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The nitty gritty reasons why piano students drop out: Two staunchly different opinions

The current rage on the Internet surrounds a Facebook posting that claims a 95% dropout rate among piano students. The nitty gritty reasons cited by the poster are contained in what I view as a tirade against what he terms “standard lessons.” He insists that the “music teaching industry” uses a “status quo method that chains students to sight-reading instead of teaching independence.” His alternative is a “playing by ear” approach.

To begin with, the 95% dropout statistic is unsubstantiated and the reasons cited for this figure are far from proven.

In addition, what “music teaching industry” exists in the US or anywhere else? Most teachers are independently employed–many barely struggling along and they have no lobbyists to wheel and deal for them on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the writer was referring to the method book industry that churns out $$$ driven materials that may not suit many creatively driven piano teachers. Those who do not embrace a pure method book path to learning might choose to modify content and supplement with composing and ear-training activities.

Music teacher conventions and symposiums also abound where new ideas are bounced about. An informed teacher can attend these and benefit from a cross-fertilization of ideas from his or her colleagues. Podcasts, you tube presentations and tutorials enrich the teaching landscape.

So with or without the method book industry as the target of blame or punching bag, how does any of this discussion relate to piano dropout rates?

I maintain that students give up piano lessons for a variety of reasons:

Time conflicts

Competing extracurricular activities are a big problem. Piano lessons are often squeezed out by ballet, tap, hip hop, and other dance lessons that may occur more than twice a week. Baseball, football, T-ball, soccer practices are additional time eaters.

Practicing is negligible when sports and other preoccupations, including burdensome loads of homework demand maximum attention. Teens in high school have additional pressures related to SAT test preparation and college admission. Their week is cluttered with exams and study deadlines.

Piano teachers can barely do their best with an over-scheduled, academically pressured child during the year. When lessons drop off in the summer, progress is further set back. Once school resumes, the whole cycle of holiday and other interruptions is renewed.

Short cuts

Above and beyond the scheduling snafus, piano teachers have to deal with many parents who demand the quick and easy route to piano learning which naturally filters down to the child. Self imposed deadlines to reach learning landmarks causes frustration among students that often leads to a premature lesson exit.

The pressure to acquire piano playing skills in a flash is pervasive. The quick fix is in. The long term relationship to the art of piano playing is OUT. There’s even a commercial package titled “Playing Piano in a Flash” whose creator made a few guest appearances on PBS in a fund-raising capacity. His assistant, an attractively dressed woman, fed him a script that standard private piano lessons were a big “waste of money.” Whoopie!

Both these advocates of FLASH learning were selling the idea that piano related skills could be mastered as easily as making instant coffee, and it was so tempting to BUY it!


But back TO THE FACEBOOK poster who continued his rant:

Under his topic heading: Piano Lesson Reform – Tyranny Of The Juggernaut, he said, “there is nothing I am more passionate about than piano-lesson reform. I have great love for what standard lessons are but hate them for what they are not.”

“Too many beginning students get lost and quit before they really learn anything significant. They’re excited in the beginning and commit themselves, their time, money and effort to learn the skill. However, over the course of about 2 years, all the excitement is sucked out them and the only thing left to do is quit to become a dropout statistic and faker.”

My comment: FAKER? I didn’t understand the term. Did he mean that what the student had not learned turned him into a faker?

From my nearly 40 years teaching, I never had a faker flow out of piano lessons. Most students who had the time and opportunity tried their best. Their repertoire was a mixture of classical, pop, theater and movie selections, but they knew they had to build a solid foundation to play any of these works well and with satisfaction. This required technical mastery (playing scales, arpeggios in all keys around the Circle of 5ths), learning how to physically produce a singing tone, and how to frame their music with a steady, buoyant beat. Reading music fluently was at the heart of lessons. Quitting piano amidst this kind of study had nothing to do with the content of each session. It had all to do with a DEARTH of TIME set aside by a pupil to study conscientiously, and/or an attitude by parents that failed to embrace baby-step layered learning.

More from the distraught and disappointed commentator who bemoaned his “wasted” years studying piano:

“The ‘standard’ piano teaching method, (??????) “dictates its own agenda of ‘progress’ based on eye-to-finger coordination and in so doing, steers most beginning students off course to their ultimate failure. It is specific to only one style of music (classical) and relegates the ‘skills’ of the player to that of a totally dependent, note-reading follower that will never lead.”

My comment: What standard piano method fits neatly into this narrow classification and who necessarily uses one approach without modification. Plenty of teachers prefer repertoire-based learning, and employ a variety of materials. They will often integrate composing into their curriculum, as previously mentioned.

The poster retread the same theme:

“I’ve been a staunch critic of the standard approach. Yes, it works fine for the relative few who devote themselves to classical music but for everyone else, it’s frustrating and misleading.”

