Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Music Teachers: Habit Five: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

In the more than twenty years I’ve taught piano, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit wondering why certain students just didn’t seem to get it: didn’t practice enough, didn’t practice the right things, didn’t count out loud, didn’t want to do their theory, didn’t care to polish, didn’t fit the mold I thought they should. I have experimented with motivation methods, with firmness, and with positive encouragement, and have finally accepted that each student comes with a different background and a different motivation. One size does NOT fit all, especially in private music instruction, and the more I tried to pound the square pegs in the round holes and the round pegs into the square holes the more frustrated we all became.

We can limit this frustration when we know who we are, how we teach, and what kind of students fit this profile best. We increase this frustration when we think that we can be all things to all people. Let’s admit it: We can’t! When we understand what each prospective and current student truly desires, we will be better able to know how to meet those needs and whether or not those needs are possible to meet in our current studios.

Some questions to ask ourselves:

Are we truly listening to prospective new students and parents?

Do we really understand what they want out of piano lessons? When I reopened my studio last year, I had the fun chance to interview many children and parents in a short period of time. One interview stands out: A very dedicated mother was interested in having two or three of her children join my studio. Before our interview, she told me one in particular was a joy, and a child who truly enjoyed piano, but that this child could be a little outspoken and was often misunderstood by school and piano teachers. I reassured her that I have taught all kinds of personalities and I’d be glad to meet her child.

When the family came to the interview, this child’s body language made it clear he’d rather be anywhere else. My favorite part of the interview was when I asked him his favorite and least favorite parts of his current piano lessons. His answer? “My least favorite part about piano is PIANO.”

In years past, I would have been determined to be the teacher that changed his mind. I would have planned engaging lessons, been my enthusiastic best during his lesson time, and encouraged happy music making, all the while wondering how I could stop dreading his private lesson every week. This time, however, I listened carefully to him, to his body language, and to his mother’s previous words and realized that I didn’t want to play cheerleader to a totally unwilling team member. Life’s too short, and there are too many excited piano students to spend my time on one without any motivation.

As you interview, consider some of these questions: Are your prospective students interested in a teacher with a strong record of students who perform and compete often? Are they looking for a more recreational experience with a yearly recital and little pressure? Do they want a group lesson environment? Are they hoping for a strictly traditional classical teacher or someone who loves to incorporate more modern elements with technology, composition, and improvisation? Are they looking for a very organized studio with good communication between parent and teacher (MTH is helping me improve in this area…)? When you spend the time to carefully visit with parents or adult students and truly understand their motivation, you can save hours of stress in the future.

Do our current students’ goals match our abilities and desires and with our plans for our studios?

Not much feels better as a teacher than knowing a student is leaving your studio excited about the prospects ahead of them in their practice week. I recently received a text from one student that said, “Squee…the maid with the flaxen hair has the most gorgeous chords!” I loved it and knew that one of our repertoire choices was definitely working for her. (I also got a new word for my vocabulary. “Squee” is pretty fun.) 

Unfortunately, I also have weeks when I know students are leaving disconnected, less excited. I hate those weeks. They happen less when I’m tuned into each student.

These questions may help us find ways to have more of a connection between our students’ musical dreams and our direction for them:

As you make plans with your students, are you finding them engaged in the goal-making process? Are they excited about the current trajectory or are they tuned out? Do you have them give input into their repertoire, or are you assigning pieces based entirely on your own preferences?

What kinds of questions do you ask in your planning sessions? Are your students sharing the things they’re enjoying in lessons as well as the things they aren’t? Do they know you’re listening to what they’re saying?

Are we comfortable sending students to teachers who might better meet their needs?

Sometimes as we ask some of these questions, we recognize that our current teacher/student relationship may not be as productive as it might be. Sometimes we can fix that. And sometimes we can’t.

One of my best experiences as a student happened when I went to a lesson with a teacher and was told, “We’ve had a great time together, but I think it’s time that you have a new experience. I’ve thought about it and I think this teacher in particular will meet your current needs.” It was a very positive ending to an always wonderful teacher/student relationship. I had been feeling tugged in a new direction and wasn’t sure how to make a switch. Having my teacher being so tuned in to my needs was reassuring and so much more comfortable than having to make that hard decision alone.

Do we have students who need more composition, improvisation, or jazz in their lesson plans but we aren’t feeling like adding that ourselves? Do we have students who need to be less comfortable, to have a more strict or intense experience? Or the reverse…do they need a more relaxed lesson experience? Get to know other teachers: know their personalities, the personalities of their studios and their weaknesses and strengths. Be willing to help students find the right fit with a new teacher if you are no longer the right teacher for that particular student.

Asking these questions is not as easy as following the status quo, but I have found that once our students recognize that we understand their deepest musical desires, it will be easier to communicate to them the elements we know they need in order to meet those desires.

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  2. Ashley

    Great article 100% with not taking students who aren’t interested/motivated. What is your strategy for handling these students? Do you explain why you aren’t taking them, or just say that you don’t have space? This is something I’ve been struggling with the last couple of years.

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