A Musician Finding Balance

A New Perspective on Movement and Music

Walk into any elementary school classroom and you are likely to see children sitting at their desks, listening to their teacher, or dutifully completing assignments while bent over books and paper. Likewise, enter most music lessons, and you are likely to see the child at the bench, eyes glued to the music, trying their best to coordinate finger movement with the notation on the printed page. In both instances, children are expected to sit still, collecting information through the visual senses in a two-dimensional context. In this type of setting, inattentiveness can easily set in. Students concentrate mainly on getting the right notes with little attention to musicality, and they often lose awareness of what they hear and what they feel in an effort to “read” correctly. Going back to the image of the classroom, can you visualize the students tapping their pencils on their desk, or wiggling their feet back and forth on the floor? Can you see your own music students bending their neck to get closer to the score, tightening up their shoulders, or pushing their tongue to the corner of their mouth to try to “concentrate” better? These movements are natural ways that children try to maintain attention.

A growing body of research suggests that our traditional ways of learning and teaching are far from ideal, and that our students are fully engaged only when all of their senses and emotions are part of the process of learning, with physical movement occurring naturally as part of that full sensory experience. Experience and sensory input from the environment have a great impact on attention, memory, and cognition, and integrated movement is necessary in order for any learning to occur. In fact, research suggests that 95% of learning occurs not through formal training, but through direct, sensory-motor experiences with the environment. Only if there is full attention to a task can neural connections be altered and grown, and movement provides a way to maintain attention while at the same time deepening our understanding of the material. For example, “conducting” music in the air while listening is one way that the aural experience can be even more deeply embedded in the mind.

Integrated movement gets us away from talking and into moving, with music forming a natural complement to movements that activate the entire vestibular system. While movement may seem like merely a supplement to learning, it is actually crucial to higher-level thinking and creativity. Our goal in lessons should be for musical experiences, rather than explanations. Frances Clark famously said that “Teaching is not telling. Tellers belong at banks, behind bars.” Young teachers sometimes feel that they are “cheating” if they rely on clapbacks or singbacks to help students experience success; on the contrary, the symbols on the page are merely a representation of concepts that are bodies and minds innately understand. Any new rhythmic pattern should be experienced physically first before a student should tackle it in a repertoire piece.

In music lessons, we have a ready-made manipulative at our disposal for illustrating musical concepts: the keyboard. In fact, singing and playing an instrument provide the kind of physical output that allows for true learning. Yet, we must use the larger muscles and coordinate pulse and sound with movement in order to access the full-body experience. Some teachers might defend that the purpose of piano lessons is to learn to read music and play the piano; but I would argue that our students must be educated not just as pianists but as musicians who can explore music with their bodies, thus internalizing concepts that must be “felt” to be truly understood. To move to music, to “dance” to it, is to understand its natural flow and pulse, which comes alive only when it has been experienced by the whole body. Music combined with movement provides a wonderful foundation for playing by ear, improvising, and composing; this fact is illustrated by the success of Dalcroze lessons.

Teachers often complain about their hyperactive students who cannot “sit still,” but in fact, these students learn best when they are moving, wiggling, and turning their heads. This is their way of staying alert to new material. For students with learning difficulties, reading music can present its own set of challenges and stresses. These students, who often had inadequate vestibular development in early childhood, may find it difficult to track across a page with their eyes. Others learn best through their other senses, even closing their eyes to listen better, which is often confused for inattentiveness by their teachers. For all students, physical movements internalize and solidify new concepts in our nerve networks. Our brains require less energy and function more efficiently through the regular practice of coordinated, balanced movements, which stimulate the production of neurotrophins like dopamine. Dopamine fires up the growth of existing nerve cells and increases neural connections, while at the same time providing motivation.

To summarize, there are three main reasons that integrated movement can be beneficial in a music lesson:
1. To help students focus, increase attention, and improve cognition
2. For greater musical perception and internalization of rhythm
3. For motivation, variety, and memory, through increased dopamine levels

In my next couple of posts, I will talk about yoga postures and Body Gym exercises that can be used in the music lesson to increase focus, attention, and cognition. This semester I am planning to use some of these strategies with a group of young beginning piano students in the Baylor Piano Laboratory Program, and I look forward to sharing the results of these experiences on this blog.


