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Lack of Confidence
With some children, shyness or lack of confidence is sometimes masked by a different type of behaviour. I taught one boy who used to giggle a lot and it was a while before I realised that this was not due to an outgoing, bubbly personality: it was actually an extreme nervous reaction to playing a wrong note.
Very young children sometimes arrive at lessons armed with a teddy bear, or character toy, for comfort. I always show an interest in this ‘companion’ as I know – both from my own childhood and from my sons’ – that an inanimate friend can often be a great source of comfort. I find out a few things about ‘Teddy’, help the child to choose the best place for him to sit and ask, at the end, which piece of music he found the most enjoyable. (I probably ‘believe’ in soft toys more than most children do!)
I am less receptive to the idea of pupils having real-life friends in the room with them. This has happened in the past – a parent arrived at the door with child and child’s friend who was having a sleepover. I reluctantly agreed to have the friend in the piano room as I didn’t want to upset either of the children (I also realised the friend could be a potential new pupil!) However, I think I would have said an apologetic ‘no’ had the situation occurred a second time.
I’ve also had many turn up with brothers and sisters in tow. In this case, I let them sit in the hall with the parent and occasionally they’ve made friends with my own children. The only sibling who I wouldn’t be happy to welcome again was a baby who filled his nappy and stank the house out!
And, while I’m on the subject of calls of nature, I’m often amazed how many children have asked to go to the toilet at the beginning of a lesson. Sometimes I think they’re deliberately trying to waste time (especially if the parent has dropped them off so would be unaware of this), but I suppose with some it could be nervousness which, as I said, always gets my sympathy.
I admit I have far less patience with cocky children (‘cocky’ is certainly not a word I would use for any of the adults I’ve taught – some have been a little over-ambitious, hence a tendency to play too quickly but, so far, none have been over-confident). Some young people have not been taught basic good manners and think it’s acceptable to bang the keys as soon as they enter the room, or to play while I’m talking to them. I never let this kind of behaviour go unchecked but, of course, giving a long lecture during the lesson does eat into valuable teaching time and I don’t really feel discipline should be part of my job.
I’ve taught plenty of unruly or hyperactive children including some who burp (or worse) loudly and deliberately, many who fidget incessantly and one who attempted to play the piano with his head! Sometimes the only solution is to close the piano lid for a while and talk to them until they’ve calmed down.
Another physical problem displayed by children is extreme tiredness. (Adults are better at disguising this). This causes some youngsters to arrive at the lesson either grumpy or tearful; it also makes them inattentive and disinterested. One girl I taught had a habit of laying her arms, shortly followed by her head on top of the keys amid sighs of: “I can’t do it; I don’t get it”. She was actually a reasonably bright child but one with over-indulgent parents. She had never learned the art of self-motivation and refused to try anything which required effort. I learned from talking to her that she was always allowed to stay up far too late watching television. Of course, I said to her mother: “I think perhaps she’s over-tired” on several occasions but you can’t really interfere with someone else’s parenting. I must admit, when the girl decided to quit I was more relieved than sorry.
A child’s home life often has a bearing on his ability to learn. (The same can be said of adults, of course, although generally as people mature they are more able to cover up their emotions). I’ve had several youngsters come to me in tears over a family illness, bereavement, bullying, arguments with siblings, friendship problems or other difficulties at school. The challenge is finding a balance between being a sympathetic listener, while ensuring that a reasonable amount of the lesson is spent on teaching piano-playing skills.
One of the most common obstacles to learning piano is a reluctance – or in some cases a total refusal – to practise. What can a teacher do about this? Well, you can certainly try to change the situation by discussing ideal practice times, (with both pupil and parent), giving out practice timetables and rewarding practice with praise and stickers. You can also try setting very small, easily achievable tasks (e.g. working on a few bars of music) rather than expecting a whole piece or a long list of scales to be improved.
However, to be honest, there really is only so much a teacher can do. Ideally, the parent should take some responsibility for ensuring that a child practises –preferably by gently encouraging a regular practice habit. With teenagers and adults it’s up to the pupil himself.
So what do you do about a pupil – young or old – who never practises? My belief is that you should continue teaching him, from time to time bringing up the subject of ‘getting into a good practice routine’ but you should never, ever shout or nag – it’s completely pointless.
In the case of a child, I would certainly tell his parents that they’re not getting their money’s worth (I’d feel very guilty if I didn’t do this) and sometimes I may also tell the child himself that he’s wasting his parents’ money.
The older ones sometimes show a sense of guilt – especially if at the end of the lesson I tell them: “We’ve just spent half an hour doing what you should have done for five or 10 minutes every day this week: in other words, your parents have just paid for you to practise.”
However, as long as the pupil continues attending lessons regularly, I’ll always do my best to help him learn – albeit at a very slow rate.
Lack of practice is just another obstacle to learning and, although a piano tutor must take all ‘learning difficulties’ into account, every effort should always be made to see beyond these difficulties and concentrate on helping the pupil make progress in spite of them.