I remember the recital like it was yesterday. The click of my shoes as I walked across the shiny wood floor; the creak of the steps as I climbed onstage to sit at the polished grand piano. In my childhood memory, there seem to be hundreds of people in the audience; however, in reality there couldn’t have been more than fifty. I was playing Chopin’s “Polonaise in G Minor,” and my teacher had given me the great honor of performing last at the spring recital.
The opening of the piece went well, as it had so many times before. Then it happened—the dreaded memory slip. The rest is a blur, but I somehow stumbled my way through to the end of the piece and finished my performance. As I stood up to take my bow, I was flooded with embarrassment and disappointment. I had played this piece perfectly so many times in practice—what went wrong? How could I ever hope to become a successful musician if I couldn’t perform a piece perfectly?
Over the years, this idea of “success” continued to haunt me. As a college music major, I struggled with performance anxiety, envying my peers who seemed to give note-perfect performances with ease. There were certain repertoire pieces that eluded me, no matter how much I practiced. My daily practice sessions became a chore; my focus always on the next competition or performance.
Eventually, I came to realize that although winning competitions and playing difficult repertoire were great accomplishments, they were not the only accomplishments that made one a successful musician. By limiting myself to such a narrow definition of success, I had overlooked the many other skills I had acquired that made me successful. For example, music theory came easily to me, and while finishing my music degree I often found myself helping my fellow students to understand our more difficult assignments. I had a knack for composition, and I found fulfillment in writing my own music. These skills gave me a feeling of success, and shaped the career path that I eventually chose to follow.
As a novice teacher, the idea of success again consumed me. I began to compare myself to other teachers. Some of my colleagues had students that won every local competition. Perhaps they were more successful teachers than me? My student received an “excellent” instead of a “superior” at the piano festival. Did that mean I had failed as a teacher?
Like before, I was limiting myself to a very narrow view of success, and in doing so I was also doing a huge disservice to my students. I soon realized that my students were individuals, with different strengths and weaknesses and different learning styles. Each of them needed to discover their own success in music, just as I had. And furthermore, each of them needed to know that they had the ability to succeed.
As teachers, we often focus on quantifiable results with our students: a contest score, the grade on a theory test, the length of time it takes to finish a method book. While these methods of assessment can be valuable tools in helping us to measure a student’s progress, they might not always give us a complete picture of a student’s abilities and achievements. The notion of student assessment has become a hot-button issue for teachers of all subjects, not just music. In this era of standardized testing, are teachers overlooking valuable skills that students need in order to truly be successful?
I decided to make it my goal as a teacher to help my students to be successful in their own way at every lesson. While this is an easy goal to accomplish with some of my students, with others it requires more creativity and planning. Here are some of the ways I strive to help my students define their own success:
Help students set their own goals for study.
One of the most important questions I ask my students is, “what are your goals for piano study?” I like to ask new students this question at their first lesson. I also pose this question to students periodically throughout the year, especially at the start of a new semester or at the conclusion of a big event, such as a recital or festival. Knowing a student’s personal goals for piano study can be very helpful. These goals can serve as the “carrots” that motivate a student; for example, I might give a student a song they have asked to learn as a reward for completing a challenging assignment.
These goals can also serve as the vehicles by which I teach important musical concepts. For example, one of my students had recently completed a project with his scout troop of learning to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He decided to make it his goal to learn to play several patriotic songs that he could share with his troop. We chose arrangements of familiar pieces that reinforced the concepts he was learning in his method book. Even though tackling these pieces meant taking a break from his method book for a couple of months (and therefore postponing his placement to the next level) the pride that my student felt after mastering these songs more than made up for it. By working on these challenging but familiar pieces, my student’s sense of rhythm improved, as well as his note-reading skills. Analyzing and memorizing these songs also solidified his grasp of the theory concepts we were learning. Several months later, these songs still remain some of the favorite pieces in my student’s repertoire.
