Connecting to Students
Teaching students of any age in group or private lessons requires at least some emotional connection. Whose heart wouldn’t melt at the sound of a little one running down the hall, arms open wide, saying “Ms. Beff! Ms. Beff! Ms. Beff!” on the way to her piano lesson? Granted, this will not happen with a preteen young man, but I’ll take a “hey, whatssup” any day.
In a private lesson, of course, that is easier to accomplish because of the one-on-one dynamic. Establishing rapport with each student creates a loving atmosphere that encourages trust. I’ve always been a bit of a “Pollyanna”, but I do sincerely believe that if a student knows that their teacher cares about them, they can learn anything. How do we as private lesson teachers translate that same human connection, and even friendship, through online lessons?
Steal, steal, steal!
As a former elementary music teacher, I quickly learned the adage of “steal, steal, steal”. If someone else came up with an incredible idea and shared it, that idea is certainly open game to steal...I mean, use.
When we were first made aware of COVID-19 and had to start teaching solely online, I hit Facebook, Pinterest, and any piano-related forum available. Orpheus provided instant technical training and links to webinars so that instructors could prepare. We all jumped in and had moments of great success, and some failures. We rescheduled lessons when the screen froze because of a weak internet connection, or the sound wasn’t good. Those types of issues were easily fixed. My bigger concern was implementing ideas to keep the human connection while still reviewing and teaching musical concepts.
First of all, greet the student and parent (and other family members or pets) with sincerity to set the tone for the lesson. Second, give the student a “hook” to look forward to at the next lesson, yes even adult students. This may be a hint about a new song, a cool listening assignment using “Happy” by Pharrell, or perhaps asking to meet their pet or favorite stuffed animal at the next lesson. Third, notice their surroundings and ask a quick question. I learned how to hang string lights around the room, was inspired from mom and dad’s new office setup, got great advice on WiFi boosters, and discovered one student’s pretzel obsession! Finally, toss out some theme ideas that connect your studio. For me, this week is Crazy Hair Week...and it’s been hilarious so far! My colleagues have had a Hat Week, send grandma a video week, practice games, and even a baking challenge. I’m certain there will be even more fun ideas for Orpheus students coming soon!
In preparing for our first virtual recitals, I was concerned that students, especially younger students, might lose focus in this different format. I read about a piano teacher with a large studio that had an idea on how to guide students to be purposeful listeners as well as encouragers! Hoping my parents would buy in to the idea, I assigned each performer 2-3 others to specifically listen to, and then write them a compliment or words of encouragement. After the recitals, tears of gratefulness welled up as parents began to send me absolutely precious compliments, astute observations, and simply sweet words of encouragement from one student to another.
I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends
Unable to reach through the screen to correct hand position, or write in phrasing, I’ve become dependent on others to help. Parents have been amazing! I’ve observed they would rather me ask for their help than to keep trying to explain something in different ways. This need for assistance has created more open lines of communication for me with many parents. We’re texting and emailing more, sending videos, pictures of fingering, and new song ideas. This made my day: I asked a dad if his son had looked at a song I scanned for him, and he replied, “um, not yet...but I tried it!”. I love that.
Most adult musicians adapted easily to lessons online since communicating in this manner is a norm in their work or school environments. Across the board though, they miss the direct connection only in-person lessons provide. I spend a few minutes more with them than my younger students talking about what life is truly like for them, and encouraging them to find solace and peace in their own beautiful piano music.
My fellow instructors have been an incredible source of inspiration. Sharing fun ideas to try is great, but they’re also a wonderful sounding board for advice and support. For the first time ever in a Zoom faculty meeting, I confessed to being thoroughly exhausted. This way of teaching requires hours more prep and follow-up. A few weeks ago, I would’ve never been that transparent; however, I’m learning through this crisis to be what I want others to be with me...vulnerable. To parents, colleagues, adult students - please reach out with how things are really going, how you’re really feeling. Let’s support each other through this tumultuous season of our lives. And yes, that may include putting on your Crazy Hair and dancing it out, my friends!
What Motivates Me
I have always loved playing in ensembles, and have been doing so since I was young. I saw 'School of Rock' when I was 12, and was incredibly inspired by the limitless potential for expression when musicians band together. The inspiration led me to form a rock band with my best friends, and to take my classical guitar ensemble playing very seriously. Through middle and high school, I played in a few ensembles coached by my teacher, Alan Johnston. Rehearsals were incredibly fun, and I had some amazing opportunities, most notably a performance on NPR's 'From the Top'.
Today I am lucky to pursue this passion as a member of the Austin Guitar Quartet. It is made of four incredibly talented former classmates of mine. Our rehearsals (around 10 hours a week) are always fun and inspiring. We have some amazing opportunities coming up this year, including a concert with my guitar heroes, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet! The talent in this group and the exciting opportunities we've been given make it a huge source of personal inspiration.
Watch Stephen perform with Austin Guitar Quartet here.