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11 minutes reading time (2137 words)

The mentoring dance

What does the word "mentor" mean to you? Perhaps you believe your college piano teacher is your mentor because you value and trust his opinions musically and personally. Or maybe you recall someone from the past as being a pivotal figure in shaping your professional career. When you develop a relationship with a person to nurture your future career path, you have taken the first step towards the mentorship dance. This dance is crucial—no one can afford to ignore the importance of this dance in today's increasingly competitive professional climate. A successful mentorship must be developed carefully, with all participants learning their "dance-steps" carefully. 

Dancing to the same tune 

The mentorship dance is hard work and at times a moving target. The typical budding pianist will naturally choose the studio instructor, but even that mentorship can change with time. Unfulfilled expectations are at the core of most frustrations for both "mentor" and "mentee" figures, stemming from basic misunderstandings and miscommunications.

A successful mentorship must be developed carefully.

A closer look at the dance partners

Other than parents, a mentor is often the first adult figure who figures prominently in a student's professional life. A successful mentoring relationship needs to be a peculiar mix of common social relationships—being a friend, family, boss, colleague, teacher, or student—but with a specific goal to keep in mind: professional growth. Ironically, most of us are not well practiced in being a mentor or mentee, and it is easy to default back to whatever is personally more familiar in terms of social role-playing. The ultimate role of both mentor and mentee should be the professional relationship. Being professional as a mentee differs from being a talented musician, scholar, and a nice person. It is expected you are able to produce quality work on demand, on time, and with no excuses. Honing skills in performance or research is only part of the equation, and skills alone without the meta-cognitive abilities and maturity to make the right decisions at the right time will not produce the works of a professional. Coming to terms with our own talents (and conversely shortcomings) is a necessary step in transitioning from a "talent with a lot of potential" to being a professional. A mentor is perhaps the only person who can be the source of honest discipline-specific feedback in order to determine one's professional identity. A teacher guides you in your craft and a friend supports you emotionally. A mentor goes beyond this by dictating some ground rules for the mentee to flourish professionally. 

The lead dancer is not superhuman 

Having built a caring relationship is great, but it is a fairly common mistake to let the adoration for the mentor turn into an imaginary construct of a super-hero who will impart any and all important information at the right time and be ready to solve any emergency. Such an illusion will surely lead to disappointments, and the trust undermined in the process will be irretrievable. 

We must remember that piano students tend to establish a special bond with the performance instructor. Students create their own perceptions of their teachers' beliefs and views. For better or worse, and maybe more than we care to admit, students may model our behavior and attitudes based on what they perceive us to value and not value. It is crucial for both parties to understand the nature of this relationship. 

Confidence building is a necessary part of teaching performance, but letting this be the default mode of all interchanges between mentor and mentee has the potential of creating an egocentric "monster." 

Mentors are naturally extremely busy, keeping track of a large number of people, projects, and likely wearing more than one "hat" professionally. As such a level of professional expertise is precisely what you seek in a mentor fi gure, it is obvious that it would be a mistake to look for the care from the mentor in the form and shape you would expect from a family member or a close friend. 

We can only teach what we know. It takes exceptional insightfulness on the mentor's part to refl ect that the student should seek information from others, even though the relationship is sound. For example, the mentor may be a superb musician with a self-made performance career. The mentee, happy with the lessons and in admiration of the mentor, is under the impression that the key to success is contained within those lessons. For such a mentor, terms such as "professional development" may mean horrifying distraction. Advising the mentee to keep abreast of the current job market may be far from the mentor's mind. 

Are you ready to dance?

Lessons are there to be gleaned even where none are intended. Opportunities can be seized only by those ready and waiting; learning is opportunity. For a budding professional, the most crucial paradigm shift to be accomplished may be to get out of the mental habit of being content in doing only what has been assigned. This is much like a transition from being a passenger in a car to becoming a driver, but the intention to switch has to be there or the experience will remain the same— that of a passive participant. 

The dance can be difficult on your ego 

For truly meaningful mentoring relationships, interaction does not always take the form of positive feedback. Provided that sufficient trust has been built and the good intention of the mentor is not in question, it would be ideal if feedback, however sobering, can be communicated freely. Sensitive topic areas include repertoire decisions, feasibility of meeting deadlines, and application decisions for jobs, degree programs, or competitions. No mentor wants to be the bearer of bad news, but mentors must be the bearers of the reality checks and "hard truths" which friends and family avoid. It is up to the mentee to be ready to listen. 

Dancing well with others

Professional relationships differ from personal relationships in that positive personality traits—such as being friendly, proper, and polite—can possibly be described in a negative connotation if the job is not done. Practicing this layer in the art of "playing well with others" can and should be done while in mentorship. 

Dancing solo 

The eventual goal of a mentorship, just like the long-term aim of piano lessons, is to see the mentee be independent: the mentoring relationship is not "until death do us part." A gradual transition is better for both parties involved; the mentor has ample opportunities to see the growing independence, while the mentee tests out professional skills on a gradually lengthening "leash." 

