I am sure that most piano teachers will be alert to the fact that some pupils coming to lessons are anxious. This post will look at some reasons for that, and offer some suggestions that might help normalise lessons.
The article is written for any player who has ever said – and any teacher who has ever heard – the words:
“It was perfect when I practised it at home this morning…”
Clearly, in order for student and teacher to make the most of any piano lesson we all want to move beyond this point!
Identifying the Problem
There are a number of reasons that students may feel anxiety about a piano lesson, many of which are even more pertinent with an adult student:
- The piano at the lesson is different to the one practised on. It will feel different, sound different, and respond differently. This can take quite an adjustment.
- They are playing for somebody who is a far more advanced musician, and can feel daunted that all their imperfections will be so obviously on display.
- They may be disappointed that they haven’t been able to practise more since the previous lesson, even thought that might be for a variety of (usually very good) reasons.
- They are outside their comfort zone. For the adult student who typically functions in a role of authority, working with a teacher can be particularly odd – and the teacher can also find this situation takes an adjustment.
- They may fear harsh criticism, or be comparing themselves negatively with other students. Adults often tell me they “realise that I teach young children who are better than them…”
- They may simply not be enjoying the piece they are working on.
However, I would suggest that the single most common reason pupils can be anxious attending a lessons is that they CARE about doing well.
Learning the piano is an important part of their life – even their identity. And so they simply want to show the teacher the progress they have made, and are worried that they might not do so.
A Ternary Tale
Teaching a Minuet to an adult student earlier in the week, I noticed an interesting process at work…
Like most classical-period Minuets, this was a Ternary piece, with an A – B – A structure of Minuet – Trio – Minuet da capo.
The student started by playing through the Minuet with a fair grasp of the notes, timing and essence of the piece. But the Trio was less successful, and the notes were not yet securely learnt. As she the repeated the Minuet, she could no longer play it, and before the halfway point she completely ground to a halt.
How fascinating! What does this little anecdote tell us about the relationship between ability and confidence?
There was absolutely no doubt that she had the ability to play the Minuet. She had done so already, and I had listened. And most important of all – she know that I had listened to her playing it nicely just a couple of minutes earlier.
So why did it fall apart? The answer is of course the loss of confidence that she experienced after going wrong in the Trio section. And that confidence loss proved to be a stronger force than her ability.
Students – have you experienced something like this? How do you think you can be more confident in moving on after making a mistake?
Teachers – what would you say to this student? If you had not already heard the Minuet played well, how would you assess whether the pupil might in any case be able to play it?
Together – how do we break through the wall of anxiety and build more confidence?
Shifting to Fifth Gear
With my adult students I sometimes use the metaphor of changing gear in a car…
Suppose we are practising privately at home. We may be coasting in fourth gear, absorbed in the music, enjoying our playing, and making solid progress.
And then we arrive at the lesson. And it really matters to us to show the teacher the progress we have made. And in our determination, we shift up to fifth gear…
We’ve seen a list of things which are already different in the lesson from when we are practising at home. And now we are adding another thing to that list – our focus has shifted gear. We are not in the same head-space. Our senses and mental state are behaving differently to how they were when we practised.
It is little wonder when our playing starts to go wrong, because we have set ourselves up to fail. And once the first mistake appears – perhaps in our own Trio section – the Minuet repeat disappears over a horizon of failure.
How then can teachers help their anxious students find their way back to fourth gear and overcome the many obstacles associated with piano lessons?
The following comments are particularly aimed at teachers, although players may find them helpful to bear in mind too.
1: Don’t be surprised or put off by anxiety in lessons.
If we want to minimise the impact of anxiety in a lesson, it’s perhaps best not to draw too much attention to it. Analysis and in-depth motivational talks might help occasionally but mustn’t become a repeating feature of lessons. Accept that anxiety is very normal, and quickly move to practical solutions such as the ones listed below.
2: Allow private time for warming up
Given the many variables of playing in a teacher’s studio it can be very helpful to allow a pupil a few moments to privately warm up and try out their playing before the teacher starts to “listen” and assess progress.
In my own studio, I teach 45 minute lessons with a 15 minute gap between each, so that my pupils have an opportunity to prepare themselves before the lesson proper begins. It also gives me time to refresh between each student, so everyone is a winner!
3: Start lessons with warm ups (perhaps including Piano Qigong) and finger exercises such as scales, arpeggios, and other studies.
Stretching and breathing are not only a good ice-breaker, they reduce anxiety and help bring the player to a more controlled awareness of their movement once at the piano.
Scales and technical exercises at the piano rely more on muscle memory than attentive musical engagement, and this allows some time for the student to adjust their focus before launching into more musically demanding territory. They are also perfect for adjusting to a different instrument, its touch and its dynamic and tonal range.
4: Revise well-known and loved previous repertoire.
Remember – not every activity in a lesson needs to be driven by progress. I like students to keep a list of a few pieces they are ready to play, and bring something they are confident performing towards the start of a lesson.
Some may find, contrary to the goal, that the raised expectations (self-imposed or otherwise) of “performing” in this way can heighten their anxiety. Communication and feedback is essential. But others will find that playing their favourite piece allows them time for their focus to settle and adjust – and of course also helps raise the musical level and enjoyment of the lesson.
5: Do you best to minimise criticism and keep it constructive.
A good musician will always have the ability to quickly spot flaws and suggest improvements. But to be a good teacher we must also find elements of any performance to praise before launching into a deeper critique.
And make sure criticism is specific and manageable; if it is too general then it will be difficult to use as a springboard for progress, and can leave any student feeling deflated – and more anxious about returning for the next lesson.
6: Encourage home recording
I often say to students (especially adults):
“When you are able play this perfectly at home, grab your phone and record it so that I can listen through it with you next time you come. It will be really helpful, too, to hear how you play it on your own instrument, and in your own space.”
I find that hearing recordings of pupils playing at home can completely change my perception of their ability and progress.
And in some cases, those pupils have overcome all anxiety about coming to lessons. The time-bomb of dread that I will not think highly of them has been defused, and they can enjoy working in the lessons without experiencing their previous anxiety ever again.
They know that I have heard them at their best, meaning that both my praise and correction now has a context in which it carries far more weight.
7: Skype/Remote Lessons
In a similar way, offering a one-off lesson via Skype/etc can be a very effective way to defuse Lesson Anxiety. With the pupil relaxed and fully in control in their home environment, the chemistry of the lesson is quite different, and it is more easy for them to find their “fourth gear” and have a more enjoyable session.
Of course, players do need to learn how to adapt to different instruments and environments, and can miss out on this if their lessons never bring them away from their own piano. By offering a one-off video-conference lesson, we are helping the student overcome their anxiety, relate differently to the teacher, and build towards a place where they can focus well and enjoy lessons in the professional studio environment.
Of course there are many other contexts where learning via Skype can be a real boon, and experienced teacher Mark Polishook offers some great practical advice and inspiration in this post.
By following a few simple strategies teachers can help to minimise the anxiety of students coming for lessons. That anxiety might not fully dissolve, and it is for the student to find ways of dealing with any subsidiary issues.
Working together cooperatively, teacher and student can normalise the lesson, so that it becomes the enjoyable and constructive experience that all hope for.