piano lesson dropouts, piano lesson termination, piano lessons

Attitude and Adult Piano Study

What is under-emphasized in discussions about satisfying piano study, is the role of a student’s attitude toward lessons, practicing, and progress.

Particularly within the realm of adult music learning, an individual’s decision to return to a structured instructional environment after a weighty absence from childhood lessons will often attach a set of negative associations:

1) Previous piano-learning experiences were colored by authoritarian parents who enforced excessively strict practicing routines while they embraced unattainable standards of “perfection.”

2) A former teacher might have been emotionally abusive leaving a student with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. (“Mistakes” were fleshed out as “failures.” Creative interpretations, improvising, and any inclination to express opinions about playing a piece were received with a crushing blow of harsh criticism.)

For retired adult pupils who had inhabited a tense work environment, an unconscious “competitive” carry-over into lessons can adversely affect preparation and performance. (The corporate world, in particular, is known for its focus on SUCCESS measured by PROFIT and promotional advancement. Its built-in deadlines, time capsules, and dollar-driven goals are in glaring opposition to a creative, non-judgmental music-learning process)

Among employed adult piano students, some will face pressures managing work and family obligations that limit their practice time and intrude upon lesson scheduling. These impediments increase frustration and self-reproach to the point that some piano learners quit before they’ve become fully immersed in their studies.

Above and beyond issues enumerated that interfere with a fulfilling course of study, the most formidable barrier to a gratifying musical experience relates to ATTITUDE.

In my view, a crushing wall of SELF-JUDGMENT and PROJECTION are the biggest inhibitors of progress and attendant satisfaction in the piano-learning environment.


Pupil to Teacher:

“I don’t know how many times you’ve told me about voice parceling in the J.S. Bach Allemande, and I still can’t seem to get it right.”

The student is COUNTING how many times the mentor has suggested changes that will flesh out the beauty of the work. The TEACHER is NOT counting reminders and is not grading the student who is governed by absolutes of RIGHT AND WRONG. (It’s a case of distortion with embedded projection of what the student believes is going on in the teacher’s head.)

In fact, the mentor is determined to work with the score, the composer’s intention, and what can improve musical expression given the period of composition. She emphasizes this approach, assuring her pupil that repeated reminders are not tallied on a scorecard. (In truth, the student, alone, is acting as a self-appointed scorekeeper and referee, issuing self-imposed penalties that create a cyclical set of last ditch efforts.)

A resonating chant:

“I keep hitting the wrong keys so let me try again.”

The student resists relaxing as the teacher suggests numerous strategies that encompass breathing techniques, mental images and cues, with demonstrations of supple wrist, weight transfer, and unimpeded flow of energy down the arms. (“Hitting” notes, even if not to be taken literally, is discouraged.)

The pupil tries again, makes another mistake, tenses up in response, lunges repetitively at the keys and finally gives up.

The teacher assesses the situation, framing her suggestions in an objective way. These are dispensed without a hint of invective or biting criticism. Nevertheless, the pupil has decided she just can’t seem to “get it RIGHT,” and ends the lesson on a note of pessimism.

Students who have self-defeating attitudes for whatever reason, are difficult to work with because they lack trust in themselves and the teacher.

Finally, for a musical journey to be satisfying for the adult pupil and mentor, both must embrace an attitude of love for the learning PROCESS without the attachment of deadlines or tallied measurements of success. Each partner must individually work on advancing a relationship to the piano that integrates patience, self-nurturance and acceptance on behalf of musical growth and development.


emailing a piano lesson termination, piano, piano lesson termination, piano teaching, Uncategorized

When bad news arrives by E-mail that a student is dropping piano

There’s a hot discussion brewing on a Facebook forum about how piano teachers should handle e-mailed lesson terminations. Some in our profession take the position that it’s no big deal. After all, anyone should be able to quit at any time with the tap of a mouse. Many insist that it doesn’t even matter if a text message arrives with somber news. (Notice of firing)

I say “sign of the times” as my response, with an attached example, resonates with the Millennium’s murky mode of communication.

But first, the back story:

When I was teaching in Fresno, well before my relocation to Berkeley, two of my teen students who’d signed up amidst tennis and other extra-curriculars made a case for studying piano. Mary, one of their classmates, had made an indelible impression with a church performance of Schubert’s Eb Impromptu.

