Sunday, October 21, 2012

How to Deal With a Challenging Piano Student

You hate to admit it, but you dread the hour when so-and-so enters your studio!  Longest 30 minutes ever!
Frustrated piano teacher at desk
"What I do with this
  - Bad attitude
  - Doesn't practice
  - Sighs when you reassign a piece
  - Doesn't finish their theory homework
  - Forgets all their books at home
  - Always has an excuse
  - Doesn't even have parents least not that you've ever met!  (in other words, not involved - not helpful)

Please don't give up on this student--either officially or subconsciously!  Behind every misbehavior is a child who is seeking a sense of belonging according to psychiatrist and educator Rudolf Dreikurs.  Use the categories below to identify the underlying message of your student's behavior and review the following solutions for each situation.

***Also, be sure to check out a summary of all four types of misbehavior and their solutions.***

Alex*: The Student Who Wants Attention
Alex acts annoying or immature
Alex feels he only belongs when
is receiving special attention.
Identifying the Problem
The student seeking attention may persist with annoying or immature behavior.  You may detect that Alex is performing far underneath his potential.  With Alex, the lack of progress and the seeming inability to complete homework as assigned is intentional (although subconscious) and serves as a cry for attention.

This is not usually a problem with private piano students because they already have your full attention.  However, if other environments in Alex's life cause him to act this way, he may continue the behavior out of habit or desperation.

Finding the Solution
Alex thinks that he is only important when he is keeping the adults in his life busy with him.  Avoid lecturing, reminding, coaxing or doing for Alex what you know Alex can do for himself.  Do not let yourself get annoyed or irritated.

Instead, redirect by involving Alex in tasks where he "does" and you "instruct."  Try working through theory pages together.  Try learning the first few measures of next week's assigned piece together.  Ask engaging questions, like: "what tempo do you think this part should be performed at?" or "how would you interpret this?"  Help Alex feel listened to even if that means using up 5 minutes at the beginning of the lesson to listen about his day at school.  Alex will be more likely to listen to you after you've actively listened to him.

You can be an important part of Alex's life filling a hole that may not be filled at home or school!  How's that for motivating you to endure those precious 30 minutes!

Betty*: The Student Who Wants to be the Boss
Betty says "You're not the boss of me!"
Betty feels she only
belongs when she
is in control.
Identifying the Problem
This student wants to be the one in control.  Betty may push your buttons by insisting that "you're not the boss of me" and she will not be told what to do.  Bear in mind, not all Bettys will say this out loud.  She may subtly defy your directions.  (Example: You instruct her to slow the piece down.  She says nothing, but plays just as fast if not faster.)

Finding the Solution
Betty thinks she is only important if she is in control and she does not know how to use power in socially useful ways.  Avoid either forcefully taking back the power you feel is due you, or giving in completely to her demands. 

Instead, give more control to Betty and calmly invite her to use it in useful ways.  Admit that you cannot make her do anything.  She is in control of her progress in piano lessons.  Be firm, yet kind.  She will respond positively if you treat her with respect.

Offer her limited choices.  "You may complete one page in your theory book this week, if you'd like.  Otherwise, you're welcome to catch up next week by completing two pages."  Invite her feedback.  "How many days of practice do you think will really help you succeed in piano this semester?"  Always encourage.

Ronald*: The Student Who Wants Revenge
Ronald acts out in destructive or hurtful ways
Ronald feels he doesn't belong so
he wants to hurt others as he
feels hurt.
Identifying the Problem
Ronald seems to have a chip on his shoulder.  He may lash out in ways you've never expected from a student.  He can be downright mean and may even hurt your feelings.  The truth is that he feels hurt (most likely not by you, but he cannot identify his feelings specifically enough to know this).  He may even whisper, "I hate you" or "I hate the piano" under his breath.  Ronald seems angry and he's out to get even!

Finding the Solution
Ronald subconsciously wants to hurt others as he feels hurt.  Avoid taking personal offense or letting yourself become disappointed or disgusted with Ronald.  And above all, avoid retaliating or punishing!  This will only start a revenge cycle that is hard to disengage.  

Instead, indentify his feelings.  "Your behavior tells me that you're angry [or you're hurt].  Can we talk about that?"  It's easy to feel like you're wasting a parent's money by using the lesson for "useless talk," but if it's necessary you'll be anything buy wasting time!  Actively and reflectively listen.  Apologize if appropriate.  It's hard to tell, but Ronal is very discouraged.  Encourage any progress, talents, strengths as you see them.

Glenda*: The Student Who Wants to Give Up
Glenda seems defeated and will not try
Glenda feels she will never
belong, so why try?
Identifying the Problem
Glenda may not say it out loud, but her non-verbal cues say, "Please, just leave me alone!"  She makes you want to give up on her because she's given up on herself.  She's an under-acheiver to say the least.  She doesn't bother practicing or completing assignments.  "Why try?" she thinks.  You may feel at a total loss to motivate Glenda to try harder.

Notice the difference between Alex and Glenda.  Both may seem immature or not living up to their potential, but Alex will respond positively when given extra attention because of his shortfalls.  Glenda, on the other hand, will retreat further and will make no effort to improve even with attention.

Finding the Solution
Glenda is defeated.  She does not feel she is able to belong even if she tries, so it's easier to convince her superiors not to expect anything of her.  Avoid giving up on her, expecting nothing from her, or doing things for her.

