In my cheerful teacher voice, I said, "Good job, honey! Now let's play the duet together."
In my subconscious, I was hearing a lilting melody, perhaps played on a pan flute, signifying sweetness and joy, as my little sweet piano student and I were about to play our first duet.
What I should have heard was a blaring, beeping warning sound: no, no, no, do not proceed!
This sweet little girl, whom I will call Little Miss, looked up at me with her big brown eyes and kinda half way nodded, half way grimaced and I, in my rush to just do this, took that as a YES, TEACHER, LET'S DO THIS!
You see my student had been with me for about two months. An absolute beginner, starting from scratch, and we had worked our way through about one fourth of her beginner method book. Little Miss was able to play a simple melody, going back and forth between her two hands, and was progressing quite nicely.
She had played that melody for me, and of course, being the thorough teacher I am, we played it through several times with me counting aloud and then with her counting aloud. This girl knew that song. And I knew she could do the duet.
Except she couldn't.
We started to play and she showed the tiniest bit of frustration as she stumbled over notes. So, I stopped the duet, and encouraged her and we tried again. This time she shook her head pretty forcefully but went ahead and did it anyway.
More mistakes. And, of course, me trying to encourage her and get her to do it again, we tried a third time, and then I spotted something that stopped me in my tracks.
A tear drop landed on a key.
Little Miss was crying, big tears filling her eyes and spilling down her cheeks.
I'm pretty sure that's when I got the clue. (I'm a quick one, I know)
Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop the duet. Put my hand on her back, and said in a gentle voice, "Good try sweet girl. We can stop the duet now."
Such relief from her. Such regret in me.
As I think about this incident, that happened just a few months ago, I'm tempted to analyze the situation through the lens of a teacher who did everything right and a student who just wasn't as ready as I thought she was. And, while there is some truth to that, I think there's something even more important that I had forgotten in this process.
Read your student.
Study your student. Get their "vibe", watch their actions, listen carefully how they respond.
I hadn't done that with Little Miss. If I had been paying more attention, I would have remembered how I saw her little hands shaking every time she played, which would indicate she was nervous. I would have noted that she would lay her head down on the keys when she hit a wrong note, which would indicate that she was really hard on herself. I would have remembered her subtle, but definitely there frustration when she messed up counting aloud.
And if I had thought all of that through, I would have slowed the whole duet idea way down. Taken more time to explain what a duet is. Told her we were going to tackle just two measures and that's it. Joked around ahead of time, telling her we were probably going to make a mistake, but that's ok. Would have let her decide if she wanted to give it another try or not.
Believe me, I get it, fellow teacher. We have SO MUCH to cover in just a 30 minute or 60 minute lesson and the temptation is to rush, rush, rush. Sometimes we have those students that don't even get how capable they are. And then we have those students that are obstinate and just won't do it no matter what.
In almost every instance, the method becomes to push our student through the lesson, rushing them from task to task, without slowing down and thinking through, what is the best approach for THIS student.
But to read our student, honestly doesn't take much more time, it just takes more thinking. Thinking about what we have observed in our student already. Thinking about what their parent or friend has said about them.
So, dear teacher friend, take some mental space and really read your student. Your approach to him or her will be much more informed rather than haphazard.
That doesn't mean the lesson will be perfect, but it might, indeed help you avoid the tear drop on the piano key.