Ginger Ale and Crackers for Musical Bellyaching

by Sean on December 19, 2011

Ginger Ale and Crackers for Musical Bellyaching A Sympathetic and Encouraging Approach to Students with Complaints

“It’s too hard.” “I don’t really get it.” “I don’t like this piece anymore. Can we do something else?”

All of these complaints are 100% legitimate and should be absorbed with careful consideration when they are made. However, when they are made in combination with each other (along with a few others) or are used on a regular basis, it is usually time to do some deeper investigating.

Often times, students will get elbow-deep into a piece before realizing that its charm has fizzled either because of unforeseen difficulties or because it has taken many months, and they are still not progressing well or at all. This can be the result of an overly ambitious choice by the teacher or the student, and there comes a point at which the benefits of pulling the plug far outweigh the reward of persevering to the end. In such situations, it is important to choose an easier piece that doesn’t necessarily sound much easier.

(There are pieces that are extremely rewarding to play but are fairly easy, and others that are ridiculously difficult but do not appeal so much to the untrained ear. For example, if one student played Rachmaninoff’s C# minor Prelude more or less well, and another student played the Chopin 3rds etude extremely well, someone who knows little of piano technique or the repertoire might still be more impressed by the Rachmaninoff.)

While these situations do occur, more often the issue is that the student has become unmotivated to practice. Perhaps practicing is being done in a mundane fashion, always playing the same thing the same way. Maybe there is simply a group of measures that is particularly dense and is preventing the student from continuing. It could even be the energy that you’re bringing (or not bringing) to the lesson, and therefore the student does not feel the same way that you do about the piece.

To address each problem in order, I want to begin by suggesting that you try giving the student different practice techniques. For counterpoint, have them try humming one line while playing others. Try different rhythms (SL, LS, SSSL, LLLS.) If you are unfamiliar with these rhythms, look soon for a blog about them. If there are one or two lines of music that are hindering a student’s progress, skip them and come back to them later. Have the student finish the piece; psychologically it is far less daunting to have a single line left to learn rather than the same horrible line AND the rest of the piece.

Finally, try evaluating how you are approaching the piece, the student’s reaction to your energy/personality, or invite them to offer an interpretation of it and have a conversation about it. If students can connect with a piece on a personal and creative level rather than regurgitating a replication of your own ideas note for note, they are far more likely to have an interest in the piece again and therefore practice more.

Feel free to ask a student how he or she is feeling too (without prying too much.) If you feel them shy away from the question, perhaps there is something happening in their lives that is troublesome. Give them space, be encouraging, and maybe be slightly less demanding for a few weeks to see if things level out. Try getting to the point where you can talk openly about their progress when it is not up to par. If you approach it with tact and show that you care about them as people as well as students, then they are sure to open up to you. If all goes well, the music will eventually take care of itself.

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