Just A Beginner…

We piano teachers hold some negative feelings about things people say about piano lessons. One is when parents refer to lessons as “practice,” like soccer practice. At soccer practice, tennis practice, basketball practice, a lot of the time is spent in drills to reinforce movements and techniques. With piano lessons, since we meet only once a week, those drills need to be done at home (practice), so we can move forward learning new things in the lesson. Another is “I can’t do that because I’m not very talented.” We hope parents and students realize that talent is no more than a kernel of potential. Skill comes from practice, and almost everybody can develop basic skill with effort. But, the phrase I hate most is any phrase that includes these three words:  just a beginner.

“Well, she’s just a beginner, so grandma’s old piano with 6 sticking keys, a cracked soundboard, and no more capacity to hold tune (because it hasn’t been tuned in 2 decades) will be good enough for her to start on.”

Yikes! Please, no! She will never feel competent on that instrument and may not even be able to play all of her pieces.

“Well, she’s just a beginner, so we bought a $100 keyboard from Walm*rt that has only 76 keys and we let her sit cross-legged on her bed with it to practice.”

Eek! Please, no! If she studies with me, she’ll need to have all 88 keys at her disposal, touch sensitivity that allows her to play both loudly and quietly without using the volume knob, and a damper pedal (sustain pedal), all within the first year of study. At home, she needs an acoustic or digital piano at the proper height with a bench, preferably adjustable, and a pedal. She can’t learn technique if she’s sitting all hunched over on the bed!

And this is the worst. “Well, she’s just a beginner, so she’s taking lessons from the nice lady down the road who plays a little. She’s the cheapest teacher in town, and since she’s JUST a beginner…”

Oh, boy. I’ve been teaching piano since 1987. I have a masters in performance, and 2 more years of graduate study. I LOVE teaching beginners, but I can tell you, beginners are the most challenging students I have.

Prior to my official start of piano teaching, I taught a cousin of mine and a couple of neighbor’s children when I was in high school. I was a pretty good pianist at that point, but a terrible teacher. I was what I now call a “turn-the-page” teacher. I got the students a method book, we learned the first 2 pieces, they came back and played them, and then we turned the page and did the next 2 pieces. I depended entirely on the method book to tell me what to cover next and what issues to address. When the students had problems with posture, hand position and technique, reading, rhythm, or expression, I had no tools in my toolbox to know how to help them beyond what was written in the method book. When that wasn’t enough, they grew frustrated, I grew frustrated with them because my explanations weren’t getting through, and nobody had any fun. It wasn’t their fault. They were just normal kids. It was mine. None of those kids grew up to continue playing.

Every beginner I teach is different. Some are a perfect fit for the method books I tend to use the most. Most are not a perfect fit. This means, I need to be familiar with the teaching materials on the market so that I know how to supplement the method or choose a better one if necessary.

Some automatically use great hand position and posture and have natural technique. Most do not. That means that I need manipulatives and props to help students feel what to do, and an eagle eye to watch and head off at the pass any physical approach to the piano that has the possibility of sabotaging their future growth,

Some students have a natural affinity for rhythm and latch onto meter and note values with ease. Some don’t. That means I need to have tricks and games up my sleeve beyond the method book to help them develop those skills.

Some students learn to read the notes on the staff with ease. Some do not. I need as many different approaches to explaining note reading as I can possibly have. (And sometimes, the patience of Job!)

Some students simply can’t sit on the bench and concentrate for 45 minutes. Actually, most of them can’t! I need games and off-the-bench learning activities to keep a student’s attention.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take piano pedagogy courses from a fabulous professor in college. This included surveys of the teaching materials available on the market, tons of ideas and activities for teaching specific concepts and techniques, practice teaching, and mentorship from an expert as I taught in front of our class. I have been to teacher workshops and continuing education. I don’t consider that I will ever be finished in learning how to be a good teacher.

Parents tell me that they want their child to be able to enjoy music for a lifetime. That’s, of course, what I want, too. It’s most likely to happen if you don’t settle for what you think is “good enough” for a beginner, but give him/her equipment and tools in good working condition and a teacher who has invested a lot of time and effort in learning to be a good one.

No student is just a mere beginner. This may be the most important stage of growth for a pianist! A house built on a shaky foundation will not last a lifetime. Beginners are the best, most fun, most demanding, and most rewarding students to teach! Pick a teacher who can establish the best start to ensure future growth!