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COACHING VS. REGULAR LESSONS: THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX, OR, THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO SKIN A CAT!

Updated: Jul 1



My three kitties (Prince, our 20-lb. "linebacker" pictured here) might not appreciate the above saying, but it perfectly encapsulates what just dawned on me with respect to finding help to progress my pianism this year: think creatively!


A piano student, especially an adult, does not need standard, regular, "normative" lessons from a teacher, -- but does need feedback.


And there are many ways to get helpful feedback.


I just had to start to think creatively about how to get it.


But first I had to identify what was foundational to my happiness and productivity in any kind of learning environment: mutual respect. With that as a foundation, as a senior late-life piano student I can learn from almost anyone at any time in any kind of lesson configuration.


As British piano teacher Andrew Eales says in his blog ("Who needs piano lessons anyway?"), "the benefits of having a teacher are undermined when the teacher is simply not a 'good fit' for the learner." "Fit" does not require a learner to be friends with the teacher. In fact, I think it's often best not to try to be; see my poem below that resulted from that realization over a year ago.


Nor does a learner have to even like the teacher. Mutual respect is my bottom line - or for me there simply won't be a good fit, period. Then I need to be clear about what I specifically want to learn from that teacher (Eales admirably summarizes the various things that a piano teacher can impart and contribute).


Until recently I conceived of a "piano teacher" only as someone who teaches regular weekly or bi-monthly lessons. A year ago when I was between teachers, my talented composer friend Bruce asked why I did not just "teach" myself? I thought the question odd because he had taught piano lessons for many years of his professional life. I've always respected competent, talented teachers, and as a relatively new student, I believed that I needed help to know how and where to improve my piano technique and musicality. Now I think, in essence, Bruce might have been asking me to think outside the box.


After I parted peaceably from my last zoom teacher in February of this year, I happened to find on YouTube a British teacher who offered a month's worth of lessons for a small fee, but it had to be dedicated to learning a particular piece from a list that he posted. Nothing on his list interested me, and I had a specific piece and question regarding pedaling that I was working on, so he could not help me.


Then I thought I remembered seeing a few online teachers who gave regular in-person and zoom lessons, but who also offered long-distance to review videos or recordings sent of particular pieces or a part of a piece, and give focused feedback. So I decided this year to look for that kind of person as a "piece coach" rather than look for yet another regular and continuing or "permanent" teacher!


This way of learning makes a lot of sense.


First, it makes sense because it re-frames "teacher" to "coach," a less threatening and familiar concept and word. Every now and then I still have a recurrence of nerves when playing in front of a teacher, but a coach is a different thing.


Second it makes sense because "when time is perceived as finite, long-term expansive goals are less likely to be realized, so one is more likely to shift his/her focus to the present and focus on goals that provide more immediate satisfaction. Thus, this theory predicts that as time becomes more limited, older adults would prioritize emotionally meaningful goals over information seeking goals.


I certainly perceive time as limited, especially since I retired in 2020, but not at all associated with a lessened degree of curiosity, or vitality for that matter, as the NIH study found.


Since taking up the piano again at age 76 I have often wondered why some piano teachers I have worked with or considered working with, wanted to teach me pieces from styles of music that don't resonate with me, such as baroque, rather than help me accomplish specific pieces that make my heart sing NOW?


Why do so many teachers want me to memorize all 24 scales and learn to play them at 180 BPM, as if that is the kind of accomplishment that will bring me pleasure at my age and not being on a professional concertizing track? I simply do not feel I have the time to accomplish those kinds of teacher-set goals for me, because I must first attend to my own goals, and then we can discuss theirs.


As a former trial lawyer, I used to work with experts as witnesses. It was always a relationship based on mutual respect, careful listening and questioning, and a win-win relationship: They served as a type of pre-trial coach, teaching me in brief about their expertise so I could translate it for the judge or jury by making their testimony understandable. I would prepare them on what to expect on the witness stand from me and from opposing counsel, so that their expertise could shine and no pitfalls would likely come about for them during testimony.


Apparently even the typically-conservative approach to classroom and lab teaching of medical students, is also adopting the coaching approach (but not, of course, as a replacement for four years of med school!). The author of a JAMA article calls it a "renaissance in medical education" and says "The coach listens deeply and adopts a service-focused mindset—encouraging their client to take steps and harvest learning from missteps—in line with their own career desires.


