Stray Thoughts

The majority of my piano students are at a school I have now been at for nearly two years. As a private tutor, this is my 10th year (although it’s dubious whether anyone could call 16-year-old me farting through ‘John Thompson’s First Piano Book’ with a confused 6 year old, “teaching”). During that time, many lessons have made themselves apparent – the cliche saying of “my students have taught me just as much as I’ve taught them” actually rings true. So at the risk of someone actually stumbling across this ramble, here are some things I never learnt as a music student.

  1. There is no one right way to teach piano.

    I was brought up learning classical music, doing AMEB/ATCL exams for 12 years. The focus was always on immaculate technique, detailed expression and strong reading, bundled together in a rigorous training schedule enforced by a dutiful tiger-mum.  This method made me a highly competent musician, able to eventually transition into musical theatre with ease. It also made me want to quit, around half of my school years. 

    Nobody taught me contemporary styles. How to read from a lead sheet. Basic improvisation or jazz theory. The entire framework of AMEB is or was, built around selling books and exams to eager parents. 

    I brought my classical biases to teaching early on. Rigid, inflexible. Clinging to method books for dear life. Unforgiving of imperfections. None of the students I taught in my first 4 years are with me today. Once I started designing programmes around students, rather than trying to jam them into a predetermined framework, the change in energy in some of my students was immediate and overwhelming. 
  2. Kids need to enjoy music.

    My practice sessions were always gruelling – 1-3 hours per day, every day. Imperfection wasn’t tolerated. Social interaction, food and even the ability to do homework all came second. This was the first 10 years of my musical life, having started piano at 4. I hated it, and vowed that my own kids would never be subject to the same attitudes. But what about my students?

    Coming into my first big batch of school students, I couldn’t process the scope of differences in ability, work ethic, or interest in the instrument. Everybody wanted or needed something different – some students adored classical music. Others were interested in jazz, pop, even country. One aspiring music producer just wanted to understand chord inversions for his tracks. Another student, having already gone through the AMEB system wanted to write her own music. 

    None of this made sense to me. Don’t all kids have to go through their initiation rites of Mozart, Chopin before having the privilege of enjoying their music? Why isn’t everybody being whipped through 2 hours of practice a day? Oh, right. Because kids aren’t supposed to be put through that. They need to feel not only challenged, but also engaged and listened to. Half of the students who have transferred to me in the past two years had no idea why they were learning piano past “my parents made me” – completely unaware of their potential and the breadth of musicianship available to them. 
  3. Students all learn at a different pace (and that’s okay).

    More than anything else, teaching has taught me patience. Some students will take a term and a half to learn one piece. Others will rip through a full programme before you have a chance to blink. Kids and adults alike will have down days. They will be inundated with work/study/family commitments. Maybe they’re hit with a pandemic and are forced to ingest all of their interactions via a screen for 9 months. Oftentimes, they just can’t be buggered that week – and That. Is. Okay.

     Although it should have become obvious to me sooner, nobody explicitly informed me that teaching is not an exercise in guilt, or shame, or undue pressure. You’re just as likely to end up with a smaller, grumpier lump of coal as you are a diamond – possibly even more so. 
  4. Obstacles are always better when viewed as opportunities.

    One student of mine over the past two years (we’ll call them M), has demonstrated an incredible knack for repeatedly injuring themselves. Having multiple times arrived at the studio sporting a cast, sling, bandage or simply multiple band-aids, M has always had a story ranging from believable to relatively outlandish. 
    A particular incident saw M arrive with a wrist injury and declared out of action for 6 weeks. As the student was paid up for the term, I presented a challenge. We were already halfway through a couple of pieces which were relatively sparse – why not try playing them with one hand? The results were not just encouraging, they were incredible. 

  5. All the opportunities I was given, are the result of massive privilege.