“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.
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.
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.