The Future of Piano Teaching: Changes and Constants
Mixed signals. We live in a time of unprecedented change. This thought is one that is expressed frequently these days—you may even find it to be clichéd. We hear it so often that we may not stop to consider what it really means, or if it is even as true as we might believe it to be. In this issue, Clavier Companion begins a series of articles that will address the future of piano teaching from a variety of perspectives.
I suspect that many of you are thinking, "If we're talking about the future, we must be talking about technology, right?" Yes, technology is one of the primary drivers of the changes we are witnessing. The aim of this series, however, is not to discuss what technologies you should or shouldn't be using. You can find plenty of that information in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere. It is our goal to dig down and explore the broader, underlying issues that are arising. How are our students different? How does that impact our teaching? Our profession? Do some of these changes threaten our way of life? How should we, as piano teachers, be adapting? Is there anything we shouldn't change?
If one were to ask an iconic toy from the past, the "Magic 8 Ball," about the future of piano teaching, I suspect it would answer, "Reply hazy, try again," or perhaps, "Cannot predict now." From my perspective, the more one looks for answers on the future of our profession, the cloudier the picture becomes. It seems that when I talk to piano teachers about this issue I hear from many who feel that they are having more trouble filling their studios and many others who believe that interest in piano study is healthier than ever. Which is true? Is it possible that both are true?
We can point to a great number of trends that are cause for concern—sharp drops in acoustic piano sales, dollars spent on recordings, and the financial health of symphony orchestras, to name three. At the same time, we can find a encouraging signs—there is more music available to the human race than at any point in history, teenagers continue to rate music as one of the most important things in their lives, and the explosion of online learning applications and websites seems to indicate a very high interest in learning to play music.
There is equal conflict over the merits of our changing world. Spend a little time looking at sources, and you'll find an array of arguments on both sides: one camp argues that technology is making us smarter and leading the human race to new heights, while the other side worries that technology is erasing our intelligence and attention spans while eroding all that is good about human civilization. There is no shortage of data on either side of the fence.
The author Danah Boyd notes that human beings have a strong tradition of polarizing their views on technology and feeling as if technological change will lead either to utopian salvation or dystopian apocalypse.1 Neither of these things typically happen, but our judgment can be clouded by our expectations of extreme outcomes. When reality falls somewhere in the middle, our biases may prevent us from honestly assessing the true impact of a technological change.
As we begin this series, I'd like to take a brief look at what I believe is changing with respect to piano teaching and piano students, as well as what continues to remain the same. I do not have the ability to see into the future, and these thoughts are based on my own observations and experiences. You may have different ideas and experiences, and you may disagree. I don't believe there are any easy answers to the question of what the future holds—there is no magic solution that will solve all of the problems we might face. Thinking critically and sharing ideas, however, will help us make some sense of our evolving world and the roles we play in it.
Like it or not, a piano studio of today is likely to look VERY different from a studio of the 1980s or 1990s. Many of those differences have nothing to do with what is in the studio (the piano itself hasn't changed), and everything to do with the students that are walking into that studio. How have students changed?
For starters, the students of today are bringing a lot more of the outside world into your studio. Students from a generation ago may have brought technology into the piano studio (don't forget how common the Walkman was), but today's students are carrying the world in their pockets, with devices that will instantly connect them to anything and anyone.
Access. You've heard it all before, but it is true that students can instantly access just about all of the world's information, music, recordings, performances, and much more. This has wonderful potential, but there are also drawbacks. Students can be overwhelmed by all of this information, and they may have trouble evaluating the quality and reliability of what they find.
Self-instruction. As our students look for content online, they will find a vast store of tutorials, instructional videos, and apps designed to teach them piano at various levels. Is all of this a threat or a boon to existing piano teachers? Depending upon your point of view (and perhaps on your willingness to engage with these technologies), it could easily be either. At the very least, we need to understand what self-instruction materials are out there, and how students are using them. For better or worse, the internet is competing with traditional piano instruction.
Interaction. The students of today spend a large percentage of their time in social exchanges online, and these can be with friends from school or strangers from a different continent. Understanding more about how they share information, react to comments, and work to craft their own identity online can help teachers make sense of a world that didn't exist when we were children.
Need for creativity. Today's students express a great desire to be creative in their work and activities. This may be a reaction to the pressures of increased standardized testing (which encourages a non-creative, one answer approach), or it may be a result of the struggle to find one's own identity in an online world populated by billions. Regardless of the reasons, this need for creativity offers great opportunity for piano teaching, provided we are willing to nurture and develop our students' creative tendencies.
As we consider how our students are different, it is important to also consider what elements haven't changed.
The importance of music. Throughout history, and across all civilizations, music has always played an important role in human culture. In the twenty-first century, music remains as important as ever. Consider the evolution of the iPhone, which traces its roots to the iPod—a device originally built just to play music. As new technologies emerge, their ability to play music always remains a core function. Live music concerts and television reality shows based on music performance continue to generate increased revenue and ratings. We may not be thrilled with the type of music that dominates these cultural phenomena (it isn't Chopin), but we have to be encouraged by the continued human interest in musical activity. Humans continue to realize the benefits of music. A recent study found that listening to music was the most common coping mechanism young adults employed in times of stress.2
The importance of beauty. Technology is amazing, but human beings will always have a need for aesthetic beauty. For many people, artistic beauty can provide a welcome escape from a world increasingly defined by quantifiable data, rankings, and assessments. As piano teachers, we should never forget our role in bringing beauty into the lives of students and empowering them with the ability to create beautiful art at the keyboard.
The importance of human interaction. Similar to our need for beauty, real human interaction is something technology will never fully be able to replace. There are tremendous advantages to online piano lessons, but we shouldn't discount the advantages provided by traditional lessons, where an experienced adult is devoting full and undivided attention to a student.
The motivations behind the use of technology. Many of the desires driving our students to online activities have been around for centuries. Social media seeks to fulfill the same role as hanging out with friends (a tradition for millennia) by allowing casual interaction, discussion, information sharing, and exploration of one's evolving identity. Gaming activities fulfill our needs for accomplishment, success, and achievement. The platforms may be new, but "kids today" may not always be as different as we think.
A fundamental tenet of teaching. I don't know exactly what the future holds for piano teachers. I do know, however, that our profession will need to adapt as the world continues to evolve. This illustrates what I believe to be a fundamental tenet of good teaching: teachers must be able to understand the worlds of their students, and they must be willing to enter into those worlds and meet their students where they are. When this happens, a connection is made and real learning can begin. If we, as teachers, remain isolated in our "past" worlds, we will only have more difficulty communicating with and understanding our students (and they will have more trouble understanding us). It is our hope that this series of articles will help us all better understand the changing worlds of our students and how we as teachers can best serve them.
1 Boyd, D. (2014). It's complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.
2 American Psychological Association, with Harris Interactive (2103). Stress in America: The missing health care connection. Accessedfrom apa.org.