Rules for Piano Teachers, Part I

Some of these rules might surprise you, maybe. I’m not really sure. But they come out from my 30 years of experience teaching people how to play piano. The first rule should probably be “don’t listen to someone just because they say they have 30 years of experience.

Rule #1: Encourage your students to disobey you. Your students are free agents. This means you can’t make them do things. You can’t make them practice. You can’t make them play the way you want them to play. You can’t make them value you the same things you value. You can’t even make them use your fingering! All you can do is recommend, and possibly persuade. Welcome their disagreements. Sure, it might be annoying sometimes, but it’s far better for students to learn to think for themselves than to comply with the teacher’s wishes. Obedience is low on the list of important traits for any kind of artist. Your task is to be a mentor and advocate, not a boss. If you’re wondering how they will improve if they don’t listen to you, keep reading.

Rule #2: If your student is afraid to disappoint you, you’re doing something wrong. Are you tired of hearing excuses? Do you feel that your students are not honest about how much they practiced? If your students make excuses or lie to you, I’m sorry to say, it’s probably your fault. You (or some past teacher or authority figure) have shown them that being honest has negative consequences. 

There are many possible reasons that people don’t practice. Maybe they don’t like the piece. Maybe they had a difficult week. Maybe they are depressed. Maybe they don’t like you! Any of those things would be helpful for you to know. If you want to know the reason, you’re going to have to be willing to listen, and accept what you hear. 

If your instinct is to attribute lack of practice to some sort of character flaw such as laziness, I feel sorry for you. You probably tell yourself that same thing when you don’t practice. At some point you got the message that you were unworthy unless you practiced and made your teacher happy. Those are your issues. Please don’t repeat the cycle with your own students. Your students deserve better. 

Rule #3: Always remember that it’s not about you. I cringe when teachers say it’s a “waste of time” when a student didn’t practice or doesn’t seem to be making progress. You have something to offer to a student who is looking at a piece for the first time, don’t you? What do you do when you start learning a piece? What if the student hasn’t practiced for weeks? Time for a conversation. What’s going on? Why aren’t they practicing? Are they just lazy? (see rule #2).

Rule #4: Give your student all of the credit for their accomplishments and all the blame for their failures. Give yourself neither the credit nor the blame. Some teachers, after reading the first three rules will protest, “how can I get results if students don’t follow my directions?” This is where you have gone wrong. Don’t be obsessed with results. It’s not your job to get results. It’s the students job to get results. Do not rob your students of the opportunity to be responsible for their own successes and failures. Your student is not an extension of you (see rule #1). How often do teachers distance themselves from students who perform poorly (“I told them not to do it that way!”). Show your students what is possible, and help them achieve what they want to achieve, but let them own the achievements. If they are going down a path that you think is wrong, tell them if you must, but ultimately let them make their own mistakes and learn from them. Perhaps I’d be more successful in my own career if I didn’t follow this rule, but my students are better off.

Rule #5: Focus on building long-term skills. Your goal is to help your students become independent as quickly as possible. The less your students need you, the better. Don’t teach pieces, teach skills. You might use pieces as a way to teach skills (which is a great way to do it!), but learning the piece is not the goal. Help the student learn what they can from each piece. Maybe they learn how to bring out the melody with one piece, and how to play three against two in another. Perhaps one piece helps them develop their skill of playing left hand runs. 

Two really important skills are effective practicing, and self-evaluation. If your students know how to solve problems (technical and musical), and know how to listen to themselves critically and make adjustments, your job is done. They don’t need you anymore. Congratulate them and send them on their way!

What do you think? Am I on to something? Or am I confused, naive, or flat out wrong? Please let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

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