Losing and Regaining Piano Pupils

There’s no point in pretending piano teachers don’t ‘lose’ some pupils: try questioning any small group of adults and you’ll usually find at least one who started learning an instrument (most often piano) as a child – but didn’t keep up the lessons. I’ve read so many magazine interviews with celebrities who say giving up an instrument is their ‘biggest regret’.

Sadly, I count myself as one of these ‘quitters’. The good news is – as so many say they regret giving up – there’s every chance they could start learning again: I’m so glad that’s what I did.

I have a far too long list of ex-pupils and often wonder how many continue to play the piano when they stop lessons and whether they will ever start them again (either with me or with another teacher). A significant number of those whom I’ve taught go on to take up another instrument and tell me they feel piano lessons have made this new challenge so much easier. I’m very pleased about this: sad though I am to lose any pupils, I’m much happier if they continue with music lessons in another form rather than not at all.

Second Instrument

I can’t comment on exactly why learning to play a second instrument seems ‘easier’. It may be just that pupils are more mature and ready to cope with the practising by the time they take up the new one; it may be that a second instrument is always mastered more quickly, simply because the pupil has already learned to read music and understand rhythms etc.; it may be because the piano is intrinsically more difficult to play than other instruments (the reading of two different staves at once and co-ordinating hands accordingly is arguably more difficult than learning correct bowing or blowing techniques; obviously string and wind players may not agree!), or it may be that I’m actually a particularly strict piano teacher (I doubt this!) and any other lessons are a light relief after mine.

On the whole, piano teachers don’t want to ‘lose’ any of their pupils. Even those learners who never practise do make some progress – albeit very slow – and, of course, piano-teaching is a business and – unless you always have a long waiting list – you can’t afford to be too choosy about whom you teach.

For this reason, I would be unlikely to refuse to continue teaching a pupil just because he wasn’t putting in enough effort. However, I would feel extremely guilty if I didn’t do my best to encourage him to try harder and mention his lack of commitment to his parents.

In some cases, parents themselves decide to stop the lessons but in others they just keep hoping that their child will somehow progress.

Know When You’re Beaten

The only pupil I remember voluntarily ‘losing’ was an adult who had been teaching herself for several years (having given up lessons as a child). She had somehow developed a way of playing music without really reading the left hand notes. Instead, she would play from music scores with chord names provided (for guitarists I think) and would make up her own left hand based on these chords.

Initially she said she really wanted to learn to read the left hand but, after a few lessons, I began to doubt that this was actually the case. She had a very good ear for music and I felt that she would benefit far more from someone who could develop her improvisation skills and was able to suggest another teacher who was ideal for this. Of course, this meant a reduction in income for me – but I still felt it was the correct decision. There’s no pleasure in trying to teach someone and taking their money if you sense you’re not really helping them at all. It’s better to know when you’re beaten.

Pupils behave very differently in the way they give up piano. At the worst end of the scale are those who just don’t turn up for a lesson, don’t contact me to explain and ignore any phone messages I leave asking them to get in touch. (In the very worst cases some have quit owing me money: I am now much stricter about insisting on payment on time or in advance).

Sometimes, it seems to happen out of the blue – a pupil appears to be happy, enjoying his lessons and reasonably keen to practise so I have no idea why he’s decided to stop (… although I think financial or home-related problems may account for it in quite a few cases). However, on the whole, I am aware when a learner is beginning to lose interest: he starts practising less and takes every opportunity to have a week off (even when I offer alternative time slots).

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