Stop Trying to Teach Creatively

Your student, Jenny, is coming in 15 minutes for her lesson. Things didn’t go well last week. She was distracted, couldn’t concentrate, and to be honest, you thought she might quit piano. To be even more honest, you were kinda hoping she would quit piano.

You may have been reading a lot about the buzzword “Creativity” in Piano Teaching. Perhaps, you think, you’re not doing well with Jenny because you’re not being creative enough. Thoughts rush in. “I need to be more innovative. I need to break out of my rut. I need to be more original. I need a Student Saver piece. A Superhero piece. More chords. Pop Tunes.”

I’d like to propose a different solution.

What if the problem isn’t that you're not “teaching creatively enough” but that you’ve forgotten to focus on Jenny. What if she isn’t a “problem student,” but simply herself. Not a student in need of a blast of “creativity,” but a student whose behavior is trying to communicate something to you.

Whenever I find myself needing to reassess things with a student like Jenny, I to try slow myself down. I focus on what I see. I take some time to consider the situation and gather my thoughts.

What is Jenny trying to tell me with her behavior? How can I describe what she’s doing?

For example, “Jenny seems distracted.” That’s not specific enough. I need to ask myself, “What am I doing that elicits this response?”

Another one of my students, Jason, likes his world to be complicated. If I ask him a “yes or no” question, his favorite reply is, “Maybe.” This can be challenging. If I’m tired, I can find his need for complexity difficult. “Why can’t he just say a simple ‘yes’ when I ask him if he likes something?” I’ll think. Strangely, that’s exactly the right question to ask. Why can’t he answer a question simply? What is he getting out of the interaction?

My best teaching happens when I stay focused on the messages underneath the words my students are saying. Not, “Jason makes me so angry when he answers a question with ‘maybe.’” But reminding myself to ask, “Why is Jason answering a question that way? What kind of interaction is he looking for? Is he trying to show how quick he is? Is he confused about the real answer? Does he want a higher level conversation? A bigger challenge?”

After you’ve established your goal, that’s the time to think about ways to meet the needs of your students. You may have some quite creative solutions up your sleeve. But talking about Creativity in Teaching as if it were something that happens in a vacuum does us all a disservice. Teaching never happens without a student. A particular student. At a single place. A specific time. Today. Now.

That’s when you meet the student’s needs. Anything else is just a buzz word.