What It's Like To Be...

A Piano Teacher

January 02, 2024 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 9
What It's Like To Be...
A Piano Teacher
Show Notes Transcript

Delivering the perfect first lesson, working with 89-year-old students, and learning how to charge for your work with Christina Whitlock, a piano teacher in Indiana.  How does she help students hear the "heartbeat of music"? And what is it like to teach a student from first grade through college?

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Dan Heath: Imagine you're a kid sitting down for your first piano lesson. You're sitting in front of this instrument, you barely understand. There's white keys, there's black keys. You're nervous. Your teacher's going to try to get you to play this. You're going to be bad at it for a long time. Christina Whitlock is a piano teacher in Indiana. Her job in that first lesson she tells us is to get you to trust that she won't let you fail.

Christina Whitlock: Because I can't get a student to really do what I need them to do musically until they trust me.

Heath: So she starts slow.

Whitlock: How we number our fingers or how the sounds move on the piano, that moving up is to the right and moving down is to the left. They start to realize that I'm not going to ask them to do things that they are not going to be able to do.

Heath: And then she starts pointing out patterns on the piano. Sure, it's 88 keys, but they're arranged in a way that once you understand it, it starts to make sense.

Whitlock: The black keys are built in sets of twos and threes, and we usually find those first, and I give them permission to play them with lots of sound because chances are somewhere in their past experience, someone has told them not to play the piano too loudly. And again, we're listening for how the pitch moves across the instrument. And then pretty early on we delve into some improvisation exercises. So I have an accompaniment that I play that will sound great with keys that are played on the black keys of the piano.

So I give them two simple rules and I tell them that they can play any of the black keys that they want in any combination because they all sound great when played together as well. And then the only other thing they have to remember is that music has a heartbeat. So they're listening to the heartbeat that I'm providing and they're just trying to stay aware and feel that pulse as they play. And it's this magical moment because they are just amazed at how great they sound. The parents are amazed at how fantastic they sound, and it's a warm, fuzzy musical experience from the get-go.

Heath: That's so good. And that's in the first lesson, that experience.

Whitlock: That's the first 10 minutes. Yes.

Heath: So within 10 minutes she's already demystified the piano a little bit, earn some trust, and gotten the student a quick win. A win that'll hopefully inspire them to chase the next one.

Whitlock: I just had a student leave the other day of his first lesson and he looked at me and he said, "I think I found my little happy place." And I just thought, "Oh my gosh, you're so dear. Your little happy place. May it always be so."

Heath: Seriously. I mean, that's what it's all about.

Whitlock: It is what it's all about.

Heath: I'm Heath, and this is What It's Like to Be... In every episode we profile someone from a different profession, a high school principal, a professional Santa, a criminal defense attorney. Today we meet Christina Whitlock, a piano teacher in Indiana. We'll find out how she builds a rapport with students, what the business of piano teaching looks like and why some of our students who seem the least interested are actually getting the most out of our lessons.

Stay with us. Is learning the piano just a steady, pure, incremental thing, every lesson makes you 0.1% better? Or are there certain kind of breakthroughs when things come together and they click and you're a different player than you were and then maybe you slog away for three more months before you get to the next level? Is it steady or is it punctuated?

Whitlock: It's very punctuated. Very typically I'll get students who begin with me and maybe first grade, and it's very common for me to have those students all the way through the time they graduate high school. And it's a great privilege to watch these human beings develop from these cute little ones into really proficient artists and deep thinking human beings. But as they do that, it's not this, each lesson makes you 0.1% better, but there's certainly times where the synapses are all firing in the right ways and we're leveling up more consistently. But then there come points where life gets busy or our brains are just focused on other things. And so we plateau for a little while.

Heath: Well, I'm curious from the perspective of the piano learner, are there times when it starts to feel different? I do a lot of public speaking, and I think when you first start out, level one is just being able to control your own anxiety and not barfing on yourself on stage. And then level two is maybe just trying to remember your lines. It's like you're thinking back to the outline and what am I trying to say?

And then you keep going until eventually maybe you can stop paying so much attention to yourself and your words, and you can start paying attention to the audience. Are they bored? Are they interested? Are they leaning forward? And adapt to that. So it's like where your focus goes evolves as you get better.

Whitlock: I can see that for sure. I will say this, this is one of the most brilliant things that I was told in grad school. That as a performer of music, I think sometimes we see professionals play and it looks like they're just so fully immersed in what they're doing and they're just enjoying every second of what they're playing and they're just having the best time. But playing music in front of an audience is very much like driving a car through beautiful scenery. And you can take in some of that scenery, but really your goal is to stay in charge of the vehicle.

