The Strategic Piano Teacher: The Long Term Implications Of ‘Years-long’ Learning
From the dense orange carpet, to the double bass propped up in the corner, to the Bentley upright piano against the wall adjacent to the vestibule, nothing really changed in the seven years I studied with my first piano teacher.
Except perhaps I did.
In those years, I journeyed from the novice nine-year-old playing “Little fingers having fun / Up and down the keys they run” to playing a Bach Prelude and Fugue and a Schubert Impromptu, amongst other things, for my Grade 8 at fifteen years old.
And though she may have been very traditional in some respects, what is absolutely clear is that my former piano teacher modelled the strategic vision necessary to lead a learner on a long-term learning journey.
It’s evident is that there is an aspect of instrumental teaching that is, I believe, one of the most advantageous characteristics of what we do: the fact that we are – or at least should be - strategic leaders of learning. I mean this in the sense that it is normal for a teacher/student relationship to exist over years, not months. But where else does this model occur? Not so much in schools: it is normal in primary schools for children to spend at most a year with a teacher; two at the most, if the teacher switches year groups. Even in secondary, it is common for pupils to have a subject teacher for one, two, or occasionally three years. More than that is unusual.
As an ex-primary teacher myself, I believe that a good month or so is consumed at the start of an academic year by rapidly assessing pupil attainment, and learning how individual students progress most quickly and how we might best serve them as teachers. This occurs as both teacher and class adjust to new routines, relationships and idiosyncrasies of personality. It is intense, and it takes time before optimum learning potential is reached.
To that end, I believe that the instrumental teacher is the bearer of an enviable and unique position: that of a strategicteacher, with the monumental and at times overwhelming responsibility of planning and guiding short, medium and long term steps in learning. But what are the aspects that make this partnership so special?
Where the teacher takes the time to develop and maintain positive working relationships, the learner feels safe within an environment where they perceive that they are supported. It can take time, particularly with quieter children, or those whose parents can be somewhat overbearing, to develop that partnership where there is a security in learning; where the student knows that the teacher will only ask them to do that which they know can be achieved, and they feel unafraid of trying new things or responding creatively to a learning task. Similarly, the teacher has a FULL awareness of student ability, based over years, and balances this carefully with their knowledge of the pupil’s personality type in moving learning forward with both sensitivity and appropriate challenge.
It goes without saying that learning is a journey, and as such should be planned. Imagine trying to take a car journey from Plymouth to Dundee without recourse to a map, directions or a sat nav! Of course, this is where the teacher’s own curriculum comes into play. The curriculum is there as a learning guide over years of learning to chart the choppy waters between beginner and advanced. It is based upon the development of a mind-boggling variety of skills over time, and requires great skill from the teacher in finding holistic and creative opportunities to develop learning in the very deepest sense.
In some respects, it seems easiest – and most common – for teachers to plan in the short term. This can be more “reactive”, week-to-week planning, where next steps in learning can be plotted according to formative assessment in the previous lesson. This is highly valuable, and necessary. Yet its effectiveness can be compromised where long term planning is not in place. For example, a student may be nearing the end of the beginner stage and entering into the early elementary level, but the teacher must have a clear understanding of the long-reaching, aspirational goals that will be addressed over a period of months. Such goals are necessary to give strategic direction, and yet it is actually through medium term planning that these aims are broken down into their constituent parts and forward momentum is set. Of course, medium term plans also take into account gaps in learning, or the need to address misconceptions. They are also a vehicle to explore deepening and broadening the students’ understanding of their learning aspirations.
As such, the strategic teacher is in an enviable position to take full charge of student learning, deciding on pace and momentum according to their in-depth knowledge of the student and their particular learning style.
Sensitivity to learner individuality.
As a former primary school teacher, I have so often seen the indignation on children’s faces when a supply teacher has taken the class. This is because the supply teacher does not necessarily recognise or acknowledge individuality: perhaps they don’t recognise the sensitivities of a girl who recently lost her father, or understand the anger of a boy whose mother works away during the week, or the child with dyslexia who lives in terror of being asked to read aloud. It’s one of the reasons that schools tend to call back supply teachers with whom classes have already started to forge a successful relationship.
The more we get to know and respect whatever it is that makes the pupil in our charge a human being, the more likelihood there is of the learning partnership being a successful one. In my recent research as to what were the main factors that made a teacher “inspirational”, the top two were as follows:
Personal qualities of kindness, patience and care.
Belief in the student’s individual abilities.
It is evident that it is the human qualities and values that have the most importance for learners. This starts from the quality of communication between pupil and teacher, which is based on the constant dance of interpreting verbal and non-verbal communication. It is most effective when the teacher really understands who the pupil is as a person.
Secondly, the teacher’s capability to “believe in” the student’s individual abilities presupposes their ability to recognise the student’s strengths and weaknesses, and to communicate their faith through positivity, coaxing, and determination on behalf of the student. This can only arise where understanding of the student - as both musician and human being - is highly accurate and perceptive.
