It seems like every other day I run into an adult who says that they used to play the piano, but they don’t anymore. They say they wish they hadn’t quit and they seem a little sad about it. I always try to reassure them that its not too late, that they can start playing again. But it always gives me pause to reassess why so many quit. Why aren’t they still playing?
As piano teachers we can’t just offer platitudes. We need to really ask ourselves why so many students quit. Are we creating a sustainable future for our students? What is the aim of our students current piano study? What is the end result when they leave our care? Is it to be a concert pianist that can play the works of the master composers in the greatest concert halls in the world?
Maybe for a very tiny percentage of students this might be the incredible result. But, realistically not for most. Realistically, not even for most of us. So, if that isn’t our student’s future? Why should any of us bother? What is piano all about? Do we want them to keep playing piano for their whole life?
Is it to be able to read sheet music at a glance to accompany choirs or singers? Probably during their life this need will surely arise, and this is an important reason to know how to sight-read sheet music well. Maybe they will relish being an accompanist and that is their path. But what if it isn’t? Was their study a waste? What if they don’t fit into the traditional box?
“Well, of course it’s not a waste” we find ourselves stammering. “We didn’t just put them in a box. Many studies have proven that piano helps our brains and overall learning. We have helped them in so many ways. Just look at the patience they have developed from piano! Piano is a magnificent instrument. It has 88 keys! You can play more than one staff at a time! It sounds and looks beautiful! Students that study piano usually have better test results across all subjects! They have performance confidence. Its truly remarkable,” we pant.
This is all true, but lets picture your dear ten year old piano student. They are getting great at learning how to play and read pieces. They even recently played in a festival where they earned a trophy. Everyone was so excited after the last recital. Mom and dad shared their performance on Facebook and all their friends remarked on their talent.
Yay, but what does piano look like for your ten year old student a decade later when they are twenty years old? What about when they are thirty or forty? What if your sweet student spent years learning how to read sheet music well, but now the circumstances in their life does not have them accompanying or being a concert soloist at all? They don’t want to be a piano instructor. How does piano fit into their life?
They are really busy with their chosen profession and family life. They have other hobbies. When they finally get to sit down at the piano, they now find themselves alone at home just playing sheet music for their own enjoyment. It is a beautiful ability that they have, and can certainly provide personal enrichment. It certainly can help to unwind after a hard day. It has merit for their life, if they are even still playing.
A piano player can become discouraged without an outlet. What was all that piano study for? They aren’t competing in festivals anymore. They aren’t studying with a teacher anymore. They are all alone with their music. Life has them doing a million other more seemingly important things that need immediate attention.
Pretty soon they find themselves not really playing much anymore. They feel themselves languishing. They feel like they are losing their skills. They really don’t know very many other adults that even play the piano. (The few they did know quit playing years ago, or they don’t live nearby.) This is a sad state of affairs for someone who devoted many years of their life to piano study.
They go out camping with friends and all the guitar players pop out their guitars and start singing and strumming. They began regretting that they didn’t learn how to play the guitar. They can sing along somewhat, but they never really did much singing. That wasn’t really part of their piano study. So, even their voice sounds foreign to them around the campfire. They want to enjoy music like the guitar players. Yet, they feel like they are on the outside.
Let’s look at this another way. What if you were a snowboarder? Would you want to go snowboarding by yourself everyday? To some people that might sound like heaven, but the majority of snowboarders like to go up the mountain with friends. They like to show each other new tricks and runs and try new stuff together. It’s just more fun.
Today’s piano player is not so much different than a snow boarder. Music for their whole life generally means that its a hobby. As a hobbyist, they are going to have more fun playing with other musicians. They are going to be spurred on to grow when they are with a band or ensemble.
But sadly, the traditional way students have been taught highlights solo performance rather than fostering group playing. In order to play with a band or a group they are going to have to develop skills that they should have been taught all along.
“Okay, I am going to join a band,” says our student. “I want to have fun with music again and grow. I want to have friends that love music as much as I do.” Great! Except for one huge drawback, no one in the band uses written notation.
In order to be in the tribe they are going to have to learn a great many new skills. They will need to know how to listen to a recording and find the predominant lead lines and figure them out to play cover tunes with a band. (This is the case whether they are playing with a secular band or in today’s contemporary worship services.) They will also need to be familiar with working with keyboards, and knowing how to play atmospheric sounds as well as synth sounds. They are going to have to understand different genres. They will need to understand when to play in the middle of the piano, and when to use the upper end, or add more left hand so they can work with the bass player.
To be functional, they must know their chords, and scales and inversions. They must be able to know what to do with a chord chart or a lead sheet in order to play with others. They need to understand the way chords move. They must have excellent timing. They need to be able to improvise.
It also helps if a piano player has confidence in their vocals and harmonizing. Bands often need the keyboardist to add vocals to the group. This makes them a greater asset to the needs of a band. A piano player must know their music theory and how to use it. They should be able to transpose and play in all the keys without having to rely on a transpose button.
During rehearsal they should know how to ask the right questions of the band leader in order to make the rehearsal time efficient and frustration free. If they don’t know how to do something, (and this will certainly happen often as music is vast, and there is always something new to learn), they need to have the tools to figure out the answers.
So, teachers are we teaching our students how to play in today’s world? Will they have the skills to create electronic music to go with those youtube videos they might want to make? Can they play with others? Can they write their own original songs to share with the group? Can they sing? Are we providing the skills to get them on the path to make piano useful for their whole life? Are we really preparing them for their future? Are they a well- rounded musician? How should we structure their lessons to give them the skills to keep them playing their whole life that makes sense for them?