Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning
Written by ANDREW EALES
I recently asked the members of an online piano teaching forum the following question:
“I want to learn to play piano for fun…”
What do you think when pupils/parents say this to you?
Perhaps it’s no surprise that answers ranged from “Get a trampoline!” at one end of the spectrum to “Great, that’s the best reason!” at the other. And the constructive debate which followed proved illuminating.
With this in mind, I would like to share a few of my own views and hope this will encourage further thought and ongoing discussion within the teaching and piano community.
What do teachers hear?
Playing “for fun” is a phrase which seems to carry different connotations for different teachers.
Given the pressure that families are under in today’s society, it’s hardly surprising that parents (and adult students) often hope learning an instrument can be a contrast and antidote to other, more obviously stressful activities.
Here in the UK, suggesting that a child learn “for fun” can simply be a parent’s code word for requesting that the teacher doesn’t push graded exams.
For some teachers however, the phrase “learning for fun” more often signals that the student isn’t planning to make much effort, the parents aren’t going to be encouraging their child to practice at home, and even that the teacher’s views aren’t going to be taken very seriously .
With such a range of different implied messages, it is perhaps no wonder that the phrase “for fun” has come to be one that is easily misunderstood, and can alarm teachers unnecessarily. If we simply swap the word Fun for Personal Pleasure, Enrichment or even Joy, it could straight away solve a lot of miscommunication and confusion on both sides.
What fascinates me is that for so many teachers the hackles are already raised before that simple change of wording can happen.
What do you mean, “fun”?
Here (in no particular order) are some of the hidden meanings that might be the underlying reasons for a student or parent asking if they can learn to play the piano “for fun”:
- They don’t want to become a professional pianist
- They don’t want to take grade exams
- They don’t want to be entered for competitions
- They don’t want to perform in public
- They don’t want to be forced to learn pieces that they don’t like
- They don’t want to follow a one-size-fits-all curriculum
- They don’t want to prioritise piano over their other interests, but hope it will fit in nicely alongside them
- They don’t want to be made to sing against their will
- They don’t want written homework or unnecessary academic music theory
- They don’t want the teacher to put them under pressure to progress quickly, but would rather learn at their own pace
- They don’t want the teacher to be disapproving of their efforts
- They don’t want to be compared negatively to the teacher’s other students
- They don’t want piano playing to become a stressful, disruptive or divisive factor within their family life
All of these seem to be fairly reasonable requests to me.
However, the priorities revealed in this list may well conflict with the teacher’s own experience of learning, or indeed with the educational agenda instilled during their training. And this could lead to a sense of disconnect between the teacher and prospective student.
Stephen (not his real name) came to me as a 15-year-old who had previously been “sacked” by three other local piano teachers. His sister was making excellent progress with me, so his mother asked me to see if I could “get anywhere” with him.
I agreed to meet with Stephen, but only take him on as a student if he would learn and play purely for fun. It seemed fairly obvious to me that this was the key to engaging his interest and succeeding where the previous teachers had, essentially, failed (and, sadly, projected their own failure onto him).
Stephen explained in the first session that he didn’t like piano music other than Scott Joplin. I agreed that as far as I was concerned we could limit his repertoire to Joplin, but in return asked him to learn some scales and arpeggios as a way to improve his technique and help him play Joplin better, which he agreed to do.
Scott Joplin is a composer whose music I enjoy in moderation. The first six months with Stephen were probably more enjoyable for him than they were for me. And I can’t deny that it was a pleasant surprise when he arrived one week happily carrying a copy of Chopin’s Nocturnes, asking to play Op.9/2, which he had heard online and liked.
Over the following months I suggested he listen to Debussy, Beethoven, Bach. Gradually his interest and enthusiasm grew, and he wanted to try playing some of their pieces “for fun” too.
Before leaving to go to University, Stephen decided to take ABRSM Grade 8 piano, and he passed with a merit. His success was neither because I pushed him to progress, nor because his mother wanted him to “take the grades”. It was simply because he decided it would be fun to have a go.
The “Proper” Teacher
This brings me to some interesting quotes from the prominent flautist, teacher and writer Trevor Wye. His book Proper Flute Playing covers a wide variety of topics, in many cases with authority, but I have to confess that his chapter about “The Proper Teacher” contains a number of ideas that cause me more than a little disquiet.
Wye contrasts the roles of teacher and what he calls “therapist”, explaining:
“As many experienced teachers will appreciate, one tends to draw a notional line, below which the teacher may suggest to his pupil that he gives up or transfers to another instrument. Some teachers on the other hand, will continue to teach a pupil no matter how ill-fitted for that instrument they are, provided that the pupil WANTS to continue. Therein lies the problem.”
