In this guest post, piano teacher Alexandra Westcott explains how a decision to reorganise her teaching brought her greater fulfilment, self-esteem and job satisfaction.
I’ve been teaching the piano for 30 years and over the whole of that period there has been the odd student (adult or child), who has consistently not practiced; I’m not talking about a week or two, I mean week after week turning up to lessons not having done either anything, or anything worthwhile, or anything I’ve suggested, despite my patience and best efforts to motivate them. However, around 5 years ago it wasn’t just the occasional student, it was most of them.
I found myself relieved when students left; I wasn’t wanting to replace them so was already down to nearly half the number I had regularly taught, and I was no longer enjoying my work. I was putting more and more energy into the lessons and preparations and finding even yet more and more new and creative or fun ways for them to learn and remember things. I offered them more challenging pieces; less challenging pieces; different styles; exams; no exams; improvising… You name it, I tried it. I would end up shaking with frustration as my hard work after a lesson spent helping a student learn a piece was just tossed aside. They would turn up each week not even remembering what we’d done during the last lesson, let alone improving on it. I was completely baffled as I wasn’t aware of doing or being anything different than I had been which had previously been successful!
In desperation I wrote one of those venting letters that contains everything you want to say but know you won’t send. I found it again recently and it took me right back to the feelings of desperation I was experiencing. I remembered the frustration and disappointment and plain anger and puzzlement at why my students were so unmotivated. It obviously had an effect on my esteem as a teacher as I felt so responsible for not being able to inspire them.
After a couple of months I happened to mention this letter to my partner and sent it to him, which prompted a conversation during which he said ‘you’re entitled to enjoy your job’. This had a profound effect. Not because I feel ‘entitled’ in general: God knows I am hugely grateful to have been able to make a living doing something I love so much. More because, I realised, it was that I felt that because I was being paid I wasn’t entitled to have feelings about it. That I had to sit on all my frustration in order to remain calm and patient and pleasant. And I did desperately want to succeed with each pupil. I’ve never passed over students who might bring my exam pass rate down or who were not going to be professionals — my ethos has always been to introduce the world of the piano and its colours and sounds to people so that they can express themselves in any which way they want, with a good grounding that will help them do that.
So. Here I was. I didn’t consider stopping as I needed an income, but I started trying to be more honest about how I felt with my students and they certainly responded with empathy…but not more practice..
I didn’t know quite where to go next. I didn’t know how I would afford not to teach. Eventually I remembered that I had tuppence ha’penny in a pension that wasn’t going to provide a pension but that might give me a few years’ respite, and once I took money out of the equation I was very was clear I needed a break. (Someone said to me once that to make decisions easier, take any money considerations out; it just clouds what the mind and body actually know. It obviously has to be a part of how you will carry out the decision, but it helps in the decision making itself when money is not a part of the actual decision-making process).
So I decided to have a nearly complete break. The students who were clearly benefiting I couldn’t bring myself to lose so I kept those on but explained to everyone else I was taking a sabbatical. To the students who were old enough or advanced enough to take responsibility for their own learning I said that I’d still be available when required but would no longer need commitment to weekly lessons (which is how I’d always structured my teaching). I was surprised no one took this up; I thought they would prefer not having to pay for lessons for which they had to have regardless of no practice. However, and they subsequently confirmed this, the lessons were the only time they played.
Of course I honoured contracts and supported my students’ own timescale to find new teachers, but by the end of the term I was down to around 7 committed students.
It felt wonderful. I no longer dreaded the lessons but started to enjoy them again; I was able to offer a more flexible schedule which helped me and them, and had time and space for my life to regroup. I know from experience that sometimes you need to allow a vacuum for things to fill, and be open for experiences to arrive; if you are looking in one direction you can’t see what is coming from another.
I started doing some volunteering and playing background music for charity events (both of which I hope to continue after lockdown), but nothing majorly different presented itself. However I did find I was starting to accept more students. Without exception they were (and are) more diligent, curious, interested and positive. They are clear in how much they enjoy their lessons, not only by their engagement but because they regularly tell me. This in turn has built my confidence back up and once again I feel I am being a creative, inspiring teacher.
I have analysed whether it was something in me that was causing the problem back when no one seemed motivated – I have nothing obvious that springs to mind that makes me think so but I have to keep open the possibility that perhaps it was. What I do know is that my teaching is better – whether or not different or just refreshed, or just more appreciated I don’t know, but perhaps all of that. And I have no intention to going back to how I worked before. I have far fewer students on a more relaxed footing. Whereas a rigid timetable used to work for me, it doesn’t now. And whereas I needed a full timetable before, I don’t now, and it isn’t just because I feel more relaxed about the financial side of things but because I generally need less security; I am happy with the unknown in a way I wasn’t before, and better able to nurture both myself and my students.
Like everyone, my teaching has gone online but those students who have had enough time and energy to continue (some have just had too much to deal with so have paused their lessons) have really enjoyed their music during this stressful time and we have all found the creativity, and the continued connection, to be a balm.
Whether you are starting out or have been teaching for many years, you will have your own financial, structural, logistical and psychological needs and I hope you will find ways to support these. Piano teaching is a hard job. And we need patience in spades. But it doesn’t mean that people are buying US. They are paying for our skills, not for us to be lovely and patient when we or our teaching is ignored. That is not to say we don’t provide other therapeutic benefits – I taught a family to whom I was very close who lost their mother and their Dad didn’t mind about practice as he knew how much the girls enjoyed the lessons, even notwithstanding they didn’t play during the week. So this was fine – it was an open and honest exchange and I was clear on my role. So be honest. With your students and their parents. Music is about sharing. And expressing ourselves so we need trust and openness. Be clear about your standards and expectations and you will attract people who respect them. Be brave in your decisions and find ways you can honour yourself, you won’t regret it.
One thing I missed when a close piano teacher friend stopped teaching was someone to discuss specific teaching problems with. If for any reason you find you don’t have someone to talk to about your teaching (lessons/parents/timetabling etc etc), whatever issues you are facing then please feel free to call me. Even if we don’t find solutions it can be really helpful to air your views with someone who understands. Alexandra Westcott 07966 141944
Alexandra Westcott, BA, is a piano teacher and accompanist based in north London. She is a regular guest writer for this site.