Paraphrased from Promoting Your Teaching Studio by Philip Johnston
Training children to cope with pressure. When music students are adults, pressure will feel like a familiar sparring partner, rather than a terrifying component. They will have faced it—and defeated it—in countless concerts, workshops and lessons. They learn to have it work for them, rather than sabotaging their best, and they learn to accept it as a natural part of doing things that matter. Music lessons won’t immunize them from being nervous at an important job interview or presentation, but the skills they acquired in working with nerves for their various music performances are transferable—control their breathing, frame the situation positively, focus on the job at hand rather than the consequences…and don’t go too fast. See, we are not merely music teachers. We conduct weekly workshops in dealing with pressure, and the skills we teach last for life.
Training children to deal with criticism. Most music students learn at an early age to regularly accept advice and feedback from people more knowledgeable than themselves. They experience firsthand the value of implementing that advice, and come back each week ready for more. In so doing, they learn the power of an age-old recipe for self- improvement: hard work and acting on the counsel of a mentor.
Coping gracefully with "the referee’s decision." Have you or your child ever been in a basketball game, or any game, and received what was in your opinion, a bad call? How did you react to it? Just as in sports, music is even more subjective, and the “umpire’s” decision can be a little bewildering at times. Music students eventually learn to live with it, and accept the good calls with the bad. Why? Because sooner or later, they will receive an A+ when they deserved a B-, and things will balance out. In the transparent absurdity of that outcome will be the realization that a referee’s decision is not absolute truth or reality. It is merely an opinion from a person, and is both fallible and transient. Students will still carefully read the piece of paper that tells them why they didn’t even place in a competition, but they won’t allow such bad news to depress them in any sort of life-changing way. Later on, the first time they are passed over for a promotion at work, they will think of the poor adjudicators they have had over the years, and realize that they may simply be in the presence of another. But they will also read the feedback on their job performance appraisal carefully—because their years of music lessons have also trained them to do just that—see if there is anything they can do better next time.
Getting "back on the horse." If a student has enough performances, sooner or later they will have a disaster—a memory lapse, going to fast and crashing… The real battle actually starts not at the performance itself, but in those weeks afterwards. How will the student react? And more importantly, how do you get them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and focus on the next concert? Performances end up being metaphors for countless situations music students will face in their later life, and they will experience the same mixture of triumphs and setbacks that we all do. By the time they have completed a decade of music lessons, they will have had to bounce back from plenty of disappointments…but they’ll also have experienced many more successes, helping them to get a snapshot of a valuable big picture which is, “The important thing is not that they fell, but how quickly they got back on the horse.” Students will become better-equipped adults because of it.
Project management, and coping with deadlines
a) The long-term deadline: An exam or major piano recital doesn’t just happen. They are often first planned a year or more before the actual date. Pieces are chosen, mini deadlines are set, and a strategy for getting it all done in time is established. The end result? Students are able to build quite epic events one small step at a time, and become used to the idea that what they do today prepares them for tomorrow, which transfers over into many aspects of their current and future lives.
b) The high-pressure short-term deadline: There is no chance to mount a steady campaign for this type of deadline. Instead, it’s a case of taking a deep breath, putting your head down, and swimming like a lunatic until you get to the finish line. These are the short-notice concerts, the performances that suddenly come up, or filling in for someone who has unexpectedly fallen ill. If a manager needs to look around for someone who will copy with a sudden burst of intense work and a ridiculously short deadline, they could do worse than ask staff members how many years of music lessons they have had.
Developing focus. In the course of even a short piece, children will have to closely supervise hundreds of individual decisions: Which note comes next? How loud should I be playing? How can I recover from that little slip I just made? How staccato should the middle section be?, etc. What is most exciting is that the concentration exhibited in the performance itself is actually just the tip of a much larger iceberg. For this performance to occur at all, the same child had to be still and focused in dozens of lessons and hundreds of practice sessions. Students also become used to the idea that focus comes in different gears. It’s not as though they have to be concentrating in lessons until the veins stand out on their necks all the time. There are times for joking around in lessons, and there are other times where students will need every last reserve of focus. It’s not just that students will know how to focus; they also learn when. This helps ensure that they can not only deliver their best when it’s needed, but that they don’t turn themselves into stresspots in the process.
Learning the power of positive assumptions. As teachers, we have all learned the hard way of the very real link between a student’s assumption about how a performance is likely to go, and then what actually happens. Sometimes the impact of positive thinking is so powerful that it can help pull an otherwise under-prepared student through a performance. Conversely, the absence of such thinking can turn performances of even well-prepared students into a hopeless mush of otherwise undeserved errors. Because of this, much of our teaching in the final weeks before the performance is spent helping students be in the right frame of mind for the performance. On the various big occasions that students will have throughout the rest of their lives, music students will not only be well-versed in the importance of positive thinking, but they will be equipped with the strategies to ensure that it happens at the right time.
Learning that progress is not always linear…which is just a fancy way of saying that we don’t always improve at a constant rate. How does it play itself out in music lessons? Some months will feel like the Golden Ages, where the student will pick up new ideas with ease, and where the notes will fall well for them every time they play. They’ll get more done in fifteen minutes of practice than they would normally achieve in a few days. Two months later, and they are struggling a little, the Midas Touch having deserted them as they plod from lesson to lesson. What comes as a shock is that sometimes students will actually go backwards. There may be weeks so unproductive that they are sure that their playing was in better shape a couple of months ago. “Backward” progress is not only okay; it’s actually quite normal. It’s not really a backward step; it’s just an inevitable part of long term progress. People who don’t have the opportunity to learn this lesson early can sometimes become so discouraged at the first appearance of a backward step that they mark down the activity as too hard, and give up completely. In equipping our students with an awareness of the likelihood of occasional backward steps, we are not only steeling their resolve for music lessons, we are toughening them for hundreds of other activities that they haven’t even met yet.
How to be good at something. Most of our students are not destined to become concert artists. When we teach a child how to play a musical instrument, we are showing them how to become good at something. This is the greatest gift of music lessons. Most of the advice we give for them to achieve this has little to do with music itself: “Break big jobs into little jobs. Start early if you have a big project to undertake. Stay calm and focused under pressure. Analyze your own work for weaknesses and then target the things that are not so strong. Persist in the face of difficulties. Allocate the time that the job requires. Work whether you feel like it or not. Listen to your teacher, and respect your peers….And enjoy what you do, for none of it is worth pursuing unless it makes you smile from time to time. “ Philip Johnston