The Overachieving Student

Overachieving piano students, We love them! In fact, most of the piano teachers are overachievers so we can relate to them. Students who are willing to practice like crazy because they want so badly to be able to play the piano can be like a breath of fresh air for teachers who are used to trying to convince students to take practicing seriously. These awesome students don’t come along every day and when they do, we need to do everything we can to ensure they are successful. But I have found that is not always as easy as one would think.

smilingI have had experience with OA students in all age groups. I once had an OA four-year-old student who was determined to keep up with her two older brothers. Right now I have two students that fall into the OA category. One is a young man in the eighth grade the other is actually a retired adult student. The thing that all of the overachieving piano students have in common is the dream of being able to play well.

So what’s the problem? Why worry about students who want to practice? They are better off than students who don’t practice, so why not let them just go ahead and practice all they want?

Young Overachievers

We all agree that practicing is a good thing. That is, the right kind of practicing. My four-year-old overachiever was determined to keep up with her two older brothers. They, of course, had the advantage as they were older and had started lessons before she did. Fortunately, her wise mother realized that she was trying too hard and gave me a “heads-up” on the situation. My student was practicing to the point of frustration. I was a younger teacher at the time and had never before faced a situation like this. All I saw was a little girl who was coming in with her lesson prepared every week, prompting me to keep up the pace of the assignments I was giving her.

The danger here was that my student could have become overwhelmed, putting her at risk of becoming discouraged or even giving up on the piano altogether.

My solution was to give my student less work, and more praise, and to let her know that she was not expected to keep up with her brothers. I am so glad that her mother let me know what was going on. Now I make sure to ask parents and students how the practicing is going. I ask how much time they are spending on assignments and whether they are finding the work I am giving them too difficult or too easy.

Teen-aged overachieving piano students

The eighth-grade student I have right now is a fantastic young man I’ll call Jonah. He loves the piano and is an overachieving piano student. He started this year and I know he wants to make up for lost time. He completes every assignment I give him and then some. He never misses his lesson. Jonah is super intelligent. I have no doubt that he will learn to play the piano, no matter what! but I want him to reach his goals as quickly as humanly possible. The operative word here is “humanly”. We can only absorb so much at one time. I want to give him plenty of music at each level to work with and I don’t want him to skip ahead too fast. I want to make sure he can read the music, and understand and execute what he is working on before advancing to the next level.

Jonah, like most young people, loves popular music. He frequently comes into his lesson with music he has learned by watching YouTube tutorials. Personally, I am all for this. I use this as an opportunity to teach theory, chords, and ear training. However, I prefer that my students learn to play popular music by listening to the original song and then getting some ideas by listening to other pianists play covers. I find that the tutorials usually move either way too fast or way too slow. Besides, I want my students to begin plunking out tunes by themselves and learning to hear chord changes on their own.

The danger for Jonah is that he will advance faster than his mind can absorb musical knowledge and faster than his hands and body can develop the proper technique. I don’t want him to spend too much time on things like YouTube tutorials or worse, learn-to-play instantly schemes. He may have unrealistic expectations and become disheartened or he may even give up.

My solution is to give Jonah music that allows plenty of practice at each level and check to make absolutely sure that he is reading all of the notes and rhythms independently and correctly. I know he is doing a lot of playing and advancing quickly so I started him on technique and scales right away. I work with him to set attainable goals for his playing and how to manage practicing so that he can meet his goals.

Read the post, “9 Tips for Teaching Beginning Teenaged Piano Students”

Adult overachievers

My adult student is in her seventies. Joan is a smart, youthful woman who has always dreamed of playing the piano. I love working with her! She arrives every Tuesday at 3 pm “with bells on” ready to work. Joan has been studying for about a year and a half and I think she is doing very well. Joan tells me she practices at home about two hours a day, which is a lot for this very busy lady. She has high standards and sometimes becomes frustrated with her playing. I want her to reach her goal of playing the piano but I also want her to enjoy it along the way.

The danger for Joan is that she will not enjoy learning to play the piano. She will push herself so hard that she won’t have fun with the piano.

The solution is to assign to her music she likes and can learn fairly easily. We work on a combination of music that she reads, music that uses chords, and pieces she can play by rote. The lessons need to be super fun and Joan needs lots of encouragement. After all, Joan is an amazing person!

I have seen overachieving piano students do a few other things to try to learn to play faster. Things like writing in notes and then erasing them before the lesson or having a parent or sibling teach them the music by rote so that they seem prepared for the lesson. Anything that can hold them back, in the long run, should be avoided. The goal is to create independent players.

I have focused this post on overachieving piano students in the beginning stages of piano study. While there can be advanced students who are overachievers the issues are different. Most advanced students who choose to practice a lot are able to handle it without any problems.

Overachieving piano students certainly make great students. However, they need to realize that learning to play the piano is a long-term project. It’s difficult for everyone and there are no shortcuts. Enjoying the process of learning is vital to the continued success of these students. As teachers, we can help them realize their dream of being able to play the piano. How awesome is that? Not only are we so very blessed to be pianists ourselves, but we get to pass that awesomeness along to others!

All of my overachievers are doing well. My four-year-old student is now 19 years old she graduated last year after studying with me for 14 years. She is a fine pianist as are her brothers who I also had the privilege of teaching until graduation and beyond.

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