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When a piano student is not working up to potential, the meeting and e-mail that are needed…

I was reminded by a reader of my post titled, “When love for the piano dies..” and in that particular writing I focused on situations where certain pressures brought by parents and/or the piano teacher can trigger practicing avoidance, leading to the obvious, piano lesson termination. In these scenarios, mom or dad may live through the successes of their children, and make the process of learning another test driven arena. The child, in particular, just starting a musical adventure, will worry about “wrong notes” that have acquired a negative association, causing her to tighten up to avoid them, when in reality, it’s the opposite– a relaxed flow of energy is needed to play the correct ones on the page. Musical study, otherwise, becomes just another tense universe to prove a child’s worth that leads to a downward spiral, with lots of learning resistance and an eventual sensory turn-off.

This original discussion, however, did not focus upon the student who might not be working at his full potential even within a friendly, nurturing environment, with parents as part of a wholesome support network.

By way of example, in the past year, I’ve had two students in the 9 to 10-year old range who came to lessons without having prepared their assignments during the week, and this was becoming a redundant problem. Each had a bounty of musical talent that wasn’t being realized. The parents were affirmative about lessons, and wanted their children to make progress and enjoy the musical adventure. They were not “stage” parents or particularly judgmental.

It wasn’t a question of repertoire choices because each was excited by pieces drawn from Burgmuller, a wonderful Romantic era composer of colorful character pieces, and William Gillock, who had made quite a name for himself as the modern day master of melody and captivating harmony. His pieces are a wonderful panorama of cultures with something for everyone. I particularly love “Flamenco” which one of my Hispanic students doted upon, though she could have moved forward in her practicing at a better pace. (and I’m not one for hastening the learning process, which flows in increments, but students can sometimes think the piece will be practiced for them exclusively at lessons, and the in-between follow through is not necessary or required)

Let me hone in on the last part of the preceding sentence, because I’m sure many of my colleagues can relate to this particular circumstance.

By way of graphic example, I once wrote the following note to a parent AFTER we had gone over the same points at the lesson with the child present. (the name of the student has been changed for privacy reasons)

“As we discussed at Susan’s piano lesson, a few requirements and suggestions are offered to help your daughter realize her full potential so she can better enjoy the creative process of learning piano.

“Susan is very musically gifted. But as we both know, unless a student practices conscientiously and thoughtfully each day, progress is not made, and interest wanes.

“The first thing is to enlist energy and commitment to playing with an engaging tone which we work on each week in detail. If I filmed each lesson, we would get a glimpse of what we are doing. And in the past I have done this as a reminder and reinforcement of the baby steps needed to nurture along a piece to a level of playing satisfaction. When a student works steadily and carefully, she can ultimately savor the fruits of her labor. That’s our common goal in this collaborative teacher/student learning environment.

“And I’ve made sure to select a lovely piece of music that’s a treat–a nice departure from what’s going on in the method book. Repertoire of this caliber presents unique challenges that are well within your daughter’s reach if she would set aside time each day to explore this newest selection that is just four lines, but packed with beautiful melody and sonority. Susan loved it from the start and now needs to give the piece the caring attention it deserves so it can blossom and grow.

“There’s a rhythm to lessons and we want to establish this soon enough. It requires a slow framing tempo, a “feel” for legato that we work on at each lesson, the patience to find notes on the staff and setting a good fingering.

“We make sure to go over each and every step in the process with our metaphorical magnifying glass so each detail is expanded. Susan seems to engage well at the lesson with this framing, so it should be impetus to send her home to emulate what we have done at her lesson.

“If you could remind her of daily practicing with this mindset, I think we can regain the tempo of learning that will keep her interested in playing piano and looking forward to each new landmark she will reach as she explores the repertoire.

“Susan is very bright and once she sets her mind to a task, she develops a nice connection to it.

“In fact at our last lesson we spent the whole 45 minutes parceling out four lines. But this is the launch for her to continue the fine-tuned practicing at home, with attentive ears, relaxed arms, wrists, and a regular flow of energy. Maybe I’m being redundant so please excuse the re-emphasis.

“Just to remind: the nails are too long to allow the round, relaxed hand position that affords contact with the fleshy part of the fingers. So if Susan could make sure to have them trimmed it would allow the practicing to be more satisfying. She could then more easily find the center of her sound, with a nice settled in point of gravity that promotes the singing tone.

“Because Susan loves her ballet classes, I try to relate the piano to dancing that evokes flowing arms and grace of movement. We try to apply the dance metaphor to piano and your daughter relates well to it.

