Sharpen Your Saw

Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (which is definitely worth a read) tells this story:  

Once a woodcutter strained to saw down a tree.  A young man who was watching asked “What are you doing?”

“Are you blind?” the woodcutter replied. “I’m cutting down this tree.”

The young man was unabashed. “You look exhausted! Take a break. Sharpen your saw.”

The woodcutter explained to the young man that he had been sawing for hours and did not have time to take a break.

The young man pushed back… “If you sharpen the saw, you would cut down the tree much faster.”

The woodcutter said “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. Don’t you see I’m too busy?”

That's how I feel about writing progress reports. The act of writing them sharpens my saw. 

I know you're thinking, is she kidding? Add something to my already ridiculous "To Do" list? What is wrong with her? Does she know what my life is like?

Actually, I do know. I've got two kids of my own. I teach a full studio of kids and adults and write a blog and compose music and present to teachers and... I feel the same way about my time that you do about yours. Yet each year I make the time to send personal progress reports for each and every student.

If you can't convince yourself of how worthwhile progress reports are, try it for just a few students. Maybe all your Tuesday students get progress reports. Then, see if it changes your teaching or those students, or your feelings about them and/or their parents.

As a parent, I know how much I appreciate meaningful feedback about my child.

Progress reports for piano teachers Nadia

Grades aren't communication. They are quantification, and not very useful quantification at that. If I see a bunch of grades, I have learned little about my child. I have learned something about where she fits in the system, but that's it.

As teachers who work one-on-one with students, we are in a unique position to give feedback. I like to take advantage of this for numerous reasons. 

Progress reports are good business.

Parents pay me to give individual attention to their child and this is a way to reassure them that I am indeed thinking about their child individually. 

Let's use my student Annie as an example.

Writing a progress report forces me to stop and assess Annie's current strengths. It allows me to evaluate my teaching of Annie and make sure that I have a plan for the coming months. It reminds me to do short-term and long-term planning. It reminds me that everyone is paying the same tuition and that playing favorites - even in the planning department - is unwise. 

An added benefit is that these emailed progress reports usually receive a response. Sometimes it opens a dialogue for talking about the child. Sometimes it's just a lot of love going in both directions. Even if you only have good things to say, parents love to hear them. If you are approaching their challenging child with thoughtfulness and compassion, they really want to hear about it. 

The act of writing progress reports will make you a better teacher and reading them will make your piano parents better piano parents. 

My progress report list in the middle of doing them. I used the app "Stickies" to make this little list. Yes, I even use digital post-its!

My progress report list in the middle of doing them. I used the app "Stickies" to make this little list. Yes, I even use digital post-its!

Choose a time when you will have had a lot of interaction with your students. I like to do mine after the spring recital, but choose any time when you're feeling inspired by teaching. If you have a week when you're feeling discouraged, don't choose that time to write progress reports!

I break the job down into these steps:

  • Make a list of my students in the order they come in the week.
  • Create emails for each student that are blank and ready to use.
  • After the end of the day or teaching or before you start the next day, write about the students you've taught most recently. Don't  do the easy ones first. Just take your time and do them in the order you've taught them. 
  • Send each one as you complete it and update your list. (I love that part!)

Here are some prompts to help you get started: 

The reports don't have to be long, they just have to be specific. Here are some prompts to get you started.  Answer these questions and you'll be on your way:

  • Why do I enjoy working with John?
  • Why is John special? 
  • Does John have any musical gifts I'd like to take time to appreciate? 
  • What specific goals do I have for him this semester? 
  • What long-term goals do I have? 
  • What do I wish John's parents knew about the way he works with me?
  • Does John need a longer/shorter lesson? 
  • Is the instrument John has adequate? Do I need to suggest an improvement in their instrument? 
  • Do I want to continue teaching John in the future? If not, perhaps I should use this opportunity to bring this up. 

Here are some areas to discuss: 

  • Technical giftedness
  • Hard work  
  • Ability to focus
  • Handwriting and fine motor issues
  • Sight reading
  • Rhythm 
  • Getting along with other students in studio classes (social skills)
  • Performance ability 
  • Ability to receive criticism/suggestions
  • Memorization

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it may give you ideas for things to discuss in a progress report. Children are moving targets. They change not only weekly, but sometimes minute-by-minute. Not only do their abilities change, their interests and desires change. Staying in touch with them is my responsibility as their teacher. Is there a new piece they want to play? I find it and help them learn it. Whatever it is.

Here are few passages from the reports I wrote this week: 

  • Joe is an amazing musician, even at his young age. What I’m hoping to do with Joe is to continue to let him explore the piano - the sounds it makes, the ways he can use his hands to make sounds - and still teach him some actual pieces. He’s in some kind of developmental stage where he’s pushing me in subtle ways, but stops immediately if I send him that message. I’m sure at home it’s much harder - but hang in there because it does get easier. Parenting isn’t for the faint-hearted. Parenting gifted kids is especially challenging because no one understands what you’re going through.
  • Samantha is a very self-directed learner and I think that’s a great trait. She also accepts criticism well, but doesn’t always try hard enough to continue to make the changes she’s made at the lesson. We’ll work on that skill in the coming months.

