Setting the Standards… and Keeping Them

I cannot count the number of times that I have heard phrases like “They’re just kids,” “His/her goals aren’t the same as yours,” “I don’t want him/her to be a concert pianist,” or “We’re just doing this for fun.” When parents sign their children up for piano lessons, they do not realize what exactly they are getting into. This causes trouble for us lowly music teachers, simpletons that we are, when it comes to *gasp and whisper this next bit* setting expectations for our students!!!! I plan to address each of these aspects in terms of how we can survive as Christian music teachers in this modern world.

 If we do not establish our belief system according to what the Bible says and hold fast to it, we will probably not be able to do the next portion. 1 Peter 2:9 tells us that we are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; called to show forth the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This is the center of our duty as Christians. So, yes, I am a piano teacher, but it is my duty to show forth God’s praise that those “who speak evil against you see your good works, which they will behold, glorify God in the day of your visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12). Will this strict adherence to my beliefs lose friends or even students? Probably. For my Savior, who suffered the wrath of God on the cross for my sin, I can withstand losing some income. Philippians chapter four makes it quite clear that no matter what our hardships, God will take care of us. We should not let our lack of faith keep us from doing what is right.

Now, once we have established these parameters as believers primarily and teachers of music secondarily, we should be able to tackle the massive topic that is setting standards for our students and being true to them.

Let’s start with this phrase that we’ve all heard and probably most of us have said: “They’re just kids.” I don’t know about anyone else but when I was “just a kid” (to some of you, I still am!) there was nothing that I hated hearing more than “you won’t understand, you’re just a kid.” And for some things, I know that was a true statement. However, if we were to encourage students to follow their curiosity and thirst for knowledge, they would be much more capable of handling heavier workloads. But we have brainwashed children into thinking that they cannot learn anything on their own, that they must be taught everything. This is unfortunate for us music teachers. I always make my students find out some things on their own… I do my job; I get their curiosity sparked, but then I send them out to figure out for themselves what they need to know. I don’t have any students that are slow or stupid. Some of them aren’t used to finding their own information but they sure get used to it. I explain the information to them and guide their musical education and I test them over their comprehension of what they’ve learned. They retain the information that they have to take the time to find and absorb. We need to discourage this tendency towards looking down on youths (1 Timothy 4:12) and their abilities. Don’t use the fact that they’re “just kids” as something to help propagate mediocrity. The next time you are tempted to ease up on your students because of their age, consider this: God made Josiah king when he was 8 years old (2 Chronicles 34:1)… KING. If the Lord can entrust the rule of his people to an eight year old child, we surely can ask our students to do the work that they are assigned.

 Perhaps even more frustrating to deal with are the people who are in it just to have fun. They don’t want it to feel like a task or learning. There’s one small problem with that mindset: music is not for people to just have fun with. There is a time and place to have fun with music, but it comes after months of practicing and perfecting. To truly make music, one must have a thorough knowledge of the theory behind the piece, the time period/style in which it is written. And how do you teach all of these things to your elementary aged students? After all, they are only kids 😉 !  You have to find a way to help them make excellent music. Some teachers are willing to let it go once the notes and rhythm are achieved. Some will go a little further and make their students add some of the expressive marks indicated in the music. But how many of us, myself included, are truly willing to go through the process step-by-step, week after week, drilling these concepts on one piece until it is polished and then starting the process over on another. Most of us (again, myself in this group) reach a point where we are so frustrated that the student will not get it right, that we just move on. You see, people, have this misconception of music (and the arts in general), that it is something that we do to have fun. WRONG. This is our livelihood and, as Christians, our calling. What does it say to our commitment to accomplishing the will of the Lord when we compromise standard of excellence for our students, teaching them how to just get by without really learning anything? The Bible does not tell us that we will have “fun” doing what we do; it does say that whatever we do should be done “heartily, as unto the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23) and that “whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your strength” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

 This is tied closely to another little treat that parents like to drop: “I don’t want him/her to be a concert pianist.” Even though a statement like this usually comes from a parent attacking our teaching methods, we do not need to attack back. You can simply keep your calm and tell them that you are not preparing concerts pianist, but you are upholding musical integrity. This will usually bring you to the “in this for fun” statement which has been addressed.

 I always like to save my favorites for last but I do promise to those of you who have made it this far with me that after this, I will rest my case! It’s yet another quote that many of us have heard many times: “His/her goals aren’t the same as yours.” If you have not heard those exact words, you have probably heard something to that effect. I don’t set goals for my students. When they are preparing for a festival, I always ask what rating they intend to earn. Invariably, they tell me that they want the highest one they can get. I tell them that this is their giving of permission to me to push them as hard as necessary to achieve the goal that they have set for themselves. I will often offer incentives for the students to set and keep goals but I myself never make the goals for them. However, I do set standards, which are often mistaken for goals. Webster defines “goal” as “the end toward which effort is directed” and “standard” as “something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example.” My standards ensure the protection of my integrity as a teacher of music: the higher the standards, the better the students. But beyond that, my standards of excellence are not random; they are based off of what is generally considered excellent in music… in other words what other music teachers will see and judge, in part, my teaching on. My students are a reflection of me, and if they reflect me poorly, it does not help me to produce the best students that I can (as an aside, that is a goal, but one that I have set for myself).

If I have no standards by which I expect excellence, then my students have no accountability. Just as I will be held to others’ standards in my teaching, the career of my choice, so will my students be held to other people’s standards in whatever career they choose for the rest of their lives. So, yes, they are “just kids”; that means that they are still trainable, there is hope for them. But if we disregard their abilities and refuse to set standards and hold to them, we are helping to shape a generation of people that will not even bother to think about what excellence is. Join me in molding a generation that is responsible and accountable and that knows how to set the standards and keep them.

***

Seth is a pianist, piano instructor, piano performance major, but a believer in Jesus Christ first of all. Seth was raised in a family of eight children and was homeschooled from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. From the beginning, he had a love for music and specifically for the piano and organ. At the age of seven, hebegan playing piano and taught himself for four years. When he was eleven, Seth began piano lessons with Thea Hoekman in Fremont, Michigan and started playing the organ at his church in Newaygo, Michigan. When he was thirteen, Seth’s family moved to Texas and he began his studies with Carolyn Steinberg in Celina, Texas and continued studying with her throughout high school. These formative years were essential to his growth not only as a pianist but also as a believer. When he was 16, Seth began his private piano studio under Mrs. Steinberg’s helpful guidance. Seth has developed many ideas about teaching that are his own and has grown as a teacher for the past several years.

 

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2 Comments to “Setting the Standards… and Keeping Them”

  1. Thank you! I think it would be great to have him in lessons. It is especially hard for you with three other children and everything else that you do. I am glad that he has the desire for it! 😀

  2. Good post, Seth. I am thinking of getting lessons for Brian Marcus next year. In our busy schedule, me actually sitting down with him, and working on a piece, is the first thing to go. Lessons would keep us both accountable. I don’t know that he is particularly gifted, but he has enough of a desire, so I want to pursue it aways.

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