Last week, a parent of one of my piano students told me that her son would be "taking a break" from piano lessons. We all know what this really means. A few years ago, this news would have disturbed me on two fronts. I would have found myself wondering what I did wrong that this student would quit, and I would have sorely missed the money! Fortunately, I'm now in a position where losing a single student is not a major financial setback. I've also learned that losing a student isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Some students click with certain teachers, and some don't. I have a fairly regimented approach to lessons, which is well disguised with a laid back teaching style and bad jokes. The basic idea behind my teaching is that if you can master the material I give you, you will be able to teach yourself to play anything. When I was a classical trombonist, I never had to bring an ensemble part to my teacher, because everything I played for lessons was much more difficult than anything I played in band or orchestra.
While this approach works with most of my students, it doesn't work with everyone. Some students (and to be frank, their parents) want me to get right to the "good stuff." They want to be able to play the music from their favorite band right away. I don't play that game. If we jump right to that favorite song, they're going to miss some crucial steps. This isn't to say that we don't explore music from their favorite bands, but I'm not going to let them play it if I don't think they're ready for it yet. If they (or their parents) are patient, they'll eventually be able to play whatever they want.
I have a fifth grade guitar student that I would love to hold up to other students his age as a great example of how to practice. He has been diligently doing everything I tell him to do for the past three years…a rare student! He has worked his way through three levels of method books, and now we're on to more advanced material. He is a good melody reader and has a solid knowledge of open chords. We're working on major scales, the chromatic scale, pentatonic scales, and Barre chords. As soon as he develops enough strength to handle Barre chords, the fretboard is really going to open up to him. He's going to be more than ready to try out for middle school jazz band when it comes time.
Another example is a high school guitar student whom I've been teaching since she was 10. Although she likes to perform Taylor Swift and acoustic/rock/folk songs, she enjoys working on jazz standards with me. She told me that since she started playing the jazz standards, all the other music she's been playing has become easier. She no longer needs my help in learning pop songs.
While I would have liked to continue working with the piano student who is now "taking a break," lessons with him never felt right. I never quite felt like I was getting through. There's nothing quite as painful as watching a student try to fake his way through his lesson material. I could never quite convince him or his mom that practicing the "current thing" would get him to the "next thing," in terms of both physical skill and understanding. While I don't think I was the right teacher for this student, he has musical talent, and I hope that he eventually finds a teacher that can motivate him.
In the meantime, I'm happy to report that I'm going to be working with a brand new student in a couple days. I hope we click.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.