I recently listened to a wonderful podcast from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) called “All in the Mind”, a show hosted by Lynne Malcolm. Malcolm interviewed Professor Barbara Fredickson, a social psychologist from the University of North Carolina. Fredrickson was in Australia for the 2015 Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney. It struck me during this podcast that, as piano teachers, we are in a perfect position to reflect positivity and positive thought in our dealings with students and parents.
Professor Fredickson says, “positive emotions can be really supportive, in terms of helping people be more creative, feel safe to be able to bring their ideas out into the conversation as opposed to hold their good ideas to themselves.” I see two perspectives, globally in one’s own life and then drilling down to day to day; and one on one student interactions.
Globally there are many factors that make us feel good about ourselves. Fredrickson says, “There is some suggestion that individual differences in happiness levels, or positivity if you will, that maybe 50% of the individual differences may be heritable or genetic, and the other 50% are a combination of our circumstances and our daily habits. But within those ranges we all have the possibility of becoming a happier version of ourselves. We may not become the happiest person in the neighbourhood or in the planet, but we can be at the happiest part of our range through giving some attention to our daily habits.”
Some daily habits I believe are vitally important are exercise, sleep and good food. Caring for oneself is a great start to maximising a sense of well being which is always the start of feeling positive. Beyond that, many, what could only be described as, “new age” philosophies can feel fake and inauthentic. How does one feel “real” and “authentic”? Malcolm says, “there is still a sceptical view of positive psychology, that being positive can sometimes seem forced and insincere.” Fredrickson responds with, “There’s three ways to change it. You can reduce the negativity or increase the positivity, or both. And so you may want to start with reducing negativity. A lot of the approaches from cognitive behavioural therapy are really useful here, like questioning your negative thinking patterns and trying to test it against the facts.”
From a piano teaching perspective perhaps you could take the time at the end of the day to reflect back over your interactions with students and their parents. Fredrickson says, “reflecting on connections every evening is something that raises people’s positive emotions and also has an effect on the physical aspects of the heart, and that is to just think of your three longest social interactions and rate how attuned you felt with others, how close you felt. And that sort of daily reflection on connection can take just a minute or two in the evening, and that tends to raise people’s positivity and make a difference.
During lessons I know that my interactions with students have triggered both positive and negative emotions. I regularly feel frustration when a student comes in and hasn’t done any practice. In a private lesson situation how does one deal with that frustration and turn it into a positive experience for both the teacher and student?
Here’s a couple of suggestions that I have used in the past. Firstly, I want to drill down to discover why the student hasn’t practised. With all private students I try to assist them by planning their week. I like to “take the bull by the horns” so to speak and be the supportive teacher who helps them time manage their life. My totally selfish reason for doing this, is, it makes my job a whole heap easier when the student has practised, so if I work out their schedule with them, I know I can schedule practice time into it! Here is a Weekly Timetable that you can download that I use with my students, feel free to use it with yours. There is a PDF if you just want to write or an Excel document that you can type into and email your student. Keep a copy for yourself.
Remember this remedy is not a one lesson solution. It takes time to form habits. Make this strategy part of your lesson plan to ensure you check in on how their weekly schedule is working for them. Consult with parents as well. This will build your credibility and importance in the life of the student and is likely reduce drop out and build much greater rapport.
You may find that as a result of helping time manage your students that they come to find your studio as a happy positive place for learning. This in turn will improve your teaching.
Everyone has a bad week, you know the ones, you never get anything done. Students have those too. Here are a few suggestions to build a more positive teaching and learning experience in those weeks:
- Play some pop music – find a song that your student likes on YouTube, look up Music Notes and see if it is on there, if it is you’ll be able to read the first page. Even if you’re not a pop music teaching genius (check out TimTopham.com to brush up on those skills) you could:
- identify the key
- listen to the song and discuss modulations in the song
- sight read the first page melody – try to work out what’s happening in the other pages
- notice the intervals – identify them, invert them, etc
- sight read the base line
- make up a bass line by using the chords and playing octaves or single notes in time with the music – try to work it out by ear after the first page
- work out the harmony and/or chords/melody of the song after the first page
- play scales in the key of the song
- play arpeggios in the key of the song
- ask the student to sing the song and play the chords
- ask the student to sing the melody in sol-fa (or solfege for the fixed-do-ers)
- Try some improvisation. Forrest Kinney has an amazing selection of books called “Pattern Play” which teach improvisation starting with, as simple an experience, as improvising on two black notes. These are great exercises to have up your sleeve for any time.
- The standard piano teacher fill lesson of scales, arpeggios, sight reading and aural tests.
Take these suggestions to assist making your studio a happy and positive one. Happiness and positivity is contagious. Positivity is a mindset that helps produce positive emotions. The range of emotions include: amusement, happiness, joy as well as the quieter positive emotions of inspiration, gratitude and serenity. Being positive causes a biochemical release of oxytocin, which makes people feel more connected and attuned which facilitates better connections the outcomes.
So I definitely believe that you have a happy teacher you have a happy student.
Paul Myatt is a director of Forte School of Music.