At a prospective new student’s lesson, I always ask the same question in my interview: “What do you want your child to get out playing piano?” One of the most common answers I get is this: “I don’t want my child to become a concert pianist. I just want them to enjoy playing the piano.” This is a baffling statement: For one, concert pianists often DO enjoy playing the piano, which is usually why they go into a career that involves playing the piano regularly in the first place. Secondly, the word, “enjoy”, is a rather tricky thing: There are different levels and meanings of enjoyment. Do you want your child to “enjoy” fun and games? Or do you want them to gain a deep love of music? If you want the latter, (which I hope is the case), then the truth is: playing the piano isn’t always enjoyable; it involves a lot of hard work from the student, parents and the teacher. If you want your child to enjoy playing the piano, then you need to be prepared for the occasional struggle that comes with the process too.
In my years of teaching piano, I have found that there are two different levels of “enjoyment” that students get from their lessons:
1) On the one hand, there’s light enjoyment which comes from fun activities or material things: Playing piano games, earning material rewards such as stickers or prizes, playing songs from books with colorful characters, and using toys and manipulatives in lessons.
2) On the other hand, there’s profound enjoyment from piano playing which comes from the pleasure students feel during their journey through piano playing: the sense of fulfillment as one gets close to achieving a piano goal, getting to the level of being able to pick up any music score and playing it for oneself or others, acquiring musical knowledge, honing piano skills.
This first kind of enjoyment is what I call “easy” enjoyment because it’s easy to attain with instant gratification. It requires no hard work on the part of the student, parent or teacher and not a lot of substance is learned. The second kind of enjoyment is what I call “hard working” enjoyment because it comes with a lot of hard work – blood, sweat, and tears, over a long period of time from the student, parents, and teacher. It is the latter type of enjoyment that I advocate, although there is nothing wrong with using light forms of enjoyment to help young students on the path towards more profound levels of enjoyment. “Easy” enjoyment is temporal; it lasts a short while until kids are not interested anymore, maybe getting to the point of them dropping out of piano lessons – which is really a shame. Students who are taught to work hard and to keep at it will emerge with deep learning and satisfaction that will last a lifetime.
There is a lot of time, effort, encouragement and inspiration put into learning and understandably, some students, parents and teachers shy away when things get hard. However, the result is that students will not only miss out on the enjoyment but also on this crucial life lesson: Hard work pays off in the future.
Take for example, the case of the student who receives a challenging piece to learn and play on a recital:
a) A hard working teacher will get that student to repeat tricky sections in the piece 10 times, actively correcting details such as hand shape, fingering, or rhythm. The hard working parent will insist that their child practice every day, making sure they do the requisite number of repeats on a piece, and possibly getting into practice arguments with their child in the process, as sometimes happens. That hard working student will play well at the recital and feel proud of how well they played, especially knowing that they have put so much blood, sweat and tears into their practice. They will truly enjoy the fact that they could do it; they could play that piece that seemed so difficult at the beginning but now seems so easy and fun.
b) If you take the same example and apply it to the easy teacher, parent and student, the reverse will occur:
The easy teacher might avoid going into detail into the piece, grab their stand-by portfolio of music games, play a few, pat the student on the hand, give them a sticker and go. It’s a comfortable and pleasant lesson. The easy parent might let their child be, even if that means their child doesn’t practice enough or practice properly, thus avoiding any confrontations about practice and keeping the peace at home. And the easy student who is allowed to do so by the teacher and parent, will have no hard work to do at all. It’s all smooth sailing for them. However, that easy student will get to the recital, play poorly and not feel any enjoyment in what they are doing – especially when they hear the results of what the hard working teacher, parent and student have been working on. The piece becomes as difficult as it was in the beginning and the student hasn’t achieved anything at all.
Which is the better scenario? Who “enjoys” the piano more in the end? Who will continue to seek further enjoyment in piano playing and lessons?
Students who reach profound enjoyment will learn to love and appreciate music as well as build many musical skills. They will realize that music is hard work but the struggle and endurance through the difficulty is worth it.