A colleague told me she wanted to start a children’s choir at her church and asked what she should do first. Without even thinking, my answer was, “Love ‘em.” Children know whether or not they are loved; when they know they are loved, they feel safe; and when they feel safe, they can learn and make music. So love is the root of my teaching philosophy, and I express it in many ways.
• Respect – Children deserve our respect. They are individuals with their own personalities, interests, fears, strengths, and learning styles. There is no cookie-cutter approach, no single method series, no universal pedagogy that will work with every single child. By respecting their individuality, children learn that they are valued for who they are. That assurance builds their self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect, allowing them to achieve more in lessons and in life.
• Enthusiasm – I love teaching, and I let my children know that. I greet them each week with a welcoming smile and queries about their day and what has happened since we saw each other last. Only after I have expressed interest in them personally do we move into the specifics of piano. I tell them how excited I am to hear what they have to play for me. When they want to show me something from school or a piece they have written on their own, they always have my support, encouragement, and enthusiasm.
• Organization – Keeping the business and materials of my studio organized allows me to spend maximum time with my students. A reliable system of note-taking helps me keep track of what I need to do with and for each student. Reminders are put where both the students and I can see them so that we keep each other honest. An organized room free of clutter but with all materials readily accessible is conducive to both learning and teaching, as well as making music.
• High Expectations – By setting high expectations, children are challenged. When I help them meet those goals, they are rewarded – both extrinsically (when appropriate) and intrinsically. Students are expected to practice regularly, attend lessons regularly, and bring their best attitude to their music-making. Parents are expected to support and enable their children in doing these things. Children are naturally curious and want to learn, so I do not want to sell them short. By setting the bar high, students are encouraged to stretch toward goals and make progress as pianists, musicians, students, and people.
• Honesty & Encouragement – I only give truthful critiques, whether positive or negative, and I always start with and emphasize the positive. Students are encouraged when they know they are doing at least some things right. If they know they are achieving at least some of the goals, then they are willing to continue working toward completion of the assignment and mastery of the piece of music. I want them to build on their strengths rather than fight the deficits. I am also readily willing to acknowledge my own mistakes. “I forgot to do that for you, and I should have.” “I didn’t make myself clear.” Statements like these show students that I know I am not perfect; I am an adult but a fallible, vulnerable one who is not perfect and therefore doesn’t expect them to be either.
• Receptivity – I am open to students’ desires and requests. If a certain piece of music simply doesn’t “click” for them, I am willing to skip it and/or substitute a different piece of music. We discuss practice goals for the week. Students are asked whether or not they feel they need more time on a piece or concept. They are allowed to choose their recital pieces and, often, whether or not to participate in a recital. When starting a new book, children are given two or three different options and allowed to choose. By giving them as much guided input as possible, they become more invested in their musical education and are both empowered by the decision-making and motivated by having made their own choices.
• Flexibility, Creativity, & Spontaneity – Every lesson is different. Every child’s experience with me is different. Since every child is different, my approach with each of them changes according to their needs. Some children sit at the piano with tremendous focus for most, if not all, of their lesson time. Others need to bounce around between piano, flashcards, games, worksheets, and other activities. Some days a child may need to talk to me, sometimes to share exciting news and other times to unload stress or worries. Some lessons feel flat, so we do something totally different – interject a game or sight-reading or duet-playing. Bringing some variety to the lessons spices them up for both of us and lets the children know that I do not expect them to simply grind through the same routine every week.
• Patience – This is sometimes the hardest part of teaching: being patient while a child figures out a problem or learns a new skill. But this is also one of the most important parts of my job. It would be much simpler [for me] to just tell them the answer, but students will understand and remember the answer much better if they figure it out for themselves. My favorite teaching approach is to ask a lot of questions in order to try to help the child make discoveries. Not only do they learn the lessons better, it also builds their confidence when they are able to figure out things for themselves. Music is a wonderful tool for developing critical thinking skills, so it is worth the extra time and effort to ask questions rather than simply provide answers.
I love my students and I love teaching. The day I can no longer say both of those things is the day I will stop teaching.