Robert Estrin - piano expert

Top 10 Piano Teacher Fails

If you are a music teacher, you got to watch this.

In this video, Robert talks about the top 10 mistakes teachers can make with their students.

Released on February 16, 2022

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin. Today is top 10 piano teacher fails. A few weeks ago, I put out a video of the top five piano lesson fails, and I thought it was only fair to do the other side of the equation. So today we've got the top 10 piano teacher fails, and incidentally, these aren't just about piano teachers, most of these apply to all teachers. So I think you'll be very interested in what I've got for you today.

Okay, number one, you go to a lesson and the teacher makes corrections, they assign new material, and you get all done and they say, "Now, practice." And you leave the lesson and then you go through those corrections, and you've got your new piece, and you go, "Well, how do I practice?" And you realize you have no idea even how to approach the practicing, because they didn't show you how to practice, so that is a really important point. When you leave a lesson, you should know exactly what it is you have to do and how to do it. Just saying practice isn't enough.

Along the similar lines, you learn a piece and you've played it for a long, long time. And finally, the teacher says, at the end of the lesson, "So for next week, I want you to have this memorized. Memorize this piece." And once again, you get home, you go, "Okay." And you start from the beginning, you see, "Let's see if I know any of it." And you remember just the first couple of bars, your fingers kind of just go to the right of keys because you've played it so many times. And then you go, "Well, now what do I do?" And so you can't figure out how to memorize because they didn't show you how to memorize. They just expect you to know how to memorize.

This is really bad at a number of levels. First of all, it makes you feel like something's wrong with you. The teacher expects you to be able to memorize and you can't do it. You feel maybe you're stupid, maybe you just aren't smart enough to know how to memorize. Well, nobody can just instantly memorize. I guess there's some amazing geniuses out there like people have photographic memories. Maybe there's some people who can just play music and it's memorized and that's all they need to do. Of course, if music is simple enough, maybe just sheer repetition will work, but if you just have one week to get something memorized and you don't have a method or a process, you're in trouble. So make sure if somebody tells you to memorize, ask them how, how to memorize. And if you don't get a clear, concise answer, then you might consider getting another teacher if memorization is important to you.

Now, number three, this is something that is so blatant and wrong and common that it's unbelievable, which is teachers give music that's too hard. Now, why would they do that? Well, it's a couple of reasons. First of all, you might be begging your teacher, "Oh, I really want to play this Chopin etude. I love it." And you keep begging them so part of it can be inspired by the student asking to play something that is really not appropriate for their level.

Another thing is that teachers oftentimes really like to brag to other teachers and pianists. "I have students playing Liszt etudes and late Beethoven sonatas," or whatever it may be, because it makes them feel like they're really good teachers. Or along with that, they like to listen to challenging music. Maybe they're tired of the easy pieces that they teach all the time. And if a student asks for something that's too hard, they just say, "Go ahead and do it." And they figure, at least they'll be listening to something that they like listening to more.

So moving on, this one is something true of almost all subjects, teachers talking over your head. They're talking as if you understand them, and you sort of do, but you sort of don't. And you don't even know what question to ask and you feel like it would make you seem stupid if you ask a question after talking to you like you understand.

This is particularly true with music theory. Maybe they expect you to understand some complex harmonic progression and they think, "Well, this is the C diminished, which obviously is going to be in the key of D flat." And you go, "Mm-hmm (affirmative)," and before you can even formulate the question, they're going to the next thing. "So this is the diatonic cord in this key. And you can see, well of course the key signature," and you're going, "Yeah." And you never really understand anything they're talking about. You sort of get it. And once again you, you think there's something wrong with you because you should understand what they're talking about. They seem so brilliant. And if they think you understand it, you should.

Well, sometimes teachers don't understand what you need to know in order to follow the whole chain of the conversation. You could be lost at the beginning and kind of nodding along, thinking, "Oh, I'll get this eventually by the end of this talk. I should get it." But then before you know it, you're onto the next thing and you never even get to it. So this is a real big problem.

Next we have number five, introducing something new, great. "Today, we're going to do harmonic analysis." And you spend a little bit of time with it, and that's the last time that ever comes up. And next time they bring up something else, like how to play scales and contrary motion. They do it and you never hear about it again. You never quite got it. And before you know it, you're going on two, three, four other things and there's no follow through. And so you have all these little tidbits of things that go by the wayside. And you never really get any of them because they're not consistent in the instruction.

