Monday, February 27, 2012

The Transformative Piano Lesson

I've been thinking a bit about something one of my students said at the end of a lesson last semester. "I always come into my lesson feeling terrible, and by the end of the lesson I always feel so much better." I think that this is the highest praise I have ever received.

So, here's a bit of background about this student: She came to me as a high-school sophomore, and she is now a junior. Her life has been filled with drama from the first week of lessons to the present, both from home and school. While she came to me as a late beginner, she has shown that when she has the opportunity to practice, she knows how to work, but because of her situation at home, her practice is frequently infrequent.

So how is it that during the course of her 1 hour lesson each week, her outlook on life changes? More importantly, can I make this happen for all of my students?

When a student comes to their lesson, they, and I, have had a week full of experiences. That means that we frequently have a bit of baggage to set aside before we can get anything done. When the student walks in my studio, they expect me to ask two questions. "What are your points?", and "Any news?". The first question requires them to take stock of how their week of practicing went and how prepared they are for their lesson, while the second question gives them an opportunity to drop their bags at the door, so to speak. News will be positive or negative, but it's never neutral. Students who are carrying unacknowledged "news" will not have a productive lesson. Their minds will be preoccupied. Furthermore, when students relay their news, it gives me an opportunity to either celebrate or sympathize with them. Then, I can say something like, "Let's set that aside for now, and get to work."

Usually this is all done in the space of 3 to 5 minutes at the beginning of the lesson, but occasionally, I will allow the 1st 10 minutes for this sort of sharing. I learn a great deal from these short conversations. Most directly, I find out a bit about what has been going on in my student's life, and how it might be affecting their practice schedule. I learn more subtle, and often, more important things as well. I learn what kinds of events qualify as newsworthy, and how effectively my students cope with those events. I frequently find myself weaving subtle analogies into my practice instructions that mirror the kinds of problem solving skills that are needed to deal with the real life problems that they came in with. Things like, "you have to look for your mistakes in order to fix them", or "if you are always rushing from one phrase to the next, nobody will understand what you are trying to say" can provide some insight into how they might solve their extramusical problems. I can also frequently find ways to relate the expressive content of the music they are playing to their news, and can use the music to either amplify or transform what they are feeling.

While all of this is happening, all the student knows is that they are being constantly challenged with one task after another. All the while, I am pointing out the things they are doing well, and how they can either expand on that, or apply it to something else that they are struggling with. They find themselves successfully solving, or at least improving, one difficulty after another. In the end, this is what I think is most therapeutic about lessons. Hard work with tangible results always improves mood, increases  confidence, and fills a person with hope for the immediate future. Combined with the effect of the music itself, lessons can be a powerful positive influence on students.

Does this work for every student all of the time? No. But, when a student already has a strong desire to learn to play the instrument, the focusing, listening, critical thinking, and technical skills that are engaged in the course of a lesson can transform a student's view of themselves and their world for the better.