Selena's bright blue eyes were rimmed with tears as she made her way into the studio. I had always looked forward to her lessons. She was bright, industrious and upbeat, but not that night. She dropped onto the bench and said, "My parents just told me they are getting a divorce."
I wavered between compassion and anger. I wanted to run back into the street and yell to her parents, "What were you thinking, sending this child to me ten minutes after you told her that her world is falling apart? What did you think I could do for her that you couldn't? This is not fair!" That anger is a large part of the memory of this night, even these many, many years later. Compassion won out, and I let her cry, and I listened.
I have since had many students who have needed to be listened to, and not just during the performance part of their lessons. They are not all children. Adults will come in and tell me their families are breaking up or they are suffering from illness and that lessons will stop, at least for a while. Students will come in with tales of loss of pets and grandparents and best friends. No one is immune from loss.
When it is the loss of the family unit of origin, many complications arise for the piano student. Unlike smaller, portable instruments, the piano cannot be tossed in the back seat of the car. The likelihood of having a piano at both parents' homes is slim. Some have keyboards, and some don't. Sometimes Grandma or Grandpa is the proprietor of the piano, meaning that practice has to be worked into an already jumbled living arrangement.
The simplest solution is to cut out students who can't practice at all of their residences. When I get into that mode of thinking, I consider the students who would get the axe. I genuinely like my students, and my compassion for their complex lives usually wins out. Some of these students are genuinely glad to see me every week, even when they haven't practiced. They need a supportive adult who listens for at least five minutes of the lesson.
Some teachers believe that a lesson should never be about the student's feelings. I'm not OK with that. Call it my downfall, if you will, but I never could understand how teaching an expressive art could exclude the recognition of the daily flow of emotions. The first five minutes of how-do-you-dos help the student transition from the rest of life to the musical part of life.
I tend to agree with a former teacher, an old-world style professor who was the very model of reserve in the classroom. He said, "Every lesson is a psychology session." He knew that he needed to click with each student in a way that allowed that student to hear his instruction and connect to it. That may involve allowing a moment or two of frustration to be experienced, or the telling of a sad tale, either to get it out of the way of the music making or to help the teacher understand what is blocking progress in the lesson.
This acknowledgement doesn't meant that teachers hand out therapeutic advice or that the student stops working on music. It also doesn't mean that we keep secrets from the student's family members. None of these actions is in the job description of piano teacher. It simply means that we recognize the humanity of our students as much or more than we enforce the ideal syllabus we studied in pedagogy class.