My comment: What a big umbrella to encompass a horde of frustrated piano students who dislike classical music. Same for the “piano teaching industry” label that lumps the whole country’s instructors into a powerful pressure group that promotes the “status quo.”

In truth, where individual piano teachers may not mix and match well with individual students, or have the “right chemistry,” let alone possess adequate teaching skills, there’s always the option of finding a better fit.

Some pupils may want a jazz repertoire emphasis, others, classical etc. Vive La difference. Personal choices can be made with a solid understanding of what’s desired. But if quickie approaches eliminate note reading as part of the instructional program, then the long-term consequences should be explored.

In conclusion, I feel sympathy for piano students who had a painful instructional beginning. After all, it took me at least 3 tries before I found a wonderful piano teacher who ignited my life-long love of the piano and its repertoire.

I can only hope that piano drop-outs will not be discouraged by their early disappointments and will muster the courage to take lessons again.

To read more from the Facebook poster, go to PianoWorldwide, E-music maestro. http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/pianoworldwide/ Your feedback is always appreciated.





7 thoughts on “The nitty gritty reasons why piano students drop out: Two staunchly different opinions”

  1. I love your spirited disagreement of my post but wouldn’t characterize it as a “tirade.” I point out a single problem for which I am hardly the first to do so. Secondly, I reference an “estimated” 95% dropout rate in our Facebook discussion and thus infer that that number is, indeed, “unsubstantiated.” Thirdly, -my fault- “dropout statistic and faker” is linked to a definition different than what you discuss. I’m sorry the link is not more obvious (I’m trying to fix that).

    My playing by ear “alternative,” endorses a regimented approach as a supplement to weekly lessons; not replacement. I don’t insist it is the ONLY answer to a multifaceted problem; rather just ONE answer to explore (and one that has worked well for me over 30 years of teaching).

    The music-teaching “industry” is made up of teachers, schools and publishers. Perhaps “community” is a better word. To suppose that I must be “referring to the method-book industry” is a statement I vigorously deny. The publishing industry is hardly responsible for a problem that has evolved over hundreds of years. No one is.

    I’m committed to reducing the piano dropout rate and that is a good thing. Exposing this particular flaw hits a touchy nerve; always has and always will. I carefully try to walk on eggs to identify and attack the problem and not the persons or labeled groups from whom I seek input and guidance.

    If we truly seek answers, constructive discussion cannot be had by silencing the songbird from singing. I agree with you that there are many reasons people quit and I think we should examine them all to try and figure out what to do about it.


    1. Thanks for your input. You’re welcome to clarify and amplify your ideas as the need arises. I believe that playing by ear is part of a well rounded course of musical study and I’m glad that you include it as a supplement to weekly lessons.

      Shirley K


  2. I might add that there is indeed a “method book industry” that tends to perpetuate short cut middle C, and C positions, among other pre-designed hand placements. Many move too quickly. Frances Clark tried to revolutionize the instructional landscape by teaching landmarks and steps above and below, but her material had want of more interesting repertoire in the early learning stages. Method books that generate mega dollars encourage quick gratification, but do not provide a substantial underlying foundation. They move too quickly and try to satisfy a plethora of musical tastes, often crowding out the layered learning steps that need to be taken one at a time. So we are back to instant learning as the panacea. This is why I favor Irina Gorin’s TALES of a MUSICAL JOURNEY.. with its graduated approach to learning the piano with artistic sensitivity and substance built in..


    1. It’s certainly a convenience to go the method book route to the end of time, so to speak, but not necessarily the soundest instructional journey. Right now I am weighing and measuring a repertoire based learning juncture for a 12-year old who has been studying with me for one year. We will probably head over to pieces hand picked from the Developing Artist Series. She has had sandwiched pieces along with her modified Piano Adventures including, “The Little Flower Girl of Paris,” (Gillock) and “Part of Your World” from the Little Mermaid, utilizing Bb and inserted accidentals. I want her to get OUT of the rigid pre-designed positions and branch out into the real world of piano repertoire with interspersed black notes and all. That of course does NOT preclude the popular music selections already mentioned. To pigeon hole piano teachers as just preparing students for classical music does not hold water.


  3. I see that if one clicks on my name above, it takes them directly to my blog where they can view the post in its entirety. I invite comments from any of your readers that have critiques and opinions on this subject. Thanks.


  4. I am so sorry Mr Pingel has a 95% drop out rate. How sad. Perhaps he ought to think of taking up another profession!

    Oh, oh – I’ve just realised football has a 99.9999999% drop out rate universally. How many adult men do YOU know who still play football by the time they reach 45?

    Oops – and I’ve just counted all the many adults I know – men AND women – who are still playing classical piano at age 46 and beyond. In fact I once met a lady who was 92 and played the piano every day. (She couldn’t quite find it in herself to hobble onto the football pitch though!)

    Kind regards,

    A classical piano teacher (successful).


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