Good Enough


“Never good enough” was the original title I proposed for this post. That along with “How to discourage and demoralize a piano student” as the short description. I hope it’s obvious I don’t endorse any of this “never good enough” stuff. However, I experienced it first hand during my first two years of piano study at music school. I noticed a lot of this, across many students and teachers, during the six years I spent earning my BFA and MM degrees.

I realize that I had a lot to learn and that constructive criticism is key to learning how to make a piece better. However, spending an inordinate amount of time on a piece and picking it to death is not the road to success.

Several Possibilities

When a piece isn’t getting better, it might come down to insufficient practice time. For a performance major in a degree program at a music conservatory, you’d hope that’s not the case. However, I find that often in school-aged children in my own private teaching. Sometimes a student gets to a particular point and doesn’t have the time or motivation to pick the piece apart further.

In many such cases, I’ll just suggest that the piece is put to the side for now. Typically, much work has been done, and the piece will be better approached with fresh eyes several months down the road. In the meantime, I might assign a similar piece by the same composer or era, since that can deepen understanding. Of course, there are times where we have to push to the finish. Then, I’ll try to help pick apart the most challenging spots to give the student that last push.

In some cases, I may have misjudged the difficulty. The student has really tried his best but just isn’t ready to make more progress. This sometimes happens with what I call stretch pieces, pieces that are intentionally assigned above the student’s current level. This can help the student to reach beyond her limitations, but it can also lead to a dead end. Even if the piece can’t be completed right now, it can always be reconsidered down the road.

Balancing the Load

Students tend to learn best when their repertoire is at a level that nudges them without overwhelming them. I often rely on graded repertoire books to help me do that. However, there are times when I want to push a student by intentionally assigning a level or two above where they are currently studying. I have tried this with transfer students if I suspect that they have not been challenged enough.

Part of balancing the load is to know when to assign pieces that are below the current level of study. I routinely suggest that approach at Christmas, where a student will want to learn several pieces in several weeks. There just isn’t enough time to learn at level, unless the student will be satisfied to learn one piece over several weeks. That’s a better fit for an advanced student who might be entering a competition or talent show and understands the benefit of working on a piece longer.

In Conclusion

It’s easy for a piano teacher to go into criticism mode and not see the bigger picture. There is an optimal path for each piece assigned to a student and it’s up to the teacher to sniff that out. Sometimes a piece is close to recital ready, and a student should be given another week to do better. Another student might be near his limits, and it’s time to call it. Good enough. Be honest and don’t sugarcoat, but also acknowledge the progress that has happened. Tomorrow is another chance to do better.

Last Updated 2021-11-22 | Originally Posted 2021-11-22

Same As Last Week

Every teacher has written “same as last week” in a student’s assignment book many times. It happens when your student hasn’t practiced a bit – or very little.

You give the lesson, and maybe you touch on some different topics that you didn’t get to last week – like technique, scales, or theory. But when it comes to writing in her assignment book, you cross out the old date, write in the current date, and write same as last week. But what happens when you find yourself doing this a second or third time? How do you help the student get unstuck?

Here’s the letdown – I don’t have the perfect answer. I think one of the answers has to be to get the parents involved. It’s important to let them know that progress has stopped since they are funding the lessons. There is some risk in this approach, in perhaps losing a student sooner rather than later. However, this approach keeps my reputation intact.

I think another answer is to dig deeper to uncover the issue. In my experience, it rarely is pure laziness. It might be the repertoire, and that can be remedied by assigning a piece of a different musical style. I was about to quit piano lessons when I was about 13, though I had progressed quite far and had even played for church services and weddings. A book of highlights from The Sound of Music kept me going.

For younger students with difficulties learning how to read music, I have a different approach that works. I take a short break from the method books and design some activities using colored pencils.

Sadly, the main reason a kid gets stuck is that she is overbooked. She really wants to do better, but just doesn’t have enough time left over from school and all of her other activities to practice. Sometimes this leads to her quitting the piano altogether, but more typically it just results in a long plateau that has to be suffered by both student and teacher until a spark happens, practice picks back up, and growth resumes.

What have I missed? What are some other approaches to getting unstuck? What is your experience with this issue, whether in music, school, or even life?

Last Updated 2018-11-28 | Originally Posted 2018-01-15