With these striking words, the contemporary Daoist author Deng Ming-Dao invites us to consider how our personal qualities can help us be the best people, and by extension, the best teachers that we can be:
“Those who follow Dao believe in using sixteen attributes on behalf of others: mercy, gentleness, patience, non attachment, control, skill, joy, spiritual love, humility, reflection, restfulness, seriousness, effort, controlled emotion, magnanimity, and concentration. Whenever you need to help another, draw on these qualities.”
Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations, 188 (Harper Collins)
So let’s be clear from the start: what is on offer here is the secret of how to be successful in helping others, in any context. A lot of us will devote much of a lifetime to discovering the answers which are presented right here. But how about applying this directly to our work as piano teachers?
In this post I am going to look at each of these attributes in turn, briefly exploring the powerful links that exist between a teacher’s character and the quality and effectiveness of their teaching…
One of the most distressing stereotypes of the bad piano teacher is the old-fashioned image of the unforgiving harridan wielding a ruler, rapping a child’s hand in response to wrong notes.
Thankfully these days we have a far more forgiving and compassionate approach! And yet the underlying attitude of judging a pupil’s ability and commitment can, if we do not guard our hearts, words and actions, be the same.
Mercy perhaps most especially comes into play when we respond to a student’s apparent lack of practice, a subject I have considered in more detail here:
Correction is important; how else can any oil us deal with mistakes and improve our playing? But the good teacher will exercise great care and above all gentleness when correcting a student’s playing.
It’s important to recognise the difference between constructive feedback on the one hand, and negative criticism on the other. The former helps the student to improve; the latter leaves the student feeling deflated and discouraged. And we have to gauge the impact of our words in the lesson, in the moment.
There are many approaches we can use to ensure correction if always given with gentleness, and I have written more about the subject here:
However gentle and constructive our criticism, students still need time to grow and develop. When we agree to work with a student we have to accept that whatever we personally gain, the lessons fundamentally belong to their journey.
There is sometimes an excessive focus on external outcomes at the expense of inner development. Too often, teachers structure their entire curriculum around grade exams and competition requirements, rather than paying attention to the cultivation of creativity and the foundations of a lifelong enjoyment and engagement with music.
As soon as we allow ourselves to be driven by such external factors, the higher value of patience will be in jeopardy. Patience simply doesn’t care about results.
And this leads us rather neatly to the next attribute on Deng’s list…
To what extent does our validation as teachers come from our students’ exam results or concert performances?
“Non-Attachment” for the piano teacher means giving our best from a place of personal security, without trying to build our reputation based on student successes and external “results” alone.
This is challenging for many of us, because parents and prospective students may well be attracted to the teacher whose students seem to achieve a string of distinctions and festival “wins”.
Non-Attachment is only possible if we relinquish our professional hubris, and focus on cultivating our own and our students’ love for music itself.
A good teacher will be in control: not of the student, but of the lesson. But this doesn’t mean that the activities need to be mapped out in advance, or that the teacher should impose his or her will.
The best planning for any lesson is deep subject knowledge and a sensitive, responsive approach. Control is not a matter of dominance; it is a case of knowing how to swim with the current and not sink.
If we can learn to do this we will never “lose control”, and our students will feel secure learning with us.
There’s no such thing as a “good teacher” who lacks skill. It is quite obvious that those who lack the playing skills to demonstrate and inspire their students, the aural skills to assess their accuracy and musical progress, or a deep well of knowledge, understanding and experience to draw from will be a severely limited teacher.
We teachers owe it to ourselves as much as to our students to be the best musicians we can be. Let’s all make a fresh and ongoing commitment to developing our skills and musical understanding. The piano community is vast and diverse; there is no shortage of others to learn from and with.
We must also bear in mind, however, that there are many great artists who have made poor teachers because they lacked some of the other 15 attributes on Deng’s list. Skill is a hugely important attribute for any teacher, but there is much more…
Does good music (and good piano playing) make you smile?
After many years of reflection on my own teaching, I have noticed time and again that the best lessons were those in which my own enthusiasm was so infectious that the student left with a spring in their step.
But I have to be honest: there are days when I am less enthusiastic. And those days tend to pass slowly, for my students as well as for me! Beginning any lesson with a cheery smile can set the tone of the music-making which follows.
We are on our own piano journey, and there are times when our students can make huge progress simply carried in our slipstream.
8. Spiritual Love
If we don’t care about out students, it’s unlikely that we will teach them well.
Sure, with good marketing and adeptly targeted promotion we might still succeed in building a “successful” practice. Facebook groups tend to be full of shiny teachers who have succeeded in these arts. But if we don’t care about our students as people, or the musical and life journeys they are on, the seeds we plant are unlikely to thrive.
