"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Albert Einstein's famous quote is unfortunately often forgotten. As piano teachers and piano students we need to constantly remember these wise words.
For teachers: It is our responsibility to tailor our teaching style to the personality of each individual student. The younger the student, the more this is necessary. Some students need small bite-sized pieces of information, some do better with bigger concepts. Some need to move around the room more, so do just fine sitting at the keyboard for the duration of their lesson. Not every method book works for every child. Chordal, middle C, intervallic - we need to be well-versed in all approaches and be able to assess our students to decide which method suits which child. More importantly, we need to admit if our initial assessment was wrong and fix it. It's ok to change methods. Don't force a square peg into a round hole.
As the students get older, their personalities are more defined, so that it is easier for us to address a teaching style which will be more successful. They are also more adaptable to a variety of teaching styles, so that we can expect them to try different approaches. This is an important aspect of teaching college level students. They need to see a wide variety of learning possibilities and environments, so that they too can become adaptable when they become teachers. Nevertheless, professors need to be aware of the personalities of their students as well.
For students: I am often reminded of the insanity quote when I listen to students practicing. One thing I like to do is to tell a student that there is "something wrong" in a certain measure/passage and that they must figure out what it is. So I have them play it through again, often slowly, to see if they catch it. More often than not, the mistake is still there. So they do it again and again and again...hoping that the problem will magically disappear. So then I ask them to change "something". This often results in them actually catching the mistake, as they are now focused on what can possibly be changed. Dynamics, articulations, accidentals, rhythm are all things that are often wrong and they know it. This approach allows the student to fix their mistakes by actually understanding what the problem is. Telling students their mistakes is fixing the effect. Having them figure it out often fixes the cause. Students, when you are practicing, think about this. Don't simply play a difficult passage over and over, assuming that repetition will solve the problem. While slow practice is often a good thing to do, it not necessarily the solution to every problem. Doing something slowly will involve different movements and angles, which might have to be changed at higher speeds. Analyze carefully what you are doing - how is the alignment of your body, how about the elbows, fingering, etc. Then change something - anything - and think about the results. What happens if you lean in a bit, hold your elbows out a little, crouch, etc.? You will find that every change you make will have some sort of effect on your playing. And while it might not be the desired effect in that moment, you start to learn about yourself, your body, and what all is possible. You start to become your own best teacher.
This fall I am going up for promotion to full professor. In preparation for that, I have been putting together my materials. That includes putting together giant three ring binders of programs, syllabi, CDs, reviews, conference books, articles, thank you cards...basically my professional life on paper. While extremely tedious, this is an exercise, which I would recommend that everyone should do from time to time. It is an excellent way to take stock of the past, to think about where you are at the moment, and to be inspired to think of new ideas for the future. I can see very clearly, laid out on the table, what all I have accomplished in the past five years. I am very proud of that. But it also shows me what all I have yet to do and that excites me. It is easy to go back to school, thinking "Just another fall semester, teaching the same classes, the same students, working with the same colleagues..." But when you realize how different and exciting things can be, what great opportunities are out there, then everything seems new and motivating!
So, I encourage every student, every teacher, regardless of age or field, to search for new perspectives, new goals, new ideas, and new dreams. Otherwise, there really isn't a reason to do it.
I just returned from a weekend trip to New York City. The main purpose of the trip was to perform at the International Double Reed Society annual conference with oboist Andrew Parker. The second reason was for my wife Heather, also a fabulous oboist (for those who don't know), to attend IDRS and to buy a new oboe. (Unfortunately all the great ones were taken by the time we got there...)
We also brought along our 16 month old toddler Frederic. I had the great fortune of spending basically all of Friday with him exploring the streets, parks, and playgrounds of NYC. It also gave me a lot of time to think.
First of all I was of course thinking about our performance on Saturday morning. We played Schumann's Dichterliebe from our upcoming album. I can honestly say that I like the way I play that piece. I like the way Andrew and I interact and make music. I like the music. I like the piano part. I like everything about it. And I earned the right to like it and to perform it. I smile every time I think about it. These feelings made for a wonderful day-before-concert day. That day is usually reserved for "uptight Alan". But not this time. Heck, I didn't even get to touch a piano for 25 hours prior to the performance. Not a worry. It was a beautiful day in NYC with my baby and later my wife, with a performance to look forward to.
This then got me thinking about my students. They are always so hard on themselves. They always worry about making mistakes and what other people are going to think about them. (Not so much about their playing, mind you!) In preparation for a performance the main thought is "What am I going to do IF I make a mistake/have a memory slip/etc.?" However the correct question to be asking is "What am I going to do WHEN I make a mistake, etc.?" This allows for acceptance that we aren't perfect. It allows for a more realistic approach in preparation. And it allows one to like oneself more. It's OK to make mistakes.
How does one achieve this state of mind? It is of course easier said than done. It all starts with preparation. If you leave no stone unturned, look at the problems at hand from all sides possible, work as hard and as diligently as you can, then in the end you have earned the right to perform and to like what you are doing. You will look forward to a performance and you will even like your mistakes.
I loved our performance at IDRS. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But I liked it, I liked myself for doing it, and I hope our audience liked it as well.