I’m certainly not a teaching expert, although saying that I have a “teaching philosophy” (in multiple parts, even!) does sound pretty fancy. Still, I think that anyone who engages with teaching seriously has some thoughts about it, and it’s not too much of a stretch to call a collection of thoughts and belief systems a philosophy, so here we go!
Even though I haven’t been teaching that long (about six years now), I do know a thing or two about learning. Fortunately, teaching piano is much more about showing someone how to learn things for themselves than it is about filling their heads with specific pieces of information. Yes, of course I want my students to be able to read well, to have good technique, and to know that A major has three sharps. Much of my teaching job involves transmitting concrete pieces of information, but I hope I leave my students with more than that.
Over the course of just one year of lessons I will ask any student to give a lot of themselves to the process of music-making – a lot of time and effort, certainly, but also plenty of other, difficult-to-measure things. I will ask them to take risks, be vulnerable, trust themselves, create, show up when they don’t feel like it, and stick with it when things get tough. On top of it, somebody (whether it’s the student themselves or their supportive parents) is going to pay me by the hour for the privilege.
After all that, I hope that I can give them something more than simply the ability to play a few pieces. If I’m doing my job well, they will emerge with a wonderful, life-long relationship with music-making. More than anything, this relationship is about a sense of trust in their own ability to make music, and it doesn’t particularly matter what shape that takes as long as it works for the student. Some people will go on to become excellent professional pianists. Others will give up the piano entirely but sing in a choir later in life, some will play for pleasure in their own living room, and others might never touch the piano again, but look back on their piano-playing years with a sense of pride and accomplishment. What they do with their skill is up to them, but it’s my job to make that relationship between them and their music-making as positive, supportive, and sustainable as possible.
This can be tricky, since a lot of this relationship depends on how the student feels about themselves, how they feel about learning, how they feel about music, and a whole host of other things. I don’t get to step in and demand that everything be positive and wonderful. So, as much as I’d like to, I don’t get to create the relationship. But I see myself as a kind of curator of it, which is a pretty big privilege, and also a pretty big responsibility. That’s why it’s important to think deeply about what I do, and to have a couple of ground rules.
My biggest rule is to never, ever undermine a student’s potential. I may be able to measure and assess their current ability, but it is absolutely none of my (or anybody else’s) business to place limits on what someone will achieve. Not only is someone’s potential entirely impossible to predict, but it’s detrimental to do so. I remember the blow to my confidence when a musician I admired, who upon learning that I was going to the New Zealand School of Music, said “Not for piano performance, I hope?”.
This offhand comment stayed with me for a long time, and thinking about the effect it had highlights my responsibility to, at the very least, not inflict damage. This core belief in my students’ potential acts as a kind of insurance against bad teaching – it doesn’t automatically make me a good teacher, but at the very least, it hopefully means I won’t say things that cause long-lasting harm. Also, it protects me from laziness, from being the kind of teacher that looks at a student and thinks,“I’m not going to bother to teach them this concept, they’ll never go far enough to need it anyway”. Holding myself accountable to the unlimited-potential belief means I’m always trying to teach to the best of my ability.
Of course, it’s important that having faith in a student’s potential doesn’t translate into rose-colored glasses. If I say “yes” indiscriminately – “Yes, you can definitely play Für Elise tomorrow in front of your whole class, even though you’ve only been taking lessons for two weeks” – I’m doing my student a disservice.
But if anything, I find that the unlimited-potential approach fosters the opposite effect to rose-colored glasses. If a student comes to me with a piece that’s currently out of their reach, we need to take a hard look at exactly where the gaps are in their knowledge and what we need to work on to make that piece achievable. Accepting their “dream piece” as a possible reality helps give them a clear picture, free of judgement, about their current skill level and what they can do to improve it. And achieving that piece, whether partially (sometimes it’s only eight bars, sometimes it’s a simplified version) or completely, gives the student a feeling of accomplishment and pride. Gradually, they begin to share my faith in their potential, and their relationship with music-making starts to become more and more positive. Witnessing this and being a part of it is one of my absolute favorite things about teaching.