Now we go to number six and this one is really interesting. Have you ever gotten some abstract instructions? You're playing a piece and they say, "Over here, make it sound like butterflies flying through the wind and the flowers." And you're going, "Wow, that sounds great." And you're just so impressed with the imagery and you think, "Okay, butterflies. Now what do I do to make it sound like butterflies?" You love the whole concept of it so much that you don't want to ask, "Well, how do you make it sound like butterflies?" Well, abstract kind of comments can sometimes give you some vague idea of what you're after, but if it's not followed through with specific instructions, how to achieve that sound, it's kind of meaningless. It might sound good, but you need more than that.

Now we're getting to some of the really heavy things. These are some really destructive things that teachers can do. Head trips, being passive aggressive like, "Okay, well that's good if you think you like it that way," or something of that nature where you just feel like this small, because they're saying things to you and making you feel terrible. And why is this so destructive? Well, first of all, it's hurtful, but also, it might make you just give up on the whole idea of piano or whatever it is you're studying. Because if you're constantly demeaned at lessons, then you lose the whole joy. And what's the point of studying piano if you can't enjoy it, right?

Okay, now we get, this is progressive, teachers who yell. Teachers who yell, there's really no excuse for this and it really is verbal abuse. "Why don't you know your scales? You should know this by now!" Or, "You didn't memorize this piece? I told you to memorize it!" Any kind of yelling, there's no place for that in a piano lesson.

Now, I will say this, exceptions, well, one tiny exception. I notice that with online lessons, I teach students in a dozen different countries. Occasionally, the technology doesn't cooperate and a student is playing and they're playing a sonata and I need to stop them. I'm going, "Hey! Hey Jim! Jim!" Trying to get somebody's attention online. But that's a different story. I'm talking about yelling at a student because they're doing something wrong and the teacher thinks that they need to yell to make their point. No, that's not an appropriate way to make a point. End of story.

Worse than that, and believe it or not, I've heard so many stories about teachers who hit. Hitting is absolutely wrong in any circumstances. The old story, you've probably heard it, with the teacher with a ruler, every time there's a wrong finger, whack, whack, boom. And boy, the thought is, the teacher thinks, "Oh, if they know they're going to get hit, they're going to play with the right fingers." Well, aside from the potential for damage, pain is not a good way of getting people to be open to concepts and instruction. Hitting is just absolutely wrong.

Now, a funny kind of story is that when I first started teaching many, many years ago, well actually it wasn't when I first started, but early on in my teaching career, I had a student who had hit me. It was a child, but a child who was old enough to know better. And Janine, if you're listening now, I forgive you. She was actually joyful to work with and it really didn't hurt, but it was kind of weird to be hit by a student. But hitting from a teacher, or a student for that matter, is absolutely inappropriate, obviously.

All right, this has been kind of a long ride here. We're down to number 10, and this one can be so frustrating. Not letting you play through anything. You start your piano lesson and you start playing and you make a mistake early on and the teacher stops you. "That was wrong." "Oh, okay." And so then you try to continue and you're kind of put off by this. And so you go on and you make a mistake again, just because you're not in your groove anymore. And before you know it, every time they stop you, you're afraid of being stopped so you're not even concentrating on the music anymore.

This is so counterproductive. A teacher has to let you play through your music so they know how to guide the lesson, to see the points that need to be covered during the course of the lesson. They must listen through. Even if there are several things that they think they absolutely must discuss with you, if they don't hear everything, how do they know the priorities of the lesson? They don't. Worse yet, it doesn't give you an opportunity to you to show them the hard work you did. You want to show them all your achievements for the week and to feel good about it and then get to work. So if you have a teacher that doesn't let you play through things during the course of a lesson, that's not going to work. It's not going to be a very useful or valuable lesson for you.

