The Transfer Piano Student
I would hate to pigeon hole all “transfer” students in one way or another. It would be unfair, and unfortunately many piano teachers shy away from prospects who were immersed in learning environments where little progress was made over a period of years.
Some reluctant piano instructors might say, “there’s just too much work involved in reversing bad habits, so I’m not up to the task.”
In my own experience, where a student is at least on a common page, dedicated to receiving a new set of ideas that will help him improve his technique and musical expression, wedded together, of course, then I’m up for the collective journey. (even with its built-in challenges)
Just the other day, I was delighted to meet a “new” adult pupil who had studied for five years with another teacher. The shift, springing from a schedule issue, brought more than a blessing in disguise. I was pleased to discover that the young woman had been exploring the great piano literature with method books being a things of the past. (Thank Goddess!)
In fact she played a gorgeous Haydn Minuet and a Mendelssohn Children’s piece which both offered opportunities to probe the singing tone, and ways of phrasing in two contrasting musical periods. (Classical and Romantic)
Of interest was the motif of the Mendelssohn composition that could have sounded like Schumann’s famous G Major March (Album for the Young) but for the difference in notated slurs. The former had the march spirit, while the other had to be executed as if sung expressively. This second piece required yielding to the upper voice of two, and letting the common thumb go a tad early. In this way a legato melodic line was preserved. (smooth and connected notes)
What a nice entree to style and interpretation.
In the realm of technique, I noticed that the pupil needed to play with supple wrists and more freedom in her arms which we worked on from the very start of her lesson. Scales that were a bit locked by tension, gradually gave way to a curvaceous spill of 16ths to four octaves.
Had I harbored a prejudice toward meeting with a “transfer” student, I would have lost a treasured opportunity to grow as a musician along with a willing student.
Another situation, but less appealing:
I’ve had moms bring Middle school children, in the main, who’ve bounced from teacher to teacher. This can be a RED FLAG, but not always, depending on the individual circumstance. (Family relocations can require a teacher change given the high rate of job transfers and home foreclosures)
However, where the grass is greener mantra infiltrates each and every teacher consult, I tend to shy away from being the next trial and error instructor.
In the Bay area, there are an abundance of gifted teachers, and each offers a well of musical wisdom. But an instructor and a student need TIME to develop a relationship, and not be subject to espresso evaluations.
However, in the Fresno environs, the musical landscape is a bit different, and often the “transfers” are neighborhood driven, or a student has devoted little if any time to practicing, and blames it on the piano teacher. Mom keeps talking about the “right or wrong chemistry” ad nauseum, and while this could be a valid reason for a shift in instructors, it’s often just the opposite. She will insist that the turnover of pieces is too slow, and that junior has spent too much time learning one selection.
Example, an 11-year old was brought to me who had studied for 9 months with one teacher, and barely a year with another. Mom said her child was not playing enough “popular” music and needed someone to make lessons “fun.”
Upon examination of the child’s musical skills, I observed that she was barely note-reading at a satisfactory level and she couldn’t play a one-octave scale up and down. In fact, she’d never been exposed to a scale or anything resembling, including five-finger Major/minor positions.
Was I braced to be the next mentor in line, accused of NOT making lessons a bowl of cherries?
I passed up the chance.
Obviously there are all kinds of circumstances in which we meet up with transfer students, and each should be separately evaluated. One, for example, may circumscribe an emotionally abusive situation, a cosmos I explored in the following blog:
A student may be fleeing an unwholesome learning environment that has stifled his progress and reduced him to feelings of overwhelming inadequacy.
Seymour Bernstein, author of MONSTERS AND ANGELS describes this very abuse that drove him to request another piano teacher at the distinguished Mannes College of Music. The story is well capsulized in this blog posted by Harriet:
Bernstein’s experience among others must be carefully assessed, or with our cultural blinders on, we could overlook a blessed musical relationship with a transfer student that will grow and ripen with time.
If my beloved teacher, Lillian Freundlich, had viewed me as just one of those garden variety “transfers” who came through her door so ill-prepared to play what I had been assigned by a previous mentor (the Chopin Scherzo in Bb Minor, for example) then I would have given up the piano in sheer frustration.
What I heard in my inner ear, I couldn’t express as a player due to inadequate technique and phrasing. These hallmark musicianship skills had to be learned from the ground up and I needed a willing teacher to guide me. (starting with an awareness of the singing tone)
Teachers make such a big difference in our lives if we let them do the work needed. Support and respect for the instructor and learning environment must come from the pupil, and in the case of youngsters, also from their parents.
Whether students are “transfers” or not, these basic ingredients of a positive teacher/pupil relationship underlie musical growth and development.
Please share your experience as a transfer student, or if in a role as teacher, how did you proceed with students from other learning environments?
The Neighborhood Piano Teacher Lives On
How Long Should a Piano Student Stay with a Piece?