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Should we fear the future?

Should we fear the future?

"What is the future of piano teaching?" is an important question, but it may tend to strike a bit of fear into each of us. Almost implicit in the question is another, more ominous question: "Will there be a future for piano teaching?" With the prevalence of online courses, YouTube videos, and iPad apps, all geared toward learning to play the piano, it seems natural to be afraid of the future.

Though fear can sometimes be a motivator, it is just as likely to halt an action as it is to motivate one. So when the question "What is the future of piano teaching?" arises, it is important that we at least consider other ways to reframe the issues. Even if we do not adopt or share these perspectives, they can help us act, modify our thoughts, or adapt more easily. 

Here are some examples of piano teachers' common fears about the future, along with some alternative perspectives, facts, and actions to consider. Not all of these suggestions will be palatable to or feasible for everyone, including myself, but a consideration of these things is at least beneficial to our entire profession.

Fear #1: Kids are becoming less interested in learning to play the piano.

The advent of iTunes, YouTube, Soundcloud, and a host of other online services actually makes music more a central part of a person's existence than it was twenty years ago. Not only are people personally listening to music in more ways than ever (iPhone, iPod, satellite radio, etc.), but I would propose that people are participating in music now more than ever. Musical equipment prices are within the reach of a majority of the western world, and, if nothing else, technology has at least made dabbling in the creation of music more common than it was twenty years ago. 

While some teachers might report smaller studios, the students—busy children, teens, and adults who have an increasing number of demands on their time—may simply be finding other, more convenient ways to learn the songs they love. For example, students will watch the same YouTube video for hours so that they can learn their favorite songs by ear. There are more ways to learn to play the piano these days than just with a traditional live teacher who expects a long-term commitment from each student. 

Perhaps the real fear is not that there is less interest in learning to play, but rather less interest in studying music in the long-term and traditional way we piano teachers want. While this is concerning, it is also encouraging that there is great interest in learning to play, even if it means a shorter period of study due to busy schedules, differing goals, and demands on children's time. 

If we can adapt some of our own goals, approaches, and services, we may at least be able to coax more students into our studios, which will then give us a much better opportunity to convince students and parents about the need and benefits of long-term music study. Not every teacher will be able to offer or even entertain some of the following suggestions. But it's worth evaluating whether getting students into our studios to study, even with differing goals or short-term commitments, might ultimately be better for our studios and our profession. 

Here are some questions to ask that may stimulate ideas for coaxing more students to study: 

- Can I somehow capitalize on students who want to learn this popular song [insert song] from this hit movie [insert popular movie]?

- Could I offer a class on learning the chord chart to this song that will then motivate students to continue taking lessons? Or help them compose their own pieces?

- Could I offer an improvising class where I could teach students related theory concepts and motivate them to learn how to read music as well?

- Could I offer short-term lessons for adults returning to the piano who might enjoy learning to play holiday songs? 

- Could I offer a short-term lesson package for parents of current students so that they can give piano lessons a try without feeling like they are committing for life? 

- Could I offer summer partner lessons to encourage current students to bring their friends to learn duets that are easily paired with students who don't study piano?1

- The students already in your studio (your "warm market"), even if for short-term commitments as suggested above, will always be easier to convert to long-term students than those who know nothing of your studio or your offerings.

Fear #2: I'm becoming obsolete because I can't keep up with changing technology!

There is no denying that the rate of change in the last ten years is astronomical. In addition, the prevalence of blogs and social media that encourages each of us to share only what is wonderful about ourselves make it appear that everyone is better at everything than we are! We are not only inundated with too much information, but we are also constantly comparing ourselves to those who are sharing only their best (even if imagined) selves. However, the truth is that everyone feels overwhelmed with this information overload. There will always be too much to learn and too little time to learn it.

Since it is truly impossible to keep up with all of the technological advances, what can we do when we find ourselves frozen with fear and wanting to throw up our hands in despair? One practical solution is to commit to engaging with technology to such a degree that we learn to become proficient in at least one new element. In the process of developing this proficiency, we are likely to gain momentum for learning new skills which build on each other and tend to multiply exponentially. 

We already know this to be true on a smaller and more personal scale. Think of how it feels to learn dozens of new concepts at a piano teaching conference. The most effective way to apply what you learn is to implement only one of these ideas at a time. Trying to implement them all often results in an overwhelming feeling that keeps us from trying anything. Applying a "try just one idea at a time" rule to technology is just as crucial to gaining momentum and staying relevant in technology as it is to piano teaching. 