You got to keep the car on the road and everyone else around you gets to enjoy all of the beautiful scenery, but you have to stay in control. But I also really try to make sure that we're always very cognizant of where we have been and what used to seem really difficult. And so one of the ways I do that is I try to take very clear progress records like two to three times a year. And so we do a lot of reflecting back consistently, like, "Oh my goodness. Do you realize it used to feel really strange to play with two hands at the same time, but now that's such a given."

That is one of those benchmarks. It comes a point where it will not phase you that your hands are doing very different things.

Heath: And how did they react when you have those moments where you review past struggles?

Whitlock: I mean, it's the best stuff of piano teacher life. I think by and large students are very open to that to recognize, "Oh yeah, you're right."

Heath: Gosh, I'm just still thinking about what you said about having students that you've worked with from first grade to when they go off to college and just... I mean, you might have seen more of them more regularly than anybody in their life other than their parents and siblings potentially.

Whitlock: Again, I consider it such a privilege. And I think it's hugely important for students to have that kind of relationship with someone. In fact, there's a lot of data to support that. That one of the primary contributing factors for young people and their future success is feeling like they have someone who is not related to them, but that is invested in them and their growth as human beings and that believes in them and their ability to do great things.

If I may overestimate my importance in people's lives, I happen to think I fill a really important role in that regard. I just can't help but feel like piano teachers have been quietly undergirding the success of society for centuries.

Heath: I like that. All right, well let's shift for a moment and talk about the dark side. I know it's not all just sunshine and butterflies. What are your top pet peeves as a piano teacher?

Whitlock: So here's the thing, people are really the job. So music kind of comes secondary to people. And one of the things that I remind other teachers of a lot is the fact that we deal with essentially what I consider to be the top three investments that people make in their lives. So I feel like the three most important entities in anyone's life are going to be their children, their time and their money. I think people care about those three things more so than basically anything else.

And as a piano teacher, I am dealing with people's children. I am asking them for their time in the lesson and at home practicing, and I'm of course taking their money. And when those three things are on the line, then that means that emotions are going to enter the equation from time to time.

Heath: On this money theme, I asked Christina how she charged for lessons and she said she’d learned a lot of lessons the hard way. If you just charge by the lesson, which might seem obvious, there are problems: Cancellations and reschedulings and, if you can’t fill those slots, then you’ve lost your income. You can’t get it back. And then you’ve got months with five weeks and months with four, and months with vacations, and the payments start to get erratic. So she changed the model. Now it’s a kind of subscription. She runs August thru May, and you pay for your child by the month for a certain number of lessons. Same fee every month. Which makes it predictable for her and elevates the commitment for the student. I asked her how many students she was teaching right now.

Whitlock: My current numbers are 42 students a week.

Heath: And how long is a lesson?

Whitlock: Typically, I start at a 30-minute lesson, which oftentimes is not long enough. So 45 minutes, sometimes 60 minutes tends to be far more ideal.

Heath: I mean 42 times 30 to 60 minutes, that's a full-time load.

Whitlock: Absolutely.

Heath: And then some because of all the coordination and parents asking you about the lessons afterward and so forth.

Whitlock: You're right on track. My friends and my family often remarked they didn't realize that teaching piano was such a lifelong commitment because I do field texts and emails at every hour of the day and there's just a lot of admin time that goes into teaching lessons.

Heath: What is the range of skill you've got at present with your students? What's the gap between your most proficient student and your most novice?

Whitlock: So just in terms of age, my youngest student is currently five and my oldest is 89. So I've got a very wide range.

Heath: That's an old kid.

Whitlock: Absolutely. I actually have a real soft spot for adult students, which happens to work out well from a business standpoint because I can teach them during the day while my kids are at school. But also just because I have such a passion for adults who choose to do something to invest in themselves and something they've always wanted to do. I talk to people.

The second an adult finds out that I teach piano, they almost always say, "Oh, I always wanted to take piano lessons. Or, oh, I took piano lessons and I never practiced and I wish I would have." And I just cannot iterate enough that it is never too late.

Heath: Tell me about your 89-year-old.

Whitlock: She's fantastic. I've been teaching her for more than 13 years, so we've lived so much life together, it's really incredible. She's seen me have my two children. I've walked with her through the loss of her mother, through the loss of her spouse. She lives alone now and piano is just a constant companion and she recognizes what playing an instrument does for you cognitively.