How Movement Facilitates Musical Learning

“He just does not know how to stay still!” This is probably the biggest complaint that I hear among beginning music teachers as well as those who teach the very young. When working with pedagogy students who complain about their “hyperactive” or “inattentive” students, my most common recommendation is to get these students off the bench. While young teachers will often agree to give their students these short “breaks” to decrease frustration, it is sometimes difficult to convince them of the inherent pedagogical value of these experiences. The truth is, movement activities such as dancing, singing, or even simply stretching are the most effective ways to help students focus and learn deeply. Our most common off-the-bench activities are usually rhythmic, such as marching or walking to the beat, or tapping or clapping rhythms. I would like to propose even more types of activities that can be used in private or group lessons to help students reach their learning potential. Because movement is so integral to learning, especially in music lessons, I am going to dedicate the next few blogs to the connections between movement, learning, and music.

What we want is to engage the learner fully in the experience of making music. Unfortunately, most teachers think that students are only paying attention when they are sitting still and looking at the music. We often rely far too much on language to communicate our ideas. The teacher tells, and the student obeys; this seems to be the tried-and-true approach in the traditionally dogmatic setting of the private music lesson. Fortunately, many teachers are using innovative approaches in a more facilitative format.

In order for active learning to occur, the student must be involved in the entire process, and must demonstrate some output of their understanding—some physical, personal expression of knowledge. Speaking, writing, singing, playing an instrument, and moving are ways to demonstrate learning. As music teachers, we have a ready-made process for this because music requires highly skilled use of the body. A student does not understand four quarter notes in a row until he has clapped them, counted them aloud, marched to them, and/or played them on the piano. So the first step in learning quarter notes is not showing the symbol and explaining that it gets one beat. Instead, it begins with a full-body experience in the sound-feel-symbol model promoted by Frances Clark and many others. But we should not stop there. Any time a teacher catches herself asking a student to verbalize, she should ask herself whether she could go straight to physical movement or singing.

The whole body must be involved in learning. While teachers tend to think that everything happens in the brain, you cannot actually have conscious thought without movement of some kind. Have you noticed that doodling sometimes helps you focus? Or that talking with a group of friends helps you organize your thoughts and feelings? Or that you remember things best after you have written them down? The same thing happens when you ask a student what key he is playing in and he starts fiddling around on the keyboard. All of these actions are types of movement that help us to establish meaning from what we have learned. Meaning is the final outcome of real learning.

A lot of the information from the upcoming blogs comes from what I have read in a very informative book by Carla Hannaford called Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head. One of the things that has been most interesting is the role of vision in learning, and the way our visual process changes according to our developmental stage. Hannaford points out that in early childhood, until about age 7 or 8, incoming images are spread out across the retina so that peripheral vision allows for the greatest amount of learning from our environment. As children learn to explore their living space, their eyes constantly move to gather sensory information. It is not until age 7 when the lens rounds out that children can more easily focus on an image, including words or notation in books. Two-dimensional sources such as worksheets, method books, and computers are not the best sources of information for children until age 7 or 8, and even after that, they should not be used all of the time. Visually, young students need a break from looking at the music every seven to ten minutes to reestablish their three-dimensional, peripheral vision.

Yet, teachers of even very young students tend to begin by teaching notation on the page. Convinced that students need to learn to read music first and foremost, there is a tendency to neglect the very activities that foster a secure sense of internal rhythm and aural ability. Away-from-the-piano activities provide a way to relieve eyestrain from what is called “foveal focus overdependence,” and this is just one reason that whole-body movement rather than theory worksheets are a better use of time during these breaks. Even stepping on a big keyboard is a great way to associate pitch with keys on the piano by using whole-body movement in a three-dimensional environment.

In the next blog post, I will share more about the vestibular system in development and how integrated movement is necessary for any type of learning to occur. In subsequent posts, I will write about the role of experience versus language in helping students to become completely engaged in the learning process, and how integrated movement in a playful context helps with motivation, decreases stress, and increases integrative processing between the two hemispheres of the brain.

Raising Self-Awareness: How Are We Doing?

Our favorite students are usually the ones who do what we tell them to do immediately and without question. In fact, these dutiful and obedient “dream” students go home and work hard to make sure that our demands are met, never questioning the reason that the rubato has to be just so or the accent must be exactly this loud. But after these students—the stars of our studio—have graduated and moved on, what becomes of them? Is their achievement simply the result of imitation, or is it the result of independent work guided by a teacher who helps them find their own voice? These are questions we need to continually ask ourselves, because in our field there is a great risk of becoming overly authoritarian and simply expecting students to follow our lead. It is very easy to latch on to the quick, easy way to get our students playing at a high level quickly, whether it is to prepare for a competition, be accepted at an audition, or simply to play the way we want them to play. That is why so many students sound like their teachers. Yet, people like Glenn Gould, who developed a great deal of his technique under the teacher Alberto Guerrero, took what he learned from his teacher and developed his own unique artistic vision, taking his playing to a much higher level.

