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4 minutes reading time (863 words)

Changing the tune

We've all had the experience of having a lesson veer into high intensity, whether from an overstressed student, a grumpy teacher, or both. The result? As the tension mounts, the learning process gets stymied. This is particularly likely to happen when preparing a student for an upcoming evaluation, recital, or competition. We can try to plow through these psychic barriers by using increasingly pushy tactics, but usually the mood only worsens. A different approach is needed to help the interaction regain its buoyancy.

One late autumn afternoon, when this problem of over-intensity was manifesting with a particular student—was it over that Bach fugue, with some of its myriad puzzle pieces out of whack?—I happened to glance out the window and see a brilliantly hued sunset. Taken aback by the magnificence of nature, I called to my student to come and look out the window with me. When we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the view, the tone of the lesson had changed completely. A quiet, magical calm had descended upon us, and the remainder of the lesson turned into an open, music-sharing collaboration.

There are many other possible remedies for the aforementioned stalemate if a gorgeous sunset is not readily available. If the young student has a sibling, you could put your pencil down and ask what has been fun or annoying or challenging with his brother or sister recently. Students, especially young ones, have plenty of issues and/or triumphs within their sibling relationships. Those with pets usually light up when you ask about their dog, cat, or gerbil: What seems to be Captain's favorite toy or food? Have you ever seen Felix go after a mouse? (Here you can mention the famous Tom and Jerry cartoon that inspired Lang Lang at the age of two). Many students will open up when asked about their favorite subject in school, or even their most-despised one. And if they have already mentioned a specific teacher as being especially inspiring or boring, that's a ready-made tone changer!

Older, more intellectual students will often become unstuck if you tell them a historical tidbit relating to the composer or background of the work they're studying. If it's a nocturne by John Field, for example, you could mention that he was born twenty-eight years before Chopin, with whom we usually associate the nocturne form and its creation. You could cite another interesting fact about Field: this fantastic virtuoso performer became an indentured servant to Clementi at the tender age of twelve, serving nine years in Clementi's piano factory in London. Some students, having read the works of Charles Dickens with their haunting descriptions of working conditions for children, may gain intellectual satisfaction from an association like this.

Some people are visually oriented, and having a large art book on hand can prove a black-mood buster. Taking a small break to see something beautiful relating to the work at hand may work wonders—gazing at Winslow Homer's lake and sea pictures if the student is studying MacDowell's Sea Pieces, for example, or at Monet's impressionistic water lily paintings if the repertoire includes one of Debussy's or Ravel's water pieces. I remember my mother, who grew up on a farm, having many pithy sayings, "country clichés" as I later called them. Those sayings always seemed to hit the nail on the head, to borrow one of her phrases. When she thought that a neighbor, friend, or acquaintance had behaved inappropriately but later realized the error of his ways, my mother would say, "Well, he really changed his tune!"

Probably the word we're really looking for is tone: the psychological atmosphere that operates during a music lesson. As we all know, many factors can determine this tone from the outset. Is the student prepared, or has he sloughed off from needed practice, either for legitimate reasons, or—to be taken much more seriously—because of fear or lack of interest?

The teacher often develops a sixth sense about how a student is feeling, even before he begins his warm-up routine. If he says, "I'm tired," we, as his mature mentor, need to get the lesson off to an energizing start. Sometimes a duet with an easy but ingratiating primo part will do the trick, such as The Pleasures of Youth—Six Sonatinas on Five Notes by Anton Diabelli, with its full orchestral-sounding secondo part. The five-finger patterns in the primo part require rhythmic alertness on the part of the student, but otherwise aren't too demanding. All ages seem to love these witty movements with their charming melodies and snappy rhythms, and pieces like this can quickly set the weary student onto a more energetic course.

Whatever the cause for the tense situation that the teacher and student find themselves in, there is a remedy that involves activating the brain's right side, the seat of intuition. By employing diversions like natural beauty, personal interests, or visual art, the alert teacher can quickly head off an emotional collision. With aware, but relaxed, observation of a student's negative mindset, we can change the lesson's tune and tone into an enjoyable, productive, and even exciting session!

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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