Getting to Know Your Piano Pupil
One of the best things about a piano lesson – aside from the fact that it entails passing on a useful and extremely enjoyable skill – is that it is an – often rare – opportunity for some one-to-one communication (… unless, of course, you teach in groups: this can be successful for keyboard lessons but is not generally practical with piano).
Most day-to-day situations are not like this. So many of us are busy trying to split our time between earning money and doing household chores (or, in the case of younger people, doing school-work and furthering their other interests) that there is little space for ‘quality’ time to spend alone with a parent, partner or child.
If there is more than one child in the house, the chances of each being given individual attention are even more remote – and they certainly won’t be getting much of it in school, where it all too often seems only the most disruptive are singled out. Yet we all need some ‘me’ time and that one half hour a week spent with a piano teacher is an opportunity for a pupil – of any age – to experience being the centre of attention. It is also advantageous to the teacher: I am sure those who work in busy classrooms sometimes envy those of us who get to teach one at a time.
On the whole, I find building up a relationship with my pupil relatively easy. Adult learners are invariably more than happy to chat and, as I said before, I am yet to meet a child who comes anywhere near to matching my own degree of shyness: most take very little persuasion to ‘open up’. However, I’m careful to take a cautious approach, particularly as many have difficult home situations and I don’t want to appear nosy or to pry into their private lives.
Having found out a few basic facts at the beginning – such as the school the child attends and maybe whether he has brothers or sisters, I then use the pieces in John W. Schaum Pre-A The Green Book to elicit a little more conversation. For example when he reaches Bone Sweet Bone, I might say: “Have you ever had a dog? What pets do you have?” etc. I may tell him about our own family pets. If the child tells me his pets’ names, I’ll try to discreetly jot them down. Children expect you to remember things like that … they don’t consider the fact that you may have 30 other pupils with pets’ names to remember … and why should they? I like each pupil to feel special and to know that I’m interested in the things that matter to him.
Although my questions – and the occasional jotting down of answers – may seem a little contrived, my interest in each pupil is totally genuine and if it weren’t for my inadequate memory there would be no need for any note-taking.
Other Green Book pieces which can lead easily into conversations include The Ice Cream Cone (a discussion about favourite flavours and other foods) or The Donkey Party – ‘Have you ever played pin a tail on the donkey?’ (Many look at me as if I’m from another planet when I ask this). Or, more predictably: “What did you do for your last birthday party?’ etc.
Of course, you have to keep some control of this ‘chatting time’ otherwise it could eat too far into the lesson. Some children are very crafty and the ones who are less keen to learn will do their best to distract you. If a pupil starts telling what appears to be a long story, I’ll cut him short (as gently as possible … maybe saying: “let’s do this piece first and you can tell me at the end … if there’s time”).
A ‘Listening Ear’
Sometimes, however, I do feel I have to give a little more time to being a ‘listening ear’. I’ve had children start the lesson in tears because they’ve just fallen out with a friend or have discovered a close relative is seriously ill. While I don’t have either the desire or the ability to be a counsellor, there are times when it’s pointless trying to proceed with a lesson until the pupil has dealt with pressing emotional issues. Again, you can’t let this go on for too long but you are more likely to succeed in helping a child to play the piano if they feel they have your trust and sympathy. Piano-playing is, in itself, an emotional, sensitive skill and I have little regard for teachers who fail to take account of their pupils’ feelings.
I’m aware that my approach wouldn’t suit everyone. Some might think – “Why pay a piano teacher to go and have a chat!” However, I don’t feel that ‘chat’ is a waste of money: if a pupil has five minutes of relaxed conversation during his half hour lesson he’s far more likely to want to come again.
When the child ‘opens up’ a little this is useful not only for the child himself but also for the teacher – particularly when it comes to the question of practising. It’s all very well for a piano teacher to sit there and declare: “you must practise for X number of hours/minutes per day” – but when you find out a little about your pupil’s home life, you may discover this isn’t quite as easy as it seems.
We all know that these days many parents live separately. Obviously this means that part of a child’s time may be spent at the home of the ‘other’ parent who may or may not have an instrument for him to practise on. It’s one thing for a piano teacher to say: “you must have a suitable instrument to practise on” but a bit much to add: “and make sure you have one at your other parent’s home too.”
Even children whose parents are together sometimes spend surprisingly little time at home – many are looked after by grandparents and childminders or go to day care nurseries – in some cases both before and after school. Others have numerous other out-of-school activities or brothers and sisters with out-of-school activities – all of which may lead to them being away from their own home and piano.
