Thursday, February 26, 2015

Planning for a New Transfer Student

One of the most daunting situations I find myself in as a piano teacher is taking on a transfer student. Unlike students I have taught from the beginning, I have no idea of the student's skill set, goals, or work ethic. Sometimes the student has been convinced that she is a better player than she actually is. Other times, I find that a previous teacher has left the student with gaps in their training.

I have made my fair share of mistakes with transfer students over the years and have learned a few lessons that I would like to share with you now. Here are some of the things I do in the first few months of work with a transfer student.

  • Build a list of repertoire studied. It's always interesting to look at the pieces that another teacher has assigned a student. This is helpful in establishing the student's comfort level, commitment to hard work, as well as their expectations. It can also provide valuable information about areas of study that have been neglected.
  • Evaluate their skills thoroughly. Although a student may have "worked on" scales or Hanon exercises, their mastery of said skills may be lacking. I intentionally have my students demonstrate various technical skills -- either in repertoire or exercises -- during our early lessons to determine what they are capable of doing. Very often, these evaluations also reveal a lot about the student's understanding of music theory.
  • Talk openly with the student about their previous teachers. This is not an opportunity to bash a colleague. Rather, it is a chance for your student to express their insight into their own development. If the teacher was seen as "too demanding", you might anticipate a low level of commitment to challenging repertoire or a student who become easily frustrated. If the teacher is described as "old-fashioned", your student may be looking for modern sounds. Listen for the cries for help your student is sharing rather than passing judgment on a colleague's abilities.
  • Back up a few steps and have early successes together. Transferring teachers is tough for the student as well as the new teacher. It takes time to become familiar with how each other works and to develop the trust needed to continue making progress. I have found that it is nice to toss in a piece that is slightly below the student's ability level that can quickly be whipped into shape. Not only does it provide an early victory, but it also allows the student the opportunity to experience the teacher's approach from the introduction of the piece through the polishing process.
  • Willingly leave the old material behind. Every teacher has been there at some point. The student is either playing repertoire selected by a previous teacher that you would NEVER have assigned or has developed bad habits that are going to be incredibly difficult to correct. I find that it is perfectly acceptable to honestly tell the student that we're going to leave the piece for now and return to it at a later time. Most of the time, my students appreciate the fresh start and find success with the piece when we return to it later.
  • Find the music that they LOVE to play. Although it's not always the case, often times a transfer student comes to us with a certain amount of burnout. Take the time to find out what it is about the instrument that they first fell in love with and help them re-ignite their passion for making music. It may be a departure from your plan for their development for a while, but the detour will ultimately pay huge dividends.
 Now it's your turn. Share your tips for beginning work with a transfer student in the comments below. I still have a lot to learn and would love to grow from your experiences.