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4 minutes reading time (832 words)

Music lessons are life lessons

Have you ever been in a room full of people or at a table with friends where no one was talking with each other because everyone was texting? Although "texting" is a relatively new verb in our language, I imagine that most people, in our Age of Cell Phone, would understand its current definition.

While texting potentially makes communication instant, easy, and ironically silent, it also raises questions about relationships and human contact. Like yelling "Look, Ma, no hands!" when riding a bicycle without holding the handlebars, someone who texts can use an electronic device the size of a deck of cards to demonstrate, "Look, Ma, no voice!" Texts communicate words, but they lack the normal cues we take from facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. So how do texters communicate emotion? Increasingly, through the use of small pictures and icons known as "emoji" that simulate facial expressions and other symbols.

An emoji character or symbol is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "A small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communication." Emoji symbols can replace verbal and nonverbal exchanges between people and visually punctuate a multitude of thoughts and feelings. You can make an entire sentence from emoji icons—avoiding words altogether.

As I discussed in my previous column, music students do not come to their lessons with a "clean slate." Students bring in feelings about their daily activities, family events, or life experiences. Students often may not talk about their personal lives, and, frankly, they do come to lessons with the specific goal of learning music. Yet teachers often are aware that something is going on in the student's mind to both facilitate and/or prevent successful learning—for example, the student may be excited, animated, unprepared, tired, sad, or even scared. All of these are the very feelings that emoji wordlessly convey (as do human faces).

Musicians are good at expressing emotions nonverbally, and music teachers are good at detecting both verbal and non-verbal cues from others. They are tuned in to sounds and feelings. In fact, the music teacher is often a first responder to a student's emotions and reactions. It is not difficult to talk with a student who is verbal and eager to share. What are the cues that may alert a teacher that a student may benefit from gentle curiosity about "what are you thinking and feeling?" if the lesson is not going well or if the student seems unable to concentrate, is sullen, silent, or non-responsive? What is filling the student's emotional slate? The mind is never empty.

Every human facial expression holds an emotional message and a story behind it. Are students joyful about a success, frightened about being bullied or not making friends, worried about a disappointing grade at school, concerned about dysfunction or illness at home, fearful about an upcoming recital? Certainly some topics are best left to professionals if they are serious and chronic, but the music teacher is in an important position to detect student concerns and either deal with them at the lesson or refer to a professional after consultation with parents.

Music teachers share a role with parents and perhaps augment and/or occupy a role that parents cannot fill, since no one person can be all things to all people. Being a music teacher is a position where non-judgmental interaction, personal respect, and trust are essential for verbal and musical communication. Teachers and students create and share a unique special relationship. Often this relationship commences in early childhood, at an age when many students begin music lessons. As we respond to the emotions and feelings of these children, it behooves us to remember what childhood feels like.

In 1985, Jordan Smoller wrote about the unique position of childhood in everyone's life.He made some relevant observations which are backed up with references that you may recognize from your own childhood (see sidebar on following page).

Music teachers are in a position to have a powerful influence on children and are in a special position to

  • Appreciate that all people take their unique life history into lessons and performances
  • Help students identify emotions
  • Provide empathy and understanding as an integral part of music instruction
  • Help students reevaluate internal/external stressors
  • Facilitate the discovery of innate strengths
  • Convey the belief that students are whole human beings and as such are greater than the sum of their musical parts

As a result of conveying genuine curiosity and interest about feelings and the whole person, music teachers can

  • Decrease need for perfectionism
  • Increase sense of competence
  • Foster self-esteem/confidence
  • Encourage resilience
  • Endorse patience
  • Tolerate ambiguity
  • Imbue trust in oneself and in others
  • Promote the joy of music
  • Discuss "emoji-tions" (perhaps using cell phones in the lesson to communicate)
  • Consider the idea that music lessons are life lessons


1 Smoller, J.W. (1985). The Etiology and Treatment of Childhood. Journal of Polymorphous Perversity (2) 2, pp. 3-7.

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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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