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Getting the Most out of Piano Lessons

Question: I have private piano lessons that I started mainly to accompany harmony lessons.

Although my main interest was harmony, and in the past I enrolled in a conservatory and showed no particular interest in piano lessons, things have changed because my female teacher seems very strict when examining me in piano.

Less than a year ago, I was on the defensive always when I missed my tempo, even committing the slightest mistake, or my fingers were not very rounded as I should, she stopped my playing and I had to start again and again, while at the same time she made numerous bad remarks and comments to me. Lately, I felt such a feeling of guilt that I started to practice no less than two or so hours per day, so that I play well for our lessons, which are twice a week.

In the process I discovered many things about rhythm, tempo, etc. that I never noticed in my everyday life, and came to think of as totally inconceivable to me, not to have practiced as much as I could daily to meet her strict requirements. I wonder if piano lessons especially at the moment someone is being examined by his teacher create similar emotions.

On the other hand, if this is not natural, how can I combine those feelings of guilt and the incentive they produce and make me work hard at piano, in order to achieve the most in piano, and avoid any damaging mental effect in the process? I also have to take into account the fact that with ordinary piano lessons I failed and I was not interested in the past.

– Nikos (Athens, Greece)

Albert’s reply: The role of the teacher is to maximize the student’s progress and performance. Each student is different in terms of potential and motivation, and a teacher needs to discover what motivates the individual student to play his or her best.

While I use positive motivation as much as possible and greatly prefer it for my own progress, teachers need to show us where and how to improve, and this means revealing to us our faults.

Sadly, I’ve experienced the meanest teachers as well. One Russian teacher once literally wouldn’t let me play two notes in succession without screaming, “Liga! Liga!” at me throughout a humiliating masterclass. My professor told me after the public masterclass that “liga” is apparently the Russian word for slur. Why didn’t the teacher learn this essential English musical term – there was no way I could possibly understand her!

On other occasions I’ve witnessed a very famous and remarkable musician who was unfortunately a terrible teacher in the original meaning of the word, as I had been warned. He stopped one very young student after just one measure of a Chopin nocturne, announcing, “You’re truly an unmusical being. Who’s next?” Then he would grab the pigtails of young women, threatening to pull their hair if they played a wrong note.

Needless to say, under no circumstances is there a place for such cruelty in teaching music. That said, a teacher needs to motivate the student, which does not always mean praising him or her. Great teachers are also skilled in psychology and can even criticize in encouraging ways. I once worked with an outstanding teacher in Philadelphia, Dr. Harvey Wedeen, who was remarkably skilled with indirect criticism. Once I played a Mozart sonata for him and he commented, “I want to go to Europe… you took me to New Jersey!” His point was very well received and it motivated me to work even harder to implement his musical ideas.

You indicate that your teacher’s criticism is motivating you to practice much more, which is a desirable outcome. Without knowing her exact remarks, realize that her goal is to help you to reach your musical potential. All good teachers are strict, and music itself is a strict taskmaster. Ultimately, you need to become as strict with yourself as the strictest teacher, since it’s only by demanding that level of attentiveness and concentration from yourself that you will progress the furthest the fastest. Ask yourself: Are my studies with this teacher maximizing my progress? If you ever find your teacher’s negative criticism to be hampering your progress, then do bring it up gently to her – but I don’t recommend changing teachers only to get more praise at the expense of progress.

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