How to Teach Piano to Lions and Tigers and Bears… Oh My!

Do you have a lion in your piano studio? Or a tiger? Or a bear? I’m betting you do!  Lions, Tigers and Bears is a kind way of describing the head-strong, defiant, challenging, stubborn, disrespectful, argumentative and non-compliant piano students who we sometimes (or often!) find ourselves faced with on a weekly basis.  

Here’s some tips on how to teach piano to the more difficult students you may find on your piano bench. Brace yourself… this isn’t always easy!

How to Teach Piano to Difficult Piano Students

Some teachers may simply say “I won’t!” when asked how they approach difficult piano students. But others do not have the luxury of being choosy when it comes to their clientele. If you have a difficult piano student that you need to learn to deal with, try the following suggestions:

Give Perceived Control

Difficult children are often struggling for a sense of control.  They don’t respond well to authority and they react by being defiant, rude or otherwise difficult.  Create an atmosphere of mutual respect by giving your student ample opportunities to be in control of their own learning.  Allow them to choose the sequence of the lesson, to pick their next piece… even the colour of highlighter you may be using that lesson.  By eliminating the possibility of power struggles you create an environment in which they don’t feel the need to fight for control

Pick Your Battles

Choose one undesirable behaviour and focus on only that.  Do they bang on the keys while you are talking?  Do they respond in a rude fashion when asked a question?  Do they refuse to listen to instructions?  Pick one behaviour that is the most important one to eliminate and set up a reward/consequence system.  State the reward or consequence clearly and remind them often.  For example:  “Elissa – you may not play the piano while I am speaking.  If you listen carefully then we can do your rhythm activities on the bongo drums.  If you pound on the keys while I’m talking we will not play duets today.”   If you are constantly nagging them about several behaviours they’ll tune you out very quickly.

Eliminate Other Authority Figures

For your piano student to fully respect you as the authority during their piano  lesson it is best to not have a parent in the room.  As tempting as it may be to “radio for backup” and have Mom sit in on the lesson to be a witness to the hardships you are having to endure… resist this temptation and go it alone.  Your student will either feel “ganged up on” and their behaviour will amplify… or they will listen to just one of you (usually the parent) and you lose any sense of you being the one in charge.

Surprise Them

Difficult children are used to the way that most people react to their behaviour.  Surprise and disarm them by being clever in the way you respond.  Has he stolen your pen?  Instead of the usual “Give it back please.” instead respond with “How did you  know we were about to do some theory? Let’s use that pen to work on this sheet I have here.”  You’ll avoid the negative fallout that a power struggle always causes.

Find the Good

Even if you may not immediately “click” with this particular piano student it is important to find a starting place for building a relationship with them.  Does he love to fish?  What do you know about fishing?  Does she also take dance lessons?  Surprise her with a piano version of the song she is dancing to in her recital.  She may not outwardly show her appreciation, but it will make a difference.  Make a point of noticing and acknowledging positive behavior as often as you can.  Catch them being good and show them that it matters.

There is usually always a reason behind a difficult child’s behavior   Most children are innately good… they want to please… they want to feel as though they belong, are accepted, are cared about.  Their negative behavior is often coming from a reason that is much deeper than simply being “bad”.  This can be difficult to remember when you are faced with behaviors that make you clench your teeth in frustration.  Using the above strategies will help to disarm your difficult piano student and will begin to build an atmosphere of mutual respect.  Frustration-free lessons free from Lions, Tigers, Bears (and any other wild creatures)… are right around the corner! :)

It’s difficult to be difficult when you are completely engaged in a fun activity.  I use pieces from The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo as a way to bridge the gap that exists between myself and students that are more difficult to connect with.  By sharing the story in the comic, and creating the soundtrack to the story together through playing the music in the book, I have brought many challenging students over to my “side”.  They can’t help but be engaged.  Check it out and enjoy the license to print as many copies as you need for your studio… forever!

5 Responses to How to Teach Piano to Lions and Tigers and Bears… Oh My!

  1. Sam allott says

    wish I’d had this a year ago when I’d fianlly lost my tiger. Now I’ll know what to do when the next one comes knocking at my door.

  2. Melissa says

    Haha, I don’t know about the rest of you, but my lions, tigers, and bears are adults. One in particular whom I’m continually tempted to ask “why do you bother taking lessons when apparently you know so much more about this than I do?”

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