Meet the students where they are, not where you are, and not where you want them to be, but where they really are. — Frances Clark
Sometimes when my adult student, Anne, finishes playing a piece in her lesson, there is a little internal celebration that takes place on my part. I celebrate her fluency and lack of struggle. Why is a fluently played piece cause for celebration? The reason is that, with this particular student, fluency was once compromised when her teacher forgot to “meet the student where she really is.”
Around two years ago, I had a very different kind of lesson with Anne: I was coaching balance between the hands in an easier sonatina movement. Not one to give up, I was persisting in working on this balanced sound, probably for longer than I should have. I cannot remember exactly what took place in that lesson, but I do vividly remember what happened next.
After the lesson was over, I was scheduled to meet with a visitor with a background in piano teaching. This woman had arrived early, and had been sitting outside of the room while the lesson was taking place. She said, “You poor thing. That student was just not getting what you were going for.” This was the moment when I realized that it wasn’t my student who wasn’t “getting it,” it was her teacher!
Having seen (or heard) my teaching through the ears of another, I immediately began reflecting upon Anne’s course of study. She was playing a classical sonatina movement, but was not ready for this literature, based on the criteria set forth by Frances Clark:
1) Hearing: is the student’s sense of hearing developed enough to hear what the piece should sound like?
2) Sight: Can the student see the score and understand what she sees?
3) Touch: Can the student bring into focus the sound she wants?
Why did I assign this level of music? Because it was “about time that Anne would be ready for such repertoire.” In other words, she had been playing repertoire a level lower for a couple of years and, therefore, she should be ready. This kind of logic makes about as much sense as my grandmother’s did when she wrote to “Publisher’s Clearinghouse” to complain that she hadn’t been chosen as a winner of the sweepstakes. She had entered for years, and she wrote that it’s “about time that I won.”
It gets worse: my dear, sweet student hadn’t hinted in the slightest that she was dissatisfied with the level of repertoire that she was studying. She wasn’t impatient to go to more difficult music. She certainly didn’t express a burning desire to learn a sonatina. I just didn’t think it through. If I had “met her where she was, and not where I wanted her to be,” she would have been set up for success. Looking ahead to a more logical course of study, I began thinking about all of the fabulous pedagogical literature available for the late elementary/early-intermediate level. If this student stayed with this level for the rest of her life, we could have a wonderful time in piano study.
Since this epiphany¸ Anne has been practicing pieces at a more appropriate level, with increasing comfort and pleasure. Eventually, I did carefully introduce a Gavotte from a collection she owned from our “too-advanced pieces” period. Now, this level was much more manageable. Anne, my diligent and delightful student, is a weekly reminder that I need to think carefully to “meet the students where they are.”