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.