By: Konner Scott
I learned to play piano under the tutelage of a brilliant Serbian piano teacher. At the young age of four, she already understood my potential and she consistently demanded excellence. Whatever I have accomplished with my skill set, I owe it to her. She pushed me incredibly hard, but that hard work turned me into a decent player. She helped cultivate my love for music and helped grant me the tools and education I needed to grow as a musician.
Twenty three years after I first learned to play, I’m now in a position to grant that same experience to the next generation.
I spend a lot of time comparing my own teaching style to the teaching styles that molded me. In many ways, the way I teach is a reflection of the way I learned to play. I understand that commitment, passion, consistency, and genuine effort are the keys to improvement, and I do my best to impart these lessons to my students.
However, I also consider it my duty to figure out where my teaching philosophy deviates from the philosophies of my mentors, and to try to improve on the systems that molded me. I look back on my piano journey and understand that I may have developed a skill set, but I also burnt myself out and quit lessons by the time I was 16. I found guitar in my early teenage years, and it became a good distraction from what I considered to be the grueling task of practicing piano. Now, as a teacher, I want my students to be great – but perhaps more importantly – I want them to love playing music, not to drive them away from it.
One of the biggest differences in opinion between me and my former piano teacher is the issue of taking rest. She had a workhorse mentality, and at first, I responded well to it. My ability to focus and my competitive spirit made me a good candidate for that teaching style. After the better part of a decade, though, it began to wear on me. She didn’t really believe in time off- she looked at a student’s musical growth as a direct result of the time and effort they put in.
Now, I’m not saying that time and hard work are not important. To the contrary; they’re perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle if you’re trying to get better at what you do. But the same way we need yin to complement yang, we need rest and recovery to relieve the toll these efforts take on our psyche.
I realized something odd when I started learning guitar. I would play every single day, and I slowly began to get better. But after months of playing nonstop, I’d have to leave town for a weekend to compete at a championship swim meet. This happened once or twice a year.
I wouldn’t be able to bring my guitar with me (and I probably wouldn’t have played much anyways, since my focus was on my racing), so these trips became forced time off from music.
When I returned to town and picked up my guitar again, I would spend a day or so brushing off the cobwebs, but I was always stunned by what happened next. Without fail, once I got my groove back, I would find that I had made a measurable leap in my skills. I couldn’t comprehend this; somehow, by NOT playing, I had become a better player. Eventually, the message began to click, and as I learned more about psychology, I began to better understand this phenomenon:
If you spend all your time consciously trying to learn something, you don’t give your brain a chance to subconsciously process and integrate it. In my case, having a three day stretch where I wasn’t even thinking about playing allowed my subconscious mind to synthesize all of the information I had been drilling into myself for months on end.
As a teacher, I do my best to pass this on to my students. I make it clear to them that it’s not just okay, but it’s a necessity to take a day or two off every once in a while. Everyone has their own rest and recovery requirements, and the onus is on the student to figure out what works best for them. In particular, I encourage taking breaks during the holidays and after recitals.
However, I make sure to let them know that this ONLY works if they put the effort in beforehand. Taking a break from your break will not make you a better player; only long stretches of hard work can do that.
Ultimately, though, I want to give my students the opportunity to enjoy music for decades to come. I’ve come to understand that each student’s musical journey is a marathon rather than a sprint, and incorporating recovery time into their routine can help reduce the likelihood that they will burn out the same way I did.