Monday Mailbag – Teaching Students to Play Beautifully

One of my families (I teach three of their children) has quite a different view on what is important in their musical education.  They want to learn as many pieces as possible each week, without worrying too much about all the important details (dynamics, mood, rhythm, etc.).  They also put technique down at the bottom of the list, so the one student is quite behind.  How do you suggest I get them to understand the importance of learning to play each piece to the best of their ability?  I want to help them become wonderful pianists that are a pleasure to listen to!  Please help!

I love questions like this! Why? Because when I first read it, my response is, “I have no idea!” 🙂 Since that’s not especially helpful, though, questions like this force me to think long and hard, thus formulating philosophies and approaches that I trust will help me become a better teacher. Here are some of my thoughts at this point:

1. Communication is key. There is a proverb that says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” This is how I try to approach my students (and their parents). Everyone comes to their musical studies with different expectations and aspirations. I want to understand what they expect, what they want to achieve, what make them feel successful, etc. and then use that knowledge to guide them appropriately. The best way to do this? Ask lots of questions! The better you understand your students, what they think, and why they think it, the more effective you will be as their teacher.

2. Praise character, not achievement. Many students pick up the notion that the supreme goal is to “pass a song.” (I really dislike the whole practice of “passing songs” and putting stickers on pages to show that a student can move on, but I digress…) Instead of presenting a vague expectation of using better dynamics, articulations, etc., try pointing out very specific elements and tying it to the student’s character (e.g. “Wow! I really appreciate how attentive you were to the staccatos here in measure 4. Every one of those notes was so crisp-sounding!”). You can praise their diligence in consistently playing one thing correctly, or their perseverance in trying repeatedly until they mastered a difficult concept, or their sensitivity in bringing out a different mood at one particular place. The point is that character is transferable, but achievement is not. Even if you are letting a student “pass” songs, try incorporating these elements of praise and see if you start to notice them applying the same character as they learn new pieces!

3. Make it relevant. Motivation is closely linked to relevance. Whether it’s putting together a studio-wide practice incentive theme, signing the student up for a competition or evaluation, having them participate in a recital, or just giving them a one-week challenge, if a student is working toward something specific there will be much more motivation to do it well. Most of those are self-explanatory, but for the one-week challenge, here’s an example. Print off a copy off the Personal Performance Evaluation and write on it the title of a piece on which the student is currently working. Tell them that the following week you will evaluate them on each of those areas on a scale of 1-10 and their goal is to see if they can get every single area to the level of a 10. If you feel so inclined, you could even offer them a special award for reaching that goal.

Eventually, of course, you want to get to the point where the student listens to their playing and appreciates the beauty of the music itself. But often it takes some very creative measures to get to the point where you can even begin to instill this appreciation. I would sure love to get some feedback from others on this. How do you help students and parents realign their expectations so that they are more concerned about playing beautifully than just learning lots of songs?

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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