Literally, anybody can teach, but only those who take it up as an occupation, give it any thought. If you have ever shown someone else how to do something, then you have taught. If you have ever demonstrated with the aim of transferring a skill, you have taught. Even a child, who shows a parent or grandparent how to operate a computer or television, is practicing teaching. Yet, with staggering frequency, I hear, when announcing my occupation: “WOW! You must have the patience of a saint to do that! I couldn’t do it!”
They are right; I do, and that is the difference between most people and a practicing teacher. A teacher is patient enough, in all circumstances to facilitate learning. Imagine teaching a person, who refuses to listen to you; literally ignoring your instruction. Repeatedly, they would exclaim “I don’t know what the problem is … it’s just not working!”. A solution to the problem is given, with ample, explanation, demonstration, persuasion and cajoling, which is ignored, only for the process to be repeated in the next week. Despite this, I will continue to repeat this process, changing tact when necessary, in the hopes of getting through to the student.
In reflection, looking back at my time teaching over the past decade, it takes an average of four years before I bluntly tell this type of student a hard truth. This truth is usually, that they need to take responsibility for their learning, by listening and doing what I ask them to, at which point, they take responsibility, or quit. This is a breaking point and has happened a few times over my tenure in this profession.
As of writing this article, I teach a large number of students across my week, giving each and every one of them my absolute attention. I see them as human beings, accepting that they have a life outside of our interaction. This means remembering what each and every person is doing, from one week to the next, relating or not-relating to the piano. I also understand the character of each and every one of them. Adapting my approach to each lesson, conveying and relaying information so that a specific person can understand it.
All the while, remaining calm and collected when a student, or for that matter, parent acts out. (I am looking at you Mister “I am going to hurl profanities at you before storming out and slamming the door”, or Missus “I am going to contradict you in every sentence because I am paying you, to tell me what I want to hear, not … to play the piano!”.)
The point is, to have, and more importantly keep, that many students, I must remain calm, collected, and connected. I don’t shout; personally, I don’t believe it yields results. I am not aggressive or violent; again, I also don’t think that returns success, aside from successfully being criminal and threatening. So, what is left, when aggression and violence are off the table?
Reason, respect, responsibility and repetition.
Being reasonable requires a person to be open-minded, and without ego. A close-minded person will ignore reason, even in a situation where they are literally paying for information or help acquiring a skill.
A stock phrase I say to my students is:
“If I am ever talking at you, it is because I am trying to reason and convince you of something.”
After all, this is a piano lesson, if we are not actually playing the piano, there must be a reason.
Obviously, it should go without saying, if a teacher instructs their student to do something, they should listen to their input and advice. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and an all too common occurrence in many British schools; a truly sad state of affairs for contemporary teachers. I have few students like this; simply because the timewasters were dismissed and the unreasonable students quit out of frustration or embarrassment when I called them out on it.
I once expressed to a colleague with pride that my students know all their major scales before they sit Grade 1, to which my colleague replied: “They must respect you a great deal for that to be the case”. A lesson I teach from the first session is mutual respect.
I listen to my students, making an emotional investment in them, taking an interest in everything they do. As a result, they listen to me and do what I ask them to at the piano. Nothing exists in isolation from everything else, so in order to teach a student effectively, we must take them, complete, as they are; this ‘give and take’, attributed to respect.
As a teacher, I am honour bound to give information; if not, the entire interaction is rendered moot. A teacher takes the potential and effort of a student and helps refine it into success. For a student to give us effort or potential, they need to know that we also take an interest in said effort or potential. Furthermore, for a student to take any information from us as teachers, they need to have a vested interest in us and what we have to offer. All these things combined make respect, for what we do, and the craft at large.
Responsibility is just as it suggests, that is, to be responsible for one’s own learning. Responsibility starts small, but if neglected, can lead to larger, negative habits that culminate in later life. I expect my youngest students to take responsibility for their books, piano-stool, posture, and counting. I even give them the responsibility of reflecting and identifying mistakes and wrong-notes. If you know what you are doing wrong, you most certainly know when you are doing it right; this is confidence, simplified to, knowledge, without a doubt.
Many learners that I encounter, who truly struggle with confidence, are often this way because they have never been allowed to take responsibility for their learning. More often than not, they are spoken for, or not given an opportunity to carry out a task because of the prospect of failure. Unfortunately, this does not make for good piano playing; no one can do the work of a student, but the students themselves. This lack of responsibility can also cause a devastating breakdown when they, the learner, are eventually held responsible for something, in a negative way.
I am not afraid of giving my students independence – responsibility – especially when the potential of that confidence can let them be better than me; I am not threatened by my student’s success. The previous sentence is an important distinction for any teacher to admit, to themselves; if they cannot, they ultimately will fail their students. The saying, “You are too smart for your own good!”, springs to mind; which is a mantra of people who are threatened by a person they perceive as inferior showing superiority in a skill or discipline.
Lastly, repetition means to do it repeatedly. In simple terms, rinse, repeat. In less simple terms, it means to continually carry out an action, or series of actions, until it, or they, become sufficiently automatic, and part of a person’s psyche. This element accounts for the time factor; if repeated continually over a large period of time, a skill becomes hard-learned. This is where we use the expression, “like riding a bike”, or in more contemporary buzzword-speak, “mastery”.
Repetition is perhaps, the most difficult to convince students of its necessity. Many think that because they did it once, that they have now ‘got it’; this is simply not true. I understand that this might seem almost completely contradictory to previous statements made by me, in the past, but it is important to understand both statements are entirely correct. “Once is enough”, but you need to “Keep practising it”; at face value, they create an oxymoron when considered separately, but on closer inspection, together they facilitate mastery.
Practice does not make perfect, but it does make something permanent. Once is enough to generate understanding providing the person is sufficiently concentrating, but in order to make the skill or information, permanent and concrete, one will need to repeat the action a number of times, until it is automatically carried out in the manner in which it is desired, without thought. The saying in actuality is:
“Perfect, practice, makes perfectly permanent”
A reasonable student respects their teacher and takes responsibility for their learning. Only after repeatedly doing this over a long period of time can they ever reach their full potential.
Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball. A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.
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