The Inherited Student – Delight or Disaster?

In my recent workshop tour I presented a session with the above title, which seems to be rather a ‘hot topic’ amongst piano teachers I have mentioned this to!

The idea for this topic came to me mainly due to the fact that I happened to inherit a few students last year. I found that there were many issues I needed to address, and I had to manage and maintain the self-esteem of the student and the support of the parent whilst doing so.

Most piano teachers I know have been through similar situations. Sometimes an inherited student has been referred by a colleague, and when they come for their first lesson you can see they have been so well taught, their technique beautiful… it’s a delight.

But, sadly, this is rare. What happens far more regularly is that the student has been having lessons with the teenager up the road who’s top qualification is that of 5th grade piano. This, more than often, is… a disaster. So much of the time, we have to correct and overhaul and gradually re-mould a student.

The tricky thing with inherited students is that your explanations for everything have to be incredibly convincing, especially if you want to change things like posture or technique. When you have a student from the beginning, students and parents take your word as gospel. But when you inherit a student and want to change things, everything you say is heavily scrutinised.

Here are some of the problems I’ve come across with inherited students:

· Never played scales

· An exam coming up but no scales/pieces ready

· No posture or technique

· Can’t sight-read

· Owns no music, only photocopies

· Never done aural

· No practise routine

Some of these things can be fixed straight away. For example, I NEVER allow my students to photocopy any music, either my own or anyone else’s. Often the parents are taken aback, especially if they are used to the teacher supplying all of the (illegal) photocopies. I give them a rough idea of what they can expect to spend on music in a year – and i do this the first time I meet them, so there can be no misunderstanding. I also make sure they buy hard copies of any of the photocopied repertoire we plan to continue using. I have never had a parent who’s had a problem with this – it’s usually news to them that their current music is pirated!

Another thing I make clear from the beginning is the expectation of practice. I tell my students “no practice, no lessons”. I once had a student who claimed there was no way he had the time to do the amount of practice i was asking (which wasn’t too much: 20 mins 4 times a week) because he was ‘too busy’ with everything his parents ‘made him do’. I listened calmly to his argument and then told him that was absolutely fine, if his parents agreed that 4 x 20 min was not achievable i would help him find another piano teacher who wouldn’t mind if he practised less. He then said ‘But I want to learn from you’. And I thought…. gotcha!

I admit I’m in a privileged position to be able to threaten to ‘chuck out’ students who don’t practice, and to actually follow through if necessary. But I believe it’s extremely important to have a strict practice policy in place. Even if you can’t afford to ‘expel’ anyone from your studio, it’s more about whether the student believes you will chuck them out. And more often than not, the parent is extremely thankful for such strict rules and expectations, because it takes the pressure off them always having to ‘nag’ about practice.

Concepts that take a lot longer to ‘fix’ are of course those such as posture and technique. Old habits die hard, and it may be that the student has never been taught the right way to sit, let alone the correct hand position or appropriate repertoire. An inherited student who has been taught some technique may have a technical style that conflicts with yours. The trick here is to assess whether that style is actually working for them and if you are prepared to ‘go with the flow’ in this situation. There is no single technique that works for everyone!

But apart from all the ‘disasters’ we may encounter when inheriting students, there are also the delights. We get exposed to new personalities, new repertoire, alternative techniques that work, the challenge of ‘fixing’ things and the satisfaction of seeing change for the better. But most of all, as with any student whether inherited or not, we are giving the gift of music, and there is nothing more rewarding.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

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