So, before a piano teacher starts lecturing about regular practice, it’s best to have some idea of what is realistically achievable – otherwise the pupil will feel defeated before he starts.
Choosing a Suitable Practice Time
Despite the difficulties outlined above, most children will have some time in the day which is ‘wasted’ – perhaps playing for too long on their phones, tablets or computers or watching a television programme which doesn’t really interest them. Encourage them to be aware of these times and – if possible – help them to identify a regular 10-minute slot when they are ‘free’ most – or ideally every – day.
Some teachers may feel that 10 minutes is insufficient. To my mind, 10 minutes is plenty to suggest in the early stages (bearing in mind that those who are happy to do 10 minutes may well decide for themselves to do more) and pupils who feel they have to practise for hours are easily deterred.
One of the best things about most young learners – certainly if it is they who have asked for piano lessons (rather than having been pushed into learning by a parent) – is an abundance of enthusiasm. Many I have taught have come to the first lesson desperate to show me they can play Chopsticks, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, The EastEnders theme tune (available in various compilation books) or, even, the first nine notes of Fur Elise (The latter is a favourite among those who have ‘learned piano’ using modern technology).
It’s tempting to dismiss these attempts – particularly if they are played with uneven timing or peculiar fingering (sometimes just one finger). However, although it may well go against your natural instinct, it’s always worth praising what’s been achieved. Teaching kids piano is all about building their confidence: if you make the child feel happy and relaxed rather than deflated (or worse still, ridiculed), he is more likely to warm to you and listen to what you have to say.
Then you can go on to explain that – impressive though his first attempts at playing may be – they are something which can be achieved by people who don’t have piano lessons and who only ever learn to play a handful of pieces. He, on the other hand, by learning the skill of reading music, will eventually be in the privileged position of being able to pick up virtually any piece– whether it’s classical, jazz or pop – and be able to play it. (This may be a good time to find out what sort of music your pupil likes as it will give him something to aim for).
Other enthusiastic pupils may want to show you a tune they’ve composed themselves – either during the first lesson or at a later stage. Again, this should, of course, be encouraged and – when it comes to the point where the pupil can actually write his music on the stave – this can be a very useful method of helping him become more familiar with the notes.
Excite Their Imagination
Quieter, or less enthusiastic pupils, may need something extra to spark their interest. In some cases, I find a shy child livens up a little when I excite his imagination. For example, I may look at the wall behind the piano and suddenly say: “Oh look, the audience is coming in … you’d better try really hard this time. Audience, can I have your attention please! So-and-so is about to play such-and-such-a-piece for you. He hasn’t been learning it for long so please give him plenty of encouragement.” Then I’ll turn to my pupil – who, by this point, is either wide-eyed, confused, disapproving or giggling – and whisper to them: “OK, off you go!” It’s amazing, but even the most cynical child will generally make more of an effort with an ‘audience’.
However, I must admit, one young pupil brought me back down to earth when I was in full flow (saying things like: “Excuse me madam, will you sit down and remove your hat please … stop rustling your sweet papers everyone …”): he turned to me and said rather scornfully: “Do you realise, you’re talking to a wall?!”
What some teachers forget, is that many adult pupils crave one-to-one attention just as much as children do. (I speak from experience). It may well be the only ‘me’ time they have in a week and – understandably – they want to make the most of it.
They also need plenty of praise and reassurance. However, some teachers are reluctant to dish out compliments – perhaps believing that the older learner will feel patronised by too many ‘well done’s.
Adults Need Praise Too
Although some adults will modestly try to argue with me when I tell them a piece or set of scales has improved, I sense that they’re secretly rather pleased – I know I always was when in their position. Learning piano as an adult, although enjoyable and rewarding, can also give rise to self-doubts.
The majority of adults I have taught are women in their 40s and nearly all have displayed a very obvious lack of confidence. On the whole, they tend to play hesitantly: some keep a finger hovering over a correct note for a few seconds before they dare play it. Others take their hands off the piano in horror when they hit a wrong key. I try to reassure them, promising that I too often play wrong notes, that it’s not the ‘crime’ they seem to think it is and that it’s much better to keep their hands over the piano rather than risk losing their place.
I have taught fewer adult males – but enough to have noticed a common trait. While not wanting to stereotype any group of learners, I do feel that men, on the whole, tend to put speed and fluency before accuracy. They also have less patience with themselves and are annoyed that they make mistakes – but are more inclined to continue playing regardless.
However, despite these gender generalisations, I would say the most important thing about each learner is his individuality and the more you get to know and understand him, the better.