Ok, so that title is a little rude and honestly sounds pretty ageist. There are dozens and dozens of amazing, grandmother-aged piano teachers out there. My point is, the culture around piano teaching is changing fast!
It’s a tale that’s almost as old as time. In almost every one of my piano families, (and many others through the years) at least one of the parents says some variation of the following:
“I was taught piano for a couple of years as a kid, but I quit. Now I really regret it.”
Believe it or not, this is a topic that is constantly abuzz in the piano teacher community. There are actually piano teacher podcasts, websites, and workshops where experts in the field of teaching music discuss this issue in-depth and try to come up with solutions. They discuss what went wrong with the old piano teaching formulas, what is different and the same about the children we taught fifty years ago and today, and what we can do as teachers to help keep kids motivated to practice at home. In this post, I am going to convey some of the common threads that seem to link each source I have learned from, including some great ideas on how to keep your child motivated at the piano.
#1: Modern teachers are no longer afraid of piano games
You might find it funny to think that an educational game is something someone could ever be afraid of, (especially a teacher!) but this really is a culture that has changed exponentially over the last 30-50 years. Even just sixteen years ago, (around 2002 when I started my own lessons) games were not a predominant part of the typical piano experience. In my case, that was fine. I was the weirdo kid who loved to play anyway. But in the case of most young learners, a piano game is a great way to break down difficult concepts, offer variety within their lesson routine, review information, offer additional music knowledge that they don’t get from just playing the piano, (such as music history and culture) and keep your kids coming back to piano lessons. We are fortunate enough to live in a time where there are hundreds of piano games and teacher resources online, so the games chosen should be ones specifically tailored to your child and what concepts they need to learn.
I would encourage anyone to incorporate music games into their game collection at home. At the end of this post, I will include links to some of my favorite resources for printable games, online fun for kids, and links to descriptions of ways you can use other games, (such as Candyland) in a musical context. The more the kids are able to reinforce the information they learn in a fun way, the better they’ll become at playing the piano. Not to mention, a game could be a great way for your child to teach you about what they have learned!
#2 Hallelujah! We have updated the method books!
For quite some time, piano teaching followed a fairly stringent lesson formula, and few teachers strayed from the older method books and routines. I used to work at a music store in Murray, Utah, and I can tell you that one method book series still sold has been around since the 1950s! Honestly, while some of the fundamentals might be the same, kids today just need different things in order to learn. I don’t have to tell you that your kid is unique in their learning-style. Fortunately, there are a myriad of lesson book methods for your teacher to choose from. Believe it or not, not every piano method book just teaches the student to memorize the notes on the staff and then play them. Some teach note-reading through intervals first, (which is great for those visual-learners) some teach with pneumonic devices, (generally good for kids who are good at reading and language) and there is even a way to teach the piano through chords and lead-sheets, (a perfect fit for teenagers who want to play that one song they heard on the radio). Usually, I choose the appropriate book for the student, and along the way use some combination of all three of these methods in order to give them a well-rounded experience. If you’re just starting out or your child is struggling in piano, it might help to know that there are many methods out there and it may just take a little time to find the right fit. It’s more than likely that your teacher now will be aware of different methods they can use to keep your child coming back to the bench!
#3 Not every student wants to be a concert pianist, and that’s ok.
There are so many incredible ways to excel at the piano. Some become wonderful improvisational pianists, (jazz, ragtime, and even pop music) some are concert pianists, some just use piano as a fun thing on the side throughout their lives. Some might experience a little bit of all of that depending on their phase in life. It is our job as the piano teachers to give you or your student the skills they’ll need to accomplish any one of these or other wonderful positions at the piano. While I personally enjoy learning through classical music, I will absolutely teach a child pop music and lead-sheet if that’s what is keeping them coming back to the bench for the time-being. As kids grow and learn, their preferences often change and mature. Instead of discouraging whatever your student likes the most, I believe in using the things they’re interested in to keep them learning as much as possible. This, to me, is better than losing the student completely.
#4 A good teacher is always a student of their trade.
If you have a teacher who is stuck in their ways, refuses to try something different, and your child is hating piano – let me take this opportunity to tell you that there are other, more flexible teachers out there. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there are some things to be inflexible about as a professional in your trade, but the way you approach a child in a lesson shouldn’t be one of them. Obviously, the end goal is essentially the same. Piano teachers are teaching a very specific skill-set. But if your teacher is not willing to explore other methods and approaches for your child, you might not be in the right situation. Teachers like this do still run rampant in the piano teaching community. In the end, it’s just something to be aware of as you go along so that you can make an informed decision for your child.
#5 How can I keep my child interested in the piano?
This will honestly get a blog post all on its own, but I believe that it is a relevant subject when it comes to the changing culture of piano lessons. While it’s important to know that the piano teacher your hire today is probably not like the one you used to have, it’s also important to know that practice-time will also look a little different than what you may have grown up with.
In an episode of the podcast Teach Piano Today, creator and hostess Andrea Dow interviewed and discussed the research of a graduate student named Karen King, who conducted her Master’s thesis by doing an in-depth study regarding the issue of why piano students quit. In the study, they looked at the specific reasons why piano students discontinued their lessons, and compared them with students of other instruments and extracurricular activities. There was a lot of gold in there and I would absolutely recommend listening, (I’ll post details about where to find it below) but for now I will just sum up their conclusion.
Ultimately, the students who stay motivated have to be provided with a good learning environment from their parents. The teacher is incredibly important, but the support from home is even more so. Of course, you can do everything within your power to encourage your child, give them a good piano, make lesson goals and requirements with them, and they might still not like it. If they don’t have the intrinsic desire, you might be a bit out of luck. But the best way to set them up for success really is by creating that learning space in the home, setting clear goals and expectations with the child and teacher, and allowing them to play songs they enjoy in addition to their required material.
If you have provided everything listed above and your child is still not loving the piano, please remember that you’re not alone. I believe that there is still a lot of value in creating a time-bound commitment with the student. If they make a commitment to stick with their lessons, they may just develop that intrinsic motivation as they grow and mature.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope this gave you a more in-depth look on the modern piano-lesson environment. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or insults.
See you next Monday when I dive a little deeper into an issue almost every piano parent struggles with in their home: Here’s to the Kids Who Don’t Practice!
As promised, here are some of the links to my favorite piano games and podcasts:
Teach Piano Today website with games and free printables: www.teachpianotoday.com/
Musical Candyland: laytonmusic.wordpress.com/2007/12/03/candyland-music-sytle/
Teach Piano Today podcast: itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-teach-piano-today-podcast/id705700730?mt=2
The Creative Piano Teaching Podcast: timtopham.com/piano-teaching-podcast/