Some Common Misconceptions About Piano Lessons

 

by John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Rio Rancho, NM USA

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here are some common misconceptions and misapprehensions regarding piano lessons that piano teachers see (and sometimes bemoan) frequently. Most of these are born from a simple lack of knowledge on the part of prospective students and parents. Unfortunately, such misconceptions work to make lessons less effective and enjoyable, for both the teacher and the student. This article, inspired by a long thread on The Piano Education Page Forums, describes some of the most prevalent misconceptions that students and parents have about lessons, as mentioned by piano teachers and other knowledgeable people. I have phrased these misconceptions as statements because piano teachers often hear them in that way from parents and students. I hope that readers will find the descriptions useful in helping them understand what lessons are about, what might constitute reasonable expectations for both the teacher and the student, and how they can enhance their lesson experience and progress.

 

keyinfo.gif (1045 bytes)Playing the piano requires hard work and artistic inspiration in about a ten to one (or higher) ratio.

 

Starting Lessons

"You only need lessons if you want to play the classics."

Learning piano is a lot more than just being able to "plunk out" a few tunes. If you're going to carry any skills over to other music, no matter the type, you'll need to learn how to:  read music, adopt basic posture and technique, follow melodic and harmonic lines in each hand simultaneously, finger chords, practice properly and much, much more. Most people take lessons to help them learn to play most anything that might come along, not because they are interested in a particular genre. Would you be happy if, after taking lessons, you could only play a few tunes from a given type of music?

"I'm too old (young) to take lessons."

While it is possible to start children on piano too young to gain maximum benefit from lessons, most children can benefit from lessons at early ages. On one of our Tips for Parents and Students pages, you'll find some helpful hints about how to measure your child's physical and mental development to determine if they are ready for lessons. The requirements are very easy to meet for most kids. Older students have some considerable advantages over children in terms of both focus and motivation, even if they have lost some of the flexibility that characterized their younger years. So long as an older student has the time and desire to learn, he can start at just about any age.

"It's okay to start lessons without making a commitment to them."

Many people don't realize that lessons undertaken without commitment almost always lead to failure. Lessons take real time and involvement on the part of teachers, students and parents. A new student should assume that, to be successful, he will have to devote just as much time to practice and lessons as he would give to a school team sport. Just as with a sport, playing piano requires both knowledge and skill. You can get the knowledge by study, but can get the skill only by practice.

"Somehow my children will find time for lessons and practice, even though they are scheduled with activities every day of the week."

Given the amount of time (not to mention psychological) commitment needed to be successful in learning to play the piano (see above), an overly scheduled child or adult student will find it difficult to be successful learning piano for sheer lack of time. Consider if you really have the time to commit at least an hour per day to effective practice.

Parental Role

"Paying for the lessons is all the piano parent must do."

Just as parental involvement is important to a child's success in school, his/her success in piano lessons will require support from the parents. The teacher will provide information, technique and encouragement. However, remember that the teacher only sees the student for 30 to 60 minutes per week, while the parents spend most of the non-school hours with him. If the parents don't see to it that their children practice and attend lessons regularly, the teacher's effort will likely be for naught, no matter what her skills as a teacher. Even more helpful to lesson success is regular interest and encouragement of their children from parents. For more specific tips about how you can help your child succeed in lessons, see our Being a Supportive Parent of a Piano Student section of our Tips for Parents and Students pages.

"The teacher must be failing if the child isn't making progress at an acceptable rate."

In rare cases, it may be the teacher's "fault" if your child isn't progressing. Before you conclude that you need to change teachers though, take a look at whether you and your child have been serious about lessons. Are you practicing correctly and frequently enough? Are you attending all scheduled lessons? Are you rewarding accomplishment at the piano with as much praise as you would accomplishment on the athletic field? Is learning piano a priority or just another part of a busy day?

Taking Lessons

"Playing piano is all about "talent"; you have it or you don't."

"Talent" at the piano is real, but, as in so many other areas of human endeavor, greatly overrated. If you are committed to learning piano and are willing to do the regular (i.e. daily) practice that building skill requires, you will learn to play to a considerable degree, irrespective of the level of your "native" talent. As with so many other skills, playing the piano requires hard work and inspiration in about a ten to one (or higher) ratio, respectively.

"My kid should have excellent piano skills in 6 months of lessons."

Sometimes, parents come into a piano studio having heard the many "play in a day" claims out there. Some can't understand why their child isn't ready for a concert tour after 6 months of lessons. Unfortunately, you can't really learn to play piano using any "play in a day" approach. Often, this approach does more harm than good. You might be able to master a single tune to a small degree, but you won't have learned much to carry over to the next one.

