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Walk a mile in your neighbor’s shoes: Gender issues in piano teaching

Change, learning, and growth are able to happen when conversations begin.

Conversations about what I think, and what you think, and how I feel, and how you feel rarely happen in this screen-crazy, busy world we live in. Yet, there are often important questions looming in the background. These questions typically go unanswered, but they could be addressed by conversations if we just took the time to sit and listen to each other. Isn't it great that we were actually engineered to listen two times more than we talk— with two ears and one mouth? Ingenious!

For nearly thirty years I have been part of various aspects of the music industry, including piano manufacturing, independent music teaching, collegiate faculty, and professional associations. I have taught in almost every imaginable place—from prisons to cruise ships—and to every imaginable age (sixmonths to eighty years), and my view of the world of music comes with overtones of dissolution, cynicism, hope, humor, and love.

We see conflicting ideals: Teachers are quick to say that "Music is a universal language," and while that may be true, it is also true that music teaching is staunchly individual. "I'll do it my way, thank you"! Music teachers seem most preoccupied with the lesson content (which is important), but while they ruminate over curved fingers, straight backs, and mordents, the world circles around them as they carry on without regard to the universal issues that impact their day-to-day teaching lives. I believe that these topics and conversations are necessary to perpetuate this most endearing and endangered profession we call music teaching. Without these eye-opening and aha moments, we will continue to trudge forward wondering why things aren't getting better. In the words of Albert Einstein, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

I'd like to invite you, the reader, to look closely through the lens of a more universal and inclusive world, to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, and to begin conversations. Dear reader, you have your opportunity to explore, agree, disagree, investigate, and learn. I'm not intending to give answers, but rather to ask questions. You have the opportunity to gauge your Adaptive Capacity1 and to form your own opinions.


Now that we have your attention—let's change that word to "Gender!"

Gender plays a role in our lives every day, and it has played a role in music and music teaching as long as there has been music. How often have you chosen a Clara Schumann piece over Robert's? What about Felix and Fanny—Nannerl and Wolfgang? And, it is frequent practice to talk about "feminine" aspects of music—second themes, upbeats, etc.

Take a look at these faces in this image. Which ones do you think would be the best music teachers?

The best doctors? Which ones would you invite into your home for lessons? Which ones would you have work on your computer? We make assumptions and judgment statements in our lives continually. Our job as a collective group of music teaching professionals is to amplify and uplift the art of music teaching and to find common ground where all shoes have equal footing. But, all too often, we find ourselves in opposition or oblivious to the nuances that gender roles play in the teaching and learning of music.

Gender of teachers

In conversations among teachers, shared experiences seem to be different between males and females. At times, female teachers will have dialogue centered on issues related to fee structure (I want to raise my fees, but I am afraid parents will get mad), parents of students "who just don't seem to get it," and the inability to function as a "real" professional. I've heard male teachers stand in those conversations and say: "Wow, I just tell them this is my fee, and they say ok!"

The public perception of male and female piano teachers is very interesting, highly honed, and can be terribly misinformed. The independent music teaching community has been dominated by female teachers, many of whom were/are making a small second income to supplement a husband's income. For what other professional services do you go to someone's home? I believe that this plays a large part in the public's perception and reticence to increasing fees and professional studio policies. "My kid is going to my neighbor's house, and I am supposed to pay more and cancel within twenty-four hours—isn't this like a play date?" Perception, right or wrong, is everything.

Male teachers, on the other hand, are often perceived differently by the public. "Wow! He is making his living doing this professionally—he must be really good!" And, at the same time: "Why would this man want to teach little children in his home?" Take the man out of the home and put him in a studio or a hallowed hall of a college and you have the "real piano teacher"— the one who does this and is the best! He will be tough, but he is good! And, worth paying!

Gender impacts teaching, and there are countless research papers, articles, websites, and more, all dedicated to the study of gender and teaching, concentrating on how males and females approach teaching and learning. Have you ever thought about these differences and how you approach your students?

Gender of Students

Target, one of the world's largest retailers, recently became the "target" of complaints against genderspecific toy displays. In response to this criticism, Target has taken steps to move toward more genderneutral signage and displays. The goal of this is to allow children (and parents) to gravitate to toys that the actual users like, without labels or assumed gender preference. However, boys will continue to gravitate to trucks and girls to dolls, and there is a reason. Scientific research has shown that in most cases, the world is divided by gender. There are real reasons why boys are boys and girls are girls.

If you are interested in exploring this further, I strongly recommend the book Why Gender Matters, by Leonard Sax. In it you will find every detail of why boys hear differently from girls, and its illumination of the real differences in how girls and boys learn will be eye-opening. Girls are not apt to have any marked brain infusion from music study, and evidence shows that boys work in verbs and girls in nouns. Says Dr. Sax:

Sex differences in toy preferences start to make more sense once you understand this research. A richly textured doll will be more appealing than a moving truck if your system favors the P cells, as in the case in females. So we shouldn't be surprised that young females—whether human or monkey— prefer dolls over trucks, while young males, human or monkey, prefer trucks over dolls.2

Researchers who have studied the pictures drawn by young girls and young boys have found that girls typically draw pictures of people (or pets or flowers or trees), arranged more or less symmetrically, facing the viewer. Girls usually use ten or more colors in the pictures, and they are more likely to use the colors that researcher Yasumasa Arai calls "warm" colors—red, green, beige, and brown. Boys typically draw action: a rocket hitting its target, an alien about to eat somebody, a car about to hit another car.

Boys typically use at most six colors, and they prefer what Arai calls "cold" colors such as blue, gray silver, and black. Boys are also much more likely to employ a thirdperson perspective, looking at the action from a remote vantage point rather than from a perspective facing the vehicle or animal actually doing the action. Psychologist Donna Tuman summarizes the difference this way: girls draw nouns, boys draw verbs.3

And, why, in fact should we not operate in a "genderneutral" world? "These differences explain a useful tip," Dr. Sax shares.

If you're working with a girl, smile and look her in the eye when you're helping her with a subject. That gives her nonverbal reassurance that you like her and you're her friend. Too many teachers (especially men) don't make eye contact with their female students.…. If you're working with a boy, sit down next to him and spread out the materials in front of you, so you're both looking at the materials, shoulder-toshoulder. Don't hold an eye-to-eye stare with a boy unless you're trying to discipline him or reprimand him.4

If you are like me, there has been little addressed in our pedagogical training to adapt our teaching to boys and girls. It is time to consider and react differently to gender. There is much more concern for curved fingers (but wait: boys don't develop small muscle control until much later than girls!), and still we plow along thinking that we address gender issues in the repertoire we choose. Boys will play the bigger "warhorse" pieces, and girls like "Winter Snow Scenes." There is so much more. Now the conversations begin—get that book and start talking with your colleagues. Put away your cookie cutter script for teaching all children.

Like me, you have Gender generalities and biases circling about—maybe they are correct and maybe not. Maybe you think every boy has ADD—maybe you think every girl loves piano. Understanding the qualities innate to male and female students will assist with successful interaction, rapport, respect, and success with students.

1 Adaptive capacity is the ability of a system to adapt when the environment where the system exists is changing.

2 Sax, L. (2005). Why gender matters. New York: Three Rivers Press.

3 Ibid., pp. 23-24. 

4 Ibid., p. 86.

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