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Updated: Apr 12

" is no easy task to match up the right child with the right teacher, even with the best of intention."

So says piano teacher Eloise Ristad in "A Soprano on Her Head."

Nor is it easy to match the right adult with the right teacher, judging by my personal experience and stories I've heard from my senior student cohort.

What seems to be the key to Ristad (writing in 1985 as a pioneer in a new way of piano teaching) -- and judging by my past three year's experience as an adult returning student -- is the willingness of any teacher to treat the student in front of her (be that either child or adult student), as an individual. Then again, it could be that 80% of a compatible student-teacher match is due to similar personalities which is not that mutable. However, going the individual treatment route is no easy task for the teacher.

Ristad says that "ways of learning are as varied as the shapes of noses" and that detective work can be simple or laborious for a teacher to find the answers.

To find answers requires a willingness to try new ways of teaching aside from the historical ones. For older adult students, I think it requires that the teacher acknowledge the fact that sometimes the student knows themself better than the teacher and thus, can suggest a perfect solution that works! If that is true. then the older "my way or the highway" teaching paradigm is surely passe. As Ristad says "there is no 'right' or 'wrong' mode, there are just different modes."

I recently ran across one thing the medical profession teaches in medical schools today as represented by the acronym CARE. It stands for compassion, assistance, respect, and empathy. Dr. Theodore J Strange says that "These are not just words, but they are principles that guide the care of patients in a genuinely caring way. In a world increasingly driven by data and algorithms, these qualities foster a trusting and supportive relationship between health care professionals and patients, thereby enhancing the healing process and enriching the overall health care experience."

Seems that the piano-teaching profession could take a word from the medically wise.

Sometimes older maestras and maestros like Leonard Bernstein, think that making a student suffer as he did in piano lessons with his teacher, is the proper way to go. Playing the piano required pain just as he experienced at the hands of his female teacher.

I think that idea had rubbed off on one of my former teachers with whom in 2022 I had a troubled, nine-month relationship and an often depressing, unending struggle with rhythm. That, despite the fact that I have never had such a struggle learning the rhythm of dance, and as a child easily picked up ballet, then pointe dance (my high school well-worn toeshoes are pictured below!), then modern dance and later, a few ballroom and western style dances, although I never desired to become stage-worthy at any of these.

So what was my problem? After some thought, I understand more about what kind of teacher and teaching paradigm works well for me to keep me joyful, learning, and moving ahead in my pianism.

Humor tends to help with my pianistic problems. Regarding performance anxiety (or when playing in front of one's piano teacher) Ristad cracked me up when she said: "It is in performance that the sudden panic hits, that we beg for release from our destiny and at the same time court the very experience that terrifies us. ... A well-meaning friend says, 'There's nothing to get nervous about,' and it almost helps, because the desire to strangle distracts us for the moment.”

One musicologist who knew Ristad, attributes her success as a teacher to her "open ended amazement that kept her so in tune with students' different ways of learning and so creative in noticing what would click for a particular student and music."

In addition, nothing was ever ridiculed by Ristad, so that teacher and student could "think outside the box" with a mutual goal of finding a way to a solution.

Via the gift of amazement, Ristad became a mistress of trying many things and noticing what would click for a particular student.

I needed, and need, somehow, to "entrain action and auditory stimuli", that is, conjoin my understanding of pulse and rhythm in dance with the piano, but how to do so? "Entrainment" is the process of making something have the same pattern or rhythm as something else (Cambridge Dictionary). I needed and need to put my ability to express rhythm (and pulse) in dance together with playing the piano. "Rhythm is experiential, palpable to the senses though elusive to the analytical mind."

Perhaps the failure of my one teacher to make pulse and rhythm easier for me, was because the teacher pushed the traditional analytical, counting approach? (The teacher did reference Dalcroze, however I could not find a local in-person class). I know I came to resent using my metronome that seemed to be the only solution my teacher could think of. As Julliard professor Noa Kageyama said upon reviewing my first volume of poetry, I "must be the only poet who has ever written a poem about a metronome" (see below) -- and it wasn't pretty!

Ristad describes one of her students for whom "math and counting with arbitrary numbers had no connection with rhythm." Sounds like me....

Over a year ago I remember lamenting to Elyse Shafarman, my Alexander Technique teacher, and to one of my best friends, that while sitting on the piano bench I could not dance. Ristad found a way to incorporate dance into music during in-person lessons, but not into the act of playing music. She used dance and drumming beforehand with particular students who seemed to resonate to movement. (It's not the only interesting technique or strategy that she incorporated in her teaching to her individual students; you can read about a number of them in her book.)

Ristad clearly knew that -- as neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin says, "rhythm can also be perceived by sensory modalities other than audition including haptic, proprioceptive, visual, and vestibular systems."

The goal of learning says Ristad, is to "find the luxury in what we're doing or performing, rather than the hard edges level of trying that gets us in so much trouble" (from a vimeo recording accessible on this website).

In the past week or so since I started to learn a third gorgeous simple etude by Louise Farrenc (I adore Julian Lambert's slower interpretation; such a gentle pianist and teacher!), I have started to allow my body to sway on the piano bench in regular time. I first practice with The General (see poem below) then set him aside and start to sway as I play. I'll see how this works to help me maintain a regular beat, but I suspect it will be beneficial.

I like the way Ristad ends her recorded workshop. Although her approach was developed over 40 years ago, it seems applicable today. She affirmed her faith that indeed, we can change, especially when incorporating body-conscious and creative, novel learning modalities (she mentions Feldenkrais, but like a number of performing musicians, I have found the Alexander Technique helpful).

* * *


The only thing that surely keeps me moored and not adrift at sea– or murdering my German metronome? It’s a beauty of his gorgeous teak wood!

So elegant in shape, a proud mini-pyramid, he stands by the side of my Duchess so dear. But when I hear the inexorable tick-tock, my senses they go into terminal shock.

My hands start to quiver, my stomach does churn, I’m sure this tempo lesson will never be learned! I set it as instructed on the quarter or eighth note, and it starts off so well ’til I go for broke,

Then all hell cuts loose, and the rhythm does, too; the phrase that was sound is followed by one to eschew. It gets lost in mish-mash that I don’t recognize; to play with the General,* I completely agonize!

He reminds me of another, goose-stepping on high, with one-two-three clicks – I think I will cry! I hate marching orders and I’ve always rebelled. What horrible fate on me just befell!

My teacher cajoles, exhorts, and then raises promises and asks if I want piano praises for possibly playing perfectly, just like a pro? But what I really want, is just to bed go!


*Nickname I gave my metronome shortly after sighing, then eventually agreeing to use it regularly in practice.

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