“My daughter lost interest in piano lessons when she turned fourteen.”
“I took piano lessons for six years but I have not played since then.”
“I stopped taking lessons after eight years and I regret it.”
As a piano technician I hear comments like this from far too many customers. Pianos sit idle in homes all across America because most students stop playing. Why? What can teachers do to keep students engaged in playing piano?
I have no answer, but I have a few ideas.
The young student tends to memorize easily, learns specific instructions, can be taught to play notes from what is written on a page, but does not yet intellectualize independently about what the music is doing or how concepts coalesce to create the complexities one finds in music.
There is a transition which occurs in the capacities of a child which is a suspect in the search for a reason why children lose interest in piano lessons and piano playing. Children are passive subjects who are easily persuaded to perform routine and somewhat mindless tasks. As they mature, they become more active in directing their own interests. The adolescent mind is much busier, wrestling with more complex issues such as socialization and identity. The rigor of memorization and repetitive drills conflicts with the brain’s increasing capability to delve into more complex and challenging subjects. Piano practice might be depicted as a childhood activity that is tossed into the toy box, along with Barbie or G.I. Joe.
So the challenge for the teacher is to keep piano playing as interesting for adolescents who might care more about who is dating whom, or how they are ranked among their peers. If a cell phone draws more interest than playing piano, then somewhere in the transition between childhood and adolescence, the teacher did not prepare the student for that transition.
The teacher, after all, is the responsible party in this predicament. Children generally lose interest in playing piano. That report card is not a reflection on the student; it is a reflection on the pedagogy used to teach students.
What is wrong with piano pedagogy? The etymology of the word belies the problem. Pedagogy’s root meaning is “to lead the child” [Wiki]. Pedagogy embodies a philosophy. That philosophy is based in answers to questions pertaining to the profession of teaching. When the report card of teaching is not satisfactory, it is the philosophical foundations of pedagogy that must be examined.
When a child drops out of piano lessons (and that seems to occur most often in the early teen years), it is not a symptom of a limitation of the child: it is a confirmation of a dysfunctional pedagogy.
Let us examine those students who succeed at piano. There are several categories. There are students who never take lessons and who go on to become lifetime piano players. There are students who take lessons and continue to play. Some students lose interest for a period of time only to return. Those players might play for years, or for months, sporadically or consistently. Piano playing remains part of their lifestyle.
The common element seems to be the retention or development of an independent source of motivation to play piano. I noticed this change in my own child when she learned to read. At first she memorized words, recognized patterns, and was a passive actor in the reading process. My wife or I would read the words in the book, and my daughter would listen. Later she showed interest in trying to read the words. On one occasion, she came into the room and announced with a smile that she had read “the whole book”. It was Doctor Suess’ “Go Dog Go.” At that moment she transitioned from being dependent and passive to being an independent and active reader. From that day forward, she was motivated to read. She consumed books. As a teen, she won the local library summer reading program by reading a remarkable 45 books.
What happened to her? Quite simply, she was taught how to read. Young piano students are taught what to play but they are not taught how to create music.
Here is the rub. You can teach children how to play a Bach piece. But they know absolutely nothing about Bach’s music until they create their own music. Given a piece of paper and pen and told to write a sonata similar to Mozart’s, most students would fail miserably. This is the exercise that is missing from piano pedagogy: making music.
As a self-taught jazz musician who loves classical music, I will share with you what I tell adult players who want to learn how to play. First, I tell them I will teach them how to become their own teacher. “You do not need me to give you assignments or correct your errors.” I tell them, “You do not need me to bolster your confidence or esteem.”
“When a child learns, he is taught what the notes are, the keys they are assigned to, and told to play the notes.” This is left brain analytical thinking. The child responds. A young child cannot grasp the complexities of music, but a mature adult can. The production of music follows the exact opposite pattern from how it is taught to a child. I start with a musical idea, play it on the piano, then write down the notes I played. A child starts with the notes, plays the piano and hears the idea created by the composer.
As a child matures, there is a shift from the passive to the active. What is lacking is any training on how to survive or perform without applying the left-brain pedagogic routines. I see this most often in classically trained musicians. Many of those are incredible musicians – until you tell them to improvise. They literally crumble into a tiny, feeble ball of humility and utter, “I can’t do that.”
If you cannot compose, cannot improvise, cannot freely communicate ideas using your musical instrument, then your training was woefully inadequate and incomplete. You are not a musician, in my book. You are a mimic who can play what others have devised. Music is self-expression first and foremost. The mechanics of music, the pedagogy, is valuable and necessary, but each student needs to be encouraged to express themselves through the creative processes of music.
Every time we lose a piano student to boredom, it is tragic. It is no wonder musicians feel such a deep sense of inadequacy when they are faced with their own incapability. The motivation needed to drive a student to continue music instruction must come from the teacher. The means of instruction must produce a self-motivated piano player. Just as my child learned to read a book, there must be a detachment from the reliance on instructional aids, scale work, dependence and passivity, in order for the student to emerge and discover the real magic of making music.
When a student discovers that part of the creation of music, when the notes and written music, the scales and routines, are seen as a means to an end, instead of the only end that matters, the student is liberated and introduced to a whole new world of self-expression. A teen that drops out of piano lessons was never prepared to succeed. They become bored with the means without ever having discovered the desired end.
I have no idea how to help a child make that transition. I am not a teacher. I can order knowledge gained from observation and experience. I can critique philosophy. If my comments resonate with you, then move the discussion to the audiences of your influence.
Consider this point in closing. Much money, time and effort is expended to get children to enroll in piano lessons. Once a child becomes a student, the teacher becomes the steward of that precious gift. The teacher has the attention and attendance of a student! How wonderful is that! When that child loses interest or otherwise abandons musical instruction, everyone involved in the endeavor of musical education shares in that misfortune.
There remain too many piano students who have dropped out of piano lessons in their teens. The vitality of our industry, even the instrument itself, depends on improving the institutional pedagogical methods that are inadequate in teaching children how to transition into self-motivated, active and independent musicians.