When I was taking piano lessons – I took about nine years of piano lessons by the way – I had three different teachers.
The first one was for about five years, the second was for about 4, the third one was for one year.
And funny enough, the first one was the most encouraging, the second was the second most encouraging, and the third was the third! To me, having someone encouraging and kind as a teacher makes a big difference.
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I’m going to tell you about each of them, and why I myself when I ended up being a music instructor wanted to err more on the side of being encouraging rather than pushing people super hard and only pointing out mistakes. And yes I could’ve done the latter!
When you get to teach or influence someone in any way, there are at least two major motivating factors to influence people with, encouragement or fear.
If you think of a boss in a workplace, these are the two main motivating factors that bosses will often use…
Either the drive to motivate people through encouraging them and affirming them to help them do better, or to point out mistakes and use fear of consequences or disapproval to help them do better.
My First Piano Teacher
She was a lady from my school.
I started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old.
I remember the very first piano lesson I ever had, she asked me if I knew how to play anything at all. So I said, “Oo yeah, I know how to play this song!…”
Then I started to play the “knuckle song”, if we can call it that. You basically play a silly, ridiculously easy song… with your knuckles.
After less than three seconds she quickly interrupted me and said, “Ohhhh no no no, we’re not gonna do that here, Danny”, with a forced smile. I was kind of nervous after that.
To be fair, I was genuinely playing what I knew how to play! Even if it was bad technique and a non-song. Anyway…
She ended up being a great teacher. I took lessons with her for five years.
Just to back up a bit, I started taking piano lessons because my mom pretty much forced me to. I ended up absolutely falling in love with piano and music, but it started with my mom making me.
But in those five years, this teacher was pretty friendly, warm, and encouraging. I mean, not the most encouraging teacher I’ve ever had in my life…
But I definitely remember her not making me feel bad for mistakes, and encouraging me that I could keep improving and that I was doing good at piano. She was really patient with me!
That’s how I remember her, more or less. It really helped me feel excited to learn and practice piano when at first I wasn’t like over the top excited to learn piano.
If it weren’t for her, I’m not sure that I would’ve been very motivated to play piano much.
My Second Teacher, More Of A Stickler…
After those years with my first teacher, my mom had me switch teachers, because the new school I was going to had a discount with this teacher.
I remember this new teacher being pretty friendly, but a bit eccentric.
Now sure, I’m eccentric too in my own way! But she was an interesting character for sure.
She was more strict with things. Which in itself is just fine! It’s good and important to teach people proper technique.
But I just remember – as I’m sure many remember from their “boring” piano lessons – that I had to go over things sooo many times and sometimes I felt like I just couldn’t ever get it right.
Not that this teacher was boring or that her lessons were boring, by the way. It’s just that I’ve known many people who didn’t enjoy piano lessons and thought they were boring because of these kinds of things.
So I have kind of an overarching memory of most piano lessons being where I would need to go over things a million times until I got it perfect, and still hardly feeling any satisfaction because of the frustration of it! And not getting any encouragement but just a push to have it perfect.
It’s a great way to learn and do things right, just not the very best for morale.
So with this teacher, I certainly won’t say she was a bad teacher, not at all.
I just found that some of the joy of piano was gone when I felt like I had to have things perfectly and still wasn’t doing very good!
Although, there was a crown jewel of a moment for me with this teacher…
There was one recital we had where I had spent many hours working on a Chopin piece.
I was one of her more advanced students just because I had been taking piano lessons longer than many other people do.
At this particular recital, I was the last student to play.
I got up to the piano bench, with probably 50 people watching me. Nervous as always at piano recitals…
If I do say so myself, I executed this Chopin Mazurka perfectly. It was a rare performance for me growing up! Because of my slow learning tendencies and undisciplined nature of practice, I almost never played anything without a mistake.
But at that recital, that Chopin flowed from the piano without flaw.
Needless to say, I was just a little excited and possibly proud of myself.
After the song was over, she practically ran onto the stage, clapping and cheering and said something like, “That was wonderful, Danny! A beautiful performance of that Chopin!”
That was the power of encouragement.
And in that moment, I really felt like my hard work paid off and a drive to keep going.
I felt motivated by an inner satisfaction that I had done well and that I keep improving and enjoying it, rather than feeling like I was never doing good enough.
So even though overall this teacher wasn’t the most encouraging, after that recital I really felt encouraged.
My Third Teacher, Not So Fun…
I had actually taken a break from piano lessons because I traveled after high school and went to community college.
But when I went to a college in San Diego called San Diego Christian College and started to major in music (I ended up graduating with Organizational Leadership from another university, Biola), I started taking lessons with a private instructor from that college.
She was kind of scholarly, esoteric, boring and a real perfectionist.
One of the things I remember was that there was a Beethoven piece I wanted to learn, The Tempest Sonata in D minor.
When I told her I wanted to learn that she said something like, “That’s too difficult for you, you’re not there yet. Let’s find something else.”
I had never had a piano teacher tell me something was too difficult for me like that.
I remember another time when she told me that I wasn’t playing a Chopin piece (another Chopin!) very well. She said the right hand needed to be more flowy and independent.
She then went on to describe the right hand like “a red silken thread gently flowing in the wind”, or something like that.
I think it was at that moment I gave up all confidence and trust in her and her capabilities as a piano instructor.
I was doing my absolute best and from what I heard, I played that piece quite well. I mean, it wasn’t Horowitz or anything, but I made no mistakes and I thought it sounded pretty good!
Not for her apparently.
I couldn’t stand the way she described the right hand, I couldn’t stand her tone of voice, and I couldn’t stand the fact that she couldn’t acknowledge that I was trying my best and played the piece.
It was almost like she was saying I was playing it poorly.
