Relearning After Having a Bad Teacher

I received a disheartening email from a close friend about his daughter’s frustration with trying to learn how to play the piano. She started taking lessons at the age of six; she initially loved it and quickly excelled at it. But soon she became bored by the corny music in the lesson books, finding it intellectually insulting even when it might get tricky for the fingers. The teacher started trying to guilt trip her, calling her a “lazy little girl” when she didn’t practice.

They ultimately stopped the lessons and are looking for a teacher who might inspire and reestablish a positive relationship with music. Now, however, the daughter thinks that piano study is Victorian and dull, and is more into other things. Her father is accepting of this but still wonders about how to find the right study situation for a musically gifted child. So, how do we go about fostering a positive relationship?

Luckily the father saw that continuing music in his child’s life meant not working with this particular piano teacher. However, it happened after the girl’s experiences had already led her to conclude that playing the piano was not fun, but dull, old fashioned, and not for her. He is now faced with the task of trying to find a way for his child to come back to music and view it in a positive light. How do we undo negative experiences with teachers so that children can still be receptive and willing to try again?

First, I would give the child a small break from lessons. While doing this, I would talk to the child and explain that I understand why she would not want to take piano lessons from a teacher who would not listen to her, would give her music she did not like, and would call her names. Tell her that what the teacher did is not what most teachers do (I hope!) and that you would like for her to try a different teacher to see if that makes a difference in how she perceives the piano. By doing this, it helps the child regain a sense of ownership in the process of learning music. They need to feel that this is their activity and that they have a say in it.

In the case of my friend, because his daughter has been deemed a “chosen one,” there is the added stress of the child being told she is talented and she cannot waste her gift. So that this does not taint the beginning of her new relationship with a new teacher, I would also stress to the girl that yes, she is great at music, but what matters most is that she likes music. It is okay to be good at something and not want to do it. This will take a lot of pressure off her and off the father, as well as the new teacher.

There are other thoughts I have on how to pick the right teacher, and I will focus on that in next week’s rant. As for the old piano teacher: as terrible as she sounds, there could be worse. This week CNN listed the top ten professions of child molesters. Guess what was listed as number six?

3 thoughts on “Relearning After Having a Bad Teacher

  1. bb

    just let them…play
    My 7 year-old has gone over to the piano every so often for the last few years, and just played. This started when he was 3 or 4, and the only directive I gave him was that he couldn’t bang on it. Lots of repetition, an obsession with 4ths (little hands), and a serious look on his face the whole time led me to just see where he took things on his own. Soon after he discovered the sustain pedal, the sounds he was creating became downright musical. Even my father, a former H.S. band director, took notice and said, “That’s not half-bad; I’ve certainly heard worse.”

    I did try to sit down formally with my son on 2 occassions and “teach” him, the way I had taught other beginning students. That went absolutely nowhere. And afterward, I realized that by giving him a structured regimen for practice and skills to learn, perhaps I had taken away what he really loved about playing piano: the creativity. The play. So I just continued to encourage him to do what he had been doing (his hands were hitting 5ths now), and even found myself listening to some of his creations more critically as a composer.

    Maybe it was the little composer/researcher in my brain wondering how his little brain would go about creating on this instrument with no formal training, or maybe it was the fact that my son had never really demonstrated a strong desire to sing or even keep a steady beat–and if this was how he wanted to experience and make music, so be it–but whatever the case, he has continued the ‘practice’ of just ‘playing’. As in having fun creating music that is truly all his own.

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  2. shamrockd

    Belinda Reynolds addresses a serious topic in her article on how a student might recover from a negative learning experience. I believe it is critical to go back to the source of the student’s interest in music, and to continually strive to keep that interest alive. “What music do you enjoy?” is the key question from which lessons should evolve. The student and teacher must never forget what brought the student to music in the first place. Once this has been established, the teacher can develop a curriculum based on the student’s interests. The creative and dedicated teacher will develop exercises that are twofold: they relate to and build upon the music that excites the student, but also have broader applications technically and stylistically.

    When I studied flute in junior high school, I had a decent teacher, but my interest in the study material was only moderate. It didn’t relate to the music I enjoyed listening to. Then, as a Jethro Tull fan, I came across a book of Ian Anderson flute solos. My teacher had a broad enough perspective to work with me to incorporate these solos as a significant component of my studies. She worked with me to develop exercises bases on these solos that might have broader applications–in both rock and classical flute playing. As a consequence, my interest in my lessons was revived.

    Teachers have the awesome ability to make music dull or exciting for their students, and these effects can be long-lasting. To promote a lasting interest, a teacher must understand a student’s musical tastes, and work to develop lesson plans that respect these tastes.

    Again, I would like thank Ms. Reynolds for her refreshing views and insights.

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  3. Geoffrey

    This kind of issue also extends to development of more advanced musicians. Approaches to fundamentals (as with instrumental studies) can differ drastically from teacher to teacher, and aesthetic preferences (as with composition work/musical research) can similarly place a student in a mold incompatible with his/her personality.

    That said, at the higher education level, there are certain absolutes that must be mastered if one hopes to turn a desire to be musical into true artistry. Technical work beginning at a young age (which may feel unrewarding at the time) is necessary in developing the sort of discipline required by practitioners in the field. A good teacher makes this education relevant to the student’s innate creativity, and is able to integrate things in such a way that the student finds meaning and develops further curiosity from their hard work.

    As a society we should work to temper the urge for instant gratification by showing students what “good” actually is. I once asked a young piano student how many times he practiced his baseball swing before he felt really comfortable. “Thousands,” he said. He’s not aiming to be a professional athlete, but his swing took time and dedication to master. Being someone who simply enjoys making sounds on an instrument doesn’t really qualify one to be an amateur musician unless dedication is exhibited. Teachers are teachers because, presumably, they have achieved a level of proficiency at something–often the ones who seem the most unyielding in their requirements for their students are aware of this and go to these lengths for a higher purpose than the student’s weekly sense of accomplishment.

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