The Playful Piano Teacher

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

Are you a piano teacher? If so, let me ask you a question:

Do you enjoy your work? I mean – really enjoy it, all the time?

I’m fairly sure that most of us, if we are honest, will recognise that while we love our work in general, there are times where fatigue, impatience, distraction and even boredom can set in, even very fleetingly. And while we may feel a little guilty or inadequate in those moments, the reality is that in any job (however wildly fulfilling) we all experience “off days” and times when our heart isn’t quite so far into it as usual.

To counter the negative feelings that this can produce, I invite you to consider this wonderful quote from Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim:

“Those who work in a playful, relaxed manner
tend to work efficiently and creatively;
Those who work non-stop, driven only by stress,
work without joy.”

Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down (2012)

In this post I am going to consider what it might mean to “work in a playful manner”, and how this could make all the difference for our students.

According to Haemin Sunim

From the quote above, we might deduce some initial characteristics of The Playful Piano Teacher:

  • ‘Playful’ work goes hand-in-hand with a relaxed manner;
  • ‘Playful’ work helps us to be efficient, dealing with problems quickly rather than labouring ineffectively or getting hung up on one thing;
  • ‘Playful’ work leads to creativity, which of course many of us recognise as one of our highest goals;
  • ‘Playful’ work contrasts “non-stop work”; it includes sufficient breaks to ensure that the teacher stays fresh in mind, body and spirit;
  • The playful teacher is thus not driven by stress.

Each of these points surely deserves a full blog post to itself, and I encourage teachers to take plenty of time to reflect on each of the five carefully. In doing so, we might want to consider how we would answer the following questions about our approach to teaching:

  • Is my manner relaxed, and if not, what can I do about that?
  • Are there times in lessons where I spend too long going over the same small section of the music, or the same teaching point, losing sight of play? How can I address the pace of lessons to prevent this?
  • What can I do to avoid routines becoming stale? How can I inject fresh ideas into lessons? How can an attitude of play help me to become a more creative teacher?
  • Do I take enough breaks? Can I schedule a gap between each lesson, or more regular breaks through the teaching day? Do I have at least one day a week where I don’t spend any time on my piano teaching or admin? When did I last take a proper holiday?
  • Do I take my teaching work so seriously that it is making me stressed?

“Now just you hang on a minute,” – you might say...
“Teaching piano is a serious business, not just a bit of fun!”

So let’s consider the serious business of play in more depth …

The Importance of Play

The National Institute for Play is an American organisation committed to researching and promoting the scientific, social and educational benefits of having a jolly good time.

According to their website:

“Play is the gateway to vitality. By its nature it is uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. It generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community.”

This is a great list!

As piano teachers, how often do we wonder how we can best help our students develop perseverance rather than giving up? Or how we can enable them to develop mastery?

The answer to these fundamental (yet perplexing) questions is simple, according to the National Institute of Play. The answer is PLAY.

The organisation’s founder, Dr. Stuart Brown, is author of the best-seller
Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2009), in which he identifies the key ingredients of transformative play. Here’s some highlights, together with my comments on how these various elements can inform The Playful Piano Teacher.

1: Play is apparently purposeless

It is done for its own sake, not to achieve a goal.

For the teacher and/or parent who feels that piano lessons should “produce results” in the form of examination certificates, competition prizes and performing successes, this idea might come as a bit of a shock to the system.

But those who have experienced the transformative power of Music will have no difficulty maintaining a core philosophy that it is to be loved, learnt and enjoyed purely for its own wonders and fun.

2: Play is voluntary

Play is neither a requirement nor an obligation.

I always ask prospective students (and their parents) why they want to learn to play the piano. Adult students almost always have a clear sense of purpose and commitment, but with children this isn’t guaranteed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they should’t learn, or that they are being coerced by ambitious parents.

Nor can we assume that younger players will practice of their own accord, without the gentle nudges and reminders of their parents. Not all children who wish to play the piano have fully formed time-management skills or self-discipline!

What we must hope for, however, is a level of engagement in lessons, and a responsiveness to music itself which confirm that the student has a volitional commitment to learning the piano, however embryonic.

3: Play is outside of time

When we are fully engaged in play, we can easily lose our sense of the passage of time.

Many readers will readily identify with this. I certainly find that when I get absorbed in practice, composing, or playing my favourite music, time flies by unnoticed. But how about in piano lessons?

  • Do our students often seem surprised to discover that the lesson is over already?
  • Are we ever startled when we look at the clock and realise there is no time left for other lesson activities that we had hoped to squeeze in?

Time indeed goes quickly when we are enjoying ourselves!

4: Play is improvisational

This is perhaps the most important point of them all: Play is spontaneous, it is purely “in the moment”, and doesn’t lock into a rigid way of doing things.

Can you remember playing as a child? How wonderful – those moments where we discover something unexpected while digging in the back yard, playing in the park, or exploring on the beach. Everything else flies out of the window as we pursue our newly discovered fascination.

If we can capture something of this in piano lessons, and have the courage to pursue learning on these terms rather than sticking to the preordained script, lessons can take on a fresh relevance and power.

None of this is to imply that structure, planning or established routines are necessarily or entirely bad. Planning doesn’t inevitably preclude play. It’s just that rigid adherence to a preconceived journey can prohibit creative exploration and the responsive approach that is needed in order to pause and play on the verge.

The best planning that any teacher can have is a deep, enthusiastic and secure subject knowledge. And when this is combined with a responsive approach, educational understanding and a playful attitude, anything becomes possible!

To develop an understanding of how planning and play work effectively together, check out my good friend Paul Harris’s fabulous guest post, A Voyage of Discovery.

And there’s more to play…

Dr Stuart Brown adds much more to his definition of the ingredients of play, and I recommend you read his book. It may well lead to an entire rethink of how you teach the piano.

Another important element, he suggests, is that play takes us outside of ourselves. Put simply, when fully engaged in play, we become less self-conscious. It seems to me that this could prove to be a key tool for some in overcoming performance anxiety.

He also suggests that play is mildly addictive. Play makes you want to do more of it. And for those of us who have had the privilege of training really good musicians, there’s no doubt that they reach a point (often very early on) where they are overtaken by the “bug” of music, and can’t resist the lure of simply playing, discovering and enjoying music.

Notice, importantly, that none of this has anything to do with teachers trivialising educational or musical content. We should never diminish the importance of teaching good technique, reading or music theory. The Playful Piano Teacher simply approaches all these aspects of a lesson with a positive attitude that embraces enquiry, curiosity, and focused fun.

To conclude…

At the start of this blog post I asked whether, as a teacher, you enjoy your work. I set up an expectation that the focus would be on whether you enjoy teaching.

But as the article progressed we steadily shifted focus to whether students are enjoying lessons and learning effectively. The reason for this is simple: the two things go together. Play is the fertile soil in which musical learning will grow.

I worked out fairly early in my teaching career that if I hadn’t enjoyed a lesson, chances were that the student hadn’t either.

The Playful Piano Teacher is likely to see happy, engaged students who make great progress, and who develop a lifelong love of music. But as in any other area of life, it is possible for piano teachers to simply try too hard, ironically becoming far less effective in the process.

And as teachers, “working in a playful, relaxed manner” not only creates the fruitful environment in which our pupils will succeed – but also the one in which our own careers, personal growth and lives can prosper.

I’m going to leave the final words, once again, to Haemin Sunim:

“To keep doing your work for a long time,
do not treat it just as work.
View it as a source of enjoyment and growth.
The road to happiness lies not just in finding a good job,
but also in learning to enjoy what you are asked to do.”

Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down (2012)

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.