Mary’s mom, as it happened, was best friends with the parent who initially contacted me about piano lessons.

Since word of mouth followed a straight and narrow path to my studio, I was fortunate to have received an All in the Family referral.


The consultation or entrance interview was blessed by the presence of one parent (a rare thing these days) though 5 mega-cell phone interruptions marred continuity of thought, discourse, and playing. (Red flag!)

Still, each teen marched on, providing a snatch of this and that: “Three Blind Mice” for one, and “Hot Cross Buns” for the other–a painfully unrecognizable rendering by each.

Yet, both students were prepared to start on the right foot, having a triad of support in place that put practicing at the center of learning. (I had adjusted my teaching plan to include classical, popular, jazz, and show tunes as well as a scale and arpeggio regimen around the Circle of Fifths.)

Bill, 15, (track and field, tennis, soccer, swimming) pushed the envelope, begging to study “Liz On Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice. Though the piece was a bit beyond his playing level, his avid enthusiasm to learn it in baby steps, brought him to a place we both hadn’t anticipated. (Beside Liz he was studiously learning classical selections from the Celebration Series –Toronto Conservatory)

Julie, 14, (tennis, tennis and more tennis) hummed along playing early Baroque minuets, Classical sonatinas, and graduated to Fur Elise after two years of study. Occasionally she would bring Taylor swift scores that, like spaghetti, unraveled from the rack to the floor.

She especially doted on “100 years,” “Let it Be,” and “Forever and Always.”

The musical journey, however, was not as rosy as it sounded. Sports schedules had invaded lessons causing absences and disruptions. Lesson-day and time switching, were running rampant with inadequate notice, yet I managed to adapt as best I could.

Such is the life of a piano teacher. (sadly)

Even with these twists and turns, both youngsters had accomplished a lot, and were prepared to take lessons until each left for college. (That was the understanding from the outset)

Having this plan of study at the core of a collective commitment to learning and growing, I was surprised one day to receive the following email from mom. (I assumed)

It was smack in the middle of year, January to be precise, following the holiday break.

Dear S, “I am sorry but we have decided to discontinue J’s piano lessons at this time. She will be focusing on other activities before heading off to college in two years.”

The older sib had already left the area, without informing me. J, his sister had casually mentioned his disappearance during one of her lessons. Come to think of it, I had an unexplained hole in my schedule.

If this was mystery enough, what followed by second email was even more puzzling! (It was a response to my registered surprise about the termination)
From: the Mother
To: Shirley Kirsten
Sent: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 1:59 PM
Subject: Re: J.
“Thank you for your email! I was NOT on board with the lessons stopping. This has been a source of serious contention. This is not something I feel is beneficial to J. in any way. It is with true regret that she stops– I think it is wrong. Thus, the email I was unaware even was sent. Men in general are poor communicators for this I am sorry.

You have been an outstanding teacher and I have enjoyed you teaching the kids. (Did she say kids? One was M.I.A.)

Mom continued:

“I just don’t know what to do. 😦

“I just don’t use my email often. I am usually on twitter for communication.

Respectfully, M

(My response flowed in the midst of shock that Mom had no knowledge of dad’s e-mailing from her account?)

“Thanks for your note.. When parents are not in synch about these matters, I just assume not be part of any contention. Because I’m not a mind-reader, and just a hard-working, dedicated piano teacher for 35 plus years, I can only assume when an email has someone’s name on it, that it is coming from that individual so I respond directly to that person. I don’t share my email account with anyone else.

“Sadly, this decision was made and I wish J. only the best.

“She was a joy to work with and made significant progress over the long term. I also tried to accommodate her interest in popular music as we went along….

“Good wishes are sent for the New Year.”


Footnote to my above reply:

P.S. “While I enjoyed teaching your children, we piano teachers being mostly part of a silent but giving community of hard-working professionals require a bit more respect. Would your husband receive two days notice of discontinuing his employment?”


When all was said and done, I posted these communications at the FB Piano Teachers Forum in reply to a colleague who asked:

How do you respond to an email informing you a student will not be continuing lessons this year?

My position remains. An e-mailed discharge is plainly disrespectful and a “sign of the times.”

Perhaps TWEETING would have been the BEST mode of transmission. It says a lot more, in a restricted number of words!