Intrapersonal Intelligence
Many music teachers use the highly effective teaching strategy of “transfer” to help students learn how to think independently. Students might learn to phrase two-note slurs correctly in a Mozart sonata, for example, and then transfer that understanding into a different piece, such as a Haydn minuet, so that they apply ideas on their own in different contexts. Yet teachers talk a bit less, it seems, about how to develop self-awareness in their students. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in most educational institutions there is very little work in place to teach students to understand themselves, or to develop what Howard Gardner terms “intrapersonal intelligence.” A person with strong intelligence in this area understands their strengths and weaknesses, their feelings, and their motivation to practice. Like any of the multiple intelligences, it can be further developed.

No Words Necessary
It seems to me that music lessons are one of the natural places where students can begin to understand their instincts, emotions, and intuitions while gaining a broad understanding of what it means to be human. Why? Because the instincts, emotions, and intuitions that we have are the same ones that Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms had centuries ago. And understanding emotions is one step on the ladder, while verbalizing emotions is the next step up. Music allows us to express ourselves without words or labels when we are just beginning to understand what it is that we want to express. For this, students need to have a sense that their own footprint is on their performance, that they have had a part in the preparation and in the final sound. As the famous saying goes, “when words fail, music speaks.”

First Steps
Learning to critique others during performance classes is a great way to start letting students know that their opinions are valuable and unique. Allowing students to make interpretive choices is another. Allow them as many opportunities as possible to hear high-level performances, and their ear will become a more reliable, trained guide for making these decisions on their own. Ask questions as often as possible: “where is the high point of the phrase?” Let them solve problems on their own. Give them opportunities for self-evaluation, so they can decipher whether they are accomplishing what it is that intend to accomplish: have them record themselves on video and watch it, perhaps journaling their comments or filling out a questionnaire. Be a facilitator rather than a dictator. It is then that we teach students to fish rather than giving them the fish to eat, as the Chinese proverb suggests. Most importantly of all, allow time for questions. It is the curious and inquisitive students who dig the most deeply into the repertoire. They must understand why they are doing what has been asked.

Physical and Emotional Awareness
I believe that there are two different types of self-awareness: physical awareness and emotional awareness. Though they complement each other, some students do have more awareness in one area than in the other.

One of the things I love about yoga is the way that it teaches you to become aware of every bit of tension in your body; as you move slowly through the postures with the breathwork keeping you mindful, you are reminded by the best teachers to do the following: to take notice of how your body feels, to take time after a pose to be still and notice your breath, and to listen to your body, going only as far as your body will allow. Yoga, tai chi, qigong, and other body awareness practices are all wonderful supplements to music practice. Too many of us force our bodies into the music, rather than listening to what our bodies tell us about efficiency and sound production. Music teachers would also do well to allow time in lessons for stillness, rather than hurrying through to cover each mistake before time runs out. To stop and breathe and be still after a particularly well-played passage, to soak in what was just accomplished so that our minds remember the sound and our muscles remember the feel; these are the necessary elements of a productive practice session, as well. Ask students: “how did that feel?” Cue them on where to observe if necessary. “Do your shoulders feel less tense when you play high up on your fingers?” It takes time, but what you are doing is helping the student build a blueprint of their physical norm so that they know when an imbalance occurs. When this happens, it often results in a musical problem. Students need to know how to solve these problems on their own.

As far as emotional awareness is concerned, the best thing that teachers can do is to let students know that they are in a safe and accepting place where they can talk honestly. Bringing up your life stories helps them feel more secure in sharing their own. Asking them how they are doing at the beginning of each lesson is not a mere courtesy, but a sincere invitation to open up. Bring their stories and their emotions into their music; allow them to create imagery that is personal to them. Pride, fear, anger, sadness, joy—young students are just learning to sort through these emotions, and they may be afraid to be vulnerable. Music lessons offer another vehicle as they mature to learn that their opinions are valued and their feelings do not have to be hidden. We so often forget the true value of music lessons. As Cheryl Lavender said, “The fact that children can make great music is less significant than the fact that music can make beautiful children.”

