A Piano Teacher’s Impact, Discipline in the Studio

March is “one of “those months” for our family. Birthdays galore! Now this can be rather fun – all that cake, ice cream and goodies, but I am on a so-called “diet war” with my sister. We both set our own goal for how much weight we want to shed by April 1st. Needless to say, it’s looking grim for me. Now I wouldn’t be worried about this except my sister had to e-mail a reminder to me about it. She also mentioned looking up info on our former piano teacher, Ernest St. Jacques. Now that brought back some memories.

The Legacy of a Piano Teacher
Ernest St. Jacques showed up to my sister and my first lesson wearing a tux. My first thought was, “He means business!” Later I found out he played bass with a small band who entertained diners with the sounds of the 20’s-50’s, hence the tux. He was first violinist at the symphony orchestra and professor of strings and composition at the Smith College in South Hadley. For 5 ½ years, year round (even in the humid summer months) he wore a tux and we sat straighter on the bench because of it. This was a gift given to Deb and myself – a qualified instructor. He never raised his voice, lectured or veered from his soft, French inflected voice. In other words, he was professional not just in his performance career but in the teaching studio. My MTNA colleagues would gasps disapproval when I tell them he usually went 15-30 minutes over for my lesson time. I had so many questions and he loved to share those little mysteries behind the magic of sound. (I feared Deb and a distant cousin of mine who studied violin with him after our time slot may have suffered a bit from this.) But God was very good to me. My college professor, Celia Steward was just as professional. “Let’s get down to business” was the approach, but caring and respect also was evident. So how does a teacher maintain discipline?

Discipline in the studio

It is fascinating to listen to people describe their past and present piano teachers. I’ve heard stories about the most gracious, experienced pianist in our church yelling at her student for not being more prepared. I was shocked until more and more people told me of different teachers resorting to such tactics. It reminded me of the story my father told me about a teacher whacking the backs of his hands with a rubber hose only to get it with the belt when he got home. That was in the thirties and forties when education wasn’t advanced and it only turned out WW2 generals, rocket scientists and computer developers. Now-a-days discipline is a no-no and we pride ourselves on voters who think the three branches of government are President, Congress and Senate. They must have sat in the class taught by the professor who thought there were 57 states. Now I apologize to those students who don’t know better and yet have succeeded to learn so much more. Discipline is necessary for success in the studio or classroom.

So I started teaching and followed the same approach as “my” Mr. St. Jacques because I didn’t know better and God was good to my students. I do not raise my voice. I will tap out rhythms on the piano. But I tell my students and/or parents (depending on the age) that it is not mandatory for them to be there and I am not required to teach them. In fact, this philosophy was put to the test when a thirteen year old student refused to obey me when I asked him to stop playing around on the piano while I was talking. He banged his fist on the keys and I calmly got up and exited to the parent in my waiting room.

I told her that I will not teach some one who obviously does not want to be there. Two lessons were plenty enough time to come to this conclusion and I would not be swayed to do otherwise. It hurt. Like most teachers, the income was needed. But I wanted to protect my antique Steinway (1879) and I was determined to respect myself as a professional piano teacher. So, about discipline:

1. Project professionalism in your policy, appearance and demeanor.
2. Ask (politely) the student not to do___ but let’s do___ instead.
3. Give fair warning of consequences. If there is no improvement, I tell them that I will inform the parent (if the problem wasn’t grievous enough that I haven’t done so already).
4. Talk to the parent and state that they will no longer be a part of the studio family if the problem is not corrected. (This usually happens when students repeatedly forget music or don’t complete written assignments). I take this time to inform them why this issue is important.
5. Do what you said you would do. Sad, but needed. No raised voices, no deflating remarks nor temper tantrums to rival Beethoven’s outbursts, just professional expectations and responses.

All of the above points are stated in my studio policy – such a beautiful thing!

Well, how did I do? How do you? In the near future we better talk about the mandatory classroom.

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