I have taught piano lessons for almost 35 years. I wish that I had kept a record of all my students. While I can’t remember all of them, a few stand out.
One such student is a little boy who wanted to learn to play the piano. He told his mom and she called me. We discussed all the particulars and I purchased the set of books for him and we scheduled lessons for each week. I can still see him eagerly coming into the house. As always, the first lesson is about how to sit at the piano, how to curve your fingers, how to number your fingers, high tones, low tones, the basics. He did get to play a short song and I sent him on his way with pages to practice for next week.
Later that night I got a call from his mom. She apologized but said he wouldn’t be taking lessons anymore. I asked if I’d done something wrong. She said, “No, he just didn’t realize that he’d have to come back every week and practice during the week. He thought he could come tonight and be done. I guess I didn’t prepare him well.”
Believe me, I got a big laugh out of that! No wonder he walked away with less enthusiasm than when he came!
When I have girl students, I always start out telling them, while their moms are present, that I only have one rule. No crying. Piano should be fun and it’s hard to read the music through tears. And it’s hard to play when you are wiping away tears. And, I don’t like snot on my keys. And I would never kill them for not practicing. It might kill me to listen to them, but I won’t harm them. I won’t even yell at them. I’ll just make them do it again. And no tears because you can’t get it. Sometimes, learning new stuff is hard. We will work through it together until you understand. Until your fingers cooperate. Until you conquer that piece.
The interesting thing about piano lessons is that the teacher really doesn’t have much to do with the success or failure of the student. The teacher can give the information, but it is up to the student to either excel (by practicing) or torture the teacher (by thinking that practice isn’t necessary.) After 35 years I should go for a job with the CIA or FBI or something, because I’ve lived through a lot of torture.
One student obviously hated to play the piano unless it was a blues song. (You can always tell when they like a song.) This young man’s parents tried everything, even threatening that he would have to pay for the lessons if I made him do the song over. (Not fair. Some songs take more than one week. Or two. Or three.) I found the best motivation for him was to give him a “Get out of lesson free” card if he had several good lessons in a row. Hey, whatever works.
Interestingly, this same young man’s brother loved piano lessons. I loved his piano lessons. I believe I taught him for over 10 years – almost beyond my own ability. He always played the songs well, and I often suspicioned that he practiced the next week’s songs so he could sightread them well, too. He is now in college and playing in the band. I hope he continues with the piano.
Mixed in between are other students who took lessons so they could play the drums in band, or amuse themselves on the keyboard, and I’m pretty sure there were quite a few who were living out the dreams of their moms who always wanted to learn. I often wonder if they remember anything from their piano lessons. It seems like piano teachers are stereo-typically mean, old, and strict. I hope they don’t remember me that way. I never had a ruler in my hand during lessons, I promise.
Some kids will never excel at piano. But the lessons are a good opportunity to learn discipline, brain-finger coordination, and a foreign language. I’m not just talking about Italian. I often compare learning to read music to learning a foreign language. I also like to incorporate music appreciation into the lessons. In the second year book, the student learns to play Largo – a simplified version at least. I like to pull out my record and play the London Symphony version for them so they hear what it should sound like. Unfortunately, most of them are so amazed at the turntable and record that they can’t listen to the song! But that’s OK. Everyone should know what a record and turntable are.
The life of a piano teacher – the best of times – the worst of times. If only a few learn to appreciate the music of the piano, then I’ve been a success.