Tell me if this story sounds familiar: A bright-eyed youth dreams of playing the piano and begs his or her parents for lessons until they give in, buy a cheap used piano and contact the lady down the street who’s been teaching since the Eisenhower administration. Six months later (or less), the same child grimaces at the very sight of the piano and no combination of threats and bribery is enough to compel him or her to practice. Ten years after that, a grown adult looks back with regret, wishing they had persevered and at least learned how to play something.
If my calculations are correct, I just described 87% of the people reading this article.
I hear accounts of this sort on a regular basis, and admittedly there are several legitimate reasons that someone might lose interest in learning an instrument. Perhaps it was difficult for one to grasp certain concepts, or they lacked adequate time to commit to regular practice, or they just didn’t get along with their teacher. A lot of people I’ve talked to said they didn’t like the music they were learning or they weren’t learning as fast as they wanted to and lost patience. Nearly all of them said they weren’t having fun.
And this, I believe, is the determining factor in why the most common response to an inquiry about one’s musical abilities is “Well, I took a few lessons when I was younger but I don’t really remember anything.”
Well, I’ve got some good news. Using only my brain and my years of experience as a super-fun teacher, I’ve started a new series laden with buckets of wisdom for anyone who wants to avoid this far-too-prevalent pitfall. Much of it is geared toward teachers, but students and parents can use this to nudge their teacher in a more enjoyable direction.
Start with music that interests the student. You’re gonna want to write this one down: when a student bleeds from the ears at the mere mention of the piece, it’s time to do something else. This seems really obvious, but I encounter a lot of students who seem to think their former teachers were completely oblivious to the fact that they loathed the pieces they were assigned each week.
For some reason, students just fail to be riveted by pieces like “Little Brown Jug” and “Auld Lang Syne” even after nine consecutive weeks of being forced to play it in their lesson. Stranger still is the fact that they never seem to practice and continue to labor over the same passages and make the same mistakes each and every week. That’s why I insist on teaching students the music they enjoy from the very beginning of lessons.
Let’s just accept that the main reason that people take on learning an instrument is that they want to show off. I know, that’s a broad generalization and exceptions exist, but in reality, showing off is at least half the fun of being a musician. And that’s not a bad thing at all. I mean, what’s the point of making music if no one else gets to hear it? I think about the brand new young student who successfully plays her first real song and immediately rushes out of the room to fetch her mom so she can proudly display her new skills. Showing off is a behavior teachers and parents need to encourage, and the best way to do that is to give them something they’ll be proud to play.
I’m not advising teachers to start beginners out with Chopin but what they can do is derive basic elements like melodies, chord progressions, and rhythmic patterns from popular songs and put them into context for the student. In other words, find a simple way for student to recreate a song they like (even just a melody or chord progression) and once they have the gist of it, take them through the sheet music and explain it to them in context.
It’s not traditional, but I’ve seen this spark an incredible renewal of morale in even the most defeated piano students. One of my younger students struggled with reading simple notation for almost two years but mastered the melody to her favorite Justin Bieber song in less than half an hour (and I found out I care about my students enough to brave the Bieberverse). Now she’s improving weekly with her reading abilities and playing enough Bieber to make her mother seriously consider sound-proofing the den. I call that one a win.