Reaching each one: keeping positive relationships at the core of piano teaching
“Every social interaction does not involve teaching, but – unlike moments in life when we are learning – every teaching moment is, in fact, a social interaction.”
She towered above me, her mane of dark curls almost covering her face. I remember her dark, almost black eyes, and her clothes that fell down around her formidable stature, as if she had instructed them where to hang and they had obeyed.
We did obey. We really did. She was a peripatetic cello teacher who worked for the local music service, but I remember her unmoving face and clipped speech to this day. I was a Year 7 cello student who was already showing real promise as a young pianist, but ultimately my actual fear of going to cello lessons meant that my parents sent a letter to school, explaining that I wanted to stop. She had a directness that was something to fear – her eyes seemed to penetrate right into your mind, and her cutting questions at times made you flinch. Each phrase she spoke came out in a percussive flurry, leaving in its wake that unmoving, silent stare.
Luckily, the head of music at my school saw exactly what was going on. He arranged for me to have lessons with another local teacher, apparently getting himself and the other cello teacher into trouble with the music service in the process. I dreaded my last lesson with this giantess before I left; I was shaking even more than usual as she grilled me on my reason for stopping lessons, her angry scowl darkening her dour face even more.
Next came the intense juxtaposition of coldness and kindness: I crept back to my maths class, shaken but relieved beyond measure to have no more to do with her. My pulse still racing, I quietly sat down at my desk. I looked up to the door of the maths room, where my music teacher (the head of music) was peeping through.
“Are you alright?” he mouthed at me through the pane of glass. I nodded, he smiled, and went away.
I never forgot that moment he took out of his own busy day to check how I was.
He was also the inspirational teacher who, in Year 10, arranged a Mozart piano concerto for our school ensemble so that I could play it as a soloist at a concert in our comprehensive school in an area of high deprivation in East Lancashire. He was the one who took me to one side to say he wanted to put me in for GCSE Music a year early, so that I could study A level material in Year 11, but had been advised not to do so by school leaders because of the repercussions for me from my peers. He was the one that set me individual composition, listening and arranging tasks to do to push me further. He was the one that always talked to me like a person in my own right.
He is now also the one that, some thirty years later, is now one of my own piano students.
You see, both of these were memorable teachers indeed, of course, for varied reasons! My point is this: we tend to remember the extremes on the scale. Those that made us laugh, those that showed they cared. Those that believed in us, perhaps even if we didn’t ourselves. Those that recognised something in us: something special, perhaps; a gift or talent. Those that took the time to help us to understand something.
Or conversely, those that walked the line of cruelty. Those who engaged in corporal punishment, for those of us old enough to remember it at school. Those who ridiculed us; those who lacked empathy. Those who scared us. Those, possibly, who were just indifferent to the pupil cogs in the education machine, and were unwilling to see each individual brick in the wall.
And then the in between. The grey area. The not-so-memorable ones. Those teachers who bored us, who took little interest. Those who stood at the front and talked without communicating. Those who were passionless; those who had perhaps lost track of why they’d gone in to teaching, or who perhaps had never truly known. Those who didn’t know our names. Maybe the ones who talked, but didn’t listen.
So now, as the director of my own piano school, I am fascinated by the idea of what makes an exceptional teacher. I believe that the dynamics of the one-to-one teaching model, that most commonly used within instrumental teaching, are very different from those in the classroom. And I cannot help but feel, as we are currently in the middle of lockdown due to the Covid19 global pandemic, that online teaching has made us scrutinise our practice from every which way and from every angle, simply because it is teaching laid bare. Online teaching brings us literally face to face – oh, the irony! – in a way that we piano teachers, used as we are to sitting alongside our pupils, find almost uncomfortable. And face to face brings with it the necessity of forging professional relationships that are second to none.
So as we “face up” to those expectant faces on screen, let’s take a few moments to examine four of the principal ways that exceptional relationship-based teachers connect with their pupils.
- Relationship-based teachers are 100% present.
Exceptional teachers won’t be found scuffling through their notes. Lessons will have been individually planned beforehand so that the entire lesson can be devoted to the dynamics of the discourse between teacher and student. True presence, in the sense of “being” present, is highly visual: it hinges on a “give and take” dynamic. “Taking” refers to the listening process, which is just as important as talking ourselves. As music teachers, it’s our “professional” sense. Trained to listen in intense detail to layers of sound and music, we should always ask ourselves how much we “listen” both to what a student has to say, and also to their non-verbal cues. Fully present listening, however, implies that our body language and non-verbal cues are explicitly clear: the student is the one-and-only thing of importance in that moment. Nothing else matters. So think how that looks: we are facing in the direction of the student, our body language showing our full and undivided affection. Our facial expressions change constantly in response to the words of the student, from laughter to dismay, from puzzlement to surprise. All of these reactions are true and authentic responses to what we are hearing; all of these enable the student to feel safe, valued and important.
As “givers”, we use our facial expressions too, but in addition we use our intonation and gestures. How often have I observed teachers whose voice seems almost monotone? The power of the speaking voice and use of expression cannot be underestimated as a teacher. Skilful use of the speaking voice often increases student engagement and communication, which in turn promotes more effective learning. It undeniably takes effort and focus to use engaged speaking such as this, which is why I believe that disengaged or “flat” speech is a characteristic of a teacher who is in the “grey area”, one who has given up, or one who no longer truly cares about learning. Harsh, I know. But it’s so very true.
