THE IMPORTANCE OF EXPERIENCE
I began teaching while in high school. I had taken about 5 years of lessons on the organ and made good progress. I thought I could teach beginners. So I put an ad in our local newspaper. The ad produced several inquiries which turned into my first students. I thought I did quite well teaching my first students. My students respected me, accepted me as their teacher and complimented me on my ability to teach.
One mom complimented me saying that I was the only person, other than her son’s father, that could communicate with her son so readily. The little boy was shy, socially awkward and today would be classified as a slow learner. All these positive experiences gave me confidence to study music in college and become a teacher.
In college I majored in piano and kept my organ studies. Today I own a teaching studio, Piano Lessons PLUS, and am the organist for my Church. But after getting my college degrees and starting my teaching career I found there were some things that my natural teaching ability didn’t provide. There were some things that only experience could provide and those experiences were critical in making me the teacher I am today.
MY PERSONAL LEARNING TRAJECTORY AS A STUDENT WOULD BE FAR DIFFERENT THAN THE LEARNING TRAJECTORY OF MY TYPICAL STUDENT
Most music teachers choose to be teachers because music comes easily and naturally to them. That’s not to say we didn’t have to work hard but it was “fun”work.
So, I naturally thought that all my students would love music as much as I did. I mistakenly thought they would learn pretty much at the same pace I did. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case so one of the first major lessons I learned after my college education, a lesson that could only be learned through experience, was my experience as a student was going to be different than that of my students.
In the first years of my teaching I tended to go much too fast through the initial books. I could get away with this for a short while but then the student would come to a plateau and crash. We would try to fight our way through that plateau but it brought about a frustration to the student that wasn’t necessary.
The initial steps in learning to read musical manuscript must be thoroughly understood. Depth of learning is critical to teaching the beginning piano student, regardless of their age of beginning lessons. It doesn’t matter if the student is 4 or 12. To learn to read music well a student must read music, a lot of it. Here’s one place where we are not talking quality; we’re talking quantity.
Once I learned this very important lesson my students began learning at a much steadier rate. I found they were no longer the running into “brick walls”. There was much less frustration and piano lessons became a natural progression. The trajectory of my students learning was much steadier. Experience became my friend.
TECHNIQUE IS A LONG AND ARDUOUS TASK — FOR THE TEACHER
It wasn’t until I was in college that technique was approached as a scientific study of how to utilize the human mechanism to produce facility and a beautiful tone. My teachers before college gave me finger exercises. Play these exercises and with sufficient repetition you could play any piece you desired. While in college it was a huge mental adjustment to approach the piano from this new paradigm.
When I began teaching professionally I had to take these rather complex ideas I learned in my 20’a and apply them to young grade school students. It was among the most difficult of the tasks I had, to bring these sophisticated principles down to a grade school level. But with each student I taught I learned better and better ways to convey these principles to my students.
My class of students had students with so many different mechanical abilities that it just added to my personal learning curve. Some students had very delicate hands. Some where honestly frail. Others students had very strong hands but each with varying degrees of flexibility. Even other students had finger joints that easily collapsed that made producing a good sound on the piano difficult.
But after years of close observation eventually I got to the place where I had enough experiences that the problems I saw began to repeat. Eventually I knew what I needed to do and the tasks I needed to give the students so they could maximize their personal technical potential. It was only through experience that I as a teacher learned how to master the teaching of technique to my young students.
PROGRESSING THE STUDENT — ANOTHER TASK ONLY MASTERED THROUGH EXPERIENCE
My first lessons were on the organ. I was 11 years old. My progress was far different than the progress of those who started on the piano at age 7, which was the typical starting age in the early 1960’s. The rate a student progresses is very different depending on the age the student begins.
When I began teaching I had to guess which books to purchase. I had to hope the books I choose would match the rate of progress of each student. Of course, each student had a different level of natural ability and that further complicated this issue too. Every student brought me a different set of issues that demanded my attention.
But again, the only example I had was my own personal experience. And starting music rather late at age 11 didn’t give me a very good template when I began my own studio of students. Again there was a lengthy learning curve in understanding all the possibilities of judging the right level of music that would maximize my individual student’s progress.
This is especially true in the intermediate level of piano study where one chooses more repertoire from a body of musical compositions that really wasn’t written with any thought to step by step progress as is typical of method books written for the elementary piano student. Bach wrote many superb pieces for children. So did Schumann and Bartok. But these pieces were written with no thought to sequencing; which piece to teach first and which piece to teach next.
So, choosing the “right” next piece is dependent upon the teacher’s judgment. This requires a lot of thought and study for any piano teacher. It comes from seeking out and knowing a vast amount of literature for the developing piano student and then categorizing them it in a logical progression of study. Then from this body of music choosing selections wisely that will maximize the students learning. Of course, this is different for each student.
Choosing selections that are not too hard or too easy, choosing selections that are progressing the student musically and technically, choosing selections that are properly varied from the major historical epochs of music history, choosing selections that would be appealing to the personality of the student all go into finding the next “right” composition. I didn’t learn this without a lot of study and experience.
TEACHING THE CLASSICAL MUSICAL TRADITION
Most piano teachers I know feel they are passing on to their students a great musical tradition. A tradition that is centuries old and a tradition that was centuries in the making. It is a tradition that teachers feel a responsibility to pass on to their student because it represents the very best of all human endeavor.
Passing on that tradition to my students was another item in my teaching that required a lengthy learning curve. At college all our classes; history, theory and performance classes combined to give us an overview of that tradition. There was no class in MUSIC TRADITION 101.
Our musical tradition is something that is slowly absorbed in the consciousness of the student through diligent study. As a teacher one of my goals and functions was to take this information, this tradition, and distill it to my students in a level they could understand.
When I taught my students about simple music notation, the treble and bass clef or grand staff, I would relate the story of a time when there was no musical notation. Music was passed on aurally. In time, as music became more complex the need arose that music could no longer be passed on from generation to generation aurally. So, musical notation was born. Through the next generations a system of musical notation was devised that eventually became what we have today.
Then I can present to my students the concept that music notation is something that is still in the process of changing and most probably what we have in a couple hundred years will be something different from today BUT something that will be built from what we have today. Students can then see and understand that they are a member of the great sweep of history and they come into the long ongoing story of history at this special moment in time. Taking this approach we can help students see that when Bach was born he came on the scene at a time when music was doing things that caused him to write music the way he did. We can understand why Bach wrote minuets but Bartok didn’t.
The reason I use Bach and Bartok as my examples is because Bach and Bartok wrote music at the level of young piano students. They are going to come in contact with these composers and through these composers I can pass on this great musical tradition to the next generation. But again, it took a lot of thought and study to take my musical education, absorb it, and bring it to the level of my students. This only came through experience.
THE CONCLUSION OF THE MATTER
I started teaching in my teen years and found I had a good aptitude for teaching. This teaching led me to consider studying music in college. After college I had a good education and could begin my own studio. But there was a major thing I lacked and that was experience.
It was only through applying myself to the day to day task of teaching my class of students that a comprehensive picture began to emerge of how to go about my teaching tasks in a way that was best for my students. It was only through drawing constantly from my education and thoughtfully taking that knowledge and making it connect with my students at their level that I became the teacher I am today.
It was only through a careful study of how students learn and progress that I became confident that the materials I was giving them was the right materials for them. All teachers that take their work seriously go through this same process. Their journey and their emphasis may be somewhat different but the process is the same.
So parents, if you are considering a piano teacher, consider a teacher that teaches because they love teaching. And certainly consider a teacher that has had the time to have his education simmer and has had the experience to learn those things that only experience can give.