A few weeks ago, I received an email from a 16-year-old homeschooler, asking if I’d answer some interview questions for a research project about piano teaching. I was happy to oblige, and she was willing to let me post my answers here too. It was kind of fun!
How old were you when you first began learning/playing piano? Around 6 or 7.
Why did you start playing the piano? My mother got me started with her old piano book when I began showing interest by messing around on the piano. (The book was John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers To Play,” for those of you interested! It starts right at the beginning with staff notation. :)
What music schools or institutions did you learn music at? I took private lessons with 3 different private teachers during my childhood and high school years. I attended Grand Rapids Community College for my first two years of college, transferred to Hope College to finished my Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance, and then afterwards completed a Master of Music degree in Piano Pedagogy. The college-level pedagogy courses I took were the most valuable — and second were the private lessons. I think every piano teacher should take or audit piano pedagogy courses at their local college if they ever have the opportunity. I am a much better teacher because of those classes than I could ever be otherwise!
Who have your teachers been? Various piano teachers in my town, and then college professors at whatever college I was attending at the time.
Do you play/teach any other instruments besides piano? Yes – I play trumpet, French horn, and organ.
How old were you when you began teaching piano? I was 17, I believe.
How many years have you taught piano? It’s been 7 years now.
Why do you teach piano? I love teaching and I love the piano, so it’s a natural fit!
What kind of students do you like the most? Anyone who has a love of learning! I don’t have a favorite age or level. On the contrary, I have discovered that I really thrive on having a variety of kinds of students in my studio in order to keep myself fresh and interested.
How do better/more successful students differ from others? They love learning and are willing to do the work required for learning piano mastery. It’s not just talent. Talent is important, but it isn’t enough. Successful students are usually those who are willing to work hard and who love the hard work!
What method or technique have you found has been the most useful and successful for the average student? Personally, I think it’s important for piano teachers to be familiar with the variety of method books and supplementary books available so they can match the right books with the right students. There is no perfect method for all students, and for me, using all the same materials all the time would lead to burnout. That does not mean I don’t have my favorites, but I am constantly exploring and trying out new books so I will have more options for future students.
Please describe a regular piano lesson you would have with a student. We start with a warmup or technique exercise — 5-finger patterns, arpeggios, cadences, scales, or whatever. Then, we start right into the Lesson book pieces. I am careful to bring their attention to the goals I’ve written in their assignment notebook from last week, to let them know that I’m listening to see if those goals to have been met. If the piece is good, often I’ll play the duet part with them (which builds their sense of steady beat and rhythm, and helps them learn to listen and be able to collaborate with another musician) as a reward. If they “pass” the piece, they get to put a sticker on the page so we know it’s finished. If the piece isn’t ready for a sticker yet, we work together on the sections that need work. Together, we mark the score to help them see what specific things needs improvement, and notate some overall goals in the assignment notebook. If new pieces are assigned, we look them over together first and sight-read them. Oftentimes, I will have the student sightread the RH part and I will play the LH part — and then switch. It’s a good way for them to be able to play/hear the piece up to tempo. After the Lesson book, we’ll move on to the other books in a similar manner, including checking the assigned Theory pages together. I enjoy assigning improvisation and composition assignments to certain students, too, when they are ready. It’s a great way to apply the knowledge they are getting from their Theory books. At the end of the lesson if there is time, I will often pull out a game or activity that will reinforce a concept that we have been working on lately.
Do you consider scales, arpeggios, etc important? Absolutely. They are not only important for developing proper technique, but are beneficial for understanding theory. Scales, arpeggios, etc. are encountered in repertoire and it is a huge advantage to the student if they have been mastered separately first.
Do you teach theory along with your lessons? Why or why not? Absolutely. Students should understand the music they are learning — chords, form of the piece, compositional techniques, etc. These are the building blocks of music.
What types of music do you prefer to play/teach? My goal is generally to get all my students playing classical music. However, they must start with a foundation by learning educational pieces such as those found in method books. If I discover that a student really loves classical music, I will give them mostly classical pieces and perhaps only one or two books from the method book level they are in. However, if I discover a student doesn’t seem to enjoy classical music, I’ll give them mostly educational pieces from the method book series and perhaps only one book of classical music (and try to show them that they probably don’t actually dislike ALL classical music — just perhaps certain types). That said, I also try to find out what other styles of music the student might be interested in, in accordance with their goals for studying the piano: hymn arrangements, jazzy pieces, pop music, ragtime, or whatever! It’s important for the piano teacher to be able to create a curriculum that suits every student’s learning style, goals, and tastes in music. As for myself, I play solo classical music, accompany for other classical musicians, church music (hymns, hymn arrangements, and chord sheets too), new age solo piano music, somewhat pop-ish music, etc. I love a variety of music.
What about practicing? Do you emphasize practicing? Is it the most important thing a student must do to be successful? If not, what is? Do you practice? When in comes to practicing, I encourage quality over quantity. The reality is that kids nowadays are overbooked — involved in soccer, karate, dance, or whatever…plus piano! They need to know how to be efficient practicers during the time they do have to practice. So, in lessons, I essentially am teaching them how to practice. Students must be able to know how to practice a section when they encounter a challenge. My only practice stipulation is that their goal is to play piano every day. Regular practice is crucial for success — but so is having an excellent, qualified teacher, of course. With that combination, the student is bound for success! And yes, I do practice regularly myself.