Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Meaning of Mean: Part Two


     Which one of these signs demonstrates how you teach? Are you a demander, like the exclamation point? Or are you a questioner, like the question mark? More than likely, you participate in many different expressive aspects of teaching, like this:

     If you are teaching a large number of millennials, you have probably already figured out that the exclamation point is not the best way to express yourself, unless is it a sign of energy and enthusiasm. If you put a period on the end of every sentence, that may not work as well as it used to either. I learned recently in the book "Because Internet" by Gretchen McCulloch that the use of a period in social media and in texts suggests passive aggression. My seventh grade English teacher would be appalled. Period.

     The best mix of expressions is the one that is non-threatening - a pause to let the student speak might be a dash, for example. Remember, millennials like to have input into what is going on. In some cases, you may need to ask for a pause in their speaking! However you do it - through dashes or question marks or commas or the ubiquitous ellipse - getting them engaged in the process is key to keeping them interested. While this is not a revolutionary idea, it is more important for today's students who prefer engagement to passive instruction.

     Engagement can include movement away from the piano. It can include use of manipulatives like blocks, crayons, movement toys, floor staff, even my ever faithful Wright-Way Note Finder, a simple quarter note on a string that rides up and down a vinyl staff. If you find computer games and apps to be useful, add them as well. However, it is my experience that students are more engaged with the novelty of 3-D objects since they already spend lots of time in the digital world. Watch them come alive when asked to join in a game of Koosh® Ball catch. Or enjoy rolling a 10-sided die for a random number of repetitions of a challenge spot.

     Getting back to the now-problematic period, telling students to do something that makes no sense to them rarely works these days. "Do this, period," just isn't satisfactory. "Here's why we are doing this" is an expression that is much more likely to be successful. For example, why should a very young student struggle to play hands together scales just because scales? (internet talk) In recent years I have delayed teaching hands together scales until it is more likely that they may have to play them in literature. They learn them faster with ease, and it makes more sense. Quite frankly, a lot of piano literature never involves hands together scales. (For some insight on this, check out this link:

     Millennials may also have a false sense of their skill level, which might be represented by air quotes. If they have parents/teachers/friends who have built up their self-concept beyond reason, this needs to be addressed. I had a student some years back who would come to a lesson with a piece her father had insisted was very well prepared, and it wasn't. He did not welcome my offered suggestions for improvement because he had praised her insufficient preparation. On the other hand, a different parent told her son that he needs to walk before he runs. I love her.

     My favorite way to approach this is not head-on criticism. Instead I teach them to self-evaluate. What did you like about that performance? Name three things. What needs to change? Name three things. This addresses the millennial's need to engage in a process that yields authority, or, as the common expression goes, agency. They are in control in a way that requires responsibility rather than abandoning it.

    Millennials will also have ways to record their practice and performance that are at their fingertips. Their phones can do this, for starters. I recently picked up a handy little flash drive that also records. The one I chose from the various models is called RecJoy, but you may choose another brand. It's not top notch music quality, but easy enough to use and transfer to iTunes for repeated listening. And it's inexpensive - about $20.00. Learning to listen to their practice can be another useful tool for self-evaluation.

     It is always perilous to expect every member of a given generation to behave the same way. Ten years ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a post called "No Method." As tutors, independent music teachers have the luxury of finding what works and what doesn't work for an individual student. Publishers of method books revise their output to allow for changes in cultural trends, and we can take advantage of new materials and approaches as needed. But it is helpful to notice how contemporary students respond in order to meet expectations effectively. Period.



Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Meaning of Mean: Part One

The word on the street is that a well-known piano teacher is mean. She is highly respected among her peers and has been honored at the state level for a thorough approach to developing young pianists. She is stunned at this new take on her reputation.

Another experienced teacher got back her piano class evaluations. Guess what? She is also mean.

Welcome to teaching toward high expectations with the current generation of students. They are not less able, less skillful, or less intelligent than past generations. They can learn, they can. But they want it on their terms, and most of them have been more likely to call shots in other arenas of their lives than former generations.

Their terms are less about rigidity and more about making learning entertaining. If requirements aren't couched in generally pleasant terms, they just might be labeled as mean. And I didn't make this up. Google "teaching millennials" for a list of articles on this topic.

But let's not be too hard on them. They are used to having the world at their fingertips on digital technology. When they get bored, they switch to another source, and something else more engaging flashes in front of their eyes. Their information comes in bursts on short videos on YouTube or posts on social media platforms. Quite honestly, experts who study this phenomenon cannot predict whether the inability to focus for longer periods of time is temporary or permanent.

Learning is also a lot about hearing information for them rather than reading information. Ear buds come with their phones. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed that current piano students don't like to read music but will enjoy picking out tunes instead. This is the opposite of how I learned to play, so I experience this phenomenon with at least a little envy.

They also like to be engaged in the process, which is something I warm up to immediately, rather than being talked at by someone in authority. My biggest challenges are with students who are reticent and reluctant to answer even the simplest questions. A student that comes in with ideas is a delight, as long as the ideas lead to attainable goals.

Millennials also want to know why they are learning what they are learning. They are less willing than my generation to learn because "I said so." Finding a connection to present and future goals is important.

The other far less pleasant aspect is the prevalence of anxiety and depression. I'm no social psychologist, leaving me without a useful explanation for this trend now being addressed in public schools and secondary institutions. And when parents choose not to share this information about their children, the teacher is going to proceed as though nothing is out of the ordinary, possibly adding to their distress unintentionally. How you approach this is up to your relationships.

For tips on working with millennials, read The Meaning of Mean:Part Two.