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8 minutes reading time (1530 words)

Student wants and needs

During the late 1990s, I taught piano privately in New York City to supplement my income while working on my doctorate. From time to time, the phone would ring, and I would find myself talking to prospective students. I soon learned that I did not need to feel very anxious about it, because only one thing mattered to them, and I could deliver. Money was not an issue (those were the times of the dot-com prosperity). My master's degree was not in piano but in music composition—a distinction that made me nervous in a city full of top-notch concert pianists. This did not matter either, as it would have been fine by them if I had learned to play the piano by mail order. They did not care about my Spanish accent or my hard-to-spell last name, nor was the geographical location of my studio (in College Point, a somewhat remote corner of Queens) a deal-breaker. "Only one slot left for lessons, Sundays at 6 a.m.? Not a problem; I'll be there!" Nothing seemed to discourage them. Would there be any issue for which they would draw a line in the sand? Indeed, there was one issue, but it was not what I first expected. To my ever-growing amazement, when they asked for piano lessons, all they really, urgently, desperately wanted to know was, "Can you teach me to play the theme from Titanic?"

I often tell this story to my students, many of whom already are or soon will be teachers of music. They laugh. It's a funny anecdote (though it may make more sense to those old enough to remember the hysteria surrounding the movie Titanic, back in 1997). But I am not just telling a joke. The teachable moment created by this tongue-in-cheek story helps me sugar-coat what comes next, which is a discussion of some of the deep truths and difficult challenges, both ethical and pedagogical, which are everyday ingredients of our professional activity: 

1. There is often a great distance between what a student wants and what a student needs.

2. A student's domain-specific knowledge is, in most cases, limited or nonexistent, depending upon age and education. Many other learning skills and contextual knowledge may also be underdeveloped. The most likely scenario is that only the teacher understands, at a glance, what students truly need beyond—or despite—their wants (or beyond what they say they want).

3. On ethical grounds, and, in the best-case scenario, the conscientious teacher negotiates the tension between what the student wants (say, to play "My Heart Will Go On," from Titanic) and what the student needs (a more structured, balanced, graded music-learning process), gently guiding the student toward genuine learning and away from prejudiced—and often squarely wrong—notions of music proficiency.

4. In the end, the teacher's success is measured by the amount of genuine learning that takes place. However, aside from the honorarium, the teacher may never get even a nod of recognition (with luck, the teacher may receive the occasional comment of a colleague, or perhaps one from the student, but much later in life). The nuanced technical and educational skill required to shift the student's focus from wants to needs, all the while keeping up interest and motivation, may be lost both to the student (particularly young ones) and to their circle of influence (parents, friends).

An ethical dilemma

​Every music teacher knows that making the Titanic's title song the be-all and end-all of a student's musical education is plain ridiculous. Before being able to play even a simple arrangement of the song, the student needs correct posture, sufficient mechanical technique, and melodic and rhythmic reading proficiency. At best, this goal may be accomplished many weeks—or, realistically, months—later. And think how boring it would be to play the same piece for an eternity, no matter how masterful the composition. A similarly comical idea is enacted in the movie Groundhog Day. Phil, the angry, middle-aged weatherman played by Bill Murray, has never taken music lessons. Caught in a supernatural time loop and with nothing else to do, he takes piano lessons to learn Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini" from scratch. 

Learning to play Rachmaninoff's music or even a pop song one note at a time is easy to dismiss as an absurdity. Even if it were possible, it would be pointless. But students often present teachers with actual choices that are less clear-cut, and the consequences may be far-reaching: The student may want to quit if her demands are not met. A few examples: "I really hate reading! Why can't I play by ear?" "I don't want to learn any theory! Can I just play?" "I really hate classical music. Can I just do pop songs?" "I want to keep my long nails. Please don't make me cut them"; "I don't want to sing, count, clap, practice slowly, use the metronome, read bass clef ..." (feel free to add your own). 

I think that our most spontaneous reaction to these resistances would be to say, "Forget it. If you don't want to cut your nails, go find another teacher." Education and experience have taught us a great deal about the music-learning process, and there are things we know to be true: The student may want to keep her long nails, but she needs to cut them in order to play well. Indeed, if we are being asked to betray our professional knowledge, then sending students on their way, whether to another teacher or to confront their own lack of commitment to the enterprise, is surely the cleanest way to proceed. 

But the situation may be more complex. What if we live in a small community and there are no other piano teachers around? What if students (or their parents) are simply acting in accordance with what they were taught before, by others? The situation may be nuanced on our end, too. What if we're just starting out and nobody knows about our studio? What if we depend upon these few difficult students (whom we actually have) to put food on the table? In that case, it would be much harder to take the high ground and send the students away, wouldn't it?

Meeting the student halfway

There is, however, an option halfway between requiring total devotion from the student ("my way or the highway") or accepting all of the student's capricious requests to the point of losing one's professional integrity. This option, not without risks of its own, is to exercise patience and persuasion, gently negotiating the tension between what students want and what they need. This option bets on the long-term attachment that may be established between student and teacher, so that, as the relationship grows stronger and their mutual trust increases, the teacher's recommendations are taken more seriously. The goal is to gradually guide the student toward the "proper" way (we can include in this bag everything from shorter nails to solfège to ear training). It is a laborious process involving not just the acquisition of specific music skills despite whatever obstacles are thrown in our way, but, more fundamentally, a process gradually modifying the student's most basic beliefs—be it that classical music is boring, that a piece without lyrics is meaningless, or that improvising can't be taught, among many others.

Risks and rewards

"No good deed goes unpunished," the old adage goes. No matter if we took students because we felt bad about what they'd miss studying music somewhere else—or not studying at all—or because we needed the work, if they are our students, we are responsible. The gravest risk is to reach a point when one is unknowingly going through the motions, but the student is not really learning much. Furthermore, because it manifests itself only over time, this "plateau" is difficult to detect. Sooner or later, however, the reckoning happens, and it can be hard. If, through the course of our work, we were not able to gradually change misconceptions at the heart of the student's musical identity, we may end up with the horror-story situations we've all heard about: Children who have been taking lessons for years but think that it's OK to not be able to maintain a beat, sing, or read a single staff of music.

And yet, notwithstanding the risks, I'd argue that exercising a kind of "umbrella" tolerance—shifting the focus from wants to needs, building a long-term relationship, using that trust to push the envelope lesson after lesson—is the best path. It is a daily ethical challenge because it requires us to keep in check our own discomfort between the way things are and the way they should be. It may require periodic external assessments (exams, recitals, music festivals, master classes) to prevent long-term derailments. 

The ultimate reward is that, once in a while, the most unlikely student (yes, one of those impossibly rebellious students who at first drove us crazy, not cutting her nails, not practicing enough, second-guessing instructions, rolling her eyes) sends an email telling us about her blossoming career as a professional musician, thanking us for taking a risk, for not giving up on her, for tenderly shrinking the distance between wants and needs.

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