WHAT IMPROVES MY LEARNING EXPERIENCE?
Updated: Mar 26
A Teacher’s Role
A teacher’s role is wider than just giving us effective methods. It’s more to help us hear the tune and understand the message, then once heard and deeply felt, they both will touch our heart, then we know the reason to apply technique with hope to create art.
From June 2021 through February of 2023 I have had three piano teachers. Each one has been unique in:
-- music style or technical specialty and preference (one jazz, one classical-romantic-impressionist, and one mixed),
-- musical focus (concertizing? authoring vlogs or books? teaching? composing? selling pianos?, teaching adult and/or junior students?), and
-- teaching methods.
They have all been similar in that they are at a mid- or early-late-stage of their musical career (ages 45 to 65), started on a musical piano path in early childhood and continued it throughout their life, and have a musical degree of some kind.
My experience after a minimum of six months studying with each person up to nine months in one case, led me to identify personality traits and teaching methods that work well with me, and specifically where I have improved with each teacher. I'm certain that some of my observations and experiences will resonate with students like me. I'm a serious late-senior amateur much in love with lyrical, Romantic period music, and in mid-2021 I started lessons for the first time after decades away; six decades in my case. I'm just as certain my experiences also differ greatly from others, since we are all individuals.
What surprised me initially was that a teacher can have a musical preference or specialty distinct from mine, such as jazz, and still be an effective teacher. I don't aspire to learn or play jazz or even pop compositions except on rare occasions. Yet a jazz specialist can be effective so long as they have training in classical music and if they don't dislike or feel bored with the musical style that I want to learn and play. If I perceive dislike or boredom, for better or worse I will pick that up or "feel" it, and it will dampen my love of music as well as diminish my self-confidence as a pianist.
I sometimes think about gender differences. They exist. A male teacher is more likely to get right to the point and want to 'fix" a technical pianistic problem, much as they do in intimate, personal relationships and partnerships with women. We women sometimes complain about that, that all we want is to be carefully listened to, not "fixed." We can often solve our own problems, get over emotional hurts, and choose the right option to reach our goal, but sometimes we just need an audience to hear us talk through our challenge in the moment, before we can move on. Sometimes men are not that good at dealing with emotions, and may want to turn to an outlet other than allowing the student to grapple with frustration in the moment, and learn to be compassionate with inevitable frustrations and self doubt that may arise from time to time. I prefer any teacher to simply witness my distress and give me reassurance, allow me time to take a short break or breathe or whatever I need to come back to calm, and then return to the task.
As a cisgen woman in society and a long-time feminist, I'm also interested in a teaching situation where relationship takes on approximately equal value with technical learning, and where a team or partnership approach prevails to help me reach my understood goals and individual needs. I'm not in this very challenging endeavor to only improve my pianism and self-confidence or get ready for a public performance or graded exam in a conservatory. I'm in this endeavor to enjoy and express myself, and also enjoy and develop my relationship with my teacher. I'm don't resonate with top-down teaching techniques that reiterate the patriarchy I've experienced all too many times in my former careers and life. I see the process as more a collegial, cooperative one designed to move me forward to my personal goals, and I need some flexibility during lessons to accommodate questions and discuss feelings that arise.
A major part of my enjoyment comes from sharing humor during lessons, sometimes even a bit of theatrics when I adopt a "role" or seasonally dress up or decorate my piano. You'll see my two pre-Halloween lesson outfits here!
Another part of my enjoyment comes from having time at the beginning of the lesson to settle down and discuss some aspect of my and my teacher's personal life. That might include sharing a recent symphony program I attended where I discovered a new composition or pianist with whom I fell in love, or discussing what I or my teacher will be doing in an upcoming vacation. I like to get to know my teacher as a full human being, not just an "engineer" fixing things that need to be fixed or that are broken in my musical presentation. For that, I can watch hundreds of good to excellent videos posted on YouTube, then on my own, practice the techniques.
Nor am I convinced that I require or would improve faster with in-person lessons, though I have been told that. For all but two individual lessons, mine have been via iPhone or Skype! Amazing that, but it works for me. I especially benefit when my teacher demonstrates, but then records a short video of a troublesome passage, usually involving a tricky rhythm, fingering, or transition that I have ruined and need to sort out. I use those videos to consult during the following week of practice so that I don't just repeat mistakes, but remember what was "corrected" during class. It remains to be seen what are the benefits I experience, once I do have a teacher in-person.