Wellness Apps for Teenagers

It can be difficult to get teenagers to stop long enough to take a deep breath, much less to appreciate the impact of a few moments of relaxation. There are so many demands on their attention that constant stimulation may almost seem like a fact of life. Let’s face it: solitary practice of anything that requires stillness and awareness is just plain boring. Teenagers are just beginning to build self-awareness and are used to a fast-paced life with constant social connections, especially through their phones and computers. The cell phone usually holds the spot as a teenager’s best friend—a provider of entertainment, information, and a connection to friends and the rest of the world. Using apps is as natural as breathing for today’s teenager, so it only makes sense that they would be the best option for teaching them to breathe deeply. Luckily there are several age-appropriate options that introduce students to the art of staying in the moment through meditation, relaxing deeply through deep breathing, and staying fit for optimal health and well-being. Many are individualized according to a user’s needs, and many also use a game-like format to get users motivated. Three of my favorites are listed below.

Stop, Breathe, and Think:
For students who might be put off by the somewhat lofty and abstract notion of meditation, this app makes it approachable with straightforward, teen-friendly language. Users begin by “checking in” and stating how they feel mentally, physically, and emotionally. Even this brief check-in period gives users a chance to increase self-awareness. They are then given a choice of a few different types of meditations based on their needs on that particularly day. Fifteen meditations are offered, ranging from 3 to 10 minutes; some examples include a gratitude meditation to reinforce contentment or a body scan to help when feeling fearful or unsettled, as well as narrations for mindful breathing and a mindful walk. A “My Progress” chart allows you to find out your “weekly settledness” score, your total time meditating, and your most-cited emotions. Students can earn stickers based on achievements such as the number of days meditating or the number of times on a particular meditation. The “How it Works” section takes a close, serious look at the practice of meditation from both a scientific and spiritual standpoint. Music teachers will especially appreciate the emphasis on consistency of practice. This app could easily be used as a warm-up before lessons begin, and teachers can also check out their students’ scores and progress.

BellyBio Interactive Breathing (free)
If you are working with students on deep breathing, this app is one of the best ways to get them to enjoy the process and improve their focus. It is fun to use, very calming, and has a “cool factor” that would appeal to an older teenage crowd. Calling itself “the first Abdominal Music Player,” this app allows users to put their iPad or iPhone on their belly so it tilts back and forth when they breathe deeply. Because the rhythm of one’s breathing and abdominal breathing movements is then synchronized with music, the creators say that it allows you to “experience music at a deeper and broader level.” The music itself is very relaxing and combined with deep breathing, it allows the mind to enter a meditative state. Visually, it shows the color red on the inhale and blue on the exhale, and it tracks progress using a chart that measures stress levels from 0-5, with a score of 0-2 labeled as calm, very calm, or extremely calm. There is also a log to show the date, duration of breathing, minimum stress level, and minimum breath rate over time.

BodiMojo: Wake My Mojo (free)
Since music teachers form a close relationship with their students, they can talk one-on-one with students about their lifestyle and help them recognize the importance of taking care of their whole selves—body, mind, and spirit. Students cannot perform at their best in school, sports, music practice, or any type of performance without adequate sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise.

Of these three things, talented high school musicians often seem to be most lacking in proper exercise. They often see the student athletes as their opposites, but music teachers can help them see the similarities between the two fields. Let them know that the music that they play requires great endurance and speed. Regular exercise also enhances mood, reduces stress, increases coordination, and enhances awareness of muscular tension and relaxation—all important factors in great music-making and effective practice.

“BodiMojo” is a great resource for adolescents who want to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Designed for teens, and visually appealing to them (especially preteens or younger teenagers), this health tracker game features an adorable mojo avatar and an easy-to-use interface. Teenagers log in their daily physical activity (fitness), the food they eat, and their mood in order to keep the “mighty mojo” nourished. Users can earn points and see health stats over time, enabling them to set their own health goals and gain a greater awareness of their self-care regimen.

There are, of course, countless other wellness apps devoted to getting sleep, deep breathing, autogenic training for relaxation, and meditation. These are just three that seem to work well with the teenage population. Please feel free to share any other resources that you have used on your own or with your students! Because of their ease of use, constant access, and “fun” factor, apps are one of the best ways to develop awareness and set goals for your students to attain wellness in all areas of their life, which results in a greater ability to focus, practice consistently, and communicate effectively in performance.

