Reflections upon a Teaching Break

Recently I had a baby; this glorious, life-changing event occurred in September. My responsibilities as a piano teacher and administrator came to a halt during my maternity leave, and other teachers taught my students while I was home changing diapers and caring for my new arrival. I knew having a baby would be a tremendous learning experience, but I was surprised at how much I learned about myself as a teacher when I took a step back from my teaching.

I think most piano teachers enjoy how we get to know our students personally. We spend thirty minutes to an hour together every week. When we are lucky, that relationship lasts for years and a strong bond develops. Now in my second year teaching at The New School, I feel that I already know my students. Yet, after having another teacher work with my students, a couple of my students have been transformed. Actually, the student has not changed, but rather my own perception of her as a pianist and a student has radically changed.

My students Sophia is in her fourth year of piano lessons at The New School. Last year, she hit a road block when she was finishing Music Tree 2B. Compound time signatures and crossing under and over were challenging. So, we side-stepped… and side-stepped… and side-stepped some more. Six months later, near the end of the year, we began Music Tree 3.

Sophia and I resumed Music Tree 3 this past fall. If I am brutally honest with myself, her lessons were not among my favorite because she moved so slowly. Then my baby arrived, and Sophia’s lessons continued with my maternity replacement. When I returned, I met with the substitute to discuss Sophia’s progress. She said to me, “Sophia is amazing and can really perform her pieces as effectively as I can. She is so responsive to coaching and has been a pleasure to teach!” This shocked me! I thought, “Are we thinking about the same Sophia?” Ever since last year, I had tagged Sophia as a “slow learner” and forgotten to focus upon her strength.

Sophia’s lessons have been revitalized; her performances are stellar and her motivation is soaring. I am less focused on what I perceive as “slow learning” and am drawn in to helping Sophia reach high artistry. She is an amazing performer and can impressively refine her playing. To be honest, this process of polishing is what I love about teaching and piano playing.

Another student, Jessica, is in her fifth year of piano lessons at The New School. Jessica is a shy and quiet student, who does not readily show emotion or express her opinions. Last year, she learned at a steady pace, except for a few key pieces which really motivated her to learn quickly.

Jessica finished Music Tree 4 last year and was beginning this fall as full-fledged “intermediate” student, no longer in the elementary method books. One of the pieces she learned quickly for last year’s spring recital was the famed Arabesque by Burgmuller. My plan was for her to learn similar-leveled repertoire from Masterwork Classics 4 by Jane Magrath. Then, the baby arrived, and in stepped my maternity replacement (a different substitute). The other teacher and I met for a post-maternity-leave conference and the teacher held up a new mirror on Jessica. She said to me: “Jessica just loves to play the piano. She was  a joy to teach.” This shocked me (again)! She loves to play? Jessica, from my perspective, was a student who did not have a strong personal investment in piano, but rather a mother who wanted her to take piano lessons.

A flip switched in my mind. My assumption now is that she loves piano and wants to learn. The result is that Jessica has opened up to me; she expresses her thoughts and opinions and shows her enthusiasm. Both she and I now share in a love of piano and spend her lesson exploring new concepts and making music.

Sophia and Jessica are pivotal students for me, and what I have learned can be examples for every piano teacher. While we can pinpoint a student’s strengths and weaknesses, labels can be detrimental to the learning environment because how we label students will impact how and what we teach. I stopped seeing the student and started teaching to my perception of that student; effective instruction does not begin here. While most teachers do not have the opportunity to have substitute teachers, I encourage you to reflect upon your students and challenge your own mental constructs. In addition, approach every student with a goal of artistry and expression; this is the purpose of making music.  Lastly, share in a love of and enthusiasm for playing the piano with every student.


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