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Book Club: Chapter 6 - Freeing Children from Playing Roles


“Never underestimate the power of your words upon a young person’s life!”


Chapter 6 illustrates the often self-fulfilling prophecy of assigning roles or labels to children.  Our words, actions, and even our inner opinions of our students can have a strong impact on their behavior, and ultimately, whether or not they realize their full potential.  What can we do to free our students from labels like slow learners, unmusical, bad performers, or non-practicers?  How can we instead help our students see themselves as capable learners, expressive musicians, confident performers, and smart practicers?



Within our own families, we often experience the phenomenon of labeling.  For instance, if you ask my family what it’s like to live with me, the words “absent-minded” or “scatter-brained” may come up. I am notorious for leaving tasks around the house unfinished, or for forgetting simple things (like only washing some of the dishes, locking my keys in my car, or neglecting to take the laundry out of the dryer.)  Sure, there is some truth to these descriptors, and of course my family is teasing me in good fun, but I sometimes find myself living up to these labels, and even using them to excuse my own forgetful behavior!



Sometimes, we unconsciously label our students in this way.  Imagine telling a student that he’s “so picky” about the pieces he plays, and then asking him to rate several choices you’ve selected as possible recital pieces.  Or, telling a student that she’s just “not a very good memorizer”, and then asking her to try performing a piece by memory at the recital.  Or, how about telling a student that he’s “disorganized” or “never follows directions,” and then telling him he needs to practice more.  If we describe our students as having these fixed traits, chances are, they will prove us right.  Instead, we can help students rise above these tendencies and shape their own outcomes!



However, this can be quite difficult. “When a child persistently behaves in any one way over a period of time, it requires great restraint on our part not to reinforce the negative behavior by shouting, ‘There you go again!’ It takes an act of will to put aside the time to deliberately plan a campaign that will free a child from the role he’s been playing.”  Here are some strategies we can use:



1. Look for opportunities to show the student a new picture of himself or herself.


bad performer


Give the child a chance to perform in a lower-pressure setting, for family, or at a retirement home.


“You played this piece so confidently and musically for your mom today.”

“You took a deep breath before you started, and you played your piece just as smoothly as you did in your last lesson.”


Perhaps choosing an easier piece, a duet, or performing with the score could be ways to build a child’s confidence.  Find a way for the child to feel successful in a performance.


2. Put students in situations where they can see themselves differently.


slow learner


Work on a very small section of a piece and repeat until the student can play it correctly 3x in a row.


“Your careful practice really improved this section!  You’ve discovered a great tool for practicing the other tricky parts of this piece.  Let’s make a plan for your practice at home.”


Instead of pegging this student as a slow learner and letting weeks go by with minimal improvements, hold this student to a higher standard and show them HOW to practice.  The proof that it works, even with a very short section, can speed up this student’s learning process.


3. Let students overhear you say something positive about them.




“Johnny really focused well today while we were working on our new piece.”


Even if this was the only time he was focused well during the lesson, highlight this positive moment! It’s certainly a starting point, and wouldn’t Johnny and his parents be proud to hear about this small victory?


4. Model the behavior you’d like to see.


sloppy player


“This piece is just so fun to play fast and loud!  It takes so much patience to practice it slowly and listen for the details, but I know it will sound even more exciting if I do.”


Acknowledge the student’s feelings, but also demonstrate and allow them to experience the pay-off for changing their behavior.


5. Be a storehouse for your student’s special moments.


not good enough to play that hard piece


“I remember when you played the Burgmuller Arabesque at the recital last year.  You worked so hard to achieve a fast tempo and dramatic dynamics, and what an exciting performance you gave!  Imagine how this new piece could sound with the same careful practice and attention to detail.”


It’s easy for students to forget the amount of work that went into eventually playing a piece well.  Sometimes, thinking back to the learning process and what they achieved can help motivate them to put this effort into a new piece in order to achieve the same result.


6. When your child behaves according to the old label, state your feelings and/or your expectations.


disorganized/doesn’t follow-through with assignment


“I am disappointed to see that you did not practice all of your pieces or complete your written work.  I expect you to complete everything on your assignment sheet every week.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Interestingly, even assigning a positive role to a child can have negative consequences, in that it may put pressure on the child to live up to this unrealistic expectation.  In the book, one mother provides an example.  “Heather is adopted.  From the first day she came to us, she was a joy. And she continued to grow into a sweet, adorable child.  I thought of her not only as my pride and joy but I’d tell her a dozen times a day what happiness she brought me.  It wasn’t until I read your chapter on roles that I wondered whether I might be placing too heavy a burden on her to be ‘good,’ or to be ‘my pleasure.’ I also wondered whether there might be other feelings inside her that she was afraid to show.”  As piano teachers, we could easily fall into this trap with those “dream” students.


Think about your students.  Have you unconsciously “categorized” or assigned any of them a “role?”  What is that role?  Are there any positive aspects of this role? (For example, an “unfocused” student might be very creative.)  How would you like this student to think of himself?  After answering these questions, think about how each of the strategies could be applied to free the student from this role.


Now it’s time for me to go finish those dishes . . .

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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

February 13, 2018

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