Recently I took on a new student. I had received a few warnings from those who knew her… (“Oooh… she’s a busy one.” and “Hope you have lots of energy!”). So when she arrived for her first lesson I was armed and ready.
But she was delightful… respectful… and… quiet!
Perhaps it was my calming influence I told myself… maybe she sensed my years of experience and knew intuitively to act respectfully around me. I almost felt like boasting to my nay-sayers, “Oh her? She’s absolutely perfect for me!”
It’s a good thing I didn’t.
Oh… The Honeymoon is over.
It was about four lessons before “the change” happened. As she became more comfortable with me, and got used to the fun atmosphere I create in lessons, she began to test me. My once-quiet student was now an unstoppable chatterbox who would turn any piano-related conversation into something completely off-topic. Any manipulatives I used in the lesson were used and abused. Any moment she had to goof-off she took… with zeal.
I emerged from that 4th lesson wide-eyed. What had just happened to my “perfect” student? The honeymoon was clearly over.
But my years of experience as a young teacher who would accept any student regardless of “behavioural hiccups” had given me the skills I needed to turn things around for the 5th lesson. The 4th was not something I wanted to repeat.
Re-establishing Boundaries In a Piano Lesson
If you too have a piano student who has reached a certain comfort level with you… and things are heading south… then try my Top 5 Ways for Re-establishing Boundaries In a Piano Lesson:
1. Verbalize your expectations before you begin the lesson. I had assumed from my student’s previous behaviour that she understood lesson expectations. But assuming often makes for misunderstandings and so I needed to verbalize three things (keeping it simple) that were most important for my student to remember.
For this particular student, I welcomed her to the lesson and then said “Today I want you to remember that when I’m talking, your body needs to be still. We can talk about your piano practice, or what we’re working on but we’ll save the stories from school until the end of the lesson. We can still use the fun manipulatives, but only when I say it is time and I need you to be gentle with them”. Eye contact. A nod of understanding.
When she strayed (and she did a little) I just reminded her with a gentle “Do you remember what I said at the start of the lesson?” and she responded well.
2. Use a visual schedule. I use a visual calendar to set expectations for what needs to happen in a lesson. I can then refer to this visual easily and say “If we don’t get this part of the lesson finished, then we won’t have time to…” if I need a student to get back on track.
3. Recognize her needs. This student needed to move. She just did. And 30 minutes of sitting was not going to happen no matter what I did. Somehow she had held in her energy in our first few lessons together, but that was about all she could muster. She realized I’m friendly and so she was “ready to roll”.
Instead of fighting this need of hers, I instead worked with it and ensured that I included several off-the-bench activities and games during the lesson. If we were concentrating on rhythm in her piece, I pulled out a rhythm game and headed over to my games table. If this was abused then she was told that we won’t be using that item again until she can show me she can use it properly. It worked. Quickly.
4. Reward what you want to encourage. Kids like this piano student are used to hearing “no” and “don’t”… so much so that I think they stop hearing it. But boy do her ears perk up when I tell her she’s done something well.
I continue to make a point of finding 3 things per lesson that she’s doing well and I immediately praise her for it (“Wow! You waited until I had finished playing that section before telling me about your hamster. Thank you for being considerate.” or “Did you notice how still your body was while you were playing? This meant that I could really hear your dynamics and its was beautiful!”) Rewarding what you want to encourage tends to amplify the good behaviour as kids really do aim to please.
5. Ask her to reflect. I wanted to communicate to her parents in some way that we were working not only on piano, but also on lesson behaviour expectations. On her lesson sheet we have numbers 1 through 4. 1 means she didn’t really try to improve her behaviour. 4 means she was working really hard to meet my expectations. But I’m not the one who circles the number. She is. This then requires her to reflect on her own behaviour. Sure we went for a few weeks where she cheekily circled a 4 every time. But she quickly got the hang of “rating” her own behaviour and she’s usually honest with herself now which is having more of an impact than me being the one to do so.
The Honeymoon Will Always End… But Keep the Fun Alive
It’s always our first instinct to take away anything that could cause an issue in lessons with students like this. Bring out a piano game for him…. are you crazy?!
But in my years of experience with “busy” kids, I’ve found that having clear expectations and providing the chance for them to rise to those expectations will eventually result in a lot of success.
Clamping down and removing these chances results in a lack of feelings of success and pride… and therefore even more behavioural issues. So when the honeymoon is clearly over, resist the urge to settle into ho-hum routines for the sake of “safety”. Instead, follow the 5 tips above, keep the fun alive and give your students the chance to learn to be the students you know they can be.
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