And she recognizes the anti-aging benefits and how this has kept her sharp. And she will be the first to tell you that she does not plan on stopping lessons until she's in the grave, which is really hard for me to think about honestly.

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Have there been curricular revolutions? Right now in elementary education we're kind of coming back to Phonics. Have there been big waves where all of a sudden people will start teaching piano in a new way?

Whitlock: Absolutely. And they're changing all the time as they should, but one of them really just has to do with the overall reading of notated music in front of us. Somewhere along the line, a lot of people began to equate learning to play the piano with learning to read sheet music in front of them. And that is certainly one aspect of learning to play the piano.

I very much want my students to be good readers of print and music in front of them. That's absolutely true. But at the same time, being able to play the piano is not solely contingent on being able to read notated music in front of you, right?

Heath: Just ask Paul McCartney.

Whitlock: Exactly. Exactly. And you wouldn't tell a child that what they were saying to you was not important because they couldn't read it in a book. It's just not the same thing, right?.

Heath: That's a great analogy. And so what did that realization, how did it change the way you approached lessons? Just less kind of hyper-focused on notation and so forth?

Whitlock: At times. And again, I definitely am a teacher who teaches notation and there's all kinds of spillover into what that means in terms of the actual process of learning how to read notation. But it's like that exercise I told you about from that first 10 minutes of the lesson where a student sits down and we make music playing on the black keys because they can do it. There's so many things involved in teaching rhythm. If you look at old piano curriculums, we have quarter notes and we have eighth notes and eighth notes divide the beat in half. So a lot of us grew up in school going "Ta, tt, ta, tt." That kind thing.

Heath: Oh my gosh, we did do that in school.

Whitlock: Does that sound familiar? Yes.

Heath: I mean, haven't heard those terms in probably 45 years, but thank you for bringing them back.

Whitlock: Well, right. So that's rhythm. And so a lot of piano curriculums will not introduce those eighth notes until some predetermined point that they have decided the students are capable of understanding that rhythm. But there is not a student that enters my studio for their first lesson that is not capable of feeling that rhythm. And so they can play all these rhythms initially right away. And it's just a matter of how to introduce the actual notation of that. So I want my students to learn how to play the instrument, not just play repertoire.

Heath: So if I'm understanding correctly, you started teaching piano at age 14?

Whitlock: That is correct.

Heath: How did that happen?

Whitlock: Essentially I just grew up in a really small town and the only piano teacher in town was my teacher. And when she was full, the local music store came to me and asked me if I would start teaching. And so I said, "Of course." I thought that was a really big deal and I could play well at that age, but I did not know anything about teaching and I was not very good at it at first, for sure. Again, that's a lot of teachers' stories. A lot of us get kind of thrown into this situation where we don't really know anything about how we actually learn. And so a lot of teaching is experience.

Heath: So when did you figure out that you loved the piano? Is there a moment that comes to mind or was it just kind of a slow burn?

Whitlock: Well, I'll be really honest with you. I am a people pleaser by nature. That is very much part of my genetic code. And I realized very early on that I had some skills in the piano department. I mean, I worked really hard at it from day one. I was not someone my parents had to ask to practice. I saw it as a way to set myself apart and a way to get attention and a way to get praise. And I loved that. So piano study is really what allowed me to find something to call my own and to find some of my identity.

Heath: Is there a student you've taught whose growth trajectory was really striking to you? Where they started to where they ended up is something you look back on with pride.

Whitlock: I have so many of those stories. So I have learned that the students who sit in front of you who are very quiet and who sometimes look like they could not care less to be sitting where they're sitting in that moment. That sometimes those are the students that you have the strongest impact on. So I had a young girl a few years ago, she had transferred to me from another teacher and she would be someone that we would consider was not a natural at piano. And so I really had to pull her back and begin building from the beginning with her.

And she was probably, I don't know, I think she was in maybe fifth grade. And so she was aware that we were simplifying and she was of course, very self-conscious of the fact that she couldn't do the things that I expected her to do or she could tell that I wanted her to be able to do. And she only lasted about a year and a half before other interests kind of took over her life. And what was really interesting is about two years later, she sent me a letter in the mail completely out of the blue.

And this is of course, someone who's now entering teenage years and is full of all the angst that teenagers carry, but it was the most beautiful letter. And she said, "I remember my first lesson with you." And she just went on and on about how comfortable I made her and how capable I made her feel, and how much she loved coming to see me and how sorry she was that her schedule had changed in a way that didn't allow her to come to lessons anymore. And it was just dumbfounding, right?

