Toward integrated teaching
Would you teach your students to play only the first six notes of each major scale? Of course not! Good teachers introduce a complete concept, often from multiple perspectives. They may emphasize the building blocks of scales, key signatures, logical fingering, good practice habits, and healthy technique. Outstanding teaching is whole teaching. An integrated music curriculum teaches the whole student, not just the subject.
We often use the word "balanced" to describe an optimal career, diet, recital program, wine, or personal life. Are our music programs balanced, as well, and focused on the whole pianist? Each student who crosses our threshold comes to us with a different backstory, including the home life, practice environment, job or pastimes, physical and developmental abilities, work ethic, and mindset. In order to consider the needs of the entire student, we need to consider her physical and mental health, in addition to her musical skills and practice habits. This has been referred to in recent years as musician wellness.
What is musician wellness?
Twenty years ago, music teachers were more likely to contemplate the medical problems of performers, or to help pianists recover from their injuries. Our field has come a long way, however, and we now embrace preventive teaching strategies that lead to whole-student development and optimal performance experiences. The following are a few examples of topics related to musician wellness.
Well-coordinated piano technique. Healthy technique is more than just injury-preventive technique. A good understanding of how their bodies move and function effectively can help performers reach their maximum artistic potential. Developing a healthy physical approach from the very first lesson is essential for the well being of any pianist.
Healthy practice habits. No amount of holistic teaching will serve a student who has developed harmful habits in the practice room. Performing musicians experience pain and musculoskeletal injuries at an alarming rate,1 and many of these problems begin in the teen years. Teachers must work diligently to make sure that students do not practice through pain or develop overuse injuries. Damage to muscles, tendons, joints, and nerves can ultimately result in serious or chronic health problems.
Adaptive strategies. Of course, no two pianists are alike. We have different hand shapes and sizes, varied musical and developmental abilities, and diverse personal histories. Some pianists have been sick or injured, while others are experiencing challenges related to aging. Some thrive in competitive environments, while others collapse under performance stress. Excellent teaching requires that we help students adapt to their unique physical and psychological environments.
Mental health and stress management. Performing music, even in the private lesson, can be a stressful activity for many students. Performance anxiety is a universal challenge among musicians, and it is the teacher's job to help students develop healthy mental skills and coping strategies. Many students also struggle with depression,
substance abuse, socio-economic challenges, or a dysfunctional home life, all of which negatively affect their sense of well being. Psychological wellness is an extremely important, and sometimes overlooked, aspect of musician health.
Hearing conservation. Pianists are not always apt to consider their hearing health, unless they regularly perform loud music in noisy venues. Since we are routinely exposed to dangerous levels of noise, however, hearing loss is a concern for all musicians. Because noise-induced hearing loss is both pervasive and irreversible, even our
youngest students should learn how and why to protect their hearing when necessary.
Life balance. Teaching the whole musician means helping students understand how their habits affect their experiences, including the ability to learn and play music effectively. Healthy behaviors involve sleep, nutrition, and physical activity, as well as learning effective time management and stress reduction techniques. No life will ever be
fully balanced, but students who understand and feel somewhat in control of their choices can become healthier, happier musicians.
Resources for teachers
Piano teachers have been trailblazers in the area of musician wellness, thanks to the initiatives of our professional organizations.2 Through the support of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy (the parent organization of Clavier Companion), leading educators established the Committee on the Prevention of Medical Problems in 1989. In 2001, the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy developed a new Committee on Wellness for the Pianist, a group that continues to be active. This committee created a Wellness Curriculum Outline, free for instructors to download.3 The Music Teachers National Association also sponsors a Wellness Forum at each national conference, and hosts a variety of helpful wellness resources on their website.4 Several music teachers also belong to the Performing Arts Medicine Association, dedicated to the health of musicians and other performing artists.