Trevor Wye, Proper Flute Playing (Novello, 1988) p.43
The idea that it’s a “problem” to teach a pupil who “wants” to play is exceedingly odd. The implication that learning “for fun” requires a therapist rather than a teacher is still more bizarre, even offensive.
Wye unapologetically expands on his theme, his implications crystal clear:
“The best teachers generally have the best pupils. How does a teacher acquire the best pupils?
A teacher whose timetable is filled with a sizeable proportion of pupils who perhaps should have given up, or transferred to another instrument, is not allowing room for a higher proportion of more talented players…
If the best teachers generally have the best pupils, more pupils are attracted to them and parents are more anxious that Mary studies with Mr X. The teacher’s fees can reflect his popularity and his worth.”
Trevor Wye, Proper Flute Playing (Novello, 1988) p.44
Is the “best teacher” really the one who contrives circumstances to acquire the “best pupils”, rather than the one who actually does the best job of teaching their existing students? I really don’t think so. I suspect that many would find Wye’s suggestion pretty odious, and want to distance themselves far away from his elitist and exclusionary sentiments.
But there’s no denying that some teachers have a competitive approach to career progression. I have certainly come across teachers who refuse students who want to play “for fun”, preferring to focus on growing a teaching studio that boasts excellent exam results and a list of distinguished alumni.
Whether resorting to Wye’s tactics, or adopting the more subtle conceit of auditioning and “trying out” students before agreeing to take them on, such teachers seem to be primarily interested in their own prestige.
Underpinning all this lurks the strange assumption that those who want to learn “for fun” will inevitably fail to develop into good players. But a refusal to teach those whose ambitions are yet to be fully formed seems to me out of step with contemporary educational values, and with our basic responsibility to inspire a love of music.
Remember, Stephen had been “sacked” by three previous local teachers. But laying aside hubris and committing to musical learning being fun, rather than a constant slog of hard work and standardised tests, he thrived at the piano and developed into a confident player with a lasting enthusiasm.
These are questions that we teachers all do well to reflect on:
- What are my professional goals, and to what extent do they skew my attitude towards students?
- Which is more important: the well-being and personal development of my students, or my own reputation?
Teaching “for fun”
As teachers we inevitably associate learning with teaching. And most of us don’t teach purely “for fun”!
This is a point that Dan Severino unpacks in his very thoughtful blog post Piano Lessons are Fun? Think Again! Dan’s core point (which I basically agree with) is that when we are teaching the piano our top priority should be education, not having fun.
But learning and fun can surely go hand in hand. This is scientifically understood, well documented, and my point of departure with Severino. The pupil’s focus can be on the “fun” of learning at the same time as the teacher is entirely committed to educating them. I think that this is simply a matter of viewing the lesson from two perspectives, rather than just one’s own.
Furthermore fun need not mean “dumbing down” or “lowering standards” in any way. It is surely about enjoying learning, not avoiding it.
Increasing challenge can add to the fun, as any experienced teacher will confirm. And the exact same principle applies to sports, childrens’ games, and computer games. Once “hooked in”, we all want to “Level Up”. We discover the flow state where learning is at its most natural and effective.
Having Fun vs. Making Progress
“But hang on!”, you may still be thinking , “fun at the piano is only possible if effort is made and sufficient progress allows the player access to the music they most love.”
It’s a compelling point. But I have also observed that some pupils who make little progress seem to gain great enjoyment from learning piano anyway, regardless of their relative lack of achievement. They are not comparing themselves with others, and they are perfectly happy that concert bookings haven’t started flooding in.
And for those students, rate of progress is perhaps less important. But this idea that we can enjoy something we aren’t very good at challenges some of the most basic educational assumptions that teachers make.
For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed paddling and swimming in the sea. It’s a simple pleasure that has no ultimate agenda. And I have certainly never considered swimming the Channel.
I also remember how much, as a young boy, I enjoyed digging in the mud in the garden, purely for the fun of exploring and getting dirty. This wasn’t gardening, and I had no expectation that anything would grow on account of my “efforts”. I was merely playing.
My wife Louise recalls a similar experience of enjoying digging in the dirt. In her case though, fun led to a curiosity about gardening that developed into a lifelong enthusiasm, and over the years she has, through hard work, become a knowledgeable and skilled gardener. Our garden, under her care, is a magical haven.
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