In taking on a dozen piano students from a teacher on maternity leave, I’ve wandered onto unfamiliar territory since January, trying to balance the the framework of structured learning, as presented by the Royal Conservatory of Music curriculum, with the fact that I have to connect with 12 very different minds, personalities and skill sets.

I gave a 5-year-old his third lesson yesterday, which we ended by playing a duet. He already knows how to navigate the keyboard and is doing quite nicely in reading in both bass and treble clefs.

I also have a Grade 9er who can’t tell a D from and F and who, I have no idea how, passed her Grade 7 RCM exam last year.

In the seemingly infinite spectrum between these two sits a 9-year-old who arrives more-or-less prepared, and plays her classical pieces with the sort of distate I would show if I were picking up someone else’s dog shit. Her face is blank, her legs twitch incessantly, she won’t look at me when I try to explain things to her.

I felt so frustrated yesterday that I was on the verge of losing my temper. Instead, I took a deep breath and asked her if there’s some other kind of music she would like to play on the piano.

“I play it all the time,” she replied. “Every day.”

I asked her to play a favourite song for me, and she launched into a piano-pop number from someone I’d never heard of (unsurprisingly). She played with enthusiasm for at least 2 minutes, showing a facility on the keyboard that’s totally absent when playing classical music.

I also noticed that her legs stopped twitching.

When I enthusiastically thanked her for sharing her music with me, I got a huge smile in return — the first once since we met in January.

This is but one episode from a growing list that leaves me wondering about one-on-one music lessons in childhood. How many children leave with a lifelong love and yearning for making their own music versus the number who walk away, never to touch their instruments again?

If a piano or a violin comes to represent toil, duty and obligation, I suspect its status as a potential source of inspiration, self-expression and invention diminishes in proportion.

A 45-minute-a-week lesson in a small studio, centred around the requirements of a syllabus, strikes me as an inadequate response to that conundrum.

Yes, the vast majority of our great and beloved classical (and jazz, and pop) artists have come from precisely this pedagociallty tried, tested and true background. But what about the thousands who have walked away, never to return?

I would love to learn much more about this.

I encourage you to email me your responses, whatever they may be, to suchacritic (at) gmail

In the meantime, here are the fabulously funny Igudesman and Joo with their now-classic “Piano Lesson” sketch:

John Terauds

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7 Responses to How much potential love of music is stymied by traditional lessons?

  1. M : ) says:

    Ha! I love this post. I had a student who would barely make a sound until I had her sing her favourite Adele song. She opened up, started moving and grooving, and did an AMAZING job. After I picked my jaw up off the floor (it was that shocking) we decided to stick with pop for time being (Nymphs and Shepherds could take a union break). It makes her happy and feel like she’s really accomplished something at the end of the day…and when you’re 12 years old, isn’t that the point? : ) Happy teaching!

  2. Catherine Black says:

    Mr. Terauds: In 25 years of teaching, I have found success in engaging students by appealing to all their senses to see which one(s) they best respond to. Put variety in each lesson – aural, visual, physical, writting. Include their own illustrative pieces using subjects related their own lives. Teach them to write simple compositions (even 5-note) and show chord accompaniment. Use physical aids – popsicle-stick alphabet to place on keys, giant staff to walk on. Use art – e.g., play “colour sketches” excerpts while while student draws; have them illustrate their piece or research the composer. Have a lending library to develop good reading skillls. Have get-togethers with other students – have a theme. Each student has their own style of learning and it is not always easy to determine what that is. Some students have it in their mind that learning to read music is very difficult and their mind is “frozen” – how to thaw?. It is a lot of work, but if the teacher is truly engaged and having fun, then probably the student will be too. Just sticking to one book or one method is boring for teacher and student, and generally is not very successful. On the other hand, I’ve had some students who just seem to know how to read music and mostly learn to play themselves – what a joy to just be their gentle guide.
    Best wishes, Catherine

  3. Shelley says:

    When we were kids, we had to practise – scales, and The Volga Boatman I recall most vividly – for a half hour every day. If we didn’t (often), the practise time accumulated like debt, to be repaid at the weekend. So Saturdays sometimes meant three or four hours at the piano. It was pure torture. None of us have touched a piano since we negotiated our release from lessons in our teen years. Such a waste.

  4. Jordan says:

    This is a huge topic, John, and of critical importance to our cultural literacy and how we teach kids artistic creativity vs. just artistic consumption.

    In my own case, I took private music lessons when I was growing up, but was never forced to practice, and never really applied myself. I was a pretty good player and always enjoyed playing, but I put down the instrument for years while in university, only to pick it up again later in my 20s. I have since become a very enthusiastic amateur.

    On the other side, many of my childhood friends also took private music lessons and, with hours of daily practice enforced by their parents, became quite proficient (often to ARCT level in early adolescence) — only to drop the instrument like a hot potato as soon as they had reached that goal (cf. your other commenters above). For the most part, none of them have retained any connection to music.

    To inculcate a lasting love for making music you have to tap into the same sense of joy and exhilaration that nearly everyone gets from listening to music. That probably means going with a more balanced musical diet that leavens the etudes and scales with improvisation, choral singing, and group music-making (the latter especially for piano players) — all things that were considered essential skills for musicians up to the 19th century, and are still essential in the non-classical world, but that have been lost in the fog of late-20th-century parental expectations and discipline-based music education. IMHO.

  5. Such a great post and asks honest questions. It’s hard enough to recruit students and traditional lessons seem to put another nail in the coffin for us teachers. In order to teach each student well and give them the attention they need to open up, maybe it isn’t feasible to have a huge teaching studio. I teach my lessons as part of a mutual exploration together with the ultimate goal being musical independence and nurturing a potential lifelong love of playing and listening to music.

  6. Ricker Choi says:

    Great post! I had my first piano lessons when I was around 7 years old. After a month I quitted because it was so boring! I am assigned pieces that require me to play simple tunes, left hand / right hand separately, which sound so boring!!! At that time I didn’t know any music except pop. So I quitted piano lesson, and just play some pop tunes using simplified music notation (using numbers instead of staff, and using chord symbols)… I had more fun doing this!

    When when I was 11-12 yrs old I went into a highschool in Hong Kong where I am exposed to classical music in music class, and hearing classmates play Chopin Waltzes, Beethoven sonata… hearing violin concerto played live on stage in school assembly… I fell in love with classical music (first time I knew about classical music)

    So I decided I want to play piano – I opened Beethoven’s Fur Elise… the original – not simplified version…. and struggled for 1 month to learn just 1st page… playing in a very unpolished inaccurate way…

    in the end it gave me way more satisfaction than playing perfectly the simplified tunes hand separately.

    Ever since I have not stopped my love of piano!

  7. [...] Duty or Joy? By Piano Addict, on April 24th, 2012 A gonga post by John Terrauds of Musical Toronto made me sit up and take notice last week. In it, he wrote about his experiences taking on a group of students for a teacher on leave. Working with these students caused him to reflect on lessons as toil, duty, and obligation through rigid adherence to a syllabus. You can read his entire post here. [...]

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