  • Annette is growing into a beautiful young woman. She is such an active participant in piano lessons. She asks questions. She asks for clarification. She makes suggestions and isn’t afraid to express her ideas. All GREAT traits. This year she has learned to play expressively and to use dynamics and articulation to create a mood. This was evident in her beautiful playing at the recital. What a lovely performance!

  • I’m going to work to be more patient with Anne, making sure she understands every bit of every assignment. She is so sweet that sometimes I think she understands things when she doesn’t. I’m trying to double-check everything I tell her and confirm that everything is clear. Please let me know if she ever tells you she doesn’t understand something. I loved the lesson we did yesterday about chords and inversions and the little animals on the keys. It was fun, interesting for her and helped her understand much more about how chords are constructed. 

  • She seems to have suddenly started to understand how reading music works and that has made learning pieces much faster. (Obviously!)The one unusual thing is that I continue to find her reaction speed to be unusually slow. When asked a question she takes a great deal of time to answer it. The strange thing is that she’s almost always correct - so it seems to be more a matter of confidence and learning to trust herself than anything else. She isn’t slow, though the speed with which she answers or volunteers information is slow. I’m encouraging her to begin to answer more fearlessly with the hopes that she’ll start giving some wrong answers and realizing that nothing happens! Learning is about making mistakes and trying things out, not about being right all the time.

  • I think Parker may have turned some kind of developmental corner in the past few months. I know they’ve been rough ones for your family, but she seems able to keep on track when working on a piece now in a way that she simply couldn’t six months ago. She also has made some technical strides and can now control her fine muscles much better than she used to. I’m so pleased, because there were some times when I wasn’t sure she’d be able to stick with it. Now I feel quite confident that she’ll be able to play well from here on out. Whew!

  • Leslie has made remarkable progress and blossomed into a wonderful piano student. (Much better than when she was swatting my hands away from the piano a little over a year ago!) She has an innate ability to focus and stay connected to whatever she’s working on. She is smart, works hard and likes a challenge. In other words, she’s an easy-to-teach piano student. She has a good ear, she’s physically coordinated and loves music. This year I’ll be starting to give her some harder pieces to challenge her. She’ll be playing in more difficult keys and moving around the piano - high and low - and playing more interesting repertoire. I’m going to keep her moving through Piano Town while supplementing her lessons with lots of other music. (She has three books of Attention Grabbers ahead of her! Not to mention some Elissa Milne!)

  • Mark has great abilities and strengths. As you know, he has also had his challenges.  I’ve completely changed my method for teaching him this year and so far it seems to be working. I’m trying to start with what things sound like and THEN move to what things look like. It’s helped immeasurably to have had the educational testing done as it confirmed and gave words to what I’d suspected. He seems to do best when he’s not overloaded with too many pieces, but has more than one thing to work on. I was so pleased with his performance at the recital. He played really, really well. This year I’ll be working with him to understand the language of music - first from an experiential standpoint and then moving onto what written music means. I think he has strength in the area of keyboard geography and understanding easily how things are supposed to sound. If I can build on that innate talent I think he’ll be able to play well. 

  • Louise has developed a big, beautiful sound (despite her piano at home) and a sense of imagination that is quite extraordinary. The way she played that slow Sarabande was wonderful. In terms of learning issues, I do sometimes wonder if she has a slight auditory processing issue. When I ask her to do things she has a tough time hearing and remembering what I’m saying. It’s not huge, but I wonder if there’s something going on. It’s different than being forgetful - it’s more like she can’t quite get the information into her brain and then hold onto it. There might be some minor working memory issues as well. I can’t tell exactly, but it’s a little different than standard processing without problems. Have I recommended that you read The Mislabeled Child? It’s worth your time. Best book I’ve found so far about learning differences. Full of information that may help you with your son as well. 

These are just some samples of the progress reports parents received this week from me.

What will you send out? Is it time to try something that may just bolster your students and their families before summer?


Here are some emails I received back this week:

  • Really appreciate your thoughtfulness, Diane. Thank you.
  • Thanks for sticking with us, and telling it like it is, but with the kindness and sensitivity you have consistently shown. 
  • Thanks for the report! Been a great year!
  • She does practice, but you are correct as usual - she tends to be rather perfunctory and get it done rather than sitting at the piano for long periods obsessing on passages. But once she gets into a piece she will spend more time with it and really get into it - it's getting her to that point that's the hard part. She hates not being perfect...
  • Thank you for the very nice note. She is really excited about the new piece you gave her. I love to see how proud she gets when you challenge her. She ran and showed the piece to her brother and said, "It's a mini-Beethoven!" It was really cute :)
  • You made me cry. I love you beyond words. (Note: this is not the usual response to a progress report!)
  • That's so sweet and great to hear and nice of you to say. Thank you! We so appreciate your amazing teaching skill and sticking with her through her piano ups and downs.
  • Thanks, Diane. I agree with your assessments and like the direction of challenging both of them as they will rise to it (and coast if you don't!). They really are crafty that way. Having the practice charts is a great idea. You are an incredible teacher. Thank you for everything.