The Peer Influence: Relaxation Techniques and Group Performance Classes

This past week, I had the opportunity to work with a group of high school students at the Baylor University Summer Piano Institute. On the last day of camp, I got together with the whole group of forty students and talked with them about strategies for optimal performance. What I found was that the students were eager to talk about their own experiences with performing—its unique challenges, joys, and of course, the nervousness that is often experienced beforehand. There was a deep sense of communion among the group when they could talk openly about physical symptoms of anxiety and the thought patterns that we tend to keep to ourselves or try to ignore. By giving voice to our fears, we can explore whether they represent real concerns and whether have anything to offer us. Fears become bigger when we hold them in, or when we perceive that our thoughts or feelings are reality; instead, we can consciously tell ourselves positive affirmations to counteract our worries. Teenagers who place so much importance on peer relationships usually find great comfort in the fact that everyone feels nervous, that these feelings are normal, and that it can in fact lead to better concentration, more attentive listening, more energy, and a more exciting performance, if they are harnessed in the right way. Once they got on board as a group, knowing that the purpose of the class was to help them communicate most effectively and share the work they had accomplished in the practice room, they were open to trying out new things and recognizing the true benefits of such techniques. There was a wonderful feeling of communal relief among all the students as they embraced deep breathing, stretching, and even imagery.


“Buying Into” Relaxation Techniques

Teenage students may find it difficult to get excited about the more abstract notions of meditation, deep breathing, and imagery, unless they have experienced its direct applications in benefiting their performances. A regularly scheduled performance class offers an ideal opportunity to practice relaxation techniques immediately prior to performance. Videotaping the classes can only further enhance the benefits as students observe and hear themselves playing in a more relaxed and open way. Not only does it help them learn to evaluate their own sound and technique, but this type of mental practice also reinforces memory and helps them re-experience this confident, focused, and relaxed feeling.


Mix It Up

Getting the right mix of students together makes all the difference when trying out these techniques, which require a positive attitude and an open mindset. You must be careful to blend students not just by age, level, and personality, but also by attitude. Negative students who are less interested in discussing repertoire or engaging in relaxation or imagery should be separated from each other in different groups if at all possible. Aim to have at least a couple of students in your group who are open-minded, prone to following directions, and talkative in discussions. The right mixture can get quieter students to participate more actively, and may also get disinterested students to perk up.


A Simple Start

If your students are already gathered in a group for a performance, this is a great time to begin teaching introductory relaxation techniques. Opening the class with simple stretches combined with deep breathing will allow your students to immediately experience the physical and mental changes that occur after only a moment of muscle-to-mind relaxation. They will experience more energy along with greater relaxation (a winning combination!), more focus, and even a more positive attitude. Without singling students out, everyone can work together and each individual student might be reminded to take a moment to breathe and center before they start their piece. Remind students that breathing while playing is something that requires time in the practice room, and that it can help them stay focused and relaxed, with better motor control during performance.


A Sample Curriculum

A teacher might use the following order of instruction for four months (a semester) of monthly performance classes:


Session One

Learning deep abdominal breathing, with hands placed on the stomach so that they can feel the stomach gently expand as the breath moves up on the inhale from the stomach into the ribs and chest. Inhale and exhale for counts of 5/6 (inhaling for 5 counts and exhaling for 6 counts), 6/7, 7/8, and 8/9. Think of a cue word such as “calm,” “relax,” or “let go” on the exhale. Remind them to exhale completely, and allow for a moment of rest in between inhalations and exhalations. Give time for them to hear the first phrase of their music in their mind, breathing along with the music.


Session Two

Continue breathing with longer counts. Begin sitting stretches:

  1. Wide arms up and down with inhale/exhale
  2. Neck stretches: To each side, and moving in half-circles: looking to one side, the floor, and then the other side.
  3. Warming up the back: Interlacing the fingers, extend the arms straight out in front of the body and round out the back, with the head down. For a contrast stretch, reach arms around and behind the back, interlacing the fingers behind and opening the chest.
  4. Side stretches: Stretching the arms overhead, interlace the fingers and extend up to the ceiling, to the right side, and then to the left side, for three breaths each.
  5. Shoulder shrugs and rolls


Session Three

Deep breathing and stretching, with additional stretches:

  1. Standing, inhale the arms up and bring them into prayer position in front of the heart; focus on posture, grounding the feet into the floor, with shoulders down, and top of head rising toward the ceiling.
  2. Standing forward bend: Raise the arms wide, swan dive into a forward bend, touching the knees, shins, or toes, and breathing deeply. Roll up slowly, attending to each individual vertebra.
  3. Cat/cow: in a tabletop position on the floor with the shins on the floor and the shoulders directly over the wrists, inhale and arch the back, lifting the head; then exhale and round the back, looking down. Alternate for a few deep breaths.
  4. Sitting forward bend: with legs extended, straighten the back and extend the torso over the legs, reaching for the knees, shins, or feet.

