Playing the Long Game

There are some things in life that are achievable in multiple ways.

I can get to my parent’s house by taking the backroads or the highway. I can cut an onion by chopping or slicing. I can take a test on a book by reading the book or by reading the cliff notes version 🙂 (I always read the whole thing, but be honest if you were this person! 😉 )

And there are various reasons and benefits for completing tasks in these different ways. There might be construction on the highway heading to my parents, so the back way is actually quicker. It might be a beautiful fall day, therefore the backroads are more picturesque. I might chop my onions for soup, but if I’m making a stir fry I’ll slice the onion into strips. Maybe I planned to read the book for the test, but then a family member ended up in the hospital, and I ran out of time.

If you haven’t noticed, piano students also tend to approach piano lessons from various perspectives. Some practice dutifully and progress at what we consider a “normal” pace. Others trudge along, seemingly never practicing. Or despite practicing the student seems to struggle retaining what they’ve learned.

But then there’s a third category of students – the speedy ones. These students practice a TON. Their goal is to complete as much music and learn as many new things as quickly as they can. They will often go ahead of what is asked of them, and slowing them down to make sure they fully grasp a concept is nearly impossible.

Do you have any students come to mind when you hear this description?

I have the privilege of teaching students of all ages, abilities, and personalities. But over the past few years I’ve noticed a trend among the speedy ones.

At first they feel like the perfect students. My smiles are large as I tell mom and dad all that we are accomplishing. The lesson ends, and we all feel accomplished. I back off on including as many “extra” lesson activities because we are covering so much music each week we barely have time.

But this is the bliss of the beginning. And their beginning might last longer than your average student. BUT at some point one of two things happen.

1- I suddenly realize one day that there is a major gap in their ________ (fill in the blank with note reading, rhythm understanding, sight reading, creative ability, technique, etc). And it crept in so sneakily that neither of us saw it coming.

2- The student arrives at the first thing they consider “hard” and shut down. They grind to a halt and either refuse to learn the new thing, spend several weeks of frustration trying to figure it out while their motivation plummets, or they try to move ahead and skip the newest trial without the teacher noticing.

Neither of these scenarios are something we want to see happen, but it is dependent on the teacher to put in the work to prevent either train wreck.

And this is where playing the long game comes in.

Playing the long game involves two important studio structures. First, the teacher must have lots and lots of extras they can pull when needed. Second, teachers must have strong relationships and clear communication built into the way lessons run.

Lots and Lots of Extras

There are many reasons for a teacher to have extras. I want to make sure that if a student is struggling with any given concept, I have plenty of extra activities, games, and songs that can drive the concept home before we move on.

But I also want to use my extras to pad the lessons for my speedy ones as much as possible. I have no intention of holding these students back. I do, however, have every intention of providing as much material as possible to keep them motivated, engaged, and appropriately grasping each concept in a holistic manner.

So far, my entire studio has benefited from this style of teaching. Because I have plenty of material on hand, everyone gets extras in some form – whether because they are flying ahead and I need to slow down enough to ensure complete understanding, or because they are working at their own pace and need the extras for reinforcement in various spots along the method.

Strong Communication and Relationship

The other aspect of working with our speedy students is the relationships we build with their parents. It is now commonplace in my studio to put a “pause” on the lesson book here and there to focus on a resource that will drive a new concept home. I have researched and thought out the reasons behind each and every stop, and make it a priority to explain this to my studio parents in real time.

Other times I will have a student playing and practicing almost double the amount of music the majority of my studio is expected to work through each week. Parents need to know this as well. What is most important if there is less time to practice this week? What if the student’s enthusiasm starts to slow down? Does this mean piano isn’t best for them right now? How can the parent best keep me (the teacher) updated on how practice is going at home? What if a sibling is also taking lessons and they don’t seem to measure up?

Taking the time to build strong relationships with my studio families has meant that the majority of them implicitly trust my methods. I care, they know that I care, and we can move forward working as a team! To learn more about building strong communication habits with your studio families, you can start here or here.

At the end of the day, I still get excited about my speedy students. If I’m willing to put in the effort to provide them with as many resources to keep them on track as possible, my entire studio benefits! And the speedy students will get the most out of the experience – not because they’ve quickly plowed ahead, but because they have a deeper and more expansive knowledge of every new concept learned.

Slowing them down is not a means of holding them back. Rather, my speedy students no longer hit the wall that they used to hit. This means more success as they get more advanced! They play LOTS of music, but we repeat concepts (in new and exciting ways) so that there is a knowledge that goes beyond surface learning. Major problems don’t creep into their work; instead they show themselves quickly because we have the time to notice and are looking for them.

Playing the long game is always worth it. It teaches our students that life isn’t all about microwaveable results. And it proves to the teachers that it is always worth pouring extra effort into your students and our studio.

The long game is yet another way to teach piano. Instead of “how quickly can we work through these levels?” It becomes “how deeply can we understand the music?” Driving along the backroads can lead to beautiful scenes you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. Teaching with the long game in mind can have the same results 🙂


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