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PULLS AND TUGS: Two sides of the piano student/teacher relationship

There are two sides to every story, so in all fairness I’ve posited a number of situations that crop up in the piano lesson environment, with an analysis from the Teacher and Student’s point of view. In some instances, I’ve substituted PARENT for STUDENT where I think it applies. RESOLUTIONS of various issues are explored.


Parent: Hands teacher a package of pieces. Wants student (her child) to learn on demand. (Tiger mom? or just pushy parent of any shape, size, form or ethnic background)

Teacher: What’s going on? (she says to herself before thinking about the next move on the chess board)

Teacher can either have a fit, draw a line in the sand, refuse to
thumb through the music,


Look at the packet and manage to find one piece that is level appropriate and fits the curriculum.

PARENT: Can take an all or nothing position, or negotiate a middle ground that teacher is trying to advance.

In most cases, the situation can be resolved until the next packet arrives by UPS. Back to the drawing board.


TEACHER: Rules of studio, as far as payment, cancellation policies have been set in stone from day one.

MOTHER OF STUDENT: Decides that out of town debates, swim meets, tennis matches, soccer practices, upend lessons, and deserve higher status. Lessons missed must be deducted from monthly fees at all costs. (pun intended)

TEACHER: Mother knew the rules, and is now changing them.
Money, power, and control are all interchangeable.

Resolution: Teacher can write a 4-page letter to mom about running a private business, comparing her own plight to hard-working Americans with no health insurance, no cushion of job security, and the rest. She can emphasize that monthly payment reserves her child’s lesson day and time. It might alter consciousness for a few months until the Lacrosse tournament rolls around. Then it’s just a matter of time before lessons are terminated by either the parent or teacher, whomever chooses to exercise POWER.

Teacher realizes, a prolonged clash of wills is not worth the trouble..
3) REDUX: More quibbling over canceled lessons, sometimes at a moment’s notice.

Parent: Makes a cell phone call to teacher only minutes before lesson begins. Junior is on his way to the mound for the Little League Championship. Does she have to pay for the missed lesson? Can’t do make-ups because kid has 5 other tournaments in a row coming up?

Teacher: What???????

Resolution: Teacher can fumble the ball and give in, or stand firm.

Parent can either quit lessons once and for all, or hang by a thread, until there’s a shouting match worse than an explosive response to an umpire’s bad call.



Student: Forgets to bring music for THREE consecutive weeks.

Teacher: Can gently remind student of his lesson-taking responsibilities, comparing the piano learning environment to the classroom. What would his-her teacher say if loose-leaf, text books, pencils, pens, homework assignments were missing week after week?

Student: Can look puzzled? or connect with the teacher and admit wrongdoing with a plan to remedy behavior. In desperation, he might blame his parent for not packing the music.

Enter parent (usually father): He can either back up the teacher, (the preferred response) or absorb all the blame for the missing music, taking his kid off the hook.

In either case scenario, the music does not magically appear, and may not in the future. A double play strategy that worked on the baseball field goes the distance at piano lessons.

Resolution: Teacher can reprimand parent and student or stand idly by. In both instances, she’ll never get to first base!


Student: Claims all his music is in Texas???

Teacher: What??????

Student: When gramps last visited, the music bag landed on the back seat of the pick-up truck and was driven to El Paso.

Teacher: What?????

So when is the music coming back?

Student: No idea. It could be a month or three months.

Parent: Corroborates story of student, but says grandpa is planning to visit again in about six months, and promises to pony up the music.

RESOLUTION: Teacher can suspend lessons for 6 months.

Parent can purchase new music and resume lessons asap.

COMPROMISE–Get music in three months..

6) ADULTS ONLY: situation #1

Student: Can’t practice. No time, no energy–divorce interfering. Low hemoglobin. Needs vitamins.

Teacher: What???????
(Thinks to herself, Why did pupil sign up for lessons in the first place?)

RESOLUTION: Drop lessons until red cell count rises. NO further discussion.

ADULTS ONLY: Situation #2 (Beginner wants to take lessons)

Student: Has no piano, no keyboard, no nothing…

Teacher: What?????

How do you expect to learn???

Student: Give me six months, and I’ll come up with something that resembles a piano. Ya know, “Money is tight.” In the meantime, I’ll just wing it or tap on my table top.

Resolution: Lessons are a NO GO!


7) ANY STUDENT situation #1,000 and growing! With parents screaming the loudest!