"It's my second lesson. I want to play the Maple Leaf Rag"

Many people take lessons because they would like to be able to play some particular work or genre of music. It's not surprising that they might want to play works that are well beyond their level of training and capability. Keep in mind the fact that you are taking lessons from a teacher because he or she knows more about piano than you do. The teacher probably knows what's best for your training, especially in the first year. It's perfectly fine to tell your teacher that you have an interest in some work or works and ask if they could be worked into your lesson program, as feasible. In the end, though, you're probably best served by following the teacher's program of training and repertoire.

"I couldn't come to the lesson (or practice the piano), because I had a (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, track, hockey, lacrosse, etc.) (practice, game)"

Piano teachers hear these statements so often that it's practically impossible to list all the variations. In the end, they all come down to students and parents placing a higher priority on these alternative activities than on piano. All of us must make decisions everyday about how we will use our time. However, we can hardly hold a school teacher responsible for our failure to learn (and the resulting F grade) if we don't attend class regularly or do any of the homework. The same is true for piano. The difference is that you're wasting your own money, not just that of the taxpayers, if you take that view with regard to piano lessons.

"My child has a digital keyboard, so he doesn't need an acoustic piano."

Digital keyboards, especially top-of-the-line ones, have become remarkably good at reproducing much of the sound and some of the feel of the acoustic piano. Although individual teachers have their own, often strong, feelings on this subject, it's fair to say that most feel that a good digital keyboard is fine to start lessons on. Indeed, digital keyboards now outsell acoustic pianos by a substantial margin worldwide and especially in the U.S. That said, no knowledgeable pianist would argue that a digital keyboard is the best way of learning to play the acoustic piano. Probably no later than the end of the first year of lessons, you should plan on getting an acoustic piano. As I have discussed numerous times all over The Piano Education Page, the digital keyboard is best seen as a separate instrument with different capabilities, which, by good fortune, can serve as a stand-in for a short period of time for an acoustic piano. Students should learn how to play both instruments for their own separate qualities and attributes.

Practicing

"An hour of practice a day" is just a suggestion."

You can either "practice" or you can practice. Too many people think that, if an hour of practice is required, that a half hour is almost as good and that half hour can be spent watching TV while "practicing." Real practice requires both mental and physical devotion, in which you don't simply repeat mistakes, but correct them before proceeding on. One expert pianist I know says that you should practice a problem area until you can do right ten times for every time you do it wrong. It's not the amount of time you spend, but how well you use the time that counts. If you practice several hours a day and simply repeat the same mistakes each time through, you have not practiced effectively. For some good tips about how to practice effectively, see our article, Suggested Practice Techniques. In passing, allow me to note that failure of the student to practice properly and adequately is the single biggest item that piano teachers note as contributing to the failure of lessons.
 

"I'll wait to practice until just before the next lesson."

Piano teachers hear this one often. Imagine what a sports coach would say if his teams took this view. Playing piano is a skill and, as such, must be constantly refined and developed. You simply can't learn by only practicing just before the lesson.


The Teacher

"Since lessons are paid for, the teacher should give any amount of unpaid time for free."

Although they wouldn't work for free themselves, many parents, in particular, think that extra time spent preparing a child for a contest or concert should be given free by the teacher. The average piano teacher probably has in excess of thirty students and each one deserves the best the teacher can give. If you need or want extra time from your teacher, expect to pay for the time.

"The teacher has plenty of free time to give me or my child."

Some people feel it's okay not to show up for a lesson and not to give notice, but expect immediate scheduling of a free makeup lesson. Others think that they can use their piano teacher as an unpaid baby sitter by leaving their child unsupervised at the piano studio for an hour or two after the scheduled end of the lesson. People should remember that the teacher teaches more students than just their children. If he/she has to watch over students left past lesson times or has to wait for a student who never arrives, he can't give full attention to other students. In effect, those who leave their children at the studio past the scheduled end of the lesson are stealing the teacher's time and attention from the next student.

"My piano teacher must be getting rich, because the hourly lesson rate is higher than my hourly rate."

Most people don't consider that they get benefits (health insurance, paid vacation, retirement plan, etc.) for "free" as a part of their compensation package, while most piano teachers must pay for those same benefits out of their hourly fee. Since typical company benefits run anywhere from half the nominal salary to equal the salary (or more), the real ("fully-loaded") compensation is much higher than the amount people think of as salary. Considered in that light, most teacher's fees are quite low, especially when you consider that the majority of teachers have degrees and/or other advanced training.
 

It's Up to You!

I hope that understanding some of the common misconceptions about piano and lessons will help parents and students make the most of their lesson experience, without being burdened by misconceptions and misapprehensions which hold back their progress as pianists. This listing is not all-inclusive. I suggest to take a look at our Learning to Play page to learn more about starting and taking lessons. You or your child can be a pianist, if you're willing to devote time and work to it.

 
 
 
 
Page created: 5/18/07
Last updated: 01/07/14
 
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 9, No. 2, http://pianoeducation.org
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