- Relationship-based teachers want learners to take a full and active part.
I’ve observed many a lesson over the years, both as a deputy headteacher and, more recently, as director of a piano school. One thing that is highly uncomfortable to see is a teaching “monologue” of teacher-led explanations and, especially, “dead end” questions such as “do you understand what I mean?” which unfailingly result in a slow nod or cautious “yes…” This question serves absolutely no purpose: no student wants to look stupid, and the majority would be inclined to answer in the affirmative regardless of their understanding.
A relationship-based teacher has a legitimate interest in what the student has to contribute, not merely in terms of verbal responses, but in terms of their playing, their listening, their improvisations, their compositions, their musical observations, and so on. Take online lessons, for example: how much more vibrant is the energy of the lesson if the student has the opportunity to contribute and respond throughout the journey of the lesson? Think of the ways this can be done – and these only scratch the surface of possibilities!
- On their feet, responding to rhythm patterns using body percussion;
- Using the chat function to answer questions;
- Using the whiteboard to draw pictorial responses, or aspects of music theory;
- Using call and response or imitation patterns at the keyboard;
- Using a question board to formulate their own questions about a piece of music (a board of question stems such as *who, what, why, when, how, should, could, what if* to scaffold their own questions);
- A self-assessment scale, for example using given criteria for a student to self-evaluate on a scale of one to ten;
- Improvising on given notes or patterns as a precursor to learning part of a piece.
- Relationship-based teachers find whatever it is that makes a person, or situation, special.
I have a headteacher friend who is now retired. At the time I worked with her, I was preparing for headship myself, and she shared with me a tip she found incredibly valuable. She had a book safely stashed in the drawer of her work desk; in it, she wrote little details about members of her staff: their lives, their families, what made them tick. And every single morning, she went round the members of staff just to say good morning, to gauge their mood, to check on them. She’d often ask about a member of their family, or something they’d been chatting about. But it made them feel special. For her, it was an intrinsic part of her leadership. We loved her for it.
It’s interesting to ponder that perhaps our students are our “team”, and we are the leader. For me, it’s vitally important to take a brief moment wherever seems right to gauge a student’s mood, or ask about something they’ve told you previously. Sometimes funny conversations crop up, or they let you know about idiosyncrasies they have. I sometimes jot these down on my planning, and refer to them lightheartedly in future lessons or even in their lesson notes. Anything that makes students smile or laugh raises the energy of lessons!
I am a huge advocate for the use of humour in lessons to raise the energy level. For example, during Zoom lessons, I often share my screen, which of course takes two or three seconds to appear. I have a little tradition of having something silly for the student to say when they see my screen: it might be something ridiculous such as “I go swimming in tomato ketchup!” But it raises a smile, usually a giggle, and the student is poised to listen to whatever comes next in case it is something that will make them smile again!
- Relationship-based teachers help students to value their own learning, and their inimitable place within it.
The more I experience, the more I realise that this is an art form in itself. You see, a student can’t value their own learning if they can’t value themselves, and one of the most powerful roles we have as teachers is that of putting the student at the centre of the universe for the duration of their lesson. A wise teacher said the following to me, quite early in my teaching career:
“Never forget that every child is somebody’s baby.”
For “child” here, let’s replace it for the word “student.” Someone’s baby, or son, or mother, or sister, or friend, or grandfather. Every person is unique, and so therefore is everyone’s journey. It’s foolish to forget this. We may have a large number of students that we teach, and yet each learning journey unfolds differently. And so we celebrate their wins – we know them well enough to applaud their successes; we provide them with the chance to grow in confidence by means of those aspects of music learning that feel powerful to them. We steer them judiciously through those aspects that they find more challenging; we remind them that it is never necessary to say “sorry” for a mistake, for mistakes are a beautiful and necessary part of learning. We revisit aspects of learning as many times as it takes for that individual to understand. We even lie awake at night to try to find a different way to explain a concept that doesn’t come easily to one of our learners. We constantly and unfailingly search for their next steps in learning, not merely through opening a method book and pointing to the next page simply because it’s there.
When we care so very deeply, we ensure that we know the trajectory of each individual learning course. We follow a curriculum from day one that ensures that all aspects of musical experience are developed and channeled into forming the well-rounded musician that they are. We have clear learning aspirations that are shared with each student, so that they know where they are with their learning. We don’t just show them a list of pieces we want them to play: we show them the path of concepts and skills that open up around them and enable and empower them to play particular pieces of music as a result of their learning. .
But always, always, we prize each student as the individual gift that they are.
The giantess rang me some years later, when I’d finished my conservatoire postgraduate studies. She asked me to teach her daughter and son piano, which I did do for two or three years before they went off to university.
It turns out she was actually fairly pleasant as a fellow adult. Perhaps she wouldn’t have been my first choice of person to share a bottle of Côtes du Rhône with; but she was, nonetheless, perfectly reasonable and occasionally even funny. I therefore never really understood why she was a source of such fear all those years back, and caused such a turnover of young string students within the school.
I still couldn’t help but give a wry smile, though, that day she asked me to teach her children.
 Rodriguez, V. & Fitzpatrick, M. The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait At The Heart of Education. The New Press, London. 2014. p.x.