For today’s Q&A, I’m digging into the past – I’ve got a giant page of requests and questions from you, so I delved into the archives. Today’s question is one I answered very briefly once upon a time, but thought it would be fun to expand upon.
Let’s get started!
How can I impress my piano teacher?
I’ve been teaching piano for over a decade now, but the things that impress me haven’t really changed. So if you want to be an A+ piano student, these are things that are bound to make any piano teacher delighted.
The first thing you can do, unsurprisingly, is practice! It seems so obvious, but it’s not as common as you’d think. Many students have patchy practice habits – they’ll be motivated and diligent one week, but then slack off the next.
This is just as much of a problem with adult students as it is with children. Perhaps it’s even worse with adults, because adults always have a plethora of excuses they can draw upon. But usually when a child tells me they “didn’t have time”, I just laugh at them. What do you know about having no time, little one who spends three hours playing video games after school?
Consistency is key
So there’s a few parts to practice that really impress me.
The first part is consistency with practice. This is the student who doesn’t just practice one or two weeks, but has a steady daily habit. Regardless of this student’s ability, progress is usually good with this kind of consistency, and lessons tend to move at a nice clip without stalling.
The second part is intelligent practice. If I have a student who swears they’re practicing every day but isn’t making much progress, there’s probably a problem with the way they’re practicing.
The most common practicing failure is playing a piece all the way through a few times, and calling that practice. This kind of practice will lead to pieces that sound good in some areas (the easier areas), but really choppy in other areas (the tough spots). Intelligent practice means sectioning off your piece, working in smaller pieces, and really tackling the most challenging measures.
It’s difficult to practice this way. We humans tend to seek ease and avoid discomfort, and facing challenging sections head-on can be very uncomfortable. But that’s really the only way you’re going to improve in a way that you find satisfying, and your piano teacher as well.
Amount of time practicing
The third part is amount of practice. How much time clocked practicing isn’t quite as important as smart and consistent practice, but it still matters. If you’re only getting in an hour a week, your progress isn’t going to be great. How much you practice depends on your goals and your level, but the average beginner or intermediate student is looking at around 30 minutes to an hour a day to see decent progress.
Progress reports and journaling
Okay, so you’ve made your piano teacher happy by practicing consistently, practicing intelligently, and practicing enough.
If you want to impress your piano teacher even more, you should be able to explain in detail what progress you made between lessons and what specific things you worked on. Even better if you journal your practice, to keep track of all the details.
If you’re able to explain what you’ve been doing over the last week of practice, it shows your piano teacher that you’re not just in zombie mode when you’re at the piano. You’re being deliberate, not aimless. You’re thinking deliberately and taking specific actions.
In addition to being able to explain how your practicing went between lessons, your piano teacher will be super impressed if you set some goals, both in the short term (week-by-week) and long term (yearly goals).
This means having a plan at the end of the lesson for what you’re going to work on in the coming week, and what progress you expect to make. Instead of saying, “I’ll work on these three pieces”, you might say, “I’ll work on mm. 42-48 of piece #1 to get it smoother and up to speed, I’ll memorize page 1 of piece #2, and I’ll learn the beginning of piece #3 at a slow but steady tempo.”
Practice what we ask you to practice
Another thing piano teachers love is when you actually practice what we ask you to practice. You’d be surprised about how often I’ll work through a problem with a student, only for the problem to pop up again a week later as if we never looked at it at all.
Maybe we talk about dynamics and work on them in class – and you come back the next week and play the entire piece at an mf. Maybe there was a line or two of music that needed extra practice and attention, but a week later it hasn’t improved at all.
If you practice the specific thing we ask you to practice, you will get a gold star. Even if you’re not a pro at whatever it was, it shows that you’re listening and that you value my opinion. It also shows that you have enough initiative to actually remember the things we talk about (usually this comes down to writing notes in class).
Go above and beyond
Going above and beyond what we ask you to do is even better. Maybe there’s a line of music I want you to polish up. Not only do you do that, but you’ve also done some research on the piece you’re playing and the composer who wrote it. Maybe you’ve listened to several recordings of the piece to get a better idea of how to play it. Maybe it’s a waltz and you’ve done some research into some typical quirks of waltzes.
Anything that goes above and beyond the call of duty shows that you’re interested, curious and engaged. If you’re just doing the bare minimum, that’s fine. You’ll still learn and make progress. But a real A+ student has enough initiative and curiosity to do more than what’s asked of them in order to become a more well-rounded musician.
Have a great attitude
Another quality of a star student is a great attitude. You could be the most diligent practicer, pay attention and take notes, and do additional research – but if you have an “I suck at this” attitude, your piano teacher won’t be impressed.
I’ve taught so many students over the years who don’t have what you might call “natural aptitude”, but they’re confident and courageous and failure doesn’t scare them. Even if they’re not as talented (whatever that means) as other students, their willingness to make mistakes without fear earns them an A+. These are truly the best students to teach.
Negative Nancys are difficult to teach, because any critique of their playing can be perceived as a personal attack. If I say, “your rhythm feels awkward in this measure, so let’s count it out to make sure you’re hearing the beat”, and you react with, “I just can’t do anything right”, that’s defeatist and it serves neither of us.
Mistakes are inevitable. Everyone makes them, and they’re a sign that at least you’re trying and taking action!
So if you’re able to do all of these things: Practice often, well, and consistently, chart your progress and make goals, pay attention to specific assignments and go above and beyond what I ask, and have a great “can do” attitude, you will be your piano teacher’s favorite student.
Even if you’re not the best player, even if you’re not destined for Carnegie Hall, your piano teacher will prefer teaching you over a very talented but inconsistent and indifferent student.