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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.





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Skyped Piano Lessons: Using video supplements as reinforcement (Video sent to an 8-year old student)

Today I Skyped a third piano lesson between California and Oregon, and learned that the student I was mentoring was not 10-years old as I had thought all along, but only 8!

Dad told me she had 10 months of lessons altogether, wherein I became involved only weeks ago at the father’s invitation. But the first phase of my musical relationship to the child involved a video exchange through a common private You Tube channel.

That process remained in place after I purchased and set up my iMac 21 for SKYPE.

In the past few weeks, many videos have been uploaded and sent back and forth, which in my opinion have significantly advanced the student’s progress. The participation of the father has also been pivotal to gains the child has made. He is very involved in the real-time lessons, and in the video exchange.

When his daughter practices between lessons, I am sent a video(s) of her session, and will comment on various phrases, measures. I then shoot back a responsive video underscoring my points.

So far I have found Skyped lessons to be valuable in fostering progress in conjunction with video supplementation.

Today I sent the video below to dad as reinforcement of the five-finger technical work we commenced today. It is no.1 of Dozen a Day, Bk. 1 “Walking and Running.” (Edna Mae Burnham) I expanded the exercise to include 32nds legato followed by Staccato Forte/Staccato piano.

In general I use these Pentascales to advance the singing tone and a supple wrist, and I take the student through all keys, “Parallel” Majors and minors. (Not the “relative” minors for this routine) At today’s lesson we embarked upon C Major and minor in parallel and contrary motion.

The balance of the Skyped lesson focused on the Chopin Waltz in A minor, No. 17 and the Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36 no. 3, first movement, Spiritoso.

Down the line I plan to introduce TWO octave scales through the FJH Classic Scale Book (McArthur and McLean) alongside the pentascale warm-ups. These pursuits will be videotaped and shared.

This 8-year old is not typical of students I have in this age category. She is very focused, physically adept, and musically inclined. The lesson plan is therefore adapted to her specific strengths and weaknesses and not standardized.

Teaching that is standardized does not make adjustments for individual needs.

Correction needed below: student is 8 years old!



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Summer Piano Lessons and Musical Progress

I used to believe that summer was a time to let go of piano lessons, to allow students a break from the tight schedule of weekly meetings during the school year. That was my perception until I slowly but surely realized how many holidays and Teacher institute breaks made September to June feel like 7 months instead of 9. (Oops, I forgot that many schools start in late August with Labor Day interrupting what might have been a jump start to serious study, musical or otherwise)

When I sat down with pad and pencil, tallying up Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King, President’s and Memorial Days, Professional Development and Parent/Teacher Conference interludes, I knew I was not dreaming up figures off the top of my head. (Did I forget Columbus Day?) If I factored in student absences for sickness and sports related events, 7 months diminished at a faster rate than “honey I shrunk the kids.”

In New York City, my home “town,” where I attended public schools in the Bronx and Manhattan, the last day of school was always June 30th or the nearest weekday if the calendar offset the number 30 with a Saturday or Sunday.

Here in Fresno, California the race to the finish line has been around the first week of June or a few days past, while neighboring Clovis boasts an extra week or two of school. That District touts an intensely academic focus.

Nevertheless, if schools are for the most part economizing on days serving students during the year, and if this has a ripple effect on attendance at piano lessons, then the summer should be considered catch up time instead of an excuse to dodge learning until LABOR day ushers in another non-laborious first semester filled with the big Holiday interruptions, Thanksgiving and Christmas beside the others enumerated.

It’s a miracle that any progress is made from September to June given this holiday burdened calendar. (not to mention the compulsive TESTING periods that seem to bring anything musical to a grinding halt)

I, for one, experience a mad rush to schedule a recital before the “breaks” occur because those are traditionally times students will not be practicing. When mid-year arrives, the Christmas musical gathering that should have taken place BEFORE the trees are decorated, has been preempted by a school district instigated three-week furlough through New Year’s Day, plus an extra 24 hours thrown in for good measure. Those “measures” are shrinking by the musical minute.

Not surprisingly, students who make the most progress take lessons during the summer. (at least for one month if not more) Parents who make it a point to inquire about the availability of lessons for July and August most often take a vital interest in piano lessons from the start and want to know how their children are faring. They are receptive to acquiring information that will help children move along in their studies so they will make progress, and better enjoy the musical journey. In the same discussion about summer musical opportunities, a teacher might suggest local music camps or programs at the nearby university or community college that might enrich piano studies.

What is truly reasonable to expect in the summer?

If a family is not off to Japan, Korea, or Austria (locales a few of my students traveled to for months at a time) why not suggest at least a month of continuous lessons–either through July or August. Don’t forget the lion’s share of June that is without school and could accommodate classes.

Better yet, taking lessons during the months of July and August would have a salutary effect on playing and would most likely be remediation for time lost during the school year.

In truth, parents wouldn’t have a second thought about having a child tutored during the summer months who needed extra help in academic areas (Math, English, foreign language) so why not apply the same to piano study?

Often students quit piano because they fall so far behind in their practicing that it’s no longer a joy to make music. The same roadblocks pop up in pieces and frustration builds. No matter what supports the teacher gives the student, these are to no avail if attendance wanes and long periods away from the instrument feed malaise and apathy.

Summer lessons can actually be an enticement to learn “new” music in the popular genre, or in a style a student particularly favors, especially if there is expanded time in the day to practice. However, regardless of musical genre, the same discipline of learning in baby steps embodied in a natural ripening process applies. There’s no escaping regular exposure to practicing with a patient, step-wise approach.

Finally, if a piano teacher is available to mentor your child during the summer, take advantage of the opportunity and give your son or daughter the gift of further lessons. If a youngster is to start lessons in the fall as a beginner and August is a free month, give him/her a head start at a time unencumbered by school, homework, and TESTING related obligations. Try your best to schedule around LABOR day which celebrates our nation’s workers of all varieties.