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Teens vs. piano lessons: does it have to be a battle?

Robert Rowat

Ask anybody who regrets abandoning their piano lessons and they'll tell you: they gave up when they hit their teens.

What is it about adolescence that drastically increases the drop-out rate?

"Teenagers today are very busy — much more so than 20 or even 10 years ago, and there are so many activities competing for their time and focus," says Jani Parsons, a Vancouver pianist now on faculty at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "The piano student needs to spend considerable time and effort to master the instrument, and the biggest pressure is time."

Derek Chiu, a Calgary-based pianist and teacher/examiner with the Royal Conservatory of Music, concurs. "Homework, social life, sports and other extra curricular activites compete with the time they have to practise," he tells us. "I stress to all of my students that we don't need to practise for X amount of minutes or hours to have improvement, we need to simply set one goal and make it happen."

Teen pianists have the highest risk of abandoning their lessons — and yet, ironically, teens' minds are not only perfectly suited to learning the instrument quickly and efficiently, but they also stand to benefit the most from music study.

We spoke to Parsons and Chiu recently to find out more about the risk factors facing teen pianists and to discover their strategies for keeping teens motivated. Here's that conversation, interspersed with some of our favourite videos of Canadian teen pianists.

CBC Music: What goes on, typically, at the very first lesson you have with a teenager?

Chiu: In the initial lesson with a teenager, I ask them why they want to study music and what their goals are. It's important for teenage students to know that I am working with them and there's no better way than to hear them speak. I ask them to tell me what their family life is like, who their friends are, how they do in school and other interests.

The next step is to hear them perform on the piano [...] and then assess their musicianship skills, and I ask them if there are specific composers, pieces and genres they would like to study.

The first lesson is vital for me as I establish a culture of learning and expectations with the student. I introduce fundamental practice ideas, problem-solving strategies and teach them how to make best use of their time.

Parsons: My goal, first and foremost, is to get a sense of what they already know and what fascinates them in music. These are clues for me about how to spark renewed curiosity and interest. I'll typically ask a teenager to play their favourite piece for me. Teenagers need encouragement and validation — they're often self-conscious and insecure at first, so in the first lesson I try to establish a healthy relationship and an environment where they're comfortable, and inspired to achieve and explore.

I'll often assign a new piece of music to focus on, so that we have a clean slate, so to speak, rather than trying to reshape old repertoire. First lessons with teenagers often include some listening assignments and some technical drills or exercises focused towards the needs of the repertoire.

Halifax pianist Lala Lee, who now studies at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music, plays Bach.

CBC Music: From your perspective, what are the pressures that threaten to derail teens from their piano track?

Parsons: The biggest pressure is time. Parents can help with this by limiting the extra-curricular activities an adolescent does. Doing everything usually means not doing anything particularly well, and in any activity, it is that consistent, focused practise that actually opens doors of understanding and mastery.

Chiu: I've had transfer students who told me their previous teachers made every single decision about what pieces to learn. Not only do I talk with the teen about the pieces they could potentially study, but I have them research the composer, style and similar works — it helps them to be engaged and connected.

Also, I've heard students share their frustration about the instruments they have at home. It's important to have a good quality acoustic piano to practise on. In the lesson, we talk about quality of tone, dynamics, voicing of chords and other concepts that influence artistry. It's difficult for a student to practise and feel inspired when the instrument they are practising on won't allow them to do these things. You'll never see a race car driver practise laps in a rust bucket.

Parsons: Another big pressure on teenagers is their social and peer relationships and how they're perceived by others. As a teacher, I work very hard to try to encourage the study of music as a part of their identity, and how their friends would describe them, not just another thing they do after school. Changing “I play piano” to “I am a pianist” is crucial.

Arthur Wang, from Vancouver, plays his semifinal recital at the Yamaha Senior USASU International Piano Competition in Arizona in January 2017.

CBC Music: What methods do you employ to keep teen pianists motivated?

Chiu: One of my favorite things to say is, "Do you want to be a bad piano player?" No one wants to be bad at anything. I may be a bad golfer but I don't head to the links determined to play terribly. I will do what it takes to learn and develop the skills needed to play the sport. Music students feel the same way and do not want to perform poorly. They need help, encouragement and someone to believe in them.

Parsons: I have my students perform as frequently as possible, even if I think they won’t be ready. Recitals, performances, festivals, competitions and examinations are all going to give a clear goal to work towards and keep the practising focused. Students can surprise you when they have a non-negotiable deadline. I also try to create a culture in my studio that allows students and peers to motivate each other through studio classes and opportunities to hear each other play, play together and learn from each other. It is a big responsibility for the teacher to arrange these activities, but the payoffs are enormous.

Chiu: Many teens do not know how to practise. It's important, as a teacher, to provide tangible, measurable and practical solutions for the student. It's not good enough to say, "Go home and practise this," or, "Fix the wrong notes." I must show a student how to problem-solve and provide them with tips for practising effectively.

Parsons: With my teenage students, I strongly believe that they must enjoy the music they're learning. I typically offer my teenage students choices between repertoire selections that I feel will reach short- and long-term goals, but also so their own taste and preferences motivate them to practise.

Chiu: When a teen is unmotivated, I share my own personal journey of music, including difficulties with pieces, times I wanted to quit, moments when I didn't want to practise and performances that went poorly. Then, I tell them how I overcame these moments by using them as learning experiences and returning to smarter practise. I want them to know that what they are feeling is not uncommon and we can overcome these moments together.

Emily Oulousian plays Prokofiev's Toccata in D Minor, Op. 11, at Radio-Canada's Studio 12 in Montreal.

CBC Music: What role do parents play in all of this?

Parsons: I encourage parents to take a genuine interest in what their child is doing and encourage focusing the language around achievement and mastery, not talent. Instead of saying, “Wow you are so gifted,” parents can say, “I am really impressed with your hard work and patience, hearing you play it so beautifully really moves me.” That language makes all the difference.

I had one young student who came to me one lesson and performed so beautifully. When I asked her what she had done to change it so dramatically in one week’s time, she told me that her dad had told her how much he loved the piece of music, and that he would request her to play it again and again simply because he loved to hear her play it. That love was transferred to the student, and she practised it more and it became more expressive and personal to her.

Chiu: Parent-and-teacher communication is vital as the teacher relies on the parents to help keep the teen on track with their practising. At some point in time, teens will need a reminder to practise, focus on their goals and execute their teacher's directions.

Sometimes parents need to also get out of the way. There are times when parents mean well and may be too involved. It's important that they know when to step back to let their teen sort things out with the teacher.

Parsons: Another very important thing parents can do is create a healthy environment that is free of distractions for their child to practise, and to prioritize music in the family life. I like to say to my incoming families that the musical experience is one that the whole family actively participates in, not just the child.

Chiu: Also, a great way for parents to be involved is to take their teen to live performances. Not only will the teen learn from observing others perform, they can share and talk about the experiences with their parents.

CBC Music's 2016 Piano Hero, JJ Bui, plays a Chopin Nocturne at Radio-Canada's Studio 12 in Montreal.

More to explore:

Jan Lisiecki's guide to Chopin

Benjamin Grosvenor: 5 pieces that changed my life

Watch Jon Kimura Parker play the theme song from The Simpsons

The world's favourite pieces for solo piano played by contemporary masters like Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubinstein, Angela Hewitt and Lang Lang. Hear: Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin Preludes and Etudes, Mozart Sonatas, Bach Suites and Partitas, Debussy Preludes and Suites, Rachmaninov Preludes and more!