This is off my usual topic of writing but, as we approach the end of another school year, it feels like a good time to talk about my day job. I now have seven years of piano teaching under my belt and over that period I have come to realise certain things about this particular profession. So here are some of my observations on being a piano teacher!
To begin with, I’ll describe the different types of students you may encounter:
- Student A: Full of musical talent but too lazy to put any effort into it (very exasperating because they have the potential to achieve so much if they would only DO SOME WORK).
- Student B: Not very musical at all but works really hard to make progress (in my opinion preferable to Student A because they are more engaged in their lessons and eager to learn).
- Student C: The silent type who is so uncommunicative that it is difficult to get any kind of reaction out of them (it once took me six months of hard slogging with a student to get her to crack a smile).
- Student D: Starts piano too late, taking it up as a beginner in first year of secondary school, at which age all they want to do is play songs they know (despite the fact that they haven’t gained the necessary skills yet to play such tunes).
- Student E: An all-round good student with pleasant manners and musical ability, who practises consistently and does everything you ask them to (rumoured to be a myth but I’ve been lucky to have a handful in my time).
Then there are the various aspects of piano teaching which must be faced on a regular basis:
- You teach wonderful pieces by Chopin, Mendelssohn and Debussy, but it’s Mary Had a Little Lamb that gets stuck in your head.
- You ask the student if they have any questions (anticipating a query about the notes or the rhythm) and they come out with something completely unexpected (“Do you have a dog?”).
- When you meet the younger ones outside of school they act like they’ve seen an alien and you realise they must have believed you existed only in your music room, nesting there at night (in my case, this impression is not helped by the fact that there is a sink and a wardrobe in my room, vestiges of its previous life as a bedroom in the old convent).
- Without fail, they will get the fingering wrong in B flat major.
- Your heart sinks a little when they recognise sharps as hashtags.
- Many seem to believe that if they’re playing faster then they must be playing better.
- They think their teacher can’t tell when they’re lying. I’ve had some elaborate excuses in my time but my personal favourite is: “We missed first mass because we couldn’t find the keys and we missed second mass because we spent forty minutes in Aldi and then we had to go to a christening and that’s why I couldn’t practise over Easter.” Mmm-hmm.
- You see that moment of triumph in their eyes when they finally accomplish a tricky piece and it makes the struggle worthwhile.
One thing that is specific to instrumental teaching and somewhat different to normal primary or secondary school teaching is the close bond you can build with individual students over the years. You see them every single week, engaging with them on a one-to-one basis, and over time you develop a rapport and an attachment. I am now teaching long enough to experience this and to see a generation of students move on at the end of their school career. This week I said goodbye to a few Leaving Cert students and felt quite sad about it – I will genuinely miss them. But they are embarking on a new chapter of their lives and there will always be the next generation coming forward.
I can’t deny that there is a fair measure of frustration in this kind of job, but there can be a lot of laughter, enjoyment and creativity as well. And in the end – if they practise! – some beautiful music too.