My Teaching Philosophy – Part Two
It might come as a surprise to hear that teaching piano has a lot more to do with hard-to-quantify personal skills than it does with actually being able to play the piano (this was certainly a surprise to me when I started teaching!). Only about 40% of my teaching life involves my ability to play the piano and read music. The other 60% is about working with people’s self-perceptions, their emotions, and their relationships to ideas of failure, success, and competence – some pretty big stuff that might seem to be outside a piano teacher’s realm of expertise. But it shouldn’t be. There’s going to be a lot of failure (yes, that’s the f-word I’m talking about) in learning a musical instrument, and whether students respond to that with curiosity or devastation is partly up to me. That’s why I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to failure and how it can be an asset, depending how you think about it.
The best way I can encourage my students to use failure as a tool is by helping them to foster a growth mindset, which is the idea that intelligence and ability aren’t fixed qualities, and can be developed through effort. This may sound like an obvious statement, but especially in the musical world, the idea of “talent” as a fixed quantity of ability is pervasive and destructive. The idea of “you either have it or you don’t” leads to students trying to prove themselves and achieve validation of their current abilities rather than focussing on actually learning.
Learning anything involves a huge amount of failure. Within a growth mindset, failure can be viewed with curiosity – as a source of information about what’s happening and what could be done differently next time. With a fixed-ability mindset, failure becomes a very high-stakes affair – students see each setback as confirmation that they simply don’t have what it takes, which leads to them avoiding failure at all costs – making it difficult to ever learn anything new.
Worse, if someone gets labelled as “not talented” or “lacking ability”, the fixed-ability mindset as doesn’t give them any options for improvement, leaving them with a lack of self-confidence and often a sense of loss. The number of adults I’ve met who tell me they would love to pursue music, but don’t, simply because they don’t believe they have enough “talent” to do so, is staggering and truly sad. This is part of the reason why I have an allergic reaction to the word “talent”, but perhaps that’s an entirely different blog post. If you’re interested, here’s a good summary (and a cool infographic) about growth mindset theory.
There are a few ways I cultivate a growth mindset in my students. One of the biggest things I do is use my relationship with my students to create an environment in which it’s okay to fail at stuff.
Having a staunch belief in their potential helps a lot with this. If students feel like I believe in them in the big picture, they’re more willing to make mistakes than if they feel like I’m judging their whole ability as a musician based on every single little mistake they make. Creating an environment where students can make mistakes saves a huge amount of time and angst – if they feel like they can’t mess up, they become apologetic, or defensive, or unreceptive to any feedback, which takes a lot of time and energy and blocks progress. But if I can convince them that no matter how egregious or frequent their mistakes, I still believe in them as a musician and as a person, it frees them up to make the necessary mistakes, hear the necessary feedback, and feel taught rather than judged.
Something that helps with creating that kind of environment is being factual and objective, rather than emotive, about what’s happening. If a student sits down to play, mistakes are rife, and they stop and say in frustration, “This is going terribly. This is awful. I can’t do it”, I try not to engage in that kind of conversation. Instead I’ll ask objective questions like “Where does your left hand go? Was it too high or too low just then?” Mistakes are information, and information is a good thing. There’s a fantastic article over on the Bulletproof Musician blog about the effectiveness of using objective, factual feedback rather than lots of positives or negatives – something I’m definitely trying to remember as I teach!
Having said that, I still want to reinforce positive behavior, and in cultivating a growth mindset, one of the most positive behaviors is effort. Whether things are going well or not, I notice and value the effort the student has put in. I’m careful not to say, “You’re a natural at this” – I reference their effort instead. “You can definitely read this music – you worked so hard on the note flashcards!” or “The piece is coming along so well – look at the results of all your practice!”
Finally, I need to make sure I model this kind of behavior to my students. I try to be open with them about the fact that I’m constantly learning, that I have to work quite hard and consistently to do the things I do (I’m not a good teacher or competent musician because of “talent”) and most of all, that I fail at stuff on a regular basis. I’ve had everything from garden-variety disappointment in my playing to excruciatingly public memory slips and terrible performances. The last time I failed at something musical was probably the last time I sat down at a piano. But that’s okay – failure is valuable information. Hopefully, they’ll see that I’m a success not in spite of my failures, but rather because of them, and that failure is, strangely, a kind of success for them, too.