Of all the blogs I’ve written the one that has generated the most controversy has been “Piano Lessons Are FUN? THINK AGAIN!!” I would like to revisit that topic with a slightly different angle.
The angle I’d like to explore in this blog is that of “excess“. From this angle I think you can keep your own definition of fun in tact. Whenever this topic comes up it seems several people will make the point of the necessity of defining the word “fun”. This blog will allow you to define the word “fun” however you wish. My point will be, with whatever your definition of “fun” you use, if it is done to excess you will undermine your effectiveness as a teacher.
FIRST POINT — As a piano teacher your primary job is to teach, to educate, NOT HAVE FUN. When you are not giving your primary attention to your primary job your priorities are in need of adjustment. If your FIRST QUESTION is how can I make this teaching task “more fun” I think you’re asking the wrong question. The FIRST QUESTION should always be how can I make this teaching task make sense to the student. Your first question reveals your first concern. Is it to teach or to have fun?
If your first question is about teaching, about educating, the element of making the task enjoyable, or fun, will just be one element of several. There may be other elements that need attention. Other elements may include, “How can I make this more clear?” “How much detail is necessary at this time for this student to understand?” “How does this student best learn information?” “Can I make this more point more effectively through a story?” “Would an activity that would involve more student interaction be more effective?” “Could this task be accomplished through a demonstration of some sort?” “Would my student benefit from more repertoire helping to reinforce the point the student needs to understand?” “Would any sort of written assignment be beneficial?”
BUT, if the first question is about fun then every task listed above is evaluated according to its fun value and not its educational value. You may think, “Going into detail may bore him. I can’t to that.” “Written assignments are a drag. No one likes doing them.” “This student doesn’t like this kind of piece. He may lose interest if I assign it.”
YET, if the first question is about teaching, about educating, you will answer the questions above like this, “How can I make detail work interesting to this student?” “How can I convince this student that this piece would benefit him?” “What would aid this student in helping him see the value of this written assignment?”
Yes, these are more difficult questions to answer, but answering these questions can lead to a more intellectually engaged student and that, in turn, will result in much higher teacher satisfaction.
If a teacher’s primary concern is education, it will lead them to better questions and therefore better answers. However, if your primary concern is making lessons “fun” you will be preventing yourself from asking proper questions and the answers to bad questions will result in answers that will lead to unsatisfactory results.
Now lets examine the concept of how excessive emphasis on wrong values can lead to very unhealthy consequences.
Let’s compare “fun” in teaching to additives like “salt” or “sugar” to the foods we eat. Looking at these additives positively, we can all agree that salt can make something palatable, edible. How many times have we been served something that needed salt to make it palatable? Without the salt we wouldn’t, or maybe even couldn’t, have eaten the item served to us. In like manner, some teaching tasks need to be salted to make them palatable to the student.
HOWEVER, I think we have all found that salt isn’t the only way to make something palatable. Broiling cod in orange juice is terrific and requires no salt at all. Often, herbs provide a great substitute for salt. Sprinkling some Parmesan cheese on vegetables can cut down the salt content and eliminate the need for the salt shaker. The point, through analogy, is that “fun” isn’t the only way of making piano “palatable”. There are many ways of making lessons palatable and even “delicious”. Stories. Analogies. Demonstrations. Goals.
In fact, too much salt is not good for you. Too much salt over a period of time is a cause of many health problems including high blood pressure and poor kidney function. In like manner, always choosing “fun” will just as assuredly cause problems in piano study, including the “addiction” to “fun” as being a necessary additive to all education. Would we become “addicted” to potato chips if they were unsalted? Students need a judicious variety of additives to make their piano study healthy where they do not become sick. Too much “fun” is as problematic as too much “salt” in the long term is, in both general health and piano lessons.
Let’s look at sugar. “Sugar” is another culprit that’s used to excess and can be analogous to those that feel the need to “sugar” every piano lesson, every activity, with “fun”. But, we also know that too much sugar (excess) leads to diabetes; and diabetes can lead to other maladies, including blindness and even kidney failure. Again, I see a direct line from a preoccupation with fun to meager results (poor piano health) after years of piano lessons. When I end a lesson by telling the student, “We had a good lessons today!”, I’m always thinking the student learned a lot in his 30 or 60 minutes; not, that the student left the lesson in good spirits because we had fun in all the activities.
Also, don’t confuse palatability with addiction (excess). A little sweetener is completely acceptable. The problem is confusing taste with nutrition. Sugar doesn’t give food more nutritional value it just make it more palatable, but the excess used day after day is what causes health problems. In like manner, an undue concern to making our lessons sweet enough so they will always be enthusiastically consumed, is wrongheaded. Our main concern should be the “nutritional value” of our lessons with only a secondary concern given to their “palatability”, and excesses need to be curtailed, if not dropped.
But let’s realize that food outlets know our addiction to salt and sugar. People enjoy food that is salty or sweet. It’s easy to eat a large bag of chips because we like the salt. We can easily eat a dozen cookies because we love the sweetness. We have become accustomed to unhealthy levels of salt and sugar because we are not sated by a few chips or a couple cookies. We have been told by health care workers of all stripes to avoid excesses in salt and sugar. I think the exact same thing could be said about education with the constant emphasis on making everything fun.
How many educational products are sold because of its “fun value” where its “educational value” is just given a passing incidental mention. That’s because “fun” sells. In fact, publishers will print and advertise products simply for their “fun value”. Teachers can become addicted too and think that “fun” is the way to go and think through the pedagogical products they purchase. Products that do not convince you of their “fun value” are viewed as not totally desirable. Fun has become, not an additive, but an addiction given to us at excessive rates, and it’s harming our long term educational effectiveness.
I do need to make one important point before closing. I am NOT saying that we don’t advertise ourselves as making music lessons “fun”. We all have to dutifully mention that we make piano lessons “fun”; but, I’m sure we do that as a matter of feeling the societal pressure that it’s necessary to demonstrate we are not that stereotypical curmudgeon of past generations that rapped students on the knuckles for poor technical form or for scolding students for not practicing. I get that. I understand.
But I do see the need for us to see the serious drawbacks that can occur if we get caught up on the “fun trap”. A trap that gives excessive attention to the feeling that making lessons “fun” is given a priority that it simply does not deserve. “Fun” must only be considered an additive to make lessons palatable and needs to be administered judiciously, because in excess, it will lead to poor lesson health. Remember “fun” isn’t the only additive in our teaching pallet; there’s stories, analogies, demonstrations, goals, and plain friendliness and genuine interest in our students as wonderful people. But our priority, our first concern, must be on making our lessons educationally rich where music can work its magic in our student’s lives.