I once watched a tight-rope walker by the name of Nick Wallenda walk on a wire across Nigara falls. Now, I’m not afraid of heights, but watching that gave me heart palpitations.
… probably because, subconsciously, it reminded me of how I used to feel teaching teen students 😉
Finding Balance Prevents A Fall
I’m sure you’ve all experienced this moment: a teen student is on your bench, excited to show you something she learned by ear, off of Youtube, or from a friend. You watch… and you listen… Oh my goodness that fingering?! Is this entire piece marked “forte”? I’ve never heard it played this quickly?! Where on earth did she find this arrangement? Wasn’t that B flat missing?… these thoughts run through your mind and your first instinct is to jump in and fix everything that is “wrong” with her technique, rhythm… you name it.
But tight rope walkers rarely jump…
Finding a balance in teaching good technique vs. killing motivation is key when teaching teen piano students. When the balance is there, it’s smooth sailing. When it’s not… they can fall. And when teens “fall”, their motivation takes a nosedive as does their practice time, cooperation in lessons and overall attitude toward piano lessons.
So, how do you keep those teens walking the tightrope of piano happiness?
Fixing Teen Piano Student Technique
We have a responsibility to our students to teach them to play correctly – and so letting it all slide is not really a great option. We also have a responsibility to instil a love of music… so discouraging self-exploration on the piano is completely counter-productive. So what’s a piano teacher to do?!
1. Create Opportunities For Self-Reflection – Teens are budding adults, and so learning how to reflect on one’s self is an important skill to learn. Before passing on your own “fixes”, videotape your student playing her newly-learned treasure and ask her to provide feedback on criteria you find important (correct fingering, even tempo, correct rhythm etc.) Having a little check list to guide feedback is helpful – get your student to rate herself on a scale of 1-5 (1 being needs more work, 5 being “nailed-it”).
Once you have her ratings, then weed out the criteria that received less than a “3” and ask your student which of those she would like to focus on. Then…. you can hop in and fix away. This self-reflection is often all that is needed to have your teens genuinely wanting your feedback to improve.
2. Hop On Board With Their Enthusiasm – If you can tell this newest musical addition to her learned repertoire is a hard and fast favorite, then get enthusiastic too and schedule some sort of goal for the piece. Should this be an upcoming performance? A video recording? An addition to a CD project or your studio’s Youtube channel? Providing a reason for your teen to want to improve the piece is key in keeping motivation high and pride in tact. If she can sense your willingness to be on board with what she finds exciting then she is likely to happily accept direction and guidance to improve in preparation for a goal.
3. Use These “Treasured Pieces” as Cues – Use whatever your teen brings into her lesson as a great big billboard sign of a hint as to what she wants to be playing. If you can then provide repertoire that matches her taste (and can use that repertoire to teach the technical skills you need to be teaching her) then you’re a giant step ahead of piano teachers who find themselves in the unenviable position of guessing at repertoire choices for teens.
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4. Ask for Critique of Others – Pretend that your teen student will one day be an adjudicator and give her the skills to evaluate the performance of another player. Find some youtube videos of other teens playing music and use those same criteria from #1 above to “rate” the performance. What does she see or hear that she really likes and wants to emulate? What needs work? And (this one is huge) how would she suggest the fixes be done? Handing over the reins to your teens in this way creates great feelings of ownership over their own learning and pride in striving for and achieving excellence.
5. Know When To Let it Go – While a certain performance may be like “nails on a chalkboard” to a piano teacher… to a teen it may be a soul-filling experience to play. We don’t all connect with music in the same way. Not every single piece needs to be perfect… or even “good”. While we certainly have a responsibility to provide quality lessons… sometimes it’s okay for our teens to just… play. Music can be healing, uplifting and exactly what a teen may need at an emotional time in her life.
So, pick and choose your moments – if you can tell this is simply a “soul-food piece” (as I like to call it) then let that which is not perfect slide (as long as it’s not causing physical strain) and do a happy dance that your teen will be at the piano frequently that week. Even if technique isn’t being drastically improved – her connection to music is. After all, without a connection, technique is not all that useful anyway.
Hop on that tightrope and find your balance… teaching teens is one heck of a challenge, but the rewards received from doing so effectively feel every bit as good as does reaching the other side of Niagara.