The "mentorship" does not have a defined job description with a set term—it will vary in degree over time. Gradual independence and ownership of one's own professional destiny becomes critical. 

Mentoring checklists

For mentors 

1. Convince yourself. 

If you are not convinced that it is important for all your students to think beyond practicing, they won't either.

2. Encourage mentees to see the big picture of the job climate and career options.

I am not suggesting we advise all to seek another profession. Gaining a sense of the current state of affairs can give a better context against which one can define an individual niche. Point to resources for exploring, or to someone who is knowledgeable in this area. Seek more brainstorming opportunities for students by inviting presenters or encouraging attendance at events.

3. Encourage early preparations of a professional "portfolio." Have menses: 

  • Develop cover letters, résumés, and vitae early, leaving time for revising. w Compile a repertoire list. 
  • Record repertoire as each piece becomes ready.  
  • Start a website for professional exposure. 
  • Utilize career services available at your institution, as well as the growing number of online "how-to" guides. 

4. Help mentees get informed and network naturally. 

You do not need to be the sole source of information. Your job will be easier when not everything is on your shoulders. 

Encourage participation in festivals, seminars, competitions, and conventions. Natural networking emerges by being out there. 

Point to professional periodicals and organizations, and have a peek yourself if you have not done so in a long time. 

Encourage mentees to read articles and books from the writer's vantage point and to keep good record of sources. 

Have a personal bibliography list of career- oriented texts or articles. Especially helpful are those on the job interview process and preparation. 

Know resources which publish jobs and share that information. 

5. Instill a sense of work ethic 

Some students are unrealistic in their view of self-worth as a teacher or performer and resentful of any unpaid experiences. This complaining leads to failure to learn from experiences and inadvertently turning away opportunities. 

6. Talk to your mentees

Every mentee has something to contribute. Even the smallest feedback, if genuine, can go a long way in giving a sense of professional identity. 

7. Foster healthy independence 

Striking a good balance between "spoonfeeding" and a "sink-or-swim" approach is challenging, and differs from mentee to mentee. The balance achieved between you and the mentee will be invaluable experience in gauging future professional decorum. 

For mentees:

1. Value time 

Maximize the benefit of time spent with the mentor by increasing your sensitivity to other people's schedule and responsibilities. Your appreciation for other people's time grows out of overcoming your own ever-increasing time-management challenges, and this is the most obvious indicator of relative readiness for being a professional.

2. Be an active participant and aim for independence early 

The earlier you embrace the phrase "you are your own destiny," the closer you are to reaching your goals. While it is comforting to be able to ask someone you can trust about every step, becoming needy is not conducive to independence, nor is it healthy for either side. Conversely, learn to ask for help when you need it. 

3. Work with your mentor as you define your professional identity 

Seek advice early to become informed about the profession and do not live in isolation with your piano. "Never give up" or "mind over matter" is helpful only if directed with some reason. Mentors can help with what is considered within "reason," but being unrealistic with your expectations makes the job of the mentor much more difficult, if not impossible. 

4. Be prepared: grab your opportunities 

Thomas Jefferson: "I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have it." As pianists: 

  • Be ready to perform any time with a well-tested, well-balanced program, having learned enough repertoire. 
  • Have your career portfolio ready for last-minute professional engagements or job openings. 
  • Develop professional etiquette, including appropriate manners of correspondence, and show up on time so that you will be asked back. There is nothing worse than an opportunity ruined by not being ready for the task. 

The first opportunity always comes with someone helping you or believing in you in some way. Regardless of the size of faith it took for that someone to give you the opportunity, not being ready means that you have one fewer person who will want to help you. 

5. Get organized

Being ready for the opportunity requires that you learn to be better organized with all aspects of your life. Getting experience is great, but people won't know how good you are unless you have something to show. Not having professional portfolio content ready could mean lost opportunities, even if your performance or teaching skills are spectacular. 

6. Be ready for the unexpected 

Assume there will be unexpected worldly hurdles in your way while you are focusing on quality work. The printer ink runs out, a file will not print correctly, your audio file is too large to attach, you run into a traffic jam. Learning to be ready for the unexpected is part of growing up. 

7. Take advice 

Too often, advice is sought but not taken. It is not so much that the mentor wants to be right all the time, but it is also pointless to ask for advice if the only advice you have ears for is what you want to hear. This is a surefire way to alienate your mentor. 

8. Take charge of your environment 

Your brain needs to consolidate ideas without sensory overload. Also, letting your day be governed by an external clock will eliminate any chance of prioritizing your tasks. 

9. Enlist your friends 

Your friends can act as a sounding board, support group, and additional channels of information. Be mindful of their needs and time, however. Dancing in harmony If we were to imagine an ideal "trait" of a successful professional, it would not be singular, but a composite of strengths—both personal and discipline-specific. Improvement in any one area adds to an overall winning impression, and this is encouraging. 

Time is of the essence in light of the over-populated professional scene. We must adjust to reflect the change of times. So, are you ready to dance? 


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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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