Being Present in . . .
Being present in the Piano Lesson.
Children live in the moment. Now is where children always are. Let’s meet them there!
Are you ever so busy in your own life or have distracting issues outside the lesson that cause you to not give your full attention to your student in his allotted lesson time? Or do you find it difficult to have patience with a student, even pre-judging his ability to adequately prepare his lesson each week?
Most of us who have taught piano for many years, even upwards of forty plus years (yes, it’s true!), have had our share of moments when we could either ‘fire the kid’ or we feel like leaving the entire profession behind and pursue jazz yodeling.
Mike Bates (retired Yamaha Education) once called piano teachers who teach beginning and Elementary piano those who teach ‘in the trenches.’ It is an incredible responsibility to lay the groundwork for a myriad of important information and yet to inspire and motivate, all the while imparting the true joy of music-making. But – there is always light at the end of the tunnel – and the trench.
Presence – which could be a form of ‘light’ – can provide the path through the trench. The trench, the tunnel, the lesson, the week of lessons, whatever we call it, can be held in presence. That is if we choose to see and embrace it. You’ve heard the phrase ‘check your ego at the door.’ Being present in the piano lesson is somewhat like checking your issues or problems at the door so you can just be during the lesson. Your entire self and thoughts are with your student and the lesson process. However it goes much further than stripping yourself of your issues or anything that might distract you. Indeed, if you are good at being present, there is no need to leave anything at the door. Maybe you’ve been practicing being present for a long time, or maybe it comes very naturally to you. Either way, being present for your student can create a natural, freeing space that provides a true opening for creative teaching and learning.
You might be thinking that this means you and your student sit on the piano bench in a yoga position with eyes closed and hands outstretched on your knees. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this or even meditating at the start of the lesson, this idea is pretty far from the kind of presence I’m referring to. Instead, be in your teacher role; yet be with your student. Have no internal running dialogue about expectations, judgments, excuses or explanations as to why things are the way they are. Just let things be what they are and let your student be sad, happy, mad, frustrated, annoyed (or annoying), excited, goofy, joyful, upset, etc., all the ways that little humans (and big humans) can be and bring to their lessons. Is this difficult? Maybe. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
On the surface, this whole concept appears counter to the premise that music lessons are built on – that of judging or assessing lesson performance in order to improve and progress through the weekly process of learning to play the instrument and read the written language of music. Realistically – and somewhat magically – it is through being present that improvement and progress can happen more naturally and intuitively. I suppose you would like some real life examples of this magical present force! I have plenty to share, and will do so in the coming Posts.
In future Posts we will consider all the ramifications of being present in the Piano lesson. We will take into account related Teacher Heroes, books and articles, TED talks, movie characters and more. Lesson examples, benefits, resources, results and outcomes – all will be explored. I welcome your comments and insights. You are invited to join in!
Being Present in the Piano Lesson
Post No. 2 “Jingle Bells” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Well known piano pedagogue Frances Clark said “Meet students where they are, not where you are, and not where you want them to be, but where they really are.” At the time of her statement the term ‘present’ in this context was not popular in this part of the world. Certainly the idea of being present carries many layers of interpretation and usage. But who could argue that ‘where they really are’ was a reference to at least one or two of these layers.
One example . . .
Johnny is in the 3rd Grade. He is an inherently musical child. To say he steps to the beat of his own drummer is an understatement. If I begin singing or playing, he immediately joins in with loud mouth percussion noises keeping perfect time. He loves to create conversational style stories with meticulous illustrations. His sense of humor is slightly beyond his years. When he is introduced to a new song in his method book, he is most interested in the song title and the picture that portrays the essence of the song ‘story.’
Anything in the studio – a picture, poster, open sheet music on another piano – can easily catch Johnny’s attention. Often he will come to his lesson somewhat exhausted from his school day, his energy is so intense. When I sense this I sit down at my piano and begin playing an improv riff. He sits down at his piano and begins improvising along with me. No words are spoken – we just play. He usually finds the key I’m in and plays ‘suitable’ notes. However, he doesn’t play in a random manner like many young students. Johnny chooses his keys and rhythms carefully. He’ll play long low notes and listen. While holding these long low notes he’ll play right hand notes within the harmonic structure with various rhythm patterns. This ‘improv’ session can last for 5 minutes or even longer if I keep playing! I play a ritardando along with a decrescendo and begin to end the improv session. He follows. I feel a calmness on his bench and see a smile in his eyes. We are ready to move on. Focus and fun now come easily.
Another example . . .
I always have a lesson plan but rarely follow it closely with Johnny. He puts pressure on himself to play his pieces well, often losing patience. Some time ago he was playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He was having trouble with the second phrase and kept repeating from the first phrase hoping the second one would go well. You’ve heard that technique! I could feel the tension mounting. So rather than zero in on the trouble he was having in the second phrase, I went to my percussion instrument basket and picked up a pair of small but noisy cymbals. After his first phrase, I played a nice loud cymbal crash. He looked at me in surprise and yelled “Cool!” The tension disappeared and the second phrase went fine, as did the rest of the piece. And of course I kept playing my cymbals after each phrase.
Example three . . .
Susy was a transfer student. She was only in the second grade but had had about six months of lessons. Her mom secretly told me that most of her prior lessons were spent working on correct hand position. Susy had become frustrated with the heavy concentration on technique and little focus on playing pieces. I started teaching her in January. At this young age I usually give kids folk songs that we map out together. I asked Susy what she’d like to play. “Jingle Bells” was her reply. I said, “Well Christmas is over. Are you sure you want to play Jingle Bells?” She looked up at me with sad eyes, “Yes, I’ve always wanted to play Jingle Bells.” My heart almost broke! How could the previous teacher let Christmas go by without letting this sweet child play “Jingle Bells” – good hand position or not! Extraordinary piano teacher Therese from Kentucky had a similar situation with a young student who wanted to play more Christmas songs in January. Please read her important comment on this Post.
When all students, especially students like Johnny and Susy, have a teacher of presence, they will experience success in their musical journey. There will be many ‘detours’ during lessons but so what? Better to have a joyful, meaningful journey then to have it cut short because the teacher did not practice presence. Most of us teachers are sensitive to our students and the joys and concerns that walk in with them at each lesson. It is this sensitivity that knocks on the door of presence to let our awareness of now enter the lesson. Drop your lesson plan, forget about turning to the next page in the method book, and go with ‘what is’ and where they really are, as Frances Clark declared.
More examples follow in the upcoming Post, as well as a comment on one of my Teacher Heroes. Please stay tuned, and join in!
The names Johnny and Susy are used in place of students’ real names.