Nine months, a whole school year, of that wasn’t the best experience I’ve had in my journey of learning piano.
In contrast to my previous teacher, who stood up and gave me a standing ovation for my performance and didn’t do that for anyone else!… this teacher was quite different.
I had a recital at that college. My favorite composer is Rachmaninoff. I think his music is so complex, beautiful, blissful and outright genius.
Oh and, it’s insanely difficult to play.
So at a recital at this college, I decided I wanted to learn the Prelude in C# minor by Rachmaninoff.
Here it is on YouTube (played by someone else), if you want to listen.
It was so amazingly challenging for me. It’s colossal, beautiful piece, and it’s got the difficulty to match!
I practiced for hours and hours in the practice room of San Diego Christian College.
My dream at the time was to be a concert pianist.
The time came for the recital. I felt confident with the piece. I practiced until I felt like my fingers were about to fall off.
Once again, I aced the song.
I’m sorry, but if I do say so myself, it was spectacular. I’ve never played a classical piece for an audience better than that day in 2007…
I don’t remember this teacher saying one single good thing about my playing or about that performance.
You know, as I write this, I feel myself almost getting angry! Especially considering my other two teachers who were generally pretty encouraging to me!
I don’t know if there was one thing I actually liked about this teacher I had at that college.
She was a perfectionist, and I didn’t even like how she herself played. Even though I was playing songs by some of the most advanced composers, I don’t ever remember her saying one good thing about my playing.
To put it bluntly: she was a dud. I don’t care how good she was at piano or how much she knew. She wasn’t a good teacher, wasn’t encouraging, and too dogmatic about her own preferences.
I’m glad I only had to tolerate that for nine months… instead of years. I might have quit.
How I Taught Piano…
Fast forwarding about 7 years and after a lot more practice, I became a music instructor myself, in 2014!
I like performing music better than instructing, so at first I was hesitant to do it, but after a while I really enjoyed it.
And while I think I can say I know what I was like as an instructor, I guess my students would really be able to say how I really was and what my teaching was like.
But what I tried to do was to be encouraging!
If I’m honest, I tried to err on the side of encouragement rather than say, “You’re playing it way too fast and making way too many mistakes… for the 5th time. Slow it down and chill out!!”
There are so many relationships in our lives where we can take that kind of approach and it may be easy to slip into that… a performance, fear-based way of operating instead of being encouraging, calling out strengths, patient, etc.
But let me illustrate it this way…
When I started teaching piano (I taught other instruments too), because I tend to be an encourager by nature, I had a goal to be encouraging to my piano students.
(Sometimes this is a strength that can really be overdone and become a weakness, if you’re not able to give people constructive criticism and only speak positive and coddling things when someone does need criticism and correction. There must be balance. And I’m preaching that for myself!)
I know for a fact that if a teacher is encouraging, calling out strengths and using more positivity than negativity to help people improve, they will generally have more of an impact than someone who teaches through a lens of intimidation or fear or negativity.
There are certain people who have an insane drive and passion for music or another hobby or interest and using a more harsh teaching approach will help them, but this is in extremely rare cases. It’s usually like if someone is a virtuoso…
But anyway, back to my illustration.
Let me ask you this, do you have more fond childhood memories of teachers in school who were mean and said or did something that made you feel humiliated or a teacher who did said or something kind and encouraging to you that made you feel like you can be something great?
Oh sure, both of those things can have a huge impact on you. But which one had a good impact on you that you have a good and special memory of?
Unless you’re very strange or have some kind of disorder, the chances are that you have the best memories of teachers or people in your life who encouraged you or gave you the courage to be yourself.
I’ll bet that as I mention that to you, you can recall memories of when you were young and someone in a very brief moment in time possibly with 5 or 10 words did something that impacted your life that you can remember for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, your whole life even.
All that to say, you can have an opportunity to say or do something that can be that moment for someone.
That moment they remember as extraordinary. That moment they never forget that encouraged them to keep going and keep believing in themselves.
See, even though my first piano teacher was generally the most kind and encouraging, I still remember the moment after that recital when my second teacher jumped up onto the stage clapping in elation and called me out among the 10 or 20 students there and said my song was well-done.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
When I first started learning piano, I was pretty terrible with it!
I couldn’t remember which notes were which to save my life. I was such a slow learner, you could’ve thought I had a learning disorder or something. I mean, even I myself thought there was something wrong with me!
When I taught piano to students, I resolved I would do my very best to call out the best in my students.
I didn’t do perfect with it but I definitely did my best.
So at the risk of sometimes maybe being to soft and catering to people, I would rather be someone who people could remember years later as someone who called out strengths and encouraged them to do better and keep going rather than being the person they remember as cold and the reason they would want to quit!
You know, something happens when you encourage people.
You feel encouraged yourself!
I guess if I was summarizing this article, I would just want to say that in the long run, you will have a much better and more positive impact on someone’s life and possibly their future if you encourage them.
This was definitely the case for me with my three different piano teachers, I’m sure it’s the case for you also.
And, not only does it have a big impact on kids when you do something that will encourage them, but it can have a big impact on anyone at any age and give them a good memory of someone who believed in them.
You can really make a huge difference in the world by being an encourager.
At least, that’s what I whole-heartedly believe.
The world has enough critics and cynics.
Oh and by the way, coffee is a wonderful encourager and motivator! It helps the brain produce dopamine, a chemical that helps with motivation. You can read about that and other cool information in my article about the health benefits of coffee here.
Thank you so much for reading this. I hope that this article itself can be an encouragement to you, and help you in your relationships. Have a great day and as always, coffee cheers!
I love hearing you play the piano. Your performance at Margot’s birthday was amazing!
Thank you so much Dan! That was an awesome time at Margot’s birthday! I really appreciate the encouragement. You guys made some amazing food!