What Kind of Student Were You?

What kind of student were you?

Recently my friend and colleague Felicity Moran posted this anecdote on Facebook. She is a band director and senior music tutor, and works closely with the high school teacher responsible for grading these two students. Felicity is Student B’s piano teacher.

Student A: Has been clocking methodically through the piano grades since being around 8-9 years old

Student B: Started REAL piano lessons around 12 and has never done a piano exam in her life.

Student A: Has never performed in public.

Student B: Is very comfortable performing in front of audiences and has even won medals in every eisteddfod section she has ever entered.

Student A ties with Student B for the top score in Year 11 Music.

Student A kicks up a massive stink about it and the classroom music teacher points out that her aural, improvisation and performance confidence are severely lacking.

Student A is dux of her year and doesn’t like this but there is nothing she can do about it. 

It is unlikely that Student A will continue with music after school – it has been a task her parents want her to ‘tick off’ and her teacher has complied with teaching exam material and little else.

Student B is already getting paid to do gigs – and plays around a grade 8 standard despite never doing an exam in her life (no interest in them)

Student B is likely to spend many years playing piano professionally.

Student A is likely to ditch it the second that high school is over.

I’m so glad that I am Student B’s’ teacher…

This post ignited a lively discussion amongst piano teachers about whether they identified as Student A or Student B.

The vast, vast majority, including myself, said that they were Student A. Lots of practising for high-stakes performances and assessments, which created a sense of achievement on the instrument. Interestingly, that same vast majority said that this is not their focus of teaching now; they now, in fact, strive to produce Student B.

Student A: That’s me!

I was most definitely Student A, in that I was taught by a very lovely but very conservative Russian teacher, who guided me through all the standard solo repertoire. Once in high school I learned from the Sydney Conservatorium staff and went quickly through Grades 5 to L.Mus1.

There was no ‘creative’ part of my education. In fact, we had Composer’s Day each year at high school and the best I could come up with was a perfect cadence.

I practised my scales (for my exams). I rehearsed my pieces (all of which were chosen from an exam syllabus). I entered into exams and eisteddfods. I was a Very Good Pianist.

HOWEVER.

Being a good pianist does not mean that you have general music skills that last for life.

Never, in any of my piano lessons throughout my youth, did my teachers and I:

  • Play duets
  • Improvise
  • Read a chord chart
  • Compose
  • Play games
  • Embrace repertoire rich learning

(Ironically, this list above is an exact description of EVERY LESSON with my students now.)

So how did I land on my feet as a holistic musician? Given my piano ‘upbringing’, I could so easily have turned out more like Felicity’s Student A above; an ability to play difficult pieces for a limited time, and then once I stopped practising, poof! My carefully rehearsed repertoire would all have disappeared, leaving me with nothing else.

In many ways, I was lucky. I trained as a Yamaha teacher and the type of group teaching I did for the next 28 years at Australian Music Schools honed my aural skills and developed my ability to create accompaniments on the fly and sight read on the spot. My private tuition style began to morph, gradually moving away from the traditional path I’d always known, to include a huge array of strategies and materials that laid the foundations for teaching holistically. My career as the author of BlitzBooks took me on a path of professional development that led me to a love of composing. All of this helped me realise what was truly important to me as a musician and teacher: to instil a love of music, not a love of achievement.

Student B: A Different Approach

Student B’s practice does not centre around exam preparation. Student B rarely practises scales, unless they feel motivated to do so because it is relevant to the pieces they are playing, or a genre they are exploring (for example, video-game music, which is very modal). Student B chooses pieces based on styles they love and songs they’ve heard, and very few of these choices are dictated or constrained by any kind of syllabus.

Student B arrives at many a piano lesson confessing they haven’t managed to do much practice. Teachers of Student B, understanding that progress and achievement is limited in this crazy overscheduled world of ours, do not criticize or shame them. Instead, they happily fill the lesson with aural-based games, simple sight reading, improvising duets together, exploring lead sheets… all the ingredients for creating a holistic musician.

What has changed?

I imagine that one of the reasons so many of us identified with Student A is because this is just how teaching WAS when we were young. There was no YouTube. There was no Spotify. We students did not source music we wanted to play – no! That was for the teacher to do.

Additionally, teachers did not have access to a plethora of online PD, a maze of creative piano teaching materials, and a huge bank of digital resources2 .

What’s more important?

Once I had a transfer student who was good at all the important stuff: playing by ear, reading a lead sheet, composing. I am glad he didn’t come to me early on in my teaching career, because, sadly, I didn’t value those things then. I would have unwittingly quashed all of his creative skills as I assigned scales and arpeggios and exam repertoire.

I have evolved. I feel proud that I am teaching ‘Student B’ all the time. Sure, many of them enjoy practising, perfecting and performing, but unlike Student A, they know that achieving is not the end goal. The end goal is simply to be able to make music, socially and recreationally, for the rest of our lives.

What about you? Do you identify more with Student A or Student B? And as teachers, how has that affected the way you teach now? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

  1. Interestingly, I only ever did one piano exam throughout primary school, a grade 2 AMEB exam for which I received an ‘A’. I don’t remember experiencing any grief or humiliation over not achieving an A+ (like so many students do today, sadly).
  2. And they also did not have the pressure of delivering ‘fun’ lessons that could compete with the 12 or so other extra-curricular activities on offer to each of their students.
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.

2 thoughts on “What Kind of Student Were You?

  1. Felicity Moran says:

    I absolutely love this blog post you’ve created! It describes so well the point I was trying to get across with my OP. I want students to develop a love of music FOR LIFE – and something that they will always find comfort in and continue to explore long after they have stopped lessons with me. I WAS student A…… but then an amazing High School Music teacher turned me into student B. I am grateful to both my piano teacher for giving me the skills, and my school teacher for expanding my horizions. I strive to offer both to my students but I am completely student goal centred….. what do THEY want to do.

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