lesson started off in the right direction!