Music is an integral part of society. Here in America, our musical experience has been described as being a part of our lives from birth to death, experienced from the lowest to highest cognitive functioning, and enjoyed by one person at a time to thousands of people together*. So it is little wonder that we can look at piano lessons and discover a myriad of ways to enhance a student’s social and emotional skills in the process!
Piano lessons can be given at a variety of ages, to a variety of cognitive functioning levels, and to various numbers of people at a time. Meaning that everyone has the ability to experience music! As far as teaching piano, we have the opportunity to boost self-esteem and create an environment where a student learns how to better have one-on-one and small group interactions.
So let’s get started by identifying signs of deficiencies when it comes to social and emotional skills. There are several things to watch out for …
~ Some children are shy. This is not necessarily a problem or a disorder as much as a character trait. Piano (and music in general) has the power to bring a student “out of his or her shell.”
~ Social and emotional discrepancies can be a result of trauma. Although it is not our job to diagnose a student, we as piano teachers often become a safe space. Fostering a trusting and caring relationship with the student is CRITICAL. But if trauma is happening in the lift of your student and you know about it, you have a responsibility as a teacher to report to authorities. I never promise a student that “I won’t tell anyone” something they disclose to me. If harm is being done, the most loving thing is to tell someone who can actually do something about it. Trauma has a way of infecting the brain that is harrowing. Its effects reach into the social and emotional behaviors of its victims.
~ Social and emotional discrepancies are sometimes the result of a behavioral disorder. A child can be labeled as a social outcast by peers when other students are affected by the child’s undesirable behavior.
~ Social discrepancies can also be the result of a cognitive or developmental disability. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder typically have difficulty with social perception. Other difficult tasks include understanding the appropriate times to express emotions, basic rules of eye contact, and verbal cues.
Music lessons have an unprecedented ability to foster healthy social engagement as teachers create a safe and rewarding environment where a student can thrive. So what are some strategies we can use when we a presented with a student who has social or emotional deficiencies?
Simple “Cue” Songs
Hello and Goodbye songs, songs cueing the next activity, and simple, silly songs to remind of an often forgotten concept all fit into this category. The simpler, the better, as its main purpose it to teach when the appropriate time is to move between activities.
Looking for simple songs to get you started? Music for Little Mozarts (Alfred) and My First Piano Adventures (Faber, Hal Leonard) all include simple songs in their methods 🙂
Youtube also has myriads of simple songs … I recommend singing them without the videos to make it more of an interpersonal exchange. Having cards with pictures of each feeling can help connect the student to what they are feeling as well!
Here’s one to get you started 🙂
We often overlook how rare it is for a child to have a half hour of interrupted one-on-one time with an adult. Often due to siblings, they don’t even get this with mom or dad! Of course our main objective is to teach piano, but we should never be so focused that we don’t take the time to talk about the student and their lives outside of the studio.
Some students will thrive and try to carry this conversation the whole lesson (don’t let them!), while others will take some cajoling to get answers to anything. Two tips:
- For your talkers, learn how to prep activities and games, take notes from the last student, check their theory, or get things organized in order to allow them the time to talk while still being productive.
- For those you have to pull information out of, learn to ask good questions. Instead of questions to be answered with yes, no, good, or fine- How was your day? How was your week? Etc…. Try questions needing more depth – What did you do this week? What was the most exciting thing that happened since I last saw you? What’s the coolest thing you did in school today?
You might be surprised by some of their answers!
Connecting Current Repertoire to Life
Sometimes you have to use your imagination with this one. But song titles can be helpful here too! If the music conveys a mood, you can connect to a time when you felt that way, and encourage the student to do the same. If the music is titled after a place, you can discuss the place and look at pictures if you haven’t been there!
This may take a continual nudge. Simply asking the student to look at you when they begin to talk can remind them this the expected behavior. When working on this tactic, make sure that you model good behavior! Make a concerted effort to look only at the child while talking (sometimes I have the habit of writing in their notebooks and talking at the same time).
Enabling Communication to Parents
This is one of my favorite ways to work on communication and socialization while also informing parents at the same time! With my younger students, I typically end the lesson 2-3 minutes early and the student and I relay everything that we did in the lesson and what they’re supposed to work on for the week to their parent. This reminds the student and gives ownership of what they’ve learned for the day. And the parents feel as though they are kept in the loop and are ready for the week ahead!
Please be aware – not yes or no choices! If you ask a student if they’d like to play a song, sometimes they’ll so “no”. That leaves us in an unfortunate situation of either not hearing the song or disregarding their choice, and giving them the impression that their voice does not matter. But if I ask a student if they want to start with their theory or scales, or whether they’d prefer to tap with the red or blue drumstick, then the student feels enabled to their decisions! This makes the lesson more fun for everyone, and encourages the student to communicate their preferences in healthy ways. “Neither” is never an option in my studio 🙂
A large part of social and emotional behavior is thinking and making decisions on the spot! Someone says hello to you… how do you respond? Someone makes you angry… do you approach them or walk away? Someone has asked you your opinion … how do you respond kindly while still giving your answer?
One of the most fun ways to practice this “on the spot” skill at the piano is improvisation! So much can be said here … but for some resources that will get you started as soon as today, check out our Resource Roundup here!
Socialization can start with groups as small as two. Whether the student is playing a duet with the teacher or another student, there is a level of understanding and communication (both verbal and nonverbal) that goes on that can transfer to social situations outside of sitting at the piano.
Here we move into music situations with more people. When working with a student who displays social and/or emotional deficiencies, it can be helpful to pair them with other students who will model appropriate behavior. I also recommend making sure they are in a one-on-one lesson as well as the group lesson. This will give a well-rounded opportunity for growth!
Having the older/more mature student model for the younger student can be invaluable for all parties involved! The older student learns how to teach (something that must indeed be learned, it is not a given skill!), while the younger student learns both music and social behaviors. This can also build lifetime relationships that can start right in your studio!
You will often find students that are afraid of the “dreaded recital experience”. I was one of those students. Growing up, my teacher had a mandatory recital each year the week before Thanksgiving. My nerves always had me completely exhausted by the end, but I consider these experiences so valuable to who I am today! Learning how to behave and respond under high-stress social situations not only gives us the opportunity to grow as musicians, but in any high-stress life situations (because we all know they can’t be avoided :)).
We all have the incredibly awkward, shy, or just plain difficult student come into our studio. My hope is that you take these ideas and begin to view the student in a new light this week. They are not projects to be solved, annoyances to complain about, or children to devise a way to get rid of. Let us not miss our opportunity to love these students and show them a better way to live … and the crazy thing? We have the chance to do this within a half hour lesson a week!
*Donald A. Hodges and David C. Sebald, Music in the Human Experience: An Introduction to Music Psychology (New York: Routledge, 2011), 304.
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