Excelling student joins shared lesson
Jana K., Oregon
I’m a new teacher, so your experience would be very helpful. I have a new 16-year-old girl who worked quickly to catch up to her two friends so that she could join their shared lesson. I gave her private lessons and I believe she truly does “get” everything, plus she is fearless with improvising and is working on an impressive composition that goes far beyond the guidelines I gave her. She is highly motivated, practices a lot, and her natural musicality seems to just ooze out. In fact, this self-described “sports chic” even dropped basketball because she wanted to be at her piano more! The three girls have had two lessons together so far. The first session was okay, but last night I could see where the discrepancy in the depth to which each is taking the material is gaping.
Here’s the background on the other two: One of the other girls has good potential but needs to practice more instead of just playing around on the piano so much. Glad she enjoys exploring, but more attention to actual practice is needed. I do believe the third girl is spending a lot of time practicing but she catches on much more slowly than the other two.
I had hoped this new girl would inspire her friends to focus more and work harder, but I can see the comparisons happening within them and the feeling of discouragement was a bit thick in the room. Especially for the one who works hard but is much slower…in fact, she was holding back tears. It didn’t help that the mom left saying she was disappointed that, clearly, her girls aren’t practicing enough.
QUESTIONS: Yikes! What do I do?? How long do I give this to work itself out (assuming no one quits!)? Next week will be very telling, but my instinct/speculation is that the third, slower girl is likely to get discouraged and quit, even though she loved piano before this. The other may work harder, but I don’t think the mom’s schedule would allow two separate lessons (and besides I have not other appropriate groups). I want to be cautious about jumping in to “fix” things too quickly, but my intuition is that things could go haywire fast. If I find that the new girl really needs to go to another group or be taught privately (because there is no appropriate group), how do we explain the change to the other two? Now I get another lesson in speaking tactfully, instead of my more natural bluntness!
Elaine F., South Carolina
You are in charge of your studio and of your student’s musical education and experience with music. The attitude they come have and their beliefs about themselves are important, and you can play a role in making them positive. If you really think things are heading into trouble it is your responsibility to steer the wagon away from the cliff.
Kids know that some people are better at some things than others. They see it around them all the time. I will let the rest of our teacher body answer more at length— I just wanted to put in my 2 cents worth and have to go.
Joy V., Texas
First of all, give it a little more time just like you said. Mom who said the comments about not practicing may push them more.
I would just recommend that you keep a watchful eye for any signs of discouragement that are not resulting in the students stepping up to the challenge. Find ways to compliment each one on their strengths. And slow down for just a while. I have found that when I catch up a student to a class, there is an intimidation factor on BOTH sides — the student coming in feels like they don’t know as much as the rest of the class, and the rest of the class is intimidated by the speed with which the new student caught up to them.
Teach them something off the beaten path to give the other two girls a chance to face the challenge of matching the abilities of the new student and to give the new student a chance to settle in to the routine of not getting your undivided attention. They will especially be intimidated if new material is introduced that they HAVE to get and maintain when the two feel they’re “behind” the new student or the new student feels like the fast pace she just had to go through is not actually slowing. Perhaps say, “Okay, today we’re going to learn an arrangement just for fun — you don’t have to put this on your playlist yet — we’ll look at it again another day.” Honey Dew 2 or Honey Dew Rock-it (my names) or any of the Humpty Dumpty left hand arrangements are great for this. Or composition or improvisation — something that all three girls will be new at, but not be required to “work on” this week.
If I understand correctly, the other two are sisters. That’s another dynamic that has to be addressed — one sitting in the shadow of the other. Talk to the class about feelings of comparing each other — talk to them frankly about it — their eyes will tell you they’re amazed that you’re reading their mind — “no one else could possibly have experienced what I’m experiencing now.” Talk about that it’s okay for one to be better than the other and emphasize the pieces that each girl is stronger at — one learns faster, one practices more; one is more daring, one is more meticulous; one plays fast, one plays smoothly, etc. And make them understand that both can do the same thing in different ways — one doesn’t have to give in to the other. Can you tell I have two daughters myself? Just got the second one over the hump of trying to convince herself that she wanted to quit piano and should not sing because she’s “not as good as my sister.”
And by all means next week ask all of them which songs that they feel they’re playing better than they were last week and have them play them — give them a sense of success. Hopefully Mom will have assured that they have something to show you.
Julia B., California
It sounds to me like a good time to revisit the “long term relationships” graph. I love this graph and I think it’s particularly opportune to use it when you have a new group coming together like this. The students ARE going to compare themselves, and to acknowledge that from the beginning might help them be mentally prepared to deal with it. I don’t spend a lot of time on it, but I just touch on the fact that sometimes comparing ourselves to others can contribute to where we are on the graph, and that, in all aspects of life, we have to be careful how we compare ourselves to others.
I try to tell them personal stories that help them understand this. For ex, I rode on the bus for an hour each way to school and sat beside a classmate. When we had a test to prepare for, she would be very organized and studied for 3 weeks to get a C or a B. I would cram on the hour bus ride before the exam and often pull an A. I just happened to be born with a good short term memory. Then I talk about the fact that I often forgot material quicker than she did, and also that she learned excellent organizational habits that I had to develop much later in life…. so there are tradeoffs. Or I talk about swimming lessons – I was a slow swimmer compared to others, and felt unsuccessful, but now, 40 years later, I still enjoy swimming, and those who were the speedsters back then only sit in the hot tub now, so I’m REALLY glad I didn’t give in to discouragement and quit or I would have missed out on years of swimming for recreation.
I then say something like, “It’s natural in a group lesson to compare ourselves to others, so at some point in this group you will probably find yourself doing that.”
If you call it out like that, I may help the students know it is normal and take away some of the “power” of the negative emotions and give them some tools to deal with it. I encourage them to be aware of it, so they don’t give in to discouragement, and let them know that it’s ok to talk about it, even in class. Again, I sometimes use a personal story about deciding to learn the Maple Leaf Rag. I’m new back at the piano after many decades away from it, so for me this is a huge challenge – I gave myself a year to master it! So, as I’m struggling along to learn this measure by measure (I really ham this part up and show the kids how slowly and painfully I’m progressing on this piece) my friend comes by and says “Oh, you inspired me to learn it too!” And then she sits down and plays it fantastically after one short practice.
This particular example gives me a base to touch on a lot of things — I role model talking openly about someone learning easier and playing better than I do, I use the graph to show where I was after my friend played the piece so easily (on the lowest valley!), I talk about accepting myself, a huge theme in the life of almost all teenagers, “If it takes me a year, so what??? I plan to live to 100, so that gives me 50 more years to enjoy playing it!! Being strong enough to fight through discouragement to achieve a personal goal. I’ve even talked about the fact that comparing ourselves to others can prevent us from appreciating others’ achievements – I had to lay aside my own feelings to enjoy my friend’s Maple Leaf Rag, and then she was even able to help me with part of it which was fantastic. And above all, I try to inject a lot of humor so that I get students to relax about it and be a little more comfortable with talking about an issue that is common to every human. This particular friend was actually the mother of two of my students, so with that group the example was very believable!!
I might also point out that not all comparison is bad – if I practice twice a month and notice I’m not doing as well as the person who practices 5 times a week, well that might be a good comparison to spend some time thinking about!
Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn’t. I have one student who just quit this week, and I’m sure a big part of it was discouragement; he has learning disabilities and two younger siblings that learn easier than he does. And sometimes I have had to make shifts in groups that had very different learning paces. But overall, I think getting things out in the open and normalizing them can go a long way towards helping students deal with this kind of situation, in piano and other parts of life as well