Often young students may not be able to name a specific goal they would like to achieve, but they may have a favorite song they would like to learn, perhaps a piece they have heard a friend or sibling play. As younger students progress and get experience playing a variety of musical styles, we revisit their choice of goals. By contrast, older students often have very specific goals. I frequently have students that want to participate in jazz band at school, or praise band at church. I have taught budding songwriters, as well as students that just want to master a famous Classical piece, such as “Fur Elise.” No matter what the goal, I have found that involving students in planning their course of study helps to keep them motivated and excited about music. In addition, a student’s feeling of success is multiplied when they succeed at a goal they have set for themselves.
Adapt my teaching style to meet each student’s needs.
“Bonnie” was one of my more challenging students. She was a bright girl and had a great ear for music. However, Bonnie struggled with note-reading and was a sporadic practicer, so much so that she had already quit lessons once before. I discovered that Bonnie had a vivid imagination, and we began devoting a portion of each lesson to improvising and composing, even though this meant that we progressed more slowly than I would have liked through her lesson book. Bonnie started to open up in her lessons and became a much more confident and enthusiastic student. Soon we started notating her compositions on staff paper, and she would arrive for her lessons with a stack of pages full of her own handwritten songs. Because she was spending so much time writing on the staff, Bonnie’s note-reading began to improve, and she began practicing more out of her lesson book at home. What could have been another failed attempt at piano lessons turned into a positive experience for Bonnie because she was given the opportunity to be successful in her own way.
In addition to tailoring my students’ lessons to accommodate their strengths and weaknesses, I also consider their individual learning styles. As a visual learner myself, I have found it quite easy to work with my students that learn visually; worksheets and flashcards have long been a part of my teaching repertoire. However, helping my students that are aural or tactile learners has been more of a challenge. I have expanded my teaching arsenal to include manipulatives, such as a magnetic staff board and figurines that can sit on the piano keyboard for teaching theory concepts. I find myself taking more time to model pieces for my students, or teaching patterns by rote before diving into the score. Above all, I strive to be patient with my students and give them the opportunity to absorb a concept in their own way—even if it means spending more of our valuable lesson time on a concept than I had originally planned.
Balance skills to create well-rounded students.
Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges of being a teacher is finding the balance between teaching the skills that a student wants to learn as well as those that he or she needs to learn. Teachers understand that learning to play an instrument isn’t always easy or fun. While students might not immediately see the importance in completing their least favorite assignments, acquiring the discipline to do so is a valuable life lesson. Sometimes these less exciting tasks lay the groundwork for accomplishing important goals later on. In my own case, as I reflect on my childhood performance of that fateful Chopin “Polonaise,” I have realized that while solo performance never came easily to me, I am very grateful to the teachers that encouraged me to get outside of my comfort zone and perform. I learned something from each and every performance—including the fact that a “bad” performance is not the end of the world! My experience performing has helped me to gain confidence in public speaking, a skill I use frequently as a teacher. I have also found enjoyment in accompanying and performing as a collaborative pianist—something I might never have tried had I not been encouraged to perform frequently as a student.
There are many facets to being a successful musician; my goal as a teacher is to encourage my students to explore each of those facets, even those that might not come as naturally to them. Although repertoire, theory, and technique usually serve as the core of my lessons, I like to rotate through other activities at my students’ lessons each week, including improvising, playing by ear, playing duets, harmonizing lead sheets, etc. Students benefit from having a well-rounded curriculum, and they can count on having at least one activity at their weekly lesson at which they will excel. By both setting my students up for success, as well as challenging them to try things outside of their comfort zones, I know that they will continue to learn and grow into successful musicians.
So, as I enter my eighteenth year of teaching, how do I define success for my students? In my studio, successful musicians:
- Set goals for themselves and create a plan of action to achieve them.
- Know how to work independently and to solve problems in their practicing.
- Have the discipline to practice not only what is easy, but what is necessary to achieve their goals.
- Are well-rounded, and have experience playing music in a variety of styles, as well as creating their own music away from a written score.
- Know that music is a means of self-expression, and is meant to be shared with others by listening, performing, and creating.
I know that most of my students probably won’t go on to pursue a career in music. However, I am confident that music will always be an important part of their lives. The skills they have learned in their music lessons—not just musical skills but also life skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, self-discipline, and self-expression—are the skills that will shape each of my students as they make the transition into adulthood.
And in helping my students to achieve these skills, I have finally found my own success as a teacher.