The Student and Teacher as “Works in Progress”

As I’m practicing and preparing for several upcoming performances, I find myself reflecting about how my practice directly impacts my teaching. I’ve rediscovered—as I always do when I’m preparing for a recital or a gig—that as a teacher, having a performer’s mindset is just as vital as having a teacher’s mindset.


To explain further, I need to share a little nugget of wisdom that a graduate professor said to me when I was struggling with an assignment and the grade I had received. She said, “Don’t forget that we are all ‘works in progress.'” I won’t explain the assignment I was struggling with, but just know it was in Intro to Grad Studies (a research class with lofty academic goals!). Enough said. To this day, I find myself thinking about that phrase regularly. It has helped me remember that nothing happens fast.


I am now on the other side of the teacher/student relationship. It is my responsibility to lead my students to become the best “works in progress” they can be. I am the strongest teacher when I can relate to my students, and I am going through the same process as they are.


Let me explain a few areas of my own practicing that directly correlates with my students. Throughout these past several months in my own practicing, I have found that I am forced to do more focused repetitions to make measurable progress than I care to admit. Notice that I said focused. Imagine the endless repetitions required if my focus is wavering! In my student’s lessons, I realize that I cannot complete ALL that I want to and still make measurable progress. I’ve thinned out their assignment sheet slightly and focused on deliberate progress in each lesson. More specifically, I require more repetitions in front of me. Why? A student needs to go through this process and improve to WANT to practice at home. And also, why is it so important to make measurable progress in a 45-minute lesson, even if it’s only on one passage? Progress feels good and will motivate future practice. The student feels a sense of accomplishment. This is exactly the same feeling I want after getting up from a 45-minute practice session.


Further, I’ve rediscovered that when I practice I formulate different ways to think about the same phrase/section.  If this is the key to me being successful, how can I break this down for a beginning or an intermediate student?

  • Saying intervals, then saying note names, and then saying finger numbers.
  • Naming the bass line.
  • Counting only 16th notes, only 8th notes, only quarter notes.

The possibilities are endless. However, the key to a breakthrough may lie in one of these steps. It has for me, why not for the student?


Once again, I realized how much I rely on listening—listening to EVERYTHING I’m doing. You guessed it; my students are now asked to listen more. It requires me to be tenacious in getting them to hear what I’m listening for. It is my responsibility as the “work in progress” facilitator to make this happen.


In my own practicing, I set specific goals for each practice session in addition to daily and weekly goals. There is nothing like a deadline to kick up your effectiveness a notch. Hence, my directions, practice steps and weekly goals for my students have become concrete 100 percent of the time. My week-to-week expectations are more realistic, and I am able to empathize with my students more authentically.


Most of these ideas are not new, and most of them have been part of my piano studies in varying degrees. But in this day of sensory overload, self reflection and evaluation are crucial for understanding how you learn as a performer and therefore as a teacher. It is indeed refreshing, and I’d encourage you to spend time practicing and reflecting upon yourself as a “work in progress.”

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