What to Expect from Piano Lessons

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Question: Hi Albert,

First of all, thank you for taking the time to run such an awesome site and provide so much detailed and helpful advice.

I consider myself an intermediate pianist who has played on and off for about 14 years, with only a few of those receiving formal lessons. A few months ago I began taking lessons after about a seven-year break.

My instructor was initially very helpful, but for a while I’ve felt that our lessons have just become me playing the pieces I’m working on while she points out the notes that I mess up on. I know the importance of practicing slowly and focusing on accuracy and that emphasis in lessons probably depends on the individual, but I feel as though I should be getting more out of lessons. Sometimes I feel that I’ve worked very hard on a piece all week, only to have most of my lesson time devoted to pointing out small mistakes (which I’m a long ways from eliminating completely). The instructor seemed very well qualified, so I don’t know if the problem is me. Could you write a post about what one should expect to get out of lessons and how to recognize it? What should I expect my teacher to be teaching me as she “coaches” me, and how can I recognize if it’s not working out well? I just feel like I’m no longer learning new things and am not really progressing the way I want to. Also, and possibly as an aside, how do you best leave a piano teacher (tactfully) if it isn’t working out?

Thanks a lot.

Albert’s reply: Thanks for your kind comments about the site; they’re much appreciated. Hélène Grimaud told me years ago that sometimes the times in which we believe we’re making no progress are the ones that turn out, in retrospect, to be the times when we progress the most. I’ve found this to be true. We simply can’t see ourselves grow.

If you’re already at a level at which you’re only making small musical mistakes, your time has been well spent. It may be time to progress to the next level of difficulty in your repertoire.

Before you do (and before you abandon your current teacher), I wish to note that as I’ve progressed musically myself, I find myself gravitating to “easier” music (Alkan notwithstanding). The more I progress, the more I discover just how much there is to do even in apparently simple music. As a matter of fact, much of the art of piano playing lies in making the music sound simple. By this I mean not only making technically difficult music sound easier, but also playing easier music more simply so that it sounds natural.

What to Expect from Lessons

I believe that the most important role of a music teacher is to impart a sound methodology, the ultimate goal of which is to make the student independent of the teacher. This methodology, ideally, should encompass all aspects of musicianship, and the methodology should be integrative in that all components should serve to reinforce one another, thus synergistically strengthening the student’s musical skills. Even technique should not be viewed (or taught) as something separate from listening skills or even the learning process itself; rather, all of these aspects should be integrated into a musical, methodological whole.

It is the responsibility of the teacher to impart this methodology. In addition to working on specific musical skills, the teacher should above all impart to the student how to learn music most effectively. Much emphasis should be placed on effective and efficient learning strategies. All too often teachers assign a piece of music and expect the student to bring it the next week, without ever telling the student how best to prepare it. The student’s initial work on a piece of music is decisive for secure learning, and walking him or her through the learning process is among the music teacher’s most critical tasks.

If you decide to leave a teacher, I think it is best to discuss your progress with him or her first. Doing so will automatically invite two possibilities: If you leave, saying that you don’t feel that you’re progressing enough will take some pressure off the teacher, since this is not a statement of blame. You might find, though, that you’ve been progressing all this time, and your teacher has been watching the steady growth which you’re too close to see!

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