New students know that my first lessons are more like interviews.
Where are you from? What’s your story? What do you like? How do you learn? Whom do you listen to? How do you like UofT? And on and on…
Then I ask them to play; this gives me a reasonable idea of their skill level.
Even after all this, I still have much to learn about a student; I still have no idea how they learn or how they connect with things. This will progress over time, mainly through observing how they respond to certain exercises and assignments.
But after the first lesson, I have to give the student something to work on. In a sense, the first assignment is like a shot in the dark. So my strategy is to give them an exercise that they’re not familiar with, so they’re outside their comfort zone. Hopefully it will cause them to make a fresh connection.
For first year university students, I usually get them to pick a tune, and write out, note-for-note, a solo piano arrangement. Most of them have never done this before; it’s a good place to start figuring them out!
Building a Relationship
At the time of writing this, we’re just over halfway through the school year. Each of my students has had twelve hours of lessons. Since September, four months later, after all the lessons, interviews, conversations, ideas, criticisms, assignments and exercises, I feel that I’m only now starting to figure out who my students are; we’ve had time to build our relationship.
This relationship, between a teacher and student, is underappreciated. Often, both fail to connect with each other. Teachers aren’t interested in how students learn, and offer stock advice. Students aren’t interested in their teacher’s unique perspective, and rarely make long-term commitments.
Healthy student-teacher relationships are built around of mutual trust, respect, curiosity, enthusiasm and compromise.
Teachers have a choice: we could teach through personal experience, or we could teach through the student’s experience. For example:
One of my students said he had a lesson with Joe. Joe gave him stock manuscript with a bunch of bebop-scale patterns to play over some chord progressions – very dry and uninspiring in my opinion. My student wanted to know if he should be working on these things. I asked: “Is this how you learn?” He said: “No.” So I told him to throw away the manuscript. “Let’s come up with some exercises for you.”
I always know where my students need to improve. But it’s a challenge to figure out how they should improve. I love this challenge; it requires creative thinking. I never use stock handouts or assignments.
That would take my student’s ability, and our relationship for granted.
I’ve heard stories of teachers who would stand motionless and expressionless in front of a class until someone asked them a question. Their philosophy is simple: “Only teach those who want to be taught.” Asking a question is a sign of enthusiasm for learning. Though I don’t agree with standing motionless and expressionless while teaching, students need to know that teachers thrive when met with enthusiasm for music, and particularly, their own music.
Just as teachers should take interest in their students, students should take interest in their teachers. Or, more appropriately, students should have interest in their teachers. Why else would you choose to study with them?
It would be wise to know about a prospective teacher’s music and teaching style. What are her specialties? Do they correspond with my interests? What do other students have to say about her?
I tell my students, usually in their first lesson, they need to trust I’m doing my best to craft a suitable plan to make them better musicians – they need to be patient. Twelve lessons in a semester seem like a lot, but it’s unrealistic to expect that solid relationships will develop in that time span.
Likewise, I too am patient, and trust my students to work hard and do their best!