One of my mos formidable early challenges was lack of self confidence. That had complex causes and was not an easy matter I could just muscle into retreat, nor could it be overcome with just one assurance by my teacher that I am improving. I need periodic feedback about what specifically I have improved, not just a passing once-in-a-while general comment. Jumping right into "fixing" problems will not help. Effective, regular practicing a lot will help with self confidence. I practice an average of two hours a day in 20-30-minute parts, because I love the opportunity to play on my gorgeous Duchess! It's not a chore, but a burning desire to improve my pianism, thus, it's a pleasure most of the time.
With one teacher I noted that, when they did not tell me the next week if I had solved the prior week's problem or instruction, I was left hanging. I had no clue if I had fixed it, or if the teacher felt it was intractable, or if now there was a worse or new problem to fix, or what silence meant. Was I to continue focusing on the prior week's problem during practice, or was I now OK and could move on? I needed to ask for more specificity with the teacher in order to improve my learning experience, reduce anxiety during lessons, and continue to enhance my self confidence over the long run.
I also need patience. Sometimes when my teacher poses a music theory or structure question, I fend to "freeze." I need time to think and then answer with some certainty, not just off the cuff. I want to be right, not just be careless or haphazard about how I answer. I can't say if my need for patience is out of the ordinary, or has to do with my age or "perfectionism" or not, but it "just is." Some teachers might have more and some less patience with me or any student, but it's a pretty darned important quality for any teacher wishing to work with me. With one teacher I implemented use of a tiny "dinner bell" I kept on the tray to one side of the fall board. I could quickly ring it when I had a surge of uncomfortable emotions and felt at a loss for words but needed to quickly stop that downward spiraling feeling. Teachers of good will will often appreciate all the ways a student can help them to know what we are going through, thinking, or wanting in the moment, so that the teacher can address our needs. They really aren't there to torture us (although sometimes I like to joke with my teacher that they are being "hard on me" that day: "You want me to do WHHAAATTT?"
Finally, I need to feel like I'm in a "safe" environment (all of the above helps achieve this feeling), because music as an art form, touches me deeply. It opens me up to the tenderest of places where rushing, harsh or objective comments, and lack of empathy for my struggles will not work. I attend carefully to preserving my deep love of music and my lovely new piano "Rhapsody-Arabesque," and my love of specific pieces that I bring to a teacher to help me improve. When it comes to music, nothing seems robotic or neutral to me, and no aspect of music is a "game." This is a love affair without one doubt, and it needs nurturing and protection just like personal relationships do, too. The closest I have come to explaining how I feel about music in my poetry, is "The Door."
As for my role to improve the teaching environment and what I bring to the table, that is a topic for another blog in the near future!
What is the crux of what I choose to like and play when,
Musically inclined, I open up my mind
And let my spirit loose?
Once open from inside,
A door exists for you to come inside.
And that requires far more than nonchalance
Or non-response–even worse!
To me a curse, a repudiation,
And that I simply cannot take,
Because I’ll break, and that I cannot do.
So what do I choose?
It’s not my job in life to judge music or another.
But it’s my choice to share myself or music,
Be it with lover, friend, composer, all
(Mentors included, even you).
That pathway out includes a path within.
I open up my mind, my body, and
No less my soul to music as to a lover.
Those two, the same; it’s not a game to me.
It’s reciprocation that I seek,
To see your door, open, too,
So I’m safe then to peek inside myself and coax her out
In whisper or in shout. Sometimes shy to speak out,
Sometimes ribald, music pushes boundaries
And I become the women who live within:
The flirt, the angel, Miss Tinker Bell,
The nun, the dreamer, and all manner of what
A precious gift, those open doors,
But precious even more is what it takes
To just not break and stay inside.
Sometimes trust, and if I marshal it,
To see us as the same in this non-game,
But different yet in life’s experience.
We both shed tears, of course,
Yet each unique in
Different facets of a diamond dream.
What connects are glimpses of what shines within
That is the same.
That is the music that I hear and choose.