I would've never thought that this one student would've carried any significant memory of our time together because I didn't honestly think she enjoyed it very much, but she's just one of those individuals that holds things a little bit closer to her. So I think it's those moments.

Heath: This reminds me of, gosh, I was reading some research about these educational turning points in students' backgrounds and it's just like you describe. What happens is someone from outside the family notices something about the kid, some ability or some effort, and those moments can be so magnified for the student. It's like a few years later, the teacher or the coach or whoever may not even remember they made the comment. And yet it was just the right thing to say at just the right moment and it really landed in a way that can even shift the kid's trajectory. It's so powerful.

Whitlock: Well, I feel like that's exactly what happened to me, right? That's what I was describing was this fact that I recognized that people thought I had this ability to do this thing and look where it's taken me. I'm so thankful.

Heath: I mean, isn't that interesting? What would've happened if you didn't get that job at the music center? Do you think you would've found your way to the same career anyway?

Whitlock: I'll tell you something really funny about that. Like I said, I've been teaching since I was 14 and when I graduated high school, we had this whole portfolio that we had to put together before we graduated. And it also had this personal reflection essay that was basically themed around why we thought we were on the right path for our life or something. And this essay, it is all based around why I am destined to be a performer and not a teacher. And what's so funny is it just could not be more the opposite.

I am a teacher through and through. I think if I wasn't teaching piano, I would be teaching something. It's just who I am. And this essay, what I realize now in hindsight, it was me trying to convince myself that I was destined to be a performer and not a teacher. And why I felt so strongly about that, I'll never know.

Heath: At the end of every episode we ask a series of rapid fire questions. Let me fire away here. What's a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what's it mean?

Whitlock: Well, I'm going to go with pedagogy, not because I think it's so obscure, but because I do have a master's degree in performance and pedagogy. And that always makes people look at me funny when I say that. My own mother tells me that she thinks it sounds like something that should be illegal. So let's just clear the air right now, that pedagogy just means the study of how children learn.

And that degree is focused very specifically on how children learn to play the piano. And that's different than a music education degree, which is more focused on teaching music in the schools.

Heath: What phrase or sentence strikes fear in the heart of a piano teacher?

Whitlock: I'm going to go with, "Guess what? Johnny just got the lead in the school musical. Yay." We are of course thrilled that Johnny got the lead in the school musical, and of course we take a little bit of credit for his musical training to get him there. It just tends to be a scheduling nightmare. And we know that Johnny is no longer going to be practicing the piano and that he is going to be at rehearsals ad nauseum for the next several months. But it is always kind of that sinking feeling of like, "Oh, that's so great."

Heath: I just got muscled out by the theater club.

Whitlock: Exactly. Exactly.

Heath: Last one. Who is the most famous piano teacher, whether real or fictional?

Whitlock: So I'm going to go with Frances Clark. Frances Clark was this incredible teacher that lived in the 20th century. She died in 1998. And I guess the magic of Frances Clark was just the way she was able to speak to piano teachers specifically about the art of what we do. And one of her most famous quotes is that we need to teach the student first, the music second and the piano third.

So the idea of that hierarchy of, first and foremost, I have a human being sitting in front of me and I need to recognize that this whole experience is for them. And secondly, that music trumps the piano itself, right? That we are building an appreciation and a skillset to be musicians first and pianists next.

Heath: Christina Whitlock teaches piano out of her home studio in Indiana. You can find her online at whitlockpianostudio.com. She's also the host of Beyond Measure, which is a podcast for piano teachers. I had never thought about the long-term nature of piano lessons. Like she mentioned that she might have a kid from first grade all the way through college, which is just incredible when you think about it. And it struck me that that's an aspect of careers that varies so much. What kinds of relationships does your job let you form?

And how deep are they? How long do they last? So if you're a Disney cast member dressed up as Goofy, you might create these wonderful moments for 50 kids every single day, but you never really met them and you may never see them again in your life. And that's not better or worse, it's just different. Back at the piano bench, there's a relationship, extended horizon, calm, patient progress. There's two people tackling challenge after challenge. And folks, that's what it's like to be a piano teacher.

I'm Heath. This episode was produced by Matt Purdy. Next week, an episode you're not going to want to miss when we talk to a welder.

Lucky Reed: And he looked at me and he said, "So you really want to learn how to do this?" I said, "Absolutely." And that's all I did every day for three hours a day, all the way until I graduated high school. I just welded.