Begin meditation and imagery:

In a sitting position, sit with the eyes closed and imagine the opening passage to your piece. Continue to breathe deeply as you see and hear yourself onstage playing the passage perfectly. Repeat as necessary for two minutes.


Session Four

After deep breathing and stretching, lie on the floor with the palms open to the ceiling and scan the entire body for any muscular tension. Then tighten and completely relax the following four parts of the body on cue (progressive relaxation):

a. Tighten the face and jaw, scrunching the eyes and mouth; then release on a quick exhale.

b. Hold both arms at a 45-degree angle, in fists, tightening the biceps, forearms, and hands; then release.

c. Tighten the torso by making the stomach hard and pushing it out; then release.

d. Tense the legs and feet, with the toes apart and feet flexed; then release.

Scan the entire body once more to relax any remaining tension.

While still lying down, imagine a relaxing scene, such as lying on a beach. Transition into mental practice of the opening passage of your music.


How have you integrated relaxation techniques into your performance classes or private lessons? I would love to hear from you!

A Healthy Outlook: Intermediate Students and Performance Expectations

In this crucial stage where adolescents are learning about their own needs and responsibilities, it is the music teacher’s job to work with them to create a healthy and realistic outlook on performance. What does it mean to have a healthy outlook? In my opinion, it means that we look at performance in the following three ways:

  1. objectively (not as a reflection of one’s ability)
  2. as one performance in a long line of many throughout one’s lifetime
  3. as a learning experience


Students must understand that the purpose of performing is not to be perfect, but to communicate ideas, strengthen our understanding of the music, and find spots that are weak, improving them for the next performance. Thus, you learn something every time you perform.Every mistake is an opportunity to improve. The important thing is that we learn from it and do not criticize or punish ourselves after the fact. Not immediately after each performance, but within the week, talk objectively with your student about strengths and weaknesses. Plan strategies to overcome the problem areas. Allowing students to be part of the process through self-evaluation will increase their confidence, strengthen their interpretation, and prevent them from taking criticism personally.


At this age, it is common to become more self-conscious, and even the most confident of performers may find himself facing performance anxiety. To help students overcome their fears, try the following tactics:


Let them know that a little bit of anxiety is NORMAL and can be POSITIVE. Replace the word “anxiety” with “anticipation” or “excitement.” Without it, a performance is boring and unfocused.


Gradually increase the challenge. Especially for less experienced performers, have them play in front of friends and family first, with a piece that has been under their fingers for a long time. Then move on to playing in front of a small group of peers, before transitioning to bigger audiences and venues with newer and more difficult repertoire. Psychologists use in vivo desensitization in working with phobias; this process grants patients gradual exposure to their fear object.


Give them as many performance opportunities as possible. The more often you perform, the better you get. Students in choirs, orchestras, and bands benefit from several performances without the pressures of acting as soloists. For pianists, on the other hand, performance opportunities are usually few and far between. Even if you only have one studio recital a year, find as many opportunities as you can for group performance classes, community recitals at churches or senior centers, and organized festivals hosted by your local music teacher’s organization. Your student will thank you for it later.

Some transfer students and adult students who have recently re-enrolled in music lessons come in with very little performance experience, and they will probably be terrified at your first large studio recital. The last thing you want is a bad performance experience that will decrease their confidence. Allow them to play with their score in front of them at first, especially if they have little experience with memorization. If you have a group of students at the same age and approximate level, perhaps put them together in a sightreading, ensemble, or performance practice class where they must learn short pieces quickly and perform in front of their peers regularly.


Give students the opportunity to make their own musical decisions. It is much easier to remember something that you like and are interested in than to memorize information with which you have no emotional connection. A baseball fan might be able to remember an amazing amount of statistical information on many different players, but be completely useless at remembering a recipe. This is just one of several reasons that you want your students to be involved in the musical planning and interpretation of each repertoire choice. Further benefits include greater confidence, listening skills, creativity, and the ability to work independently.


