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Reader Question: Strategies for Teaching Perfectionists

June 17, 2014

Readers are invited to pose questions and the faculty of the New School for Music Study will collaborate to come up with the best response that we can.  Questions may be submitted by writing to aglennon@nsmspiano.org.  This week’s question is answered by Amy Glennon.


How do you approach teaching young beginners who are perfectionists? I have tried to encourage these students that making mistakes is ok, and to look at the whole process of learning. From my experience with two perfectionist students, I’ve learned that it’s crucial to set them up for success during the lesson, but it’s inevitable that a mistake or two will occur. The problem is that they are not open to trying new things; my current six-year old student will not play his homework assignment for me until he feels it is perfect to play. How do you approach working with these students?


I asked the teacher posing this question for more information.  I learned that:

“This student is very bright, but also quite opinionated and strong-willed. He is quite talkative and has no qualms trying to ‘correct’ the teacher on what this or that should be! I have also observed that he does not take constructive feedback or correction well, regardless of whether it is piano or his behavior, and this is not just from me. We are going through Faber’s My First Piano Adventures (C) and Dozen a Day mini book. There isn’t any family situation that is relevant in his particular case; both parents are very supportive and involved in his studies. As a transfer student (2 months into his studies) last year, I was told how talented he was. One of the problems I am having is that the lesson’s success depends on whether this student agrees with me or not. I can’t count out loud as he plays, nor play the accompaniment part because he gets upset. As mentioned before, as a perfectionist, he prefers to work on his homework and polish his assignments before playing for me."

One can easily imagine how difficult this situation must be!  As I see it, there are two choices which are opposite of one another:


1) Lay down the law about what is acceptable behavior in the lesson.


2) Endeavor to understand where he is coming from and see if you can modify the behavior.  You almost need to ask a psychologist about how to execute #2! #1 is self-explanatory.  The problem with #1 is that some behaviors are borderline.  For example, it seems funny to say:  “You’re not allowed to correct the teacher.”  You could talk about mutual respect if he says something unkind:  “You know, that wasn’t a very polite thing to say, was it?  I think we’ll work best together if we treat one another with kindness and respect.”


I’ll focus mainly on the second choice, trying out ways to modify his behavior:



1) Praise, praise, praise!  Extravagant praise can go a long way in build rapport.  Examples:  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a beautiful legato tone!”  “That was absolutely beautiful.  I’d like to record that performance so we always have a record of it.”  “It is so nice to see you today!”  “Many children your age have trouble with making a really short staccato, but you did it!”


You can even turn a negative into a positive:  “Thank you for catching that error.  You really have such an ear for detail.”  “I can see that you really care about doing a good job on that piece, and you want to wait to hear the duet until you feel completely confident.”


See rapport-building as one of the goals of the lesson, right along with correct notes, rhythm, etc.  Therefore, you might need to be selective in what you endeavor to correct.


2)  Be selective:  With some pieces, you might just praise without correcting (correct notes and rhythm, with the beginnings of expressive playing).  With others, choose the most important item to correct and work on this only after a specific positive comment.


3)  Try role-reversal:  If there is one aspect of his performance that you’d like to see improved, ask him to be the “teacher” while you play the role of the “student.”  Most students have great fun, for example, correcting the teacher when he or she demonstrates terrible posture or a horrific hand position while playing a warm-up.  With this particular student, this role-reversal should probably be placed strategically in the lesson, possibly near the beginning, and not related to any specific piece or activity too directly.


4)  Focus on overall musicianship:  If this student tends to play his pieces with imprecise rhythm, use rhythm drills outside of the repertoire to bolster his ability to perform rhythms accurately.  If his reading is weak, try sight-playing.  If this is a new strategy, a phrase such as: “I’m doing rhythm drills with all of my students this week” can be very helpful.


5)  Improvisation:  Perhaps this particular student will not want to improvise, but if he responds well, improvisation could be a useful tool.  An approach:  “What I love about improvisation is that there are no wrong notes – you can play whatever you like!”  A collection such as “Pattern Play” by Forrest Kinney might be a good way to get started.


6)  Start each lesson with success.  Begin each lesson with a review piece that you know will be successful.  Don’t coach this piece, just state how much you enjoyed it.  Likewise, end the lesson with success and a statement about how much you enjoyed your time together.



One final thought:  I wonder if this student has a particular sensitivity to sound, as he doesn’t like hearing you count while he plays and doesn’t like playing with the duet.  If he is sensitive to sound, he may not be “giving you a hard time” but genuinely distracted.  I have an adult student who let me know early on to stop humming while she plays!  Also, it’s distracting to her eyes if I write in the music.


I hope that at least one of these strategies will prove to be helpful!  Best wishes!

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