Can we change lesson times??? (IN CHORUS)

TEACHER: What??? We’ve already changed from Tuesday, to Thursday, to Friday, to Saturday, and finally, to Sunday? (Teacher is tearing her hair out, about to blow a gasket!)

PARENT: But what about Wednesday, at 4 p.m.? We’ve never tried that time? And it’s the best, since there’s soccer, baseball, basketball, swimming, tennis, flag football, and Catechism on other days??

TEACHER: What makes you think, you’ll stick to the new day and time?

PARENT: Well, we can always give it a try to see if it works out. Otherwise we can play it by ear.


TEACHER: Can either capitulate to parent or tow the line.

Best RESOLUTION: TOW the line! or eat crow!


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Adult piano students say and do the darndest things.

I remember Art Linkletter’s show, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” which made me think of a few adult piano students and their hauntingly memorable words.

Yesterday, for example, I was forewarned by a 70-year old pupil, that I should expect a call from her during the night about the key of “F# minor.” What impending crisis was she talking about? Did it have to do with the Melodic form of the scale and its raised notes going up, but not coming down? Was it the temporary shift in fingering or the modal turnaround? I’d concede that the “melodic” was a cliff-hanger on the ascent with its “raised” 6th and 7th notes, but definitely a descending blow-out in its restored “natural” form. Would this duality catapult a student into full-blown despair?

F# G# A B C# D# E# F#
E D C# B A G# F#

The Circle of Fifths for Major and Minor Scales

Wait a minute, my 70-year old, wasn’t assigned the more complicated Melodic minor this week. She was supposed to practice the NATURAL FORM with mirror fingers, 4, 3, and 3,4 on F# and G# in every progressive octave, with 3’s meeting on C# in both hands. We’d spent a few lessons on these reciprocal relationships and symmetries, though she’d planted her 4th finger on two different notes in the same octave, hoping I wouldn’t see the guilty left hand from my vantage point at the second piano. But my peripheral vision had been fine-tuned from hunting down crossed-hand notes with rolling eyeballs.

All humor aside, it’s always difficult to navigate scales that are not strict patterns of two and three-black key groups with thumbs meeting like those of B, F# and C# Major and their “enharmonics” spelled in flats: Cb, Gb and Db. But just about every scale has an internal symmetry that can be explored to best advantage regardless of its location on the Circle of Fifths.

The scales of C, G, D, A and E fall under one heading where the bridge between the octaves has a reciprocal fingering or mirror.

In the case of C Major, the 7th note B crossing over C to D, uses finger numbers 4, 1, 2 in the Right Hand while the left plays 2,1, 4. The anchor finger over which 4 passes in either direction, holds things together.

In previous writings and videos, I also pinpointed where finger number 3 met in both hands, providing another internal organizer.

For the student who was rattled by F# minor, a scale that had a novel identity, we found a different location for mirror fingers, but still a helpful aid.

Another pupil, a US Attorney who’d been chasing robber barons in South Carolina, was worried that he didn’t get to the piano this past week, so he let me know in no uncertain terms by telephone and text message, fax, email, registered mail, certified mail, and just plain 3rd class snail mail, that his upcoming lesson would “just be a practice.” I wondered to myself, had he otherwise feared a public flogging in front of Starbucks?

He had done very well over the years, reconciling the relationship of scale study with his desire to improve his understanding of the Beethoven sonatas and other repertoire.

I’d previously mentioned Ralph Cato, the US Olympic boxing trainer who was my sparring partner for ten minutes following his lessons. Every week he’d use my staircase for athletic training and balance routines. Was I dreaming? Because his coaching was pert and perfect, I’d wished his precise directions were recorded for posterity, though they remain a lingering memory.

Up in the Bay area, a retired lawyer, used her iPhone to capture angles of her hand and fingers that were used as learning reminders between lessons.

I had started to believe these technology based aids were helping her and I had to get with it without resisting change.

She’d admitted that her first piano teacher, a nun in a rural Texas parochial school, had used a ruler to beat her hand into a rigid, arched position.

Oops, maybe I’d mixed her up with my paternal grandpa who ran away from the Cheder in Latvia after his knuckles were skinned with a cat o’ nine tails by the head Rabbi. He’d ditched his Torah lessons.

Oh well, some teachers over generations used this same dastardly approach.

In a few years, none of us would be collecting colorful stories about our piano students. We’d be replaced by micro robots who’d comb the keyboard, electronically marking fingerings for every major and minor scale.

An exaggeration, perhaps.

In retrospect, I should have appreciated middle-of-the-night calls from my 70-year old student. At least I could log them for a growing anthology of pianorama.