Looking back at my student years, I have no doubt which teachers cared about me, and which didn’t.
Without humility there’s a good chance that we will humiliate our students.
To practice humility, we need to:
- avoid showing others up
- avoid comparisons, competition and bragging
- focus on our students, not ourselves
- make sure we never try to “force” anything
I have written about this in much more detail here:
In his book Memoirs of an Accompanist, Helmut Deutsch confides,
“I give masterclasses at various universities, conservatoires, opera studios and other institutions, and I always feel that I learn just as much as the students. Sometimes even more.”
To grow in our ability and confidence as teachers, we need to evaluate and reflect on lessons. If we don’t recognise and learn from our mistakes, how can we develop?
If you’re not sure how to start, try keeping a journal, looking back on the day’s lessons, noting the successes and frustrations. Reflecting on my own teaching, my successes and failures alike, has probably been the single biggest engine of progress in my own work.
It’s easy to see that when a person has a relaxed persona, those around them settle into a happier frame of mind too. Conversely, when a person has a lot of nervous energy, this too can be infectious.
Anxiety in students is a huge issue. Every piano teacher will surely have heard the immortal words:
“I played this fine at home!”
A teacher with a “restful”, relaxed manner can help to put learners more at ease, even though this won’t alone be a comprehensive “fix” to the problem of lesson anxiety.
Being relaxed is not, however, the same as being casual.
Playing the piano well is ultimately a serious business, and it’s good to approach lessons with an appropriate sense of respect for the instrument and its wonderful, broad and extensive repertoire.
It’s possible to combine having a lightness of touch and sense of fun with an attitude of seriousness towards the art of piano playing. However much we may gently laugh at ourselves, the music itself commands deference. If we teachers do not take music seriously, neither will our students.
Just as the good performer spends many hours in the practice room, so too the good teacher will have honed their craft, both as a musician and as a communicator. But our effort as teachers is not simply in our many years of preparation, but in our application during the lesson, in the moment.
Every student is different, and some are even difficult. It isn’t always obvious what is holding back progress or understanding, and we must often approach each problem from a variety of angles before arriving at the best solution for each player.
However proficient or experienced we are, good teaching is never a matter of going through the motions or following a fixed plan.
14. Controlled Emotion
I had a few teachers as a child, and have met a few as an adult, whose mood swings are pretty unpredictable. I’m sure you know the type!
The temperamental teacher might have many strengths, but students will rarely be at their ease, and there’s no doubt that this can impede learning.
Qigong practice, meditation, diet, herbs, acupuncture and reflection can all help to bring our emotions into a better equilibrium.
Generosity comes more easily to some than others. It is ultimately an attitude, a frame of mind, which might manifest in a willingness to “go the extra mile” for our students.
This isn’t to say that piano teachers shouldn’t have boundaries and apply the letter of the law if we suspect students or parents are taking advantage of our good nature.
But these same policies can define our magnanimity; whenever we waive a rule or give the benefit of the doubt, we demonstrate our willingness to do all we can to support students. And most, happily, will notice this!
Do you ever find your mind wandering whilst giving a piano lesson? When we are new to the profession, teaching a student we don’t know well or repertoire we are not familiar with, then of course our 100% attention is required. When we are listening to the fourth I Giorni of the week, perhaps less so!
Of course we agree that our students expect and deserve our full attention, regardless of our gift for mental multitasking.
In Daoist practice we often refer to the “monkey mind” to reference our brain’s mysterious and mischievous ability to wander when we are trying to focus. The “monkey mind” needs taming, and people have sought ways to do this throughout human history.
A simple practice that can help is called mindfulness, which can be learnt from the prethora of books and apps available for beginners. A little mindfulness practice can go a long way in terms of helping us control our wandering thoughts and concentrate on the present moment.
Am I rubbish…?
We are all on a journey. The point of Deng’s list is that it is aspirational.
These are the ideals of the greatest sages; we are but lowly piano teachers! So how about we simply pick two or three areas from the list and work at change? We are all capable of self-improvement.
It’s never been more important for those of us who care about music education to consider the character qualities that underpin good teaching, rather than simply learning how to check boxes on forms, or follow the latest method.
If we want to improve in just one area of the 16 attributes covered in Deng’s list, what sacrifices will be required? He tells us,
“Notice that self-sacrifice is not included in this list. You do not need to destroy yourself to help another. Your overall obligation is to complete your own journey along your personal Tao.
As long as you can offer solace to others on your same path, you have done the best that you can.”
So perhaps there’s a 17th attribute, which quite simply underpins and overrides all the others: empathy.
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