If a student learn to be meticulous, polished, and disciplined in her playing, but has no pride in her ability or joy at her lessons, then the likelihood that she will continue with her musical study is very small. Teachers should ask themselves: what is the price of demanding that a student subscribe to rigorous expectations, even if it means winning competitions or getting into the best schools? Yes, we need to have high expectations for students, but not at the cost of treating them as musicians first and people second.

Wellness Issues and the Transfer Student

For new teachers especially, transfer students may form the bulk of the piano studio. It is easy to be tricked by a seemingly strong student who plays difficult repertoire in her audition, but issues with fingering, note reading, and stylistic understanding may lurk below the surface and go unnoticed if the right questions are not asked. It is crucial in the first meeting to ask how many pieces have been learned and memorized in the past year and test students on sight-reading ability.

But beyond the diagnosis of problem areas, teachers encounters another set of issues: how can they set these students at ease in their first months of lessons, so that they are comfortable, relaxed, open to new ideas—and ready to develop to their full musical potential?


Here are some ideas for meeting the wellness needs of a new transfer student:


Take time to develop a personal relationship. The relationship between piano teacher and student is a unique and special one, and in the very best of circumstances it begins when the student is a young child and blossoms into a special closeness by the time she reaches adolescence. With transfer students, we do not have that advantage. Without forcing the issue, we must take time before and after lessons to get to know our students.

When children are first developing linguistic skills as babies, they cannot learn how to communicate by watching television shows like Baby Einstein, or by pushing alphabet letters on an iPad. They need to be spoken to by an adult with whom they have formed a bond; parents particularly need to spend time talking to them. I would argue that in music study, too, the degree of closeness and rapport between student and teacher has a direct impact on the student’s musical success.

Questioning a new teacher’s authority or opinion is common, especially if the student was forced into a new studio. Explain your reasoning when necessary and encourage students to ask questions. The greatest learning occurs when students feel that they have a voice and can be open with their teacher, and this often takes time.

When transfer students with poor training enter your studio, it is very easy to focus on the problems that need to be solved, rather than the whole person. Students should not feel overwhelmed at the beginning, but instead be led through a gradual approach with a teacher who is honest and straightforward. Any extra pressure can make a shy student feel more anxious and less confident, resulting in a poor sound and a greater degree of physical tension.


Avoid too much criticism at the beginning. Teenagers (and really, all of us) tend to take criticism personally, but those of us who have demanding teachers from the beginning tend to have a stronger backbone. Students need to understand that their pianistic problems are typical, and are not indicative of lack of talent. When you say, “your left hand is too loud,” they might hear “you are unmusical.” Instead, you might say that “many students have trouble voicing the melody here because the left hand is so busy.” These kinds of statements encourage students to separate the personal from the practical, a skill that will serve them well if they intend to make a living as professional musicians.

The rules of “fair fighting” work in music lessons, as well. Avoid generalizing statements such as “always” or “never,” avoid “you” statements so that it does not sound personal, and be as specific as possible. Consider the following rearrangements of comments:

“You always rush when you get to this section.”

Instead: “There is a tendency to rush here where the music becomes really exciting. Focus on the downbeat so that you stay steady.”

“You never play the last note loudly enough.”

Instead: “The audience needs to hear the tonic chord to get a sense of finality.” Of course, demonstration for sound and gesture is vital in both instances.


Assign repertoire that sounds good, but is easy enough for them to learn a great deal of music in a short amount of time. Many teachers would agree that note reading and sightreading are the most common challenges with transfer students. Even competition winners may come in with just a couple of long pieces that they have been working on for a year or longer. An excellent strategy to help students increase their reading skills and learn a greater variety of repertoire is to give them easier, shorter pieces so that they can learn many in a small amount of time.

Yet, you still want to protect the student’s self-esteem. If Bobby is working out of Level 5 in a method series, you do not want to assign him pieces from Level 4. He will think that you have no confidence in his ability.

Instead, trick him with pieces that sound harder and more exciting than his current repertoire, but are shorter and technically less difficult. Remember, too, that they do not need to memorize everything, nor do they need to polish everything during this transition period. Have a goal for each piece and move on once it has been accomplished.


What other wellness issues or challenges have you encountered with your own transfer students? I look forward to hearing your comments and ideas.