Lessons from the Piano Bench | Happiness as Success

I am learning lessons every day I teach.

Over Christmas, I picked up some popular repertoire piano books from my mother in law. I think they used to be my husband’s when he was in school! I looked through the pages and found a treasure trove of fun songs. I added her collection to mine and have been lending out the books to my students the past few weeks.

Even kids who are preparing serious classical works for festival are learning fun songs on the side like “Tomorrow” from Annie, “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey, and “Chim Chim-eree” from Mary Poppins. Last year, I wouldn’t have allowed this.

But this year I am learning that a little sugary fluff (pop music) goes a long way in getting the vegetables down (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms!).

I’ve learned that this image of a classical pianist doesn’t reflect most students’ vision for their music career.

The look on a student’s face when I whip out a Mary Poppins song that’s arranged for their level is priceless. Many of my students are in theater and voice in addition to piano and their eyes light up when they get to learn a song from a musical in piano lessons!

It’s the kind of smile so big it makes their eyes go all squinty.

One student was particularly frank in his reaction to the new music. He has struggled with depression and anxiety this year and I have struggled to know how to serve him well as his private teacher – someone who sees how talented he is and wants to push him to his limits so he can feel the high of excellent playing. I often think, “Wouldn’t he be happy if he could play this awesome piece? I know he has it in him!”

I wanted him to play a challenging piece for the upcoming festival, but after a couple weeks of little progress I surrendered my vision for him and asked if he would like to use a piece he had already learned that could use just a little polishing.

The answer was “Yes.”

After deciding on an easier classical dance piece for the festival, I put the book “Especially for Boys” in front of him and opened it to a song called “Space Invaders.” He was incredibly relieved.

“Space Invaders! That’s a video game. I was just playing that one today. I will love learning this song. This is going to motivate me to practice!”

What a self aware little guy!

I am learning that even though some students love an upbeat or emotional sounding classical piece, they are deeper in love with the music that surrounds them everyday in other parts of life outside of piano lessons.

One little girl whose parents bought her an Easy Beatles Piano songbook for Christmas is learning “Eight Days a Week.” I was delighted when she brought the book to lessons. She is my first student who has received a piano book as a gift. If only every family viewed learning as something special to be given. The sense of excitement and accomplishment she experiences when she plays this piece is tangible in the room. You just know she can’t wait to show off her progress to her Beatles-loving parents!

Another student is working on a pop piece for her school’s spring talent show.

With this child, I am learning that sometimes being a good teacher means letting a student work on the right-hand only part for “Don’t Stop Believin'” until she gets tired of it. (It could be months!) Even though she will struggle with the complexity of moving her hand across the keys to find the notes outside of C-position, it will all be worth it when she and her friends who have formed a band will perform their song for the talent show. She is so excited just to practice this song with her friends.

I am learning that kids need friends in piano lessons or friends outside of lessons to jam with, because music is best enjoyed together.

A music teacher friend told me recently, “If we don’t tell kids they are rockstars, they’ll stop thinking they can be rockstars. And then they’ll stop trying to be rockstars.”

I’ve learned that this image captures many students’ vision for their piano career.

So I’ve been giving them rockstar music. Since then, students have been practicing more and they’ve been having more fun. I am seeing more squinty smiles in piano lessons.

While it is true that there are a million and one pedagogy magic tricks designed for motivating children to do their homework, to practice, to make the right choices, there really is no guarantee that the techniques and incentives will work. My husband and I (both teachers) often lament the fact that we cannot control whether or not a student chooses to do their homework, to put in the effort, to try to be a rockstar, to have a good attitude, to practice the piano. That is the one variable that is out of our hands. For a classroom teacher, that one little variable can make or break a career. School and learning isn’t enjoyable 100% of the time and if students don’t face challenges, they don’t learn.

I feel lucky that I don’t have to give my students grades, though I do get impatient when they stop putting in effort and my idea of progress diminishes.

I am learning, however, that my piano students measure success by their feelings of enjoyment, pride and self-confidence. I am learning that success happens when a student begins to identify as a musical human being. And that those things can happen in a variety of ways.

I’m learning that the parents who want their children to be pushed to the limit are not the majority. More parents are concerned about their child’s overall well being and happiness. More parents will come to their child’s rescue if they think she is being pressured too much.

If I can retain students by feeding their happiness, thereby making parents happy, well that makes me a happy teacher I guess. Maybe in my realm of piano teaching, happiness is success.