This past weekend I happened to be in the same building as a group of about 100 high school students who were on a “retreat.” As I was entering the cafeteria they were just finishing up their dinner and were receiving their instructions for an evening of silence and self-reflection. There was to be no texting and no speaking for the next few hours. The funny thing was that the group leader was shouting at them as if she were addressing a football team or some military unit. The kids were probably afraid to speak after being shouted at like that and I doubt their silence was a result of spiritually uplifting thoughts.
This made me think of piano teaching and how ironic it is that sometimes in trying to get the most beautiful music from our students, we can easily come across as drill sergeants. Wrists high, fingers curved, sing out the melody, less left hand, watch your key signature, count, Count, COUNT, and you call this practicing?
A typical teaching day for me goes from 3 pm to 8 pm with students every half hour and no breaks. In addition to my 15 minute power nap before teaching and my medium coffee (cream only) which I grab on my way to the studio, I’ve learned that I must wipe the slate clean between each student. I make it a point to address them by name, look them in the eye, and ask them about their day at school before they even touch the piano. And then no matter how much nitty gritty work we do in the lesson, whether it’s figuring out the difference between B below and D above middle C, or working on the phrasing in a Bach Invention – we always part on an up note.
After my experience over the weekend, I’ve been more aware of how I interact with each student. I’m convinced that a little joking around, or sharing of a confidence, will go a lot further to summon up an inspired musical moment than yet another lecture about the importance of practicing.