Monday Mailbag – Students Leaping into the Unknown

I had a beginning student come to lessons and pull out her lesson book we’ve been working on, except she had jumped ahead 10 or so pages and wanted to play that piece for me.  She is still an off-the-staff-black-keys-only player, and this piece was on white keys complete with note names in the note heads, and she has no idea what any of that means!  She struggled through the first few measures for me, quite confused, so I stopped her, praised her, and told her, “We will eventually get to the rest of the song, but let’s go back and look at what I assigned you for this week!” How should I handle such situations with highly motivated students who attempt to rush things beyond their capabilities?  Praise them for jumping ahead?  Discourage them from jumping so far ahead? I’ve been debating this ever since, telling myself I should have let her finish playing the song for me, etc.

Ah, how familiar this sounds! Whether a beginning student trying to tackle white key songs or an elementary student insisting that they want to learn Fur Elise. At this very moment I have an intermediate student who is determined to learn the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, so we are plodding through it measure by measure, one hand at a time. And she is doing amazingly well.

Sometimes it’s shocking what a highly motivated student can accomplish! Conversely, sometimes it’s pathetic what a very unmotivated student can’t (or won’t) accomplish. And perhaps that’s why I always go out of my way to help the motivated ones be successful. Here are some approaches that I have found helpful in dealing with these situations:

1. Find out why the student wants to learn the piece. If they genuinely love the music and just want to be able to play it, but it’s beyond their reading abilities, sometimes I offer to teach it to them by rote. Students can often play pieces more technically and rhythmically challenging than their current reading level. Case in point is one of my guys who still hasn’t finished the level one lesson books, but is doing a fabulous job learning “Moment Musical” by Schubert. Be aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths to help them learn pieces that are exciting to play.

2. Establish specific criteria that the student must meet in order to learn the piece. For a beginning student, perhaps it would be the memorization of a set of flashcards; for the elementary student who wants to learn Fur Elise, teaching them to play arpeggios fluidly in the left hand would be a great goal before tackling the piece; for a more advanced student try setting a specific tempo at which they have to play a particular scale or scales flawlessly.

3. Insist that continued work on their “dessert” piece is contingent upon them following through with their other assignments. We all know horror stories of students who can play advanced repertoire amazingly well, but can’t count a simple rhythmic pattern or identify notes on the staff. I’m all for students trying hard things, but not at the expense of other fundamental skills that they must know in order to be well-rounded musicians.

4. Let the student work on the piece on their own and just play it for you occasionally without devoting an inordinate amount of lesson time to learn it. This is often a good approach for pop music that is better learned by ear than by strict attention to notation anyway. I encourage the student to keep listening to recordings and doing their best to learn it on their own. I’ll answer questions or help them with minimal difficulties they experience along the way, but mostly they are on their own.

5. Find additional inspiring music appropriate to the student’s level. If a student is moving ahead and trying to learn songs on their own, it may be an indication that they are bored with the current amount of assigned material. Perhaps a supplemental book at their level or even the addition of a few more pages in their lesson book would give them enough to focus on. Another possibility would be to assign them to pick out a familiar tune by ear – or determine another way to channel their enthusiasm and motivation into practical musical assignments.

6. Above all, be sensitive to the needs of each student. In the above case, if the student just on a whim that morning flipped ahead and pretended to play a song beyond her ability, it’s probably no big deal to direct her back to the lesson at hand. But if the student had been eying the song for several weeks and then devoted hours to trying to make sense of it and learn it, she would probably be devastated not to have the chance to demonstrate what she had accomplished. A balance of affirmation and wisdom is essential to discern the best response!

Anyone else have some input to share? How do you handle students who leap into the unknown when it comes to learning pieces on their own?

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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