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3D Character and Question Mark
Image by 姒儿喵喵 via Flickr

When a student has only minimal interest/ involvement in a piece s/he is playing, we need to ask ourselves why.

I’m going to assume that the student had some say in choosing the piece.  Assigning repertoire and expecting compliance is not the way to go, in my opinion.

Background:  when I was in high school, my teacher assigned music I didn’t like.  Or at least I didn’t understand most of it.  There was no discussion, unfortunately.  I was too shy to say anything to my teacher, so I sightread all my lessons for 4 years instead.

Let’s assume that the student simply hasn’t gotten “into” it yet.

I often start asking questions.

  • What do you think this piece about?  (You can start with the title!)
  • Do you like it?
  • Why/why not?


During the discussion, find a way to draw the student out. There is no such thing as a wrong answer. Their thoughts are important, and can change everything about our teaching.  If a response is “I don’t like it because…,” you can always counter with “what if?”

When you have arrived at what the piece is about and what it means to the student, you can discover a tempo together.

To make a tempo mean something, or “stick,” I have marched, danced, walked slowly, run, skipped, jumped, and hopped around the room with my students.  Make up words.  Have them write a story or poem or draw a picture about the piece.  You’d be surprised what they come up with!  If your student wants to change a phrase, allow them to do that.

When attempting to discuss a piece with a middle school student recently, I received “eh” and “uh” and shoulder shrug answers.  After several minutes of this, I’d had it!  I found myself doing an exaggerated imitation.

“Why is it, when you come for your lessons, you’re smiling and have all this energy, and when you leave, you have an animated conversation with your mom?  But right now, you look like you’re in a coma, couldn’t possibly play two notes, and don’t care a thing about the music?”  At that point, I sighed loudly.  “Could we please try this again?”  I exaggerated her facial expressions, posture, and “speech,” and tried to be funny.

In retrospect, it must have been the exaggeration that cracked the ice.  The student laughed!  That’s progress.  After that, we had a much better back-and-forth.

Demonstrating a phrase or two in the “wrong” tempo makes an impression, as long as you exaggerate.  When you play too fast, be sure to have a train wreck.  And when you play too slow, yawning can be effective… or sing words, running out of breath before the end of the first or second syllable.  Then stop while you loudly gasp for air, and go on.

So go ahead! Exaggerate!  Dance, sing, clap, whistle, yodel, conduct, jump ~ whatever you have to do.

First you have to get their attention.

How do you get communication going with your students?  Please share your thoughts, and anything I’ve left out, in the comment section below!

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  • Recital takes a detour (gretchenspianos.wordpress.com) about what happens when students play for each other.

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