So those are 10 teacher fails. I wonder if any of you have any others that you could share here at or YouTube? Thanks so much for joining me. Again, I'm Robert Estrin, this is, your online piano resource. And if you ring the bell and the thumbs up, more people who love piano will see these videos. Thanks so much for joining me. See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Richard on February 17, 2022 @5:08 pm PST
Your points simply reinforce that hardly anyone who can "do", can "teach". And major reasons why I continue to struggle along learning piano by myself. Slow progress, but progress. And I only feel as bad as I make myself feel! I do wish there was a magic way to find a good & compatible teacher for my efforts, from which I know I would benefit. Keep up the good work!!
Tosh Hayashi * VSM MEMBER * on February 17, 2022 @5:04 pm PST
Further to my earlier comment about my teachers' failures to teach about "phrasing", I will add here perhaps a heretical addendum:
that I learned more about how to phrase music by listening to the great pop singer, Perry Como, than I did by just listening to recordings of classical particular, I learned from his
phrasing of pop songs that I had to make my music more like a
musical language...with phrases separated by commas, certain notes highlighted by greater emphasis, or changes in volume, retards, changes in pace, etc.
rather than merely hitting all the notes in time and accurately like a well oiled machine or machine gun. I suggest to those who don't understand what I'm saying...get some recordings by Perry Como singing pop songs and you will understand what I'm trying to say. Let me end by just saying that I gained a much better understanding as to how to phrase Mozart violin concertos numbers 3, 4, and 5, by studying how Mr. Como phrased his music.
Robert - host, on February 18, 2022 @8:37 am PST
That's an interesting parallel! There are universal aspects to musical phrasing that can transcend style. I will listen to Perry Como!
Tosh Hayashi * VSM MEMBER * on February 18, 2022 @2:48 pm PST
Thanks Robert. However, I should add that you should listen to
the recordings made while Mr. Como was a "young" he became a old man his voice quality and control deteriorated, as often happens with vocalists and other singers. PBS television a year or two ago perhaps showed a documentary appreciation of his artistry, which is well worth seeing and hearing.
Kathy * VSM MEMBER * on February 16, 2022 @4:31 pm PST
I had the best piano teacher. 50 years ago. She always encouraged me even if I was floundering. I always heard , that was good, that was better than before. I couldn't wait for my lesson. And I was 19 at the time. I could only do piano with her for 4 years. I don't think I ever missed a lesson. She still inspires me. How awful for students to have scenarios that you described.
Robert - host, on February 17, 2022 @10:33 am PST
As long as praise is honest, it can be very inspiring have encouragement from a teacher. A teacher/student relationship can bring great joy and insights to both teacher and student.
Kathy * VSM MEMBER * on February 17, 2022 @1:42 pm PST
I have read the other posts. The issue here goes beyond ability. A great teacher gives a gift of music for life and a desire to try to achieve new and more challenging music.
Alan West * VSM MEMBER * on February 16, 2022 @2:41 pm PST
You have described a person who is not qualified to teach and there are many of them "teaching" music.
Robert - host, on February 17, 2022 @10:32 am PST
All fields have the few outliers who are great, a few who shouldn't be in the profession, and the majority of people in between these extremes. I shudder to think of people who visit medical doctors who shouldn't be practicing in their field!
Tosh Hayashi * VSM MEMBER * on February 16, 2022 @12:37 pm PST
I had a teacher who understood I needed glasses and that was why
I was playing wrong notes.
However this teacher and others I had later failed to deal with one
of my fundamental flaws, which is that I paid little attention to
playing in time/rhythm....which plagued me into adulthood, which is when I finally fixed this flaw on my own with the help of a good electronic metronome connected to me with earphones while I
played. Another failure of my teachers was in not teaching me the art of "phrasing", something any good singer or vocalist does with
great pleasing effect. I know that with other music students, these teachers often failed to instruct them to listen to themselves carefully so that they could play in tune.
I could go on. But I'm pleased you decided to bring up this subject of teacher failures. However, I think that just as in any endeavor or profession the abilities of teachers as a group follow a normal curve, with some truly terrible teachers at the low end, most of the teachers in the middle/average sector, and a few wonderfully effective and talented teachers at the other end.
Robert - host, on February 17, 2022 @10:31 am PST
Piano playing encompasses so many different skillsets, and teaching itself is involved with interpersonal relationships. So finding someone who can bring all of this together in a meaningful way to a variety of students, is quite rare.
Meera on February 16, 2022 @9:05 am PST
This is where one of those Dummy books are needed for music teachers. Please write one for them. I have been through several terrible teachers who simply dampened my desire to play. As an older adult now, I can at least express my needs and goals to the teacher and find someone that is more compatible.
Robert - host, on February 16, 2022 @1:26 pm PST
It's tough finding good teachers. Even some phenomenal players aren't necessarily good teachers.
Joyce Beck * VSM MEMBER * on February 16, 2022 @7:13 am PST
Underlying a lot of your points is a fundamental question a regrettable number of teachers fail to ask themselves: How can I make the person WANT to play the piano better? As a child and teenager I had teachers who made me play pieces they chose with no regard to my preferences, never praised me at all, only criticised (that was very much the done thing when I was a kid), demeaned my interest in improvising etc.. Did they not realise that this was hardly likely to motivate me?
Robert - host, on February 16, 2022 @8:45 am PST
Negative reinforcement is all too common with both teachers and sometimes parents! It can take the wind out of the sails of a child just discovering the piano (or any other subject).
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