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  • Writer's picturerhapsodydmb


Updated: May 13

"The teacher-student relationship is incredibly important, regardless of the age of the student, and a positive, supportive and mutually respectful relationship will lead to good learning outcomes and progress, in addition to enjoyable lessons."

In appreciation because they help me reach my goals, I fall into a kind of deep music-love affair with each of my teachers. Music and piano lessons open up my heart and emotions, and make me feel raw, vulnerable, and exposed in a way that other kinds of art lessons have never done. Music is special in this way, at least for me.

THE DANGER OF BEING OVERLY IMPRESSED: Sometimes this specialness causes me to set aside what I note is out of place in a lesson or in the teaching relationship, in favor of long-term hopes and dreams. That is usually never a good thing to do. I've learned to speak up earlier and more often when I'm fairly certain I'm not enjoying something I am trying to learn or a particular approach the teacher insists I apply.

In one case, I'm certain that I was initially overly-impressed by a teacher's many published CDs featuring original compositions and pianistic talents in a preferred musical genre that was not mine, and another teacher's stature as a well-known professional pianist with ubiquitous "how to" vlogs. However, I failed to do my due diligence and had no clue about their teaching ability in general, or if their approaches and policies were compatible with what are certain basic requirements I have for piano lessons.

For many seniors, the process of learning the piano is critical, in that it must function in the nature of a partnership and not a top-down affair. Being overly-impressed hinders my ability to observe what is happening as lessons unfold. I stray from my desire to learn in partnership with my teacher. Sometimes I continue studying with the teacher beyond what is reasonable and productive.

The initial quote above is by Frances Wilson, one of my very favorite writers (and piano teacher) on all things musicology and pedagogical regarding the piano. She advises, "Do not stay out of a missplaced sense of loyalty: a good teacher will appreciate and respect a student’s decision to move on and will not be offended."

But leaving a teacher does not always mean that in return a student will be supported by our teacher or receive a gracious response. In fact, we can be left bereft and confused by a less than cordial "good bye" on the teacher's part. A period of grieving can take place.

I've had two teaching relationships end abruptly (one on my part, the other after a week or two of discussions), both leaving me feeling disheartened and discounted. Yet during eight or nine months of prior lessons with each teacher, we had established very effective and cordial, even affectionate, personal and learning relationships.

THE DANGER OF BEING PUSHED TOO FAST TO "FIX YOUR PROBLEM": One break involved irreconcilable differences as to how fast I should be pushed forward; it was a clear difference in what and how I learn best, versus my teacher's established and inflexible teaching style. Several times during lessons I had requested to take only a few minutes to work something out myself when my teacher's suggestion did not seem to be working and I was getting frustrated. Yet the teacher continued pushing or interrupted me, even if they sometimes eventually agreed. However, because of what seemed like a rush to "fix" the problem they perceived, I was never sure that I had really been heard and understood, and thus, never reached a feeling of relief.

On one occasion the teacher agreed to listen to me (a specific request) while I tried to work it out for a minute or two, but while I was doing so they actually turned their back to work on their own computer. When I finished my short experiment and turned for some feedback I noted this, and thus, I had to play it again, and I felt extremely disrespected.

THE DANGER OF A TEACHER DIAGNOSING WITHOUT ASKING YOU WHAT IS GOING ON OR ALLOWING YOU TO EXPERIMENT: The next day in discussing this lesson, the teacher said once more that I had "failed to listen and become confused" (a judgment or diagnoses they reached without asking me if that was really what was happening?), and they could have "shortened the time spent if I had listened to them." (Why would I NOT listen when I was paying them top dollar TO LISTEN?) They ended the conversation by saying that it would be "more productive if the teacher directed the lesson." But their way in this particular matter I was attempting to learn, had failed miserably for yet another time, thus for me their way wasn't "productive" at all.

