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.

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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.

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“How old were you when you started playing the piano?”

It’s usually one of the first questions people ask me when they find out I’m a pianist, and I immediately want to respond with something like “As soon as I could sit on a piano bench!” because this is when most musicians start, and I have worked pretty hard to consider myself a musician.

It always takes a bit of internal struggle to tell the truth and say that my beginning was unorthodox – I started at the late age of thirteen and taught myself for about a year before finding a teacher. At this point, I start to worry that the person asking the question has mentally removed me from the category of “real musician” and placed me squarely in the category of “flaming imposter”. Even when other facts become apparent – that I hold both a Bachelor’s and an Honours degree in piano performance, that I perform in solo and chamber concerts, that I’m paid to accompany choirs, that I spend most of my week teaching people how to play the piano, and that all my income comes from my musical work, I still worry that because of my late start, I’m not a “real musician”.

Without the authority of an early start, what is my passport to being a “real musician”? I didn’t have some kind of movie-magic moment when I knew that this was my destiny. No famous pianist heard me play and pronounced that I had incredible talent.

Certainly I do have the most obvious prerequisite: a deep love for music, and I even have the not-insignificant bonus of experiencing a lot of joy in the process of making music. But while “love” and “joy” sound like excellent answers for the question of “What makes me a real musician?”, they’re not enough, and the real answer is actually pretty mundane.

It’s simply that I kept choosing this life – the life of a “real musician” – over and over. I chose it when I had much more sensible and attractive university options than piano performance (particularly seeing as I only just passed Trinity Grade 6 Piano at that point and the minimum requirement for an audition was Grade 8). I chose it when it meant moving to another city to find the country’s best music program, which came with increased expenses and debt, and literally banking said expenses and debt on the slim possibility of passing the audition for performance piano. I chose it when it meant I spent my first year of university taking musicology papers and preparing for the audition when my peers spent their first year of their piano performance degrees performing. I chose it when it meant practicing at university until 2AM because I couldn’t use the practice rooms during the day (they were full of actual performance students during daylight hours), then getting up and going to class the next morning.

After the successful audition, I kept choosing this path, even when it meant that I was the worst pianist in piano class, when I had memory slips in front of teachers and audiences, when I had panic attacks before lessons, when I waited to perform backstage in fits of nasuea, and when the various pressures of study and performance led me to doubt myself constantly. I kept choosing it then, and I’m continuing to choose it now.

Today, of course, I’m a much better (and happier!) pianist than when I started, and my current musical life certainly isn’t as difficult and fraught as the university experience I’ve described. I even have musical skills that people are willing to pay for, which by definition makes me a professional musician. But quite aside from what other people think, or what value they’re willing to assign to me or my music making, I do feel that I’m a real musician, simply because I’ve chosen to be. Continuing to make that choice is a huge privilege, and hopefully one that I’ll get to continue making for the rest of my life.

If you’d like to join me as I navigate life as a self-employed classical musician, which does sound on paper like the World’s Least Viable and Most Terrible Career Choice, but much to my surprise, is actually a Quite Viable and Supremely Fulfilling Career Choice, I’d be absolutely thrilled. We’ll chat about incredible repertoire, performance anxiety, fantastic books about music and life, the ups and downs of teaching, recovering from injury, being self-employed and having to act like an actual adult on a regular basis, and a whole lot more.