why am i not getting better?

One of the teenagers I inherited from my predecessor is technically one of my most advanced students. I say “technically” because she’s in Level 3B, but her skill level is more around 1B. She should be able to play Anna Magdalena Bach easy pieces but I wouldn’t even attempt it on her. Her note-reading is painfully slow. Any rhythm more complicated than quarter notes baffles her. She doesn’t know what articulations are, much less what to do with them. She knows that sharps and flats indicate black keys, but which black keys elude her. Sometimes she even forgets which one is which. Putting hands together is almost painful. It takes her more than a month to play a piece that should take two weeks, tops. And she plays everything slow. Really slow.

And the thing is, she’s not dumb. She understands when I explain or demonstrate. She can demonstrate back. It’s clear in her lessons that she gets it. But whether it will stick is anyone’s guess.

So for the third week I was helping her with a simple dotted-quarter rhythm in 4/4 time (yes, really), trying to get her to count it out loud. Write in the beats, coordinate the notes, it was a struggle.  At this point I don’t know what else to do – I’ve done all my tricks and techniques.

Me: Okay, so you know what to do?
Her: Yes.
Me: You’re doing really well right now, just keep counting out loud. Go downbeat to downbeat, write in the beats if you have to. It applies to the whole piece so there’s not much new that will pop up.
Her: Okay.
Me: Do you have any questions? Anything else I can help you with? Anything I can do to make your life easier?
Her: Not really. I think I got it.

And she does appear to know what she’s doing right now. So I’m thinking, hell, maybe this will just take a while. For a second I toy with the idea of moving her back a level in a different series, but almost immediately decide against it. I just need to give her something fun and easier while she catches up on this. So I suggest to her:

Me: You know, why don’t you go bring back an old book and we’ll brush up some stuff you already know? It’ll give you something fun to play while you’re doing the really hard work. I can only imagine you’re feeling frustrated right now, wondering why things aren’t going faster.
Her: Yeah, yeah. I am kind of.
Me: Then definitely bring one in, maybe your 3A books. The nice thing about being musicians is we can bring back pieces we’ve already played and they’re still enjoyable – just because we’re done learning them doesn’t mean we’re done with them. We can find new things to work on in them and they will be easier than last time. So you’ll have some fun things in between the hard work.
Her: Okay, that sounds good.

I think I’ve come up with a great plan. And it will also give me a chance to reinforce all the things she should know (dynamics, articulation, counting, fingering) on pieces she’s already familiar with. So just to get the lay of the land, I ask:

Me: Just out of curiosity, how much do you practice?
Her: Well I generally practice every other day.
Me: Okay, how much do you practice when you do?
Her: About ten minutes.

Do I really need to continue?

I told her I have my little kids aim for 20 minutes a day, and at her level I expect 30-40. I asked her to aim for 30 a day, split into two chunks if she likes. I explained that we’re actually developing a skill, so we need to put time into just doing it. And that if she just spends more time at the piano every day, I can guarantee she’ll see improvement.

I also wanted to ask her if she was effing serious, but thought better of it.

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Filed under adventures in teaching, this actually happened

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