Meeting the Inner City Student – Natalie Gibson Grimes

Natalie Gibson Grimes is a former faculty member of the New School for Music Study. Currently, she lives in Alexandria, VA and teaches private and group piano there. She remains involved with the Frances Clark Center as Advertising Coordinator for the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy. Natalie is also a Music Curriculum Writer for Connections Education, an online education system. 


I recently had the unique experience of teaching class piano in a Washington DC public charter school. I was hesitant to take the job, knowing the inner city environment would be challenging and outside my comfort zone. Ultimately, I said yes for two reasons:

1. I was living in a new city and eager to start teaching in it.

2. I hoped it would be an interesting experience that I could learn and grow from as a teacher.


Grow, indeed! During those first few months, the only things that seemed to grow were headaches and tears of frustration. There were three main challenges I faced in my inner city classroom:


  • Practice

Practice steps, practice charts, practice goals –familiar words in my teaching vocabulary (thank you, New School years!) I was thrown for a loop, though, when I realized I couldn’t send my students home with practice assignments. How could they practice at home without instruments? I saw my students twice a week on consecutive days and worried they would forget too much during our five days apart. Sending worksheets home was not an option. Sadly, the parental support and home environment for many students is not conducive to homework, so the school discourages it.


  • Class size

My piano class initially had seventeen third through fifth graders. I had never taught piano to a group this size before and found it very difficult to manage. Settling squabbles, managing bathroom needs, removing elbows, feet, and other body parts from the piano, figuring out which cords in the lab had most recently been unplugged by mischievous students… Between all this and more, there was barely time to start teaching before class was over. I daydreamed about having an aide to help manage my classroom. Unfortunately, this dream never happened. My class size did shrink, though, as the year progressed and several students were suspended or expelled.


  • Behavior

Too often, I found my students with clenched fists rather than rounded piano hands. They specialized in getting one another, and me, riled up with taunting, teasing, name-calling, etc. I never imagined breaking up physical fights in a piano lab, but it happened on more than occasion. I can’t forget little Joey and his dark, intense eyes. He loved playing the piano and was eager to learn, but his anger would erupt when other students teased him. It got ugly.


I longed for a miraculous Sister Act ending to the school year. I brainstormed on how to transform my unruly students into a classroom of well-behaved, motivated music makers. Most days, though, I felt myself shrinking into survival mode. I wanted to meet my students where they really were, as Frances Clark advised, but how could I “meet” them in such a messy, chaotic place?


“Meet the student where they are, not where you are, and not where you want them to be, but where they really are.” – Frances Clark


Reevaluating my goals for the school year brought clarity. My students did not all need to reach a set proficiency level or perform a certain piece. What they needed was to experience music as a fun, safe place. I began to think of my role as a lighthouse, using music to spread a beacon of light. “Music is a refuge, make it your home!” This was the message I needed to share.


Following Frances Clark’s advice meant redefining my idea of student progress. My question shifted from


“Are they playing well today?”


“Are they loving music today?”

and then to

 “Is that love being nurtured and tucked gently into their hearts?”

Honestly, this should be my first question with every student, no matter what the setting or what part of town they call home. When a student experiences a smile and moment of warmth at the piano, they will remember that music brought joy. And hopefully, they will pursue that joy again and again.

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