Instead, show faith in her talents and potential.  Avoid criticism or pity.  Set her up for success without doing it for her.  Take small steps with careful instruction and let her take the next small step on her own.  (Example: Do the first theory question slowly while explaining each step.  Do the next theory question by asking questions you know Glenda will be able to answer correctly.  Hand the pencil over and let her fill in the answer to the next question after you've come to a conclusion together.  Now let her try the next one by herself.)  

Glenda will also benefit from your heightened interest in her personal interests.  Make her feel unique, needed, able and enjoyable.

To Summarize Possible Solutions:

Alex Attention-Seeker
  - Redirect with student involvement
  - Ask engaging questions
  - Listen actively to what he has to say

Bossy Betty
  - Give more control with encouragement
  - Offer limited choices
  - Invite her feedback

Ronald Revenge-Seeker
  - Identify hurt feelings
  - Reflectively listen
  - Encourage strengths

Glenda Giver-Upper
  - Show faith & encouragement
  - Set up success using small steps
  - Take a personal interest

*All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Seven Tips For a Great First Piano Lesson

Piano Teacher Resource
Hopefully your beginners aren't
quite this young!  But this pic was
too cute to pass up.
There's nothing like the enthusiasm of a little one climbing up onto that piano bench at their very first lesson!  You, as the teacher, have so many things on your mind:

- Is this student old enough for lessons?  Too old to be starting?
- How involved is this parent going to be?
- What books should I start them in?
- Should I stick to just the Lesson book or pile on Theory, Technique and a Performance book?
- How do I instill proper technique from day one?
- How do I ensure a good sense of rhythm?
- How do I get through the first 5 pages of the book in 30 minutes?

Stop!  Remember, if you can, your first lesson, whether it be back to your first piano lesson or a more recent "new" instrument.  You have all the enthusiasm and potential in the world and that first impression of your new experience can do so much to either kindle or squelch that passion.

In short, your number one goal for these first 30 minutes should be to grab hold of that "beginner's eagerness" and fuel that fire instead of unknowingly putting it out.

Here are some suggestions for the perfect, memorable first lesson:

1.  Set aside your own agenda.
Yes, you have your list of things to get through before the end of the lesson, the end of the month, the end of the school year.  But, remember that every student is unique and will learn and grow at their own pace.  Use this first 30 minutes to get to know the pace, personality and learning style of this student.

2.  Don't talk the whole time.
When I look back on those first few students I taught, I cringe at how boring the first lesson must have been!  "Here's how you's how you hold your's the history of the's my dissertation on the acoustical properties of the tritone...blah, blah, blah..."  (Thankfully, that was an exaggeration!)  Make the first lesson a good mix of you talking, the student talking, you playing, and the student playing.

3.  Make a personal connection.
What do you come away learning about this person who graced your bench for half an hour?  Do they come from a musical family?  What sort of ambitions do they have?  What music do they love to listen to?  Do they dance?  Play the violin?  How many siblings?  Pets?  Packer fan?  Horse lover?  Fill the first lesson with engaging conversation and find some common ground on which to build a lasting relationship.  One easy way to do this is to have a set of questions to talk through that the student can fill out themselves.  This is a great way to get a sense of their reading and writing skills if they are young.  Check out the free printout My Very First Piano Lesson.

4.  Make your expectations clear.
Though you'll strive to make a personal connection, don't forget your role as teacher.  Avoid future awkward or unpleasant confrontations by spelling out your expectations of the student right away.  Let them know how frequently and how long you want them to practice.  Let them know the behavior and attitude you expect inside the studio.  Fill them in on the consequences.  It is so much more appealing to get this out of the way when you are on the best of terms than to blurt out previously unmentioned policies when you and/or the student are having a frustrating day.

5.  Include a fun activity.
I think all students sign up for piano thinking it will be fun.  Don't let them go home the first week thinking otherwise!  Piano is fun, of course, but it may be hard to portray that in a student's very first 30 minutes at the keys.  Here's a list of possible quick activities:
      - Listen to a classical or jazz recording and talk about what instruments the student can identify or what they feel when they hear contrasting styles.
      - You play something for them.  Then get them involved by giving them an ultra simple duet part or letting them improvise on certain keys.
      - A simple music-related coloring activity can make a little one's face light up.
      - A simple game identifying 3 or 4 musical symbols.

6.  Inspire.
Send the student home with a strong motivation to someday become a "real pianist."  Play something for them.  Listen to a recording or watch a video.  Talk about what piano piece they to someday learn.  Then sneak hints of encouragement into the first lesson: "Wow, you really do have piano fingers, don't you?"  "You are catching on so quick!"  "You're the first student I've had who's gotten that right the first time."  Of course be honest, but find their strengths and compliment them.  Surely they entered your studio with some doubts that this was for them or that they could really do this.  Help them leave with no doubt at all!

7.  Send them home with something to play.
The first 30 minutes fly by.  You look at the clock and there are two minutes left.  You realize you've had fun, gotten to know the student, talked through the first few pages of the book, but you haven't gotten to a real song yet!  Ever been there?  Plot out your time wisely so you have at least two short pieces for the student to play when they get home.  It'd be a shame to miss this opportunity to set the standard for weekly practice while the enthusiasm is so high.  Either make it a priority to get to the first songs in the method book, or print off your own pre-reading song to teach the student separate from the book (see the Primer Level options on my Free Sheet Music page for some possibilities--as of today, this is still in the works).  Students can learn partly by finger numbers, partly by rote.  Just make sure they have something to play for Mom and Dad this week!