Mental Energy… Friend or Foe?

I’m coming up on my ten year teaching anniversary. This definitely makes me feel old, but has also had me doing some serious soul searching. I never want to reach a point in teaching where I feel as though I’ve mastered it all, because I believe there are always going to be new things to learn!

So as I take a good hard look at the past ten years, I’ve had to honestly ask myself how my teaching as been. And one thing that has come up again and again in my work is how I use my mental energy.

What is mental energy? Have you ever finished a long day of teaching and been tired? Brain-numb? Not able to accomplish any other useful life tasks at the end of the day? Now that I teach upwards of 10-12 students in a row, I find this happens more often than not. And I’m learning that it is okay to be mentally tired … if I’m tired for the right reasons.

I love the idea of having a lesson plan for each student each week. And I wish I was as organized as this sounds. But it just isn’t feasible for me. 30 individual lesson plans a week later, and I would need to double my tuition rates. So I would often find myself having a few fun activities in my studio each week, and use them on whichever lessons I could apply them to. If I only had a couple minutes left in a lesson, or by a miracle had too much time left in a lesson, my brain would work in overdrive as I calculated how to make the best use of the rest of the lesson. Wasted mental energy? Yes.

As I graduated college, got married, and settled into a new house, I determined to spend the necessary time to organize my teaching stash in a way that mental energy is maximized during each and every lesson. As I looked at what I believed a well-rounded student should know, I began to separate my resources into two categories.

Category one contains essentials that should be reinforced every lesson: note reading, rhythm, learning to play new songs, theory, etc. Category two contains essentials that may not occur at every lesson, but should happen often: improvisation, composition, sight reading, transposition, duets, music history, games, etc. Notice … category two activities lead into a better knowledge of category one activities.

Sometimes the simplest things blow me away. I have tried so many different organization tactics over the years that it’s almost embarrassing to admit how long it took me to settle on this. But my simple solution which has led to the most well-rounded students? A black and white chart. Student’s names are down the side, activities are at the top. Each week as we accomplish any of the category two items, I put a tally mark in the box by their name.

Suddenly my mental energy isn’t in figuring out what we’re going to do with our lesson. I have organized separate binders full of activities for improvisation, composition, sight reading, etc. in all levels. Based on how much time we have left in the lesson, and what we have or haven’t accomplished that month (takes me all of 2 seconds to glance at the tallies!), ALL of my mental energy goes to teaching the material I already have at my fingertips.

Today, my students are significantly more well-rounded, and this teacher can rest a bit easier at the end of the day knowing that her students are growing in all areas. Am I still tired? Often, yes. But I’ve poured myself into the student rather than into the on-the-spot lesson planning that used to dominate my thoughts, often with mixed results because inevitably I left “that one game” at home.

Do I expect that the same organization tactics will work for each and every one of us? Not at all. We are all different people with different personalities that lead into different teaching styles. So let me encourage you to take some time to discover some of the ways you could streamline your teaching so that you’re using your mental energy to the fullest. It may be more simple or complex than my system. And that is okay … as long as you’re teaching to the best of your abilities, and your students are learning and becoming well-rounded musicians!

One thought on “Mental Energy… Friend or Foe?

  1. Pingback: Resource Roundup: Improvisation – Piano Possibilities

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