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What Does a Piano Teacher Do?

What is a piano teacher’s primary job, objective, reason-for-being?

My answer to this question has changed dramatically over the last 50 years (I taught my first student when I was 14).

When I started to teach, I had my grade 8 RCM certificate, had won several awards at the local music festival and received some medals for the highest marks on my exams. Piano was a passion and the opportunity to teach my passion was exciting. I had skills that I had mastered, and I was sure I could ‘TEACH’ those skills to others. How hard could it be?

Knowing how to play piano, and being able to teach piano, is quite different.

How can we best pass on the skill and love of playing the piano... of creating music at the keys?

In Victor Wooten’s book, The Music Lesson, he says, “We cannot supplant information into our students’ brains but we can guide them in a direction where they will make their own discoveries about the language of music.” EXACTLY! Guide and Discover.

Being a piano GUIDE is more important than imparting piano skills for 30 minutes a week and hoping some of them stick. Our love of music is more powerful than our knowledge of triplets. How we play and relate to music is more important than teaching how to memorize a piece.

A teacher shows or explains to someone how to do something, says the Oxford Dictionary. If you ask me how to make a muffin, I’ll pull out all the ingredients and show you how to make muffins. I have taught you how to make a muffin.

Does that mean my job as a piano teacher is to show and explain? Not quite. We can do that, but we can do much more. Explaining and showing are the easy part of teaching. GUIDING our students is the key to having a successful teaching career.

When we start teaching a student, whether they are a young child, a teen, or an adult, we hold their musical hearts in our hands. It is up to us to guide them to the joy of music while teaching them the skills to enhance that joy. Young students may have parents who took piano lessons, and the parents have their own impression of musical success plus their own personal piano history.

The more you know about a student the easier it is to guide them. You can come from where they are. A helpful way to do this is to enrol other family members in lessons in addition to the child. It isn’t always possible, but I recommend to a parent that they or a grandparent, also take some lessons with me as sharing music in the home is a family bonding experience. It can be one of the parents, one of the grandparents or a combination. With the explosion of online piano lessons, this is now easier to do than ever. When a child see’s his parent or grandparent practicing the piano too, it normalizes it. You become involved with more of the family and get a more rounded feel for the family. You can more easily come from where they are.

When we know the student and their family and how they relate to music, we can guide them to the skills they need to realize their relationship to music. If a child’s relationship to music is different than their parents, that is helpful to know. Bring it into the light and it can be a chance for discovery instead of a roadblock.

Speaking of discovery, my favorite moments in the teaching studio are when a student ‘discovers’ something. If they are speeding up as they play, I could tell them not to speed up OR I could ask them to put the ‘teacher’ hat on and let me be the student. I play the piece like they did and exaggerate the tempo increase. They tell me I was speeding up and to stop doing that. I say “OK” and then do the same thing. They start to giggle and say that I’m still speeding up, so I try it again. I then tell them I need to practice it more and could they show me the right way? They play it again and this time they notice they are speeding up! They discover it! I know I have been successful as a guide and that their new discovery will stick.

I’m proud to be a piano teacher and I’m even more proud to be a piano guide. Let’s help our students and their families discover the love we have of piano. Let’s be piano guides.


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