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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.

1) JOCKEYING FOR CONTROL

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)

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

OR

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.

2) CHALLENGING AUTHORITY:

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.

***

4) MISSING MUSIC

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!

5) MORE MISSING MUSIC AND TALL TALES:

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.

REFER BACK to “JOCKEYING FOR POWER.”

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

Best RESOLUTION: TOW the line! or eat crow!

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/piano-lessons-and-dropout-rates-how-the-initital-interview-is-better-than-a-crystal-ball/

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Sports and Piano Technique: How about chunking–On You Tube

It’s a no brainer to compare piano study to athletics. Both have been my passions throughout most of my life.

At age 6 I competed with my brother for music lessons but lost out. Nearly five years my senior, he got first licks at studying the clarinet, quashing my hopes of holding a shimmering saxophone in my tiny hands. Yes, saxophone. Can you believe? It was such an eye catcher with all the shiny keys on it, and the sound was hauntingly beautiful. But the local music school on the hill in the Bronx had no opportunity to learn this precious wind instrument. The excuse was it hadn’t even a place in a symphony orchestra.

Meanwhile I remember the squeaks coming out of my brother’s clarinet no matter how many times he licked his reeds. And despite many months of reluctant practicing, he couldn’t manage to pump out a few notes without cracking registers. His decision to quit moved me quickly into the privileged position of studying a musical instrument. But with resignation, I accepted the music school’s recommendation that I receive piano instruction.

Besides having to suffer with my first illegitimate $50 upright, a Wieser, or more aptly a WHEEZER, I made sure to take breaks from practicing by dashing over to PS 122’s playground on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx. After school each day, I would surreptitiously pull a broom stick from the kitchen closet and run off to practice my swings, tossing a Spaulding into the air.

The parochial school kids from St. Johns were always at the playground well before I arrived, choosing up the most elite team of stick ball players among themselves, so I could never dream of being invited in. But on one special afternoon, as I was practicing in full view of some its premier athletes, I smacked a ball clear over the fence which landed in a dump truck. That would have been the longest home run I ever hit, and to my good fortune, Patrick McGrath saw it and from then on, chose me into the gang’s stick ball games.

No wonder sports vocabulary permeates my teaching. I learned it from the ground up on the playing fields of the Bronx.

My Studio and sports

As mentioned in a previous blog, Mark, a former tennis pro turned lawyer comes weekly to lessons here at Sports Central. He’s always game for a serious piano workout since we devote the first twenty minutes to technique: scales, chords, and arpeggios.

He, like most students, want to play scales with smoothness and velocity, so I’m happy to linger as the ever-present coach. Problem is that too many pupils crowd the last few notes of a scale and choke up, instead of breathing long breaths into it. Just at the crunch point where the scale turns around to descend, a certain performance anxiety sets in that nips the exercise in the bud. That’s when a lot of students throw their hands up in the air and tie themselves into more knots. Instead of letting go of tension with a relaxed sigh, they race back to the keys with a notched up blood pressure reading. The same problem perpetuates itself.

So how does a student pace himself to deal with this out of control race to the finish line. The best thing to do, I believe, is to start with  chunking. If you happen to pick the key of B Major that has double and triple black key groups with thumbs in between, you can think in larger units instead of laboriously playing note to note. With so many individual ones to count, it can be overwhelming.

In the video attached below you can observe a systematic build up of the B major scale by depressing clusters of black key groups with intervening thumbs, first using separate hands, then hands together. An underlying, relaxed quarter note or steady beat holds the scale together from beginning to end, allowing the student some breathing space.

Recital Jitters

Think of a crowded pile-up of notes at the top of a scale as a massive tackle of a quarterback right in the midst of the final quarter tie breaker.

While there’s no sudden death overtime when playing piano, just put a few students on stage for the mid year recital and watch what happens. That’s when visualization or mental imagery, meditation and other relaxation techniques are desperately needed.

Tim Galway’s the Inner Game of Tennis is a great paperback that addresses performance anxiety in any number of venues. It could be the golf course, the baseball diamond, the equestrian arena, etc. The author permeates the text with the Eastern philosophy of the Tao that embraces the here and now without self judgment. It has perfect application to piano study and performance.

Consider a tennis event where an overhead smash could be the game, set, match point. Coming to the net has to be with the right energy enlisted, not with an overabundance that causes the racket to hit a wind tunnel. The poor player looks like he swung through the air and blew the game. (It happens all too often with wiffle ball players)

Most of the time it’s not about brute strength when doing athletics or playing piano to perfection, but rather it’s finesse that wins the game or advances piano technique.

As I’ve said over and again during lessons, sports and piano are great allies so it’s best to go with the flow, breathe long deep breaths and enjoy the ride.