Pride in the creation of a new musician.
Like any investment, nurturing and patience is what reaps long term gain. What is quite clear is that there is a difference in interest between a student who has a six month period of study with a teacher as opposed to the long-term partnership of a student and teacher over years, potentially encompassing the journey from child to adult, or beginner to advanced.
The creation of a musician is one of the most gratifying tasks we can embark upon. The teacher’s sense of pride in shaping their pupil’s learning, just as a gardener might develop a garden over years, or a luthier might craft a beautiful violin, adds fire, energy and momentum to the long-term journey. There is commitment in this pride, and a quest for high standards of musicianship.
Without doubt, the long-term nature of the student/teacher partnership in piano teaching is one of the aspects that make it so successful. But what are the potential downfalls for the strategic piano teacher?
When learning is unclear
Problems inevitably arise where teachers do not see learning as part of a long term trajectory. They may not have adequate subject knowledge of the breadth of learning required and may not have access to an armoury of tools, resources and repertoire to help explore and develop the necessary skills. This is often due to a lack of curriculum planning and over-reliance on simply turning to the next page of a tutor book without understanding the pedagogy behind it, or perhaps seeing the exam syllabus as a replacement for a curriculum, rather than merely as a celebration of learning that has already taken place. Potential pitfalls could be the over-reliance on music reading at the expense of broader musical skills such as improvisation, technique, listening awareness and perception, and composition; or teaching examination repertoire through a “copy me” approach, thus hindering any future student independence in learning.
When the relationship breaks down
Forging a successful long-term strategic learning partnership is based on the premise that the relationship is based on positivity and mutual trust. If this is not the case, then the outcome can be at best uncomfortable, and at worst potentially damaging or upsetting. Imbalances of power, for example when a teacher rules with a rod of iron or engenders fear via a culture of intimidation, can be quite destructive, even if only to a student’s perception of what it means to study music.
It is sometimes the case that instrumental tuition is the only scenario where young person may be in a one-to-one learning situation with an adult. What they experience quickly becomes, in their perception, the norm. It is therefore imperative that teachers take their responsibility seriously, and strive to foster an environment in which the pupil feels safe, secure and valued.
When the teacher is unable to provide an aspect of learning.
The unregulated nature of the instrumental teaching profession in the UK means that there is a huge discrepancy in the quality of teaching. Whilst a minority of teachers study their instrument to a high level, such as to degree or diploma level, this does not necessarily mean that they have a sound understanding of the pedagogical implications of teaching their instrument. Some are proud of the opposite: that they teach a huge variety of instruments, often having only attained an elementary or intermediate level in certain instruments themselves! This necessarily has an impact on the quality of teaching a student experiences which, over time, can lead to substantial flaws in technique or musicianship that can be disheartening and often difficult to remedy.
Similarly, some teachers may not have the skills base to teach particular areas: at an advanced level, perhaps, or in a particular style, such as jazz or contemporary piano. Yet they are reluctant to communicate this to the student, as they are sad to have built the relationship only for the student to move on. It takes great honesty to admit that we cannot always provide everything that a student needs; perhaps there is still something of the omniscient and untouchable “maestro” attitude that lingers from days gone by.
When the novelty wears off.
Complacency is the enemy of teaching. As piano teachers often work alone, and are not always directly accountable to other professionals, it is quite possible that their teaching can become stuck in a rut. Most musicians have probably experienced the teacher that did little more than turn to the next page in the book and teach that in a very didactic and frankly unimaginative fashion. Soon, this approach becomes normalised for both student and teacher, and the learning can stagnate.
Accepting the necessity of professional development often starts from the uncomfortable place of vulnerability on the part of the teacher. This is diametrically opposed to the notion of the “maestro”: how can it be that they still have things to learn? Admitting that their practice could be refined - or even transformed - is not always easy for an instrumental “specialist” to swallow. Boredom or frustration can often be the springboard for a teacher to seek outside support in professional development, but, sadly, this is sometimes not before there have been musical casualties along the way. An unimaginative, going-through-the-motions teaching approach can halt the development of many a young, burgeoning musician.
The idea of young people opting out of music tuition (at the hands of a teacher who is reluctant to change or improve) is, however, a sobering thought.
All things considered, the long term strategic learning partnership characteristic of the piano teacher/student relationship is both a gift and an awesome responsibility, not to be entered into flippantly or nonchalantly, but responsibly and carefully. Personally, my memories of my own first piano teacher are centred around a relationship of trust, of a love of music, of a strong emphasis on rhythmic drive, a foundation of musical analysis, and of her belief in my individual abilities. Ultimately, it also brings to mind the memory of someone who came to admit, with tears and sadness in her eyes that I will never forget, that it was time to let me move on.