What I Really Think of Your Playing


I have yet to find an adult student who isn’t nervous when they play for me, at least the first time. And I get it- I really do.  Any time you’ve got someone’s undivided attention, particularly when that person is analyzing your actions, it’s natural to feel a little exposed.  Add in the fact that you are by definition undertaking something outside of your comfort zone (the bravest and best part of taking lessons!), and sweaty palms make sense.

But I want to put a nail in the coffin of one common student fear.  Make that tens of nails.  Hundreds of nails.  A nail-gun-gone-berserk number of nails.

It is never, ever a burden to listen to you play.

“You must get tired of listening to me,” I’ve had students say.  Or, “I hope we're not ruining the piece for you.”   “Can you really stand to listen to the repeat?” “I didn’t want to make you listen to any more of this.”

There are dozens of variations, but the core concern is the same: a sizable minority of students worry their playing is a chore.

I can’t think of anything further from the truth.  Listening to a student or students play, no matter what the level is profoundly engaging and uniformly enjoyable. Because every time I listen, I’m confronting a fascinating challenge: How can I help this particular student or group of students make progress, both now and in the long term?  

Working that out is pretty much the most captivating puzzle I know, and I immediately busy myself with a host of subsidiary questions. What knowledge or skills do students possess that I can build on?  What should we select to work on?  What can I say or do to best communicate the goal?  How can I motivate the student toward the selected goal?  How can I check for understanding of the improvement process? How will I develop the student’s ability to self-monitor?  What personality or time or technical constrains might stand in the student’s way, and how can I mitigate them?

Listening to great music is pleasurable, sure. But it’s far more fun to dig into the challenge of helping you get better.  And we can always improve- each of us, from the greenest beginner to the most virtuosic professional.

So please know this: Your teachers don’t get tired of listening to you play.  We genuinely feel that it is a privilege to hear you.

And If I ever stop feeling that way, I hope I’m smart enough to take a break.

What Does Success Look Like?


The first time my student R attended a workshop, she spent most of the day in tears. 

I was distressed, but not surprised.  At that point in her playing life, R had a strong negative reaction to every playing mistake she made, allowing each error to derail her progress through a piece.  Whenever she made a mistake, she became so flustered that it was almost impossible for her to hop back in.

Just a few years later, R was attending workshops throughout the region, making mistakes and finding her part again with aplomb. 

Mostly, this is a credit to R’s perseverance. Not everyone would stick with playing after an upsetting experience, but R was impressively determined.

But helping R also required me to use one of the most powerful tools any teacher’s arsenal- the power to define success.

What does defining success mean? When you define success, you identify, shape, and shift the parameters by which students measure their own performance. You help students choose -and use- the success metric that best suits their abilities and needs at any given time.

If you don’t define success, your student will do it for you.  The fact is that students come to lessons with all kinds of pre-determined success metrics.  Some are explicit- students know what they want to achieve.  But some are implicit- hidden definitions that can cause trouble along the way.  In addition, students’ success metrics can also be static- they don’t change over time as a student grows.

In contrast, a good teaching success metric is explicit and dynamic- both student and teacher know what success means at any particular time, and the definition of success shifts to match student needs.  One lesson, success might mean playing all the notes in time.  A year later, success might mean playing all the notes in time and in tune.

When she attended that first workshop, R carried with her an implicit and unhelpful success metric: Success, to R, meant not making mistakes.

What I needed to do was to give R a more constructive definition of successAfter that first workshop, we debriefed and made a plan.  From now on, 10 minutes of every lesson would be devoted to sight reading duets.  And R’s only goal during these sessions was to get back in.  No matter what.  No mater how long it took

She could exclaim, she could sigh, she could spend most of the piece trying to figure out where she was, but if she got back in by the final cutoff, even partway through the last note, R would have succeeded.  Later, we took the same definition of success into group playing sessions.

It worked.

Slowly, but steadily, it worked.

I moved out of state and no longer teach R, but I saw her recently at a workshop and asked permission to tell her story.  The workshop featured a student performance and I watched as, during the last movement of her piece, R lost her place- and quickly hopped back in.  It was a splendid moment-  over in a few blinks of an eye. 

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© 2016 Anne Timberlake