The true purpose of piano lessons

Hey Improvisers,

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many adult piano students tend to think about piano lessons a little bit backwards; they think that their goal is to practice throughout the week in preparation for the piano lesson itself.

At first glance, this seems like a good way to approach lessons. You practice diligently throughout the week in order to play well for your piano teacher. Makes sense, right?

Well… yes and no.

This attitude can work well if the thought of having to play well during your upcoming lesson inspires and motivates you to joyously sit at the piano every day and work hard to master whatever musical assignment your piano teacher gave you. Nothing wrong with that if it’s working for you.

However (and this is a big h o w e v e r)…

For many people, this approach actually holds them back and causes a great deal of undue stress, in several ways.

The biggest problem I’ve seen with this is that, as adults, life often gets in the way of a regular practice schedule and, as a result, the pianist doesn’t get enough practice time during the week to master his or her assignment. As a result, they feel under-prepared and even guilty during their lesson, and they tense up considerably. I even used to have students offer to skip the lesson but pay me anyway, simply because they couldn’t emotionally face the prospect of, as they put it, “wasting my time.” (I always gave them the lesson anyway, because, as we’ll see below, there’s a better approach.)

Another problematic scenario resulting from this approach can happen if the student prepares thoroughly but doesn’t play well during the lesson itself. They fail to realize that no one plays well all the time, and also that the reason they aren’t playing well is because they’re putting undue pressure on themselves to be “perfect” for their piano teacher. (It’s not their fault because emotional habits can take time to change and they aren’t actively cultivating a healthier attitude towards practicing and taking lessons.)

Let’s take a deep breath and look at a healthier approach.

First, we’ll need to reverse the equation. Instead of practicing throughout the week in preparation for your piano lesson, think of it this way: the goal of your piano lesson is to help you have more fun at the piano during the other six days.

Wow! Let’s repeat that again:

“The goal of your piano lesson is to help you have more fun at the piano during the other six days.”

This may sound obvious, but it‘s pretty radical. In fact, it’s the opposite of how most piano students view their lessons. Yet reversing the equation in this way can lead us to experience a much fuller musical life, in an invigorated and relaxed way.

If you go into your piano lesson with the idea that it solely exists to help you have more fun at the piano the rest of the week, you’ll realize that it doesn’t really matter how “well” you play during the lesson at all. In fact, the teacher knows that we play better on some days that others and will realize that you may have played much better on another day. Furthermore, “messing up” during the lesson will help a good teacher identify ways to guide you that wouldn’t occur to them if they always heard you play perfectly, right?

The important point here is that if you and your teacher have fun during the lesson and you learn something, then you will have fun while practicing on your own and you will improve even more than if you were stressing out about the lesson itself. It’s a win-win situation, a virtuous cycle.

As Bobby McFerrin sang: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Nowhere does this healthy attitude benefit us more than during our weekly piano lesson.

Good luck with your music – enjoy the journey and let the music flow!


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