The Perfectionistic Piano Student
Have you ever had an experience with a student that just doesn’t compute? You know the child is smart. She’s in the gifted program at school yet she doesn’t seem to understand what you are trying to teach her. She is reluctant to try new things and wants to focus on the easy stuff. She begs for only a small amount of music to practice each week. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying the lesson at all. So what gives? Is it me? Does this student just hate the piano? Is she unmotivated? Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe she is the perfectionistic piano student.
Now granted, I haven’t seen many
perfectionists in my piano studio. In fact, the vast majority of my
students could use a little dose of perfect. I spend most of my time
trying to get kids to count and play the correct notes. A student who
wants to play perfectly is an exciting prospect! After all perfection
or at least near perfection is what we musicians strive for. So how
can we spot the perfectionistic student, and more importantly how can
we nurture this person so that she will become a happy and successful
Traits of the perfectionistic piano student
Shy doesn’t talk much at the
Reluctant to try new things, plays
each note very slowly and carefully.
Takes on less work than she is
capable of accomplishing.
Sensitive to criticism.
Nervous or distracted at the
Does not practice sufficiently at
Plays in a mechanical fashion,
without much feeling.
The easiest way to confirm the
suspicion that a particular student may be a perfectionist is simply
to ask her. “Are you afraid to get this wrong?” At this point, the
student will probably say yes and give a sigh of relief.
What to do
Now that you know your student has
unreasonably high standards, you can begin to formulate a plan to
work with her. I always begin by telling my perfectionist student how
valuable she is, how wonderful it is to really want to get things
right. I tell my little perfectionist (and her parents) that she is
in the right place. If she loves to focus on the details and produce
a polished product, then the piano is a great place to do those
But, that is not the end of it. There
is a real danger in being a perfectionistic piano student. After all,
who’s perfect? We wish we all were. At times some pianists play
perfectly, but living with mistakes and mishaps are part of the game.
We must teach our students that everything doesn’t have to be
flawless to be good. In fact, mistake-free playing does not equal
good playing. Playing the piano is about more than hitting the right
keys at the right time, (no disrespect to Mr. Bach). It’s about a
connection between music and people. Music, in general, and piano
playing in particular, exist to enrich the lives of both players and
listeners. It is art. It’s supposed to be fun. As teachers, we must
get this point across to our students, especially those with
perfectionistic tendencies or we risk losing them to the frustration
of trying to reach the unattainable.
So how can we as teachers help our
students have a healthy view of their relationship with the piano?
After letting my student know how much I appreciate her desire to do
a great job, I try, as much as possible, to set her up for success.
If that means she only learns a small amount of music during those
first few weeks, that’s fine. I am trying to build a trust
relationship. I want my student to feel comfortable and confident. I
can pile on some more work later on after she has experienced a
measure of success.
As time goes by, and I have the
opportunity to get to know my student better, I start talking about
the fact that none of us are perfect all of the time. I tell them
even the great artists make mistakes from time to time. This is when
I start to challenge my student with more work and more difficult
music. I want her to feel confident, but I don’t want her to become
bored because the music is too easy. I have found that most
perfectionistic students are very bright and need to be challenged.
Recitals are particularly tricky for
the perfectionist piano student. In my studio, recital attendance is
a requirement, so everyone has to play. Some students are very
nervous about playing in front of others, so I music make sure that
the recital is a positive experience. I do this by making sure the
recital piece they will perform is well within reach, and leave
plenty of time for the student to learn the music. Many times I will
play a duet with my students at the first recital to take the
pressure off. I have the students play for each other and I tell
parents to have the kids play for everyone who comes into the house.
I do everything in my power to ensure that my students have a
successful first recital experience.
Success begets success; Especially for
the perfectionistic piano student!
I am so excited when I discover a piano
student who wants to strive for perfection. I know this student has
the potential to become a fine musician. With the right nurturing the
sky’s the limit.
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