Have you ever had an experience with a student that just doesn’t compute? You know the child is smart. She’s in the gifted program at school yet she doesn’t seem to understand what you are trying to teach her. She is reluctant to try new things and wants to focus on the easy stuff. She begs for only a small amount of music to practice each week. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying the lesson at all. So what gives? Is it me? Does this student just hate the piano? Is she unmotivated? Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe she is a perfectionistic piano student.
Now granted, I haven’t seen many perfectionists in my piano studio. In fact, the vast majority of my students could use a little dose of ‘perfect.’
I spend most of my time trying to get kids to count and play the correct notes. A student who wants to play perfectly is an exciting prospect! After all perfection or at least near perfection is what we musicians strive for. So how can we spot the perfectionistic student, and more importantly how can
we nurture this person so that she will become a happy and successful
Traits of the Perfectionistic Piano Student
- She doesn’t talk much during the lesson.
- Reluctant to try new things.
- Plays each note very slowly and carefully.
- Takes on less work than she is
capable of accomplishing.
- Sensitive to criticism.
- Nervous or distracted at the lesson.
- Does not always practice sufficiently at home.
- Plays in a mechanical fashion, without much feeling.
- Becomes upset or angry when mistakes are made.
- The easiest way to confirm the suspicion that a particular student may be a perfectionist is simply to ask her. “Are you afraid to get this wrong?” At this point, the student will probably say yes and give a sigh of relief.
What to do?
Now that I know my student has unreasonably high standards, I can begin to formulate a plan to work with her.
I always begin by telling my perfectionist student how valuable she is, and how wonderful it is that she really wants to get things right. I tell my little perfectionist (and her parents) that she is in the right place. If she loves to focus on the details and produce a polished product, then the piano is a great place to do those things.
But, that is not the end of it
There is a real danger in being a perfectionistic piano student. After all, who’s perfect? We wish we all were. At times some pianists play perfectly, but living with mistakes and mishaps is part of the game. I want to teach my students that everything doesn’t have to be flawless to be good. In fact, mistake-free playing does not equal good playing.
Playing the piano is about more than hitting the right keys at the right time, (no disrespect to Mr. Bach). It’s about a connection between music and people. Music, in general, and piano playing in particular, exist to enrich the lives of both players and listeners. It is art. It’s supposed to be fun. I want to
get this point across to my students, especially those with perfectionistic tendencies or I risk losing them to the frustration of trying to attain the unattainable.
So how can I as a teacher help my students have a healthy view of their relationship with the piano?
After letting a student know how much I appreciate her desire to do a great job, I try, as much as possible, to set her up for success. If that means she only learns a small amount of music during those first few weeks, that’s fine. I am trying to build a trusting relationship. I want my student to feel comfortable and confident. I can pile on some more work later on after she has experienced a measure of success.
As time goes by, and I have the opportunity to get to know my student better, I start talking about the fact that none of us are perfect all of the time. I tell them even the great artists make mistakes from time to time. This is when I start to challenge my student with more work and more difficult music. I want her to feel confident, but I don’t want her to become
bored because the music is too easy. I have found that most perfectionistic students are very bright and need to be challenged.
Recitals and performances are particularly tricky for a perfectionist piano student. In my studio, recital attendance is a requirement, so everyone has to play. Some students are very nervous about playing in front of others. It’s my job to make the recital a positive experience. I do this by making sure the recital piece they will perform is well within reach and that there is plenty of time for the student to learn the music.
Sometimes I will play a duet with my student at a recital to take the pressure off.
I have the students play for each other and I tell parents to have the kids play for everyone who comes into the house. I do everything in my power to ensure that my student has a successful recital experience.
Success begets success; Especially for a perfectionistic piano student!
I am so excited when I discover a piano student who wants to strive for perfection. I know this student has the potential to become a fine musician. With the right nurturing the sky’s the limit.
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