No less than 15 minutes after the lesson ended, I applied my own technique and recorded and sent the result to the teacher for verification that I had gotten it right (the very same thing happened in a prior lesson). I had -- but then the teacher claimed that they would have told me the same thing had I "listened." Thus, they implied that they were the cause of my success even though their way had not worked for me in class! Not good, and certainly not fair.

I'm not into piano lessons to just, or even mainly, be productive. As adult students and especially for us late-life adults, we usually know best in general, how we learn and what makes for a comfortable, safe learning environment. I suspect most of us seniors are sure what our learning goals are, and those principally involve love of music and desire for an enjoyable learning experience. Typically we don't want to pass graded exams or concertize, and surely we have no desire for suffering, untoward haste, or complete domination of the teaching paradigm of "my way or the highway."

THE DANGER WHEN THE TEACHER ASKS UNFAIR THINGS TO GET THEIR POINT ACROSS. I was surprised after a number of months playing Romantic Era lyrical pieces to hear a Bach Prelude IX whose polyphonic melody struck me as lovely, and I wanted to learn it. My friend Joe gave me the score. My teacher at the time wasn't sure it was appropriate but didn't explain exactly why, and because I persisted in asking for help, they asked me to first sight read it. Of course, I failed miserably about three lines into the two-page score, and accordingly felt chagrined and inadequate when I had to stop dead bang.

I'd say I took a hard knock on my self-confidence. Sure, I was ultimately responsible for improving my self confidence -- as this teacher squarely told me - be he did not admit to having any part in the equation and then acted to make "my job" harder than it should have been.

Later on when I read the following, I doubted that this teacher was even close to correct about self confidence:

The renown music director Marin Alsop, says that what a mentor should do best, as Leonard Bernstein did for her when she was learning to conduct, is instill self-confidence.(at 32.14 minutes in). He gave her the "gift of believing in herself." Asop now tries to find out what her mentee is good at, and helps them do more of that. She tries to "create opportunities in some kind of safety." Alsop's theatrical colleague Jude Kelly concurred that her best mentors "built her faith in herself." That goal seems particularly wise for teachers to adopt, then keep in mind in the face of a student wanting to move on.

A few weeks later Bruce, a former piano teacher for some 40 years, advised that this is a much too complex a piece to take up as the first Bach piece. He eventually told me that he would never have asked a student at my level to sight read this piece as the first sight reading project ever tried. Then I heard online teacher Ilinca Vartic say that even experienced pianists often have trouble sight reading Bach pieces because they are difficult.

So why did my teacher ask that of me? I can only speculate on their teaching strategy, but I know it felt very unfair to me, and my failure disheartened me and diminished my self confidence in the moment. After I terminated lessons I went on to accomplish complete memorization and slow practice of the entire piece. Soon enough Bruce gave me an intermediate score to "Arioso", a gorgeous Bach piece much more in my technical range, and I set the Prelude aside for the time being.

THE DANGER WHEN THE TEACHER DOES NOT UNDERSTAND OR HONOR YOUR PRINCIPLE LEARNING GOALS OR SEE YOU AS A PARTNER IN THE LEARNING PROCESS: I'm pursuing lessons to improve technique, yes, but do so at a leisurely pace during enjoyable lessons where I can experiment a bit and ask for and receive time to explore things I know will work. As examples, I often learn rhythm best when I first hear it, and I now know the value of hearing my teacher play a piece or passage as a sound role model of what I am aiming to produce when it comes to phrasing. Thus, it's important for me to have a teacher who understands my need and is willing to play pieces or passages that I am working on or refer me to a credible source on YouTube. Plus, I have no concert performance for which to prepare, and thus, "bigger, better, faster, and more" productivity is not my goal.

After the above experience, a day later I sent my best version of a nonviolent (see below), carefully-worded decision to move on, specifying first and last all of the much-appreciated and many specific and positive ways I had been helped. I said that we had both tried our best (a few months earlier we had had an amicable, productive hour-long discussion about my needs and my teacher's perceived weaknesses of me), but that we could not seem to work out our differences peaceably. I ended by saying I sincerely hoped we could remain in occasional friendly touch (the teacher liked my music-related poetry sent from time to time).

