Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Question of the Week: All About Piano Lessons

This week's (late) question comes from the inimitable Luisa over at Novembrance. You really should ask her anything and everything because not only will she know, she'll entertain you as well. But she would like some perspective on piano lessons:

What are your method, approach, and expectations when teaching piano? Do you use a certain curriculum? Will you fire a kid if s/he won't practice? Have you had any motivational challenges to deal with? What about payment: do you ask for a month in advance; do you ever barter; how do you handle missed lessons?

First, let me state for the record that I am not a trained piano teacher, nor am I some concert pianist or virtuoso. I can play the piano competently, I understand music, and my greatest strength lies in the fact that I am a very experienced and natural teacher of children. I have patience and an ability to work with even young kids in a way that keeps them happy and learning. I've heard from many other teachers that working well with children can be a greater asset than can one's technical ability on the piano, and so I really work that angle. Currently, I teach 14 students weekly.

Most of my students are very young, like ages 5 through 9. I have several teenagers as well, and I've taught a few adults. I use a mixture of Faber and Alfred method books. Alfred works really well for pre-readers, but Faber's music is more interesting in the beginning levels. I love the supplemental solo books that Faber has, especially in the intermediate levels. I think they're fun, and they provide a decent range of exposure.

My approach is that I want the piano to be fun, but I make no bones about the fact that anything that is worth doing requires work. If a student wants to play well, he has to work. Work means doing a lot of it. I will not fire a student for not practicing, but it sure isn't as much fun to teach them. I have several students that never practice, and they basically just crawl along at a snail's pace and I collect their money. Their choice, not mine. Surprisingly, even a tiny bit of practice makes a big difference over no practice at all. If a kid doesn't practice, they can still learn, but the rate is obviously slower. Sometimes it takes just the right song to inspire them to practice, or sometimes it's a new skill, like triads. (That really gets 'em.)

I ask my itty bitty students to practice 3 times a week for 5-10 minutes each time. I ask them to put a tally mark next to each song in their assignment book for each time they play it at home. The more competent little kids I ask to practice at least 3 times per week, playing each song 5 times. Older students, I ask that they practice 5 days a week for 30 minutes each session. I also require written theory work. I have some very motivated students who do more than what I ask, and some who do nothing but show up. But they show up happy, and I never guilt them. I will usually play something impressive for them, just above their level and tell them they are "almost there" and if they work hard at home, they can sound just like that.

I have had a few parents come to me with urgency about "getting" their kids to practice, and frankly, I tell them, that is not my job. I do not live with their kids, and I'm not the one who lets them watch TV or play video games when they haven't practiced. I'm also not the one paying for the lessons. I can't do everything. I encourage, and now and then I reward for a certain number of tally marks, but I tell the kids it is their responsibility to practice, because they're the ones that get to reap the rewards.

With my own children, I find it easiest to ensure practice time happens by having a practice time. If left for 'whenever', it usually won't happen. I also set a timer, and the kid sits there till the timer goes off. I allow some wandering through old music, but if I don't hear current pieces being played, then the timer gets extended. Motivation with anything is a challenge, but isn't that just life. We just have to keep pushing through, and because of that, piano lessons teach an invaluable truth and principle to children who want everything easily and now.

I charge $20 per week, for a 30 minute lesson, and I ask for a month's worth of lessons to be paid for on the first week. That is their commitment to me, one month at a time. When someone schedules lessons on Wednesdays at 5:30, I arrange many factors to be available at that time, and when they don't show up, I do not eat the cost of that. If there are 4 or 5 weeks that month, they pay up front, and then if a lesson must be missed I will allow 2 weeks to schedule a make-up lesson. Often I will do two 45-minute lessons to make it up conveniently. I've had really great success with this, and rarely have to hound a parent for payment.

I haven't bartered yet, but I would be open to it if the offer was sweet. Obviously, I'm doing this because I need to earn an income and I love teaching and being able to be home with my own children too. It's been a huge blessing, and it is so rewarding to see kids learn something new and difficult and see them just absolutely beam with pride in their accomplishments.

And of course, it sure is nice to have music being played almost all the time!


Hannah said...

I so wish I lived closer so you could teach me. I would love to learn the piano.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Suddenly I want to go play mine...

Abby said...

Yeah seriously! I would *totally* pay you to teach my kids how to play. Ugh, why can't we all live close to one another??

I think the piano is, by far, the sexiest instrument *ever*..and I tend to have a great admiration for anyone who can play those keys with ease (which is honestly why I think I was so enamored by this one guy for so long because MAN..that was dedication).

Annette Lyon said...

Piano is such a great skill to have I'm trying to get up the courage to have #4 start lessons. It's hard enough to keep 3 kids practicing regularly. Getting 4 to? Not looking forward to that. Not to mention the added cost. But I'm SO glad my older kids have taken lessons as long as they have. We're already reaping benefits--my deacon-aged son is now the priesthood pianist. And he LOVES the calling.

Luisa Perkins said...

Thanks! This gives me great perspective. As you know, to remain a member of our family, piano lessons until one can play the hymns competently is a must. Fortunately, now that the older two can do this, they don't want to quit!

Unknown said...

Jenna, you are an excellent teacher! Nico respects and loves you very much, I love the picture of the two of you. Thanks!!