“For the time being, I am going to assign ONE piece until we get back into rhythm and that will be the Gillock selection along with her five-finger warm-up in E Major and minor (Legato to staccato)

“Note-reading skills should also improve with the daily, parceled approach to practicing that I’m recommending. It will take patience and attentive listening.

“Just 30 minutes a day will suffice as long as quality time is invested. Consistency, by the way is all important. Skipping days, and not practicing sets progress back.

“If you have any questions, feel free to call.”


I’m sure the contents of this note is familiar to many piano teachers, and perhaps it needs to be a reminder of our lesson paradigm even with its variations in studios across the country.

I would love to hear from parents and teachers about their own experience with energizing practicing when the doldrums set in.

Recital scheduling is a motivator, and always helps, particularly having “themes” that embrace various periods of music. But in between these events, we still need to encourage a satisfying practicing equilibrium that moves a student along.

To be sure, the over-scheduling of pupils in after school activities is an impediment we have no control over. That matter would require still another e-mail that might sound a bit too controlling and invasive.

Nevertheless, within the bounds of our teaching universe, we do the best we can to help our students realize their full potential.


Skimming the Surface or Getting Deeply Involved


Frustrated piano teacher-Frustrated student-what to do next?


Out of a Rut with Spot Practicing


In a Piano Teacher’s Arsenal: The Magic Bullet Piece


Piano Lessons, Long Nails, Peer Pressure

From Pop to Bach, a 9-yr old makes it over easy


Individualizing Piano Study: How to Avoid Method Book Dependency

4 thoughts on “When a piano student is not working up to potential, the meeting and e-mail that are needed…”

  1. I’m thinking that’s a bit too much for a parent to take in. I would instead try to ignite the child’s passion for music by giving her a variety of pieces, maybe even on an easier level, some duets, possibly. Working on one piece and technique may not be the key to getting the child to engage in practicing. Pull out some old favorites to rework, give a variety of easy pieces to encourage more playing and increase musical reading. If I only had one piece, no matter how much I liked the piece, I wouldn’t be interested in spending more than a few minutes practicing.

    Also, I question spending so much time on four phrases with a student that age. Work for a bit on a problem area, drill it, etc. then move on to something else. Don’t allow the student to become bored or frustrated. I had a teacher do that for me in college: one hour on one phrase, and I could have screamed with frustration. I wanted to go through my other pieces, some of which had areas that needed technical assistance from the teacher, not spending an hour trying to find the correct way to shape this one phrase.

    As to the nails, many teachers have various philosophies on dealing with those. Having not only taught students, but had my two children take piano from other teachers, I know how strongly some girls feel about their nails. I ask them to be cut for festivals, etc, but in the meantime, they can have their nails. If they become serious about piano as they get older, they’ll realize themselves how important that issue is. But ask a preteen or teenager to sacrifice their nails for piano is just adding to the problem of turning them off to the music.

    I always think back to my own experience, and after starting lessons in the third grade, by the 5th and 6th grades I wasn’t practicing much at all. My teacher still expected me to work on my festival music, lesson book, scales, etc. but she worked hard to find some fun music for me to do, too. The piece she found that reignited my enthusiasm was a popular piece, the theme music for a movie that was out at that time. I worked so hard on that piece! And that enthusiasm led me back to spending more time on the piano and working on all my assignments.


  2. I respectfully disagree with you. And I might point to Irina Gorin’s impressive and detailed approach to learning piano from the ground up (Tales of a Musical Journey). I love her paradigm and I, too, cultivate the singing tone as the foundation of piano learning. I have had the student I referenced going into the third year, and she has competing activities. But I might add that students who are doing exceedingly well in my studio spend quality time with a particular piece until they achieve satisfactory mastery. More often than not I get transfer students who have little if any tonal foundation. They play like robots with no sense of phrasing. The type of remedial work we do in my studio has paid dividends in playing pleasure. That is my style but I respect yours and that of others. I usually try the single piece paradigm as a form of rehab, just until a steady and thoughtful rhythm of practicing is re-established. It’s a remedial measure that I’ve found works well and puts the child under less pressure given time constraints imposed by extra-curriculars, sports, dancing etc.. The parent, by the way, greatly appreciated what we discussed, and naturally will be part of the support team, because she has always been. I don’t think the issue is “enthusiasm” for taking piano, but rather learning how to assign time with quality practicing which goes a long way..It’s valuable to learn this early on and develop good habits.

    As to long nails, they must go. You cannot play piano slipping and sliding all over the keys. I am unequivocal about that. If parents are investing time and money in lessons, and getting their child to class, they are usually grateful to know what’s expected so they won’t be swimming in the dark. Ignorance would not be blissful in this situation.

    Thanks for sharing.


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