Before You Pay for Piano Lessons: Little Johnny’s Bill of Rights

apprenticeBefore You Pay for Piano Lessons: Little Johnny’s Bill of Rights

Problems With the Genius and Apprenticeship Model in the Teacher-Centered Piano Pedagogy Traditions of a Previous Era

by: Henny Kupferstein

In music education, a teacher-centered approach regards the teacher as the lone genius—the iconic model of creativity. Under this method, students are expected to tremble with humility for the opportunity to be apprenticed under these circumstances and be chiseled into a work of art. The teacher’s annual recital is an advertisement for her studio and the student’s production only tells how talented the teacher is. Children who commit to a career in performing arts should know that a teacher-centered approach is grooming them to play as many songs as they can, with as much technical precision as possible, often at the expense of note-reading skills.

I firmly believe that all piano students deserve to know that their piano teacher has an agenda. Their agenda is driven by the tradition, and the tradition is in direct conflict with the student’s developmental goals. As parents, we want Johnny to take piano lessons because of everything we have heard about the potential of improved math scores. When this doesn’t happen after every annual recital, we struggle to grasp why the bridge has not been made between the art we see and the science we read. Little will change in little Johnny’s acquisition of academic skills if his teacher continues to focus solely on his performance in the yearly recital.

Song memorization and performance are not the the elements that create the neural pathways necessary for the student’s learning. Rather, the critical skills in translating a symbolic representation of a musical tone into reproduction on an instrument is the sensorimotor integration that forces the brain to convert an abstract concept into a concrete operation. With the added benefit of the sound produced being pleasing to the player’s ear,  the player sticks with the lessons not because of the affirmations of the teacher. Rather, the task  becomes intrinsically motivating and the player devotes him or herself to the discipline of note-reading for his or her own personal gain.

A student-centered approach is purely about the student’s acquisition of skill, both musical and nonmusical. It is entirely possible for little Johnny to take piano lessons for his entire childhood and never perform publicly, but remain proud of himself. Rightfully so—he is developing a healthy balance of reading comprehension and critical thinking skills, math fundamentals, social adaptation abilities, problem solving, emotional self regulation techniques, and time management tools. Children who commit to a lifetime of student-centered lessons should know that their teacher is solely focused on enriching the student’s development, often at the expense of them being able to show off their playing of Für Elise for their buddies.

The genius apprenticeship model psychology ingrains an onerous disposition which leaves the student feeling worthless unless they show up and continue to comply while under the teacher’s watch. While they are performing as an apprentice, they are praised for their application of their skills training. But when they are discharged from the arrangement, they lose their mentee/apprentice status and are left without much concrete applicable benefits for higher learning, as well as social and emotional regulation. Truly such people end up being anxious and sleep-deprived individuals who are disappointed with their student loans and with deeply ingrained poor practice routines, all of which may lead them to end their careers with repetitive strain injuries. The most well-adjusted career music-makers are the ones who were trained by student-centered teachers that are focused on development through a current research based approach.

The lone genius models to the student how a piece should be played, hoping the student is clever enough to imitate and play it back. Once the student’s ear is refined, the teacher looks great in the public’s eye. That antiquated pedagogy dates back to the Middle Ages, a time when teaching was a heroic endeavour and a student was expected to be interested, and simply learn by absorption. In later years, the Romantic apprenticeship model of vocational education was founded upon the concept that creativity is at least partially innate and that it cannot be wholly spontaneous—and not able to be taught or assessed.  The schools of thought in piano pedagogy are split between those who base it on the tradition from the 1500-1800’s, and those who base it on current research—which is seen as sacrilegious.

Whereas 20 years ago the lone genius was still the iconic model of creativity, today creativity is viewed increasingly as a relational, collaborative process. The popular myth of the lone genius serves “as an entree into the problematic nature of a hyperindividualistic understanding of creativity, which itself emerges out of a specific social and historical context.” Leaning towards a new worldview requires us to move away from seeing creativity as owned by the lone genius. The pedagogy that is largely in use today may have worked for Bach’s 20 children and helped establish artists across Europe all the way until Kodaly’s times. Learning styles span the spectrum, and teaching should not narrow a student into an apprenticeship contingent on performance. Today, educators need to take the lead in shaping the student’s development—you need to know well the brains you are teaching.  

Piano teachers who prefer to teach in the way they were taught should not feel lost when asked to reevaluate their approach. Accommodating a learning style only allows the student to teach you how to teach them in the best way possible.  “To teach is to learn twice over.”~ Joseph Joubert

Also read: A Dog’s Life: Pedagogical Flaws in Repetitive Piano Practice for Autistic Students