Here are some of the single most beneficial technological skills from which piano teachers can benefit and to which you might consider committing yourself if you find yourself completely overrun by technology.

- Email: Learn to use email to share links with your families of useful sites on the benefits of music lessons, communicate regularly about students' progress, highlight student and studio accomplishments, send out schedule queries, and more.

- iPad or smartphone: Commit to learning how to use one app. For example, use the video app to record your students and then review the recording with them, helping them discover their own strengths and weaknesses. 

- Facebook: You don't have to share personal information on Facebook. But you should consider joining Facebook just to take part in the private piano teaching discussion groups. A wealth of great advice is right at your fingertips and you'll never feel alone in this profession again!2

- Skype and Facetime: Try Skyping with friends, children, or grandchildren at first. Then, as you learn how to connect and use this resource, begin using it when necessary in your studio.

Fear #3: Piano teachers are disappearing.

I can find no reliable data to affirm this fear. As a matter of fact, there is data from the National Association of Schools of Music that indicates that the number of piano majors seeking bachelor's degrees has been steady to increasing in the last few years. But supposing, for the sake of argument, that it might be true that there are fewer piano teachers than there were fifty years ago, the reasons for this are primarily positive. A large factor in this decrease in piano teachers may be because piano teaching in the last fifty years has been dominated by females, in part because there were not as many jobs available to them. Now, women in the western world have almost any job available to them, so there may be fewer piano teachers as a result. The implications of this may actually be positive in terms of the market! Fewer teachers means that there are more students available for each teacher and that teachers who choose piano teaching may be more committed, since they have more options from which to choose. 

Another reason that there may seem to be fewer teachers is that piano teaching has not always been viewed as a professional occupation in which one can make a reasonable and comfortable living. This mindset is changing as teachers are becoming more business savvy. Ensure that you too are "business savvy" by making sure your business is profitable, your image is professional, and you have an online presence. These are just a few of the ways to ensure that even if there are fewer piano teachers, your business and others like it will not be disappearing!3

Fear #4: Technology is taking our jobs away.

This fear comes from the increased prevalence of online piano teaching courses, YouTube instructional videos, "teach yourself piano" apps, and more. While there are certainly many who use these tools, we all know that only limited levels of proficiency can be accomplished with each of these media. It is important to remember that, eventually, those using these tools usually come to realize their limitations as well. 

A more accurate and positive way to state the truth of what we are seeing with the prevalence of online instruction of music might be, "Technology is opening up new ways to deliver piano lessons to increasing numbers of students." Just as the prevalence of airplanes opened up new and faster travel opportunities for more people, so the ability to teach via Skype and Facetime opens up our ability to connect with more students and certainly opens up a larger world-wide market for us to explore. Granted, having a student next to you and being able to touch her shoulder is important. But much can be accomplished in face-to-face lessons even if it is done over a remote connection. 

Consider whether you might be willing to do the following to take advantage of the new ways that technology is helping us deliver piano lessons: 

- Give lessons over Skype or Facetime during snow days to become more comfortable with this medium of lesson delivery.

- Give lessons over Skype or Facetime when students move away and are still searching for a teacher in their new location. Instead of giving make-up lessons, ask your students to send you short videos of them playing their pieces (in advance of their lesson) and then use their lesson time to video yourself sending back instructions for the next week.

- Offer specialized lessons (like composition, jazz skills, etc.) to students across the world through Skype, Facetime or even Google Hangouts.

What are some of your fears about the future of piano teaching? Identifying and sharing them with others is often the first step to seeing them from a different perspective. Feel free to share your own fears with me through the blog! 

The future of piano teaching is brighter than you think! Realizing that we are in the midst of a culture shift and examining different perspectives on our fears and concerns can help us be more comfortable in adapting to these changes and keeping our piano teaching relevant and desired. Every teacher possesses a different skill set and philosophy that will enable him or her to meet different needs and goals of different kinds of students. If we all support and encourage each other in these efforts, we can help current and future generations learn how to enjoy music thoroughly and play the piano beautifully.

Consider using Forrest Kinney's Pattern Play series to teach your student left-hand accompaniments and allow the non-musical student to improvise with 5-finger patterns. Also consider Andrea Dow's "Duets for Me and My Not-So-Musical Mates."

2 Names of popular piano teaching Facebook groups for which you can request membership include The Art of Piano Pedagogy, Piano Teacher Central, and Professional Piano Teacher.

3 For intensive training on making sure your business is profitable and less stressful, visit

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