The most important traits I hope to develop in students are self-esteem and self-confidence. A child who believes in herself will be able to do anything she sets her mind to because she believes she can. Self-confidence will help him be brave enough to tackle something new and self-esteem will help him bounce back if he isn’t successful at first. It is with this development in mind that I make an effort to phrase everything I say to them in a positive or at least neutral way.
- “I like the way you held your right hand. Can you make your left hand match?”
- “That was better. Try it again, and I’ll bet you can do it even better.”
- “You obviously worked very hard this week. Let’s add just a couple of things [dynamics, pedaling, staccato/legato touch] to help the expression.”
- “You can do it.”
Children know instinctively whether or not praise is genuine, and only praise for a job truly well done boosts self-esteem. My students know that I will not tell them something is good if it is not. Conversely, they know that if I tell them they did something well, they did in fact do it well. Students need honest critiques in order to improve, and if corrections can be presented in a positive way as a step in growth and learning, children will respond quickly.
Another important part of my teaching is asking questions of my students. In doing so, I am trying to help them develop their own critical thinking while also letting them know that lessons are a safe place where mistakes are okay. In fact, the first question I ask a brand new student, especially young ones, is, “What do you see when you look at this piano?” Any answer is correct, and I’ve heard everything from “black and white keys” to “lots of dust.” From that opening, we have established an atmosphere of safe exploration. Here are just a few examples of positive ways to make corrections:
- With a beginning student, the first time they encounter a blocked second or chord I ask: “What do you think you would do here? These two are stacked on top of each other” Sometimes they get it; if not, I suggest: How about this? [and play it for them]
- “Why did you choose that fingering?”
- “Did you play these two sections the same?” [No.] “What was wrong?” [I didn’t hold the half notes the second time.] “Right! Try it again and be sure you hold those half notes both times you play it.”
- “Why do you think the composer put this dynamic here?”
- “Why is this section marked staccato while this section is slurred/legato?”
As students are empowered to make their own decisions, they take ownership of their learning as well as of their musicianship. I know that not everyone will play piano at a high level, but I want all students to leave my studio with the abilities to learn music on their own and to appreciate music. I see music as the vehicle through which I teach much broader concepts and build confident, capable people.