So how to find a coach?


Last December, we hosted local pianist and teacher Ian Scarfe in a Groupmuse-sponsored home concert. Ian played the most gorgeous piece ever, "Mallorca" by Spanish composer Albeniz. (You can hear him play the beginning section of this piece on the top right of my home page where I posted a video.) I was captivated and wanted to learn it. Soon enough I asked Ian if he would coach me on that particular piece -- and he agreed. I was thrilled!


We had one very pleasant and helpful lesson - and then after practicing at home, my hands began to give out because of a lot of required thumb-under gestures as well as learning heavily on my right pinky to bring out the melody line, especially in part B. I had to set the piece aside for the time being, and come up with an interim piece that interests me and that fits with my hand limitations, and Ian's interests, repertoire, and busy schedule managing his own concert scheduling and a full teaching calendar. We're working on that.


In the meantime I met another fabulous local pianist and piano teacher, Tin Yi Chelsea Wong. She is one of the available top-notch musicians on the Groupmuse roster available for small-venue Bay Area concerts. On April 28 we will host Cheslea to present a concert in our home, sponsored by Groupmuse (if you are in the Bay Area, please consider reserving as only four seats are still available as of today).


I was drawn to ask if she would be willing to play for our guests because she listed my favorite Schumann piece "Widmung" as part of her available repertoire! I had purchased the "Widmung" score a year or more ago but put in my "to learn" file because I quickly determined it was at that time far beyond my capability to accomplish.(Here "Widmung" is played by my favorite interpreters, Ching-Yun Hu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iGWyGiPPB4, and Ji: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty9WrQJ-m)


When she recently came over for lunch and to play The Duchess, we "connected" at a significant pianistic and personal level. When I brought up a pedaling question and challenge I was facing, she willingly offered me a fabulous idea about how to learn the range of my particular piano's pedals and how much to depress what pedal to achieve a particular goal. I was so grateful! She is a delight and is inspirational as a pianist and an extraordinarily creative, warm person as well.

Now, back to "Widmung." A year after discovering this piece and having done rather well last year learning two intermediate Tchaikovsky pieces ("Chanson Triste" and "October"), I felt I might be up to learning this one, at least the slower Part A! It will take more technical competence for me to approach Part B, but that too, will likely serve as a long-term goal. When I asked if Chelsea would consider teaching it to me, she agreed! We are now arranging our schedules.


Why the idea of being coached on one piece at a time never occurred to me until this year is curious, considering two friends who on a number of occasions been willing to help me sort out problems I encounter, especially when I have been requested by a formal teacher to reserve questions for the next lesson, or when I decide to teach myself a new piece. If I delay, I can easily bake initial errors into my ear and muscle memory. Sometimes my questions focus on specific technical issues, or I request an overview of possibly incorrect rhythm or notes, or just general feedback.


One person who helps is my incredibly accomplished amateur pianist friend Joe who is in his 11th year of bi-monthly lessons, and the other is my composer-teacher friend, Bruce, who also helped me find my Duchess. From time to time each will graciously answer specific questions, review a photo of some passages in a score that are confusing me, or listen to a recording or view a video and suggest general ways to improve or practice the piece or section of a piece. In those ways, both are much-valued, friendly, informal "coaches."


Because I feel safe with and respected by these two, I can listen without becoming defensive or discouraged. Accordingly, I learn peaceably and easily. In addition, I am always directly or indirectly encouraged by them to continue on my piano journey.


The only thing that could possibly be better, is perhaps a hot shower!

***


A teacher is always a teacher

with a plan and goal to lend,

a friend is something different,

true to the bitter end.

 

A teacher wants to impart

and share expertise in love,

while a friend will hold your hand

but without the distant glove.

 

A teacher went before

and you’re always aware of that,

but a friend will never ever

desert and leave you flat.

 

A teacher may talk down

and enjoy a lofty position,

while a friend is the same as you,

sharing both sadness and the fun.

 

They say a teacher comes

when we’re ready to take a spin,

but a friend is always there,

with us through thick and thin.

 

So which is best you ask?

That’s not a relevant question;

each serves a purpose for our souls

to feel ultimate satisfaction.


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