The reply received within minutes was a curt two words: "Stay well." I suppose that was better than "Drop dead!" -- but not better by much. It led me to wonder if in fact, during the past nine months they had not developed that much mutual respect or caring for me at all?

THE DANGER OF NOT SUSSING OUT TEACHER POLICIES BEFORE YOU BEGIN: Ending lessons with another teacher involved my misunderstanding policies and for how many months I had committed to lessons. After happily studying for eight months, my request for a lesson break of several months was based on demanding health and emotional needs. It had not occurred to me before starting lessons to ask about a policy regarding breaks and how those would be handled. Lesson learned! When my health needs prevailed, this teacher (admittedly) overreacted in an initial angry email, was unable to negotiate to a fair settlement, surprisingly refused every accommodation or financial amount I offered, and moved on. Thus, and sadly to me, we were unable to maintain a cordial relationship thereafter, even though I said I wanted to come back after my break.

ONE METHOD TO DO YOUR BEST TO PRESERVE A CORDIAL RELATIONSHIP WHEN YOU MOVE ON: One might think that when a student wants to take a break, or even move on to another teacher, no matter the reason and if done with some care and sensitivity on the student's part, that that could be easily managed by the teacher. I strive, with more or less success, to always use "nonviolent" communication (NVC) described in psychologist Marshall Rosenberg's videos and 1999 book on the topic, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion.

Since learning about the principle and procedures of NVC two years ago, I do my best to implement it, especially in conflicts or difficult situations. NVC prohibits words of blame, starting with a sincere, expressed appreciation for the positives followed by factual observations of what happened, then a non-judgmental statement about how one feels, ending with a statement of needs ("I feel this way because I need XYZ") and a polite request, "would you be willing to do XYZ?"

After that one must gracefully and willingly leave it up to the other person to comply or not. And no, you don't always get what you ask for, but you do usually get to a peaceable resolution if you refrain from a defensive or angry reaction.

In the conclusion of my working with these two teachers, I fervently desired that the tenor of my earnest letter of termination of lessons, would elicit a kind response and maintain or restore our cordial relationships, or at least be interpreted in part by my teachers as a student taking a step toward independence, leaving all of us with positive overall feelings toward each other.

THE TRUE MEANING OF MOVING ON: Isn't this a proper ultimate goal of any teacher, to work themselves out of a job? The famous pianist and teacher Heinrich Neuhaus in The Art of Piano Playing said "I consider that one of the main tasks of a teacher is to ensure as quickly and as thoroughly as possible that he or she is no longer necessary to the inculcate that independent thinking, that method of work, that knowledge of self and ability to reach his or her goal which we term maturity..."

He also said, "...the only sound foundation (of pianism) will always be the knowledge gained as the result of personal effort and personal experience."

If Neuhaus is correct, then responding in a cordial, businesslike fashion would make sense because the teacher views his or her job as well done, and not a failure on the student's or the teacher's part.

I suspect it is when a teacher takes as negative, a student moving on (for whatever reason and whether well or clumsily expressed) that they feel it is a personal failure or perhaps they "blame" it on a defective student. As Rosenberg says, it could be that they cannot offer themselves the same kind of empathy that the student is needing, or perhaps ego gets involved. No matter the reason, the half-full glass of the departing student's expression of autonomy is not seen at all.

Wilson says:

"Taking the decision to move to a different teacher, or in my own case, to cease regular lessons altogether when I moved away from London, can also mark a significant step towards a goal that is imperative for the confident, self-determined musician: autonomy. It is at this point in our learning journey that we begin to create our own pianistic tools and validation methods, either with the support of a teacher/mentor, or independently."

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(If you have had a distressing experience with a piano teacher I'm empathetic, and interested in knowing why it occurred and how you addressed it. If you resonate with this blog, kindly sign our confidential publication notice list and please give us a star rating, both at the top of this page.)

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