Monday Mailbag – Helping Students Take Ownership in their Playing

I should start off first be mentioning that I’m 24 yrs old and my student is a married 38 yr old mother of two. She also happens to be a professional singer/dancer/actress locally here in my city. She basically wanted to learn piano so she can accompany her students (she is a director of the children’s performance division of a local theatre company) when they sing or dance in rehearsals.

My dilemma lies within the fact that she has a pretty extensive musical background, so note-reading (for the treble clef, anyway), dynamics, and most theory is already familiar to her. So sometimes I feel like she tunes out when I’m trying to teach her the material out of our method book. I’m also having difficulty conveying to her the importance of perfecting her pieces to the point where she can play it with no mistakes. We’ve discussed these issues, but from my understanding she feels like practicing the piece until she masters it takes too much time and is overkill.

I understand that as a working professional with two young girls, it’s difficult for her to find ample time to sit down and polish her pieces, but the teacher in me knows that if she really wants to be proficient at the piano (to the point of being able to accompany someone competently) she has to learn how to get a piece down 100%. Do you think this issue is worth pressing? Do you have any suggestions for how I could do things differently for the better? I need help!!

This is a pretty extensive explanation, but I thought it would be helpful to include all of it so that others can hopefully contribute to this discussion as well! Here are some thoughts:

1. One thing I’ve been doing this year as part of my Exploring a Galaxy of Music practice incentive is having the student select a “Stellar Student Selection” each week. This is a piece that the student wants to prepare for a polished performance the following week. It can be an easier-level piece that can be mastered in one week, or it can be a more challenging piece that they’ve been working on for a while and are ready to play for mastery. The great benefit with this is that it provides objective criteria that the student is working to achieve and by which their playing is measured. In addition to students being motivated to observe all the details in their playing, I’ve also noticed that if there are areas that the student persistently doesn’t get a point for (e.g. pulse/continuity, or note accuracy), he becomes increasingly motivated to practice and master that area. I just mark one point for each area that they perform well and an X for an area that wasn’t performed well. Here’s a sample of what my chart looks like:

2. If you have the ability to record your student playing and play it back for her, I would highly recommend doing this. It’s amazing how well our ears can compensate for our mistakes while we’re playing so that by the time we finish we can feel like we did a pretty good job even if it was terrible!  In fact, I had a student last week who even upon listening to the recording the first time thought it sounded fine. I had to play the recording back again and have him follow along note by note in his book to become fully aware of all of his errors.

3. Find as many ways as possible to make practicing relevant to her goals. If she wants to accompany, have her learn duet pieces and then play along with her (of course, refusing to stop if she makes mistakes to reinforce the skills necessary for good accompanying). I really like this series: Easy Classical Piano Duets for Teacher and Student. You could even do the same thing to drill technical exercises. Have her play scales while you sing along as though you are a vocal student warming up.

Especially with adults, we teachers are hard-pressed to convince them of anything that they don’t see or understand for themselves. In this situation, you have to lead her through creative processes so that she discovers the need for polishing her pieces. Otherwise you’ll keep talking until you’re blue in the face and it will only lead to greater frustration. That’s what my experience has been, anyway. If anyone has other tips for dealing with this situation, please feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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