Piano Mentoring - Getting It and Giving It


by John M. Zeigler, Ph.D. and Nancy L. Ostromencki
Rio Rancho, NM and Tucson, AZ USA


entoring, an informal or formal process by which older, seasoned people support, educate and counsel younger employees, is critical to the success of just about any enterprise. Although some managers may see mentoring younger employees as a near or long-term threat to their positions, organizations with strong mentoring programs reward their managers for doing all the things which help their subordinates become promotion-worthy within the organization.

Even if the overwhelming majority of piano teaching situations would probably not be thought of as being "corporate", mentoring is at least as important for piano teachers and students as for those in the corporate milieu. The success of teachers and students often is directly dependent upon the mentoring relationship. While some form of mentoring may seem "automatic" for many teachers and students, it is so important that it can benefit from careful consideration and implementation. In this article, we'll discuss piano mentoring; what it is, who should get it, how to give it, how to use it, how it differs from and interfaces with everyday teaching and what it should include.


keyinfo.gif (1045 bytes)Mentoring is for everybody, both giving it and getting it.

What Is Good Mentoring?

Most people, if asked, would probably say that mentoring is simply providing advice, counsel and moral support to younger or less experienced people. Although those things are certainly a part of mentoring, good mentoring is considerably more. One way to think about the difference between mentoring and good mentoring is that a good corporate mentor will train his subordinates so well in doing his job that they can replace him at any time and do it as well or better than he does. This may be a little challenging for some, but it is the only way to mentor well.

This doesn't mean that mentor simply shifts all the work and the responsibilities of his job to subordinates to avoid work. That helps nobody. The mentor will develop the knowledge and experience of the people under him by giving them experience-expanding assignments and enough information and counsel to help them both do the job right and learn the process behind it. In the short term, mentoring may actually cost the mentor some time, but will pay off in the end.

Some people think that mentoring is just for the best or most favored people. That is a sad misconception. Mentoring is for everybody, both in giving it and getting it. Well-mentored students will learn, by example, that being a mentor, within the limits of their knowledge and ability, is at least as satisfying as being mentored. In the piano studio, it makes lessons more fun and satisfying and can help to combat the feeling of isolation that many students feel when they have to practice. Different people will benefit to different degrees and in different ways, but good mentoring pays off in extended abilities of students and more time for the teacher.

Mentoring in the Piano Studio

We have discussed the corporate mentoring process briefly, because it is perhaps more institutionalized and developed in some corporations than elsewhere. The goals and methods of mentoring in the piano studio are somewhat different than those in the corporate environment, though the principles are similar. Although there may not be a sharp demarcation between mentoring and normal teaching, mentoring is not simply giving the normal piano lesson and assignments and expecting the student to go home and carry them out. Although mentoring can be done within the normal lesson times, it involves, at least:

  • understanding the personal needs of the student as they relate to piano lessons,
  • providing encouragement and support,
  • setting high standards,
  • constantly challenging the student to do and learn more,
  • rewarding accomplishment,
  • instituting an environment where the student takes a personal interest in his lessons, beyond simply showing up,
  • promoting in the student an interest in helping other students in the studio in the ways that he can,
  • giving the student responsibilities and help with them so that he can learn from them

This may not be a complete list, but we hope it gives a sense of the difference between normal teaching and mentoring, even though the two overlap to some degree. You may do more or less of each of these individual items, depending on the needs and interests of the student, but the important element is that the student gets a chance both to mentor and be mentored.

The Mentoring Process

With beginning students, mentoring may focus on developing a rapport with students and encouraging them to stretch themselves and their abilities. To the extent that, after some training, you can encourage them to help other students in the studio, you can give them some experience mentoring themselves. With more advanced students, mentoring should involve challenging them to increase their skills and repertoire. In all mentoring situations, the mentor should maintain the highest standards of professionalism, as this will help create the respect necessary for the teacher to be an effective mentor.

Much of good mentoring in the studio is a lot like mentoring elsewhere. It's all about teaching the student how to help himself and others to both broaden and increase their musical knowledge. For example, most musicians enter a music career because they like and appreciate good music. A piano teacher can mentor her students by giving them an appreciation for, and even assignments which build their knowledge of, music generally, not just the piece they're working on at the moment. If you have multiple students in a family, encourage them to practice together and help each other. This can have several positive effects on learning, as any knowledgeable teacher will understand.

Mentoring Prospective Pianists and Teachers

You will probably take a special interest in mentoring those students who profess an interest in a career in music, especially if they indicate that they would like to teach music in some form. You will do many of the same things mentoring them that you would do with other students. However, with these students, you have a special responsibility to make sure that your mentoring includes imparting an understanding of both the joys and difficulties of a career in music. Virtually every musician we know says that music is a very satisfying, but difficult, career, especially financially. One of the most important things you can do for those students with an interest in a career in music is to impart an understanding of the challenges.

If the advanced student shows an interest in a music career, you could involve them in the conduct of your studio activities. For example, one teacher we know had a computer theory lab that required an overseer of students using it while she taught other students. Since she had a student who was interested in a teaching career, she had the student run the lab in return for a break on lesson costs. The student got some enjoyable ands-on experience, both in dealing with students and observing the daily operations of the studio. The teacher got help in the studio. The same student also helped organize studio concerts and similar events.

Mentoring from the Student Standpoint

The student who get the opportunity to work with a mentor/teacher should take it as a great compliment and favor that his teacher is willing to take the time and interest to mentor him. The teacher (mentor) feels that the student has that extra talent, desire and drive to undertake the sometimes arduous process of learning everything he can from the teacher, rather than just the essentials. Students should take advantage of the opportunity provided, not only to learn piano better, but to learn the mentoring process themselves so that they can use it with others. With some teachers, it might be helpful for the student to indicate to the teacher that he would like more challenge and responsibility in his lessons. Usually this will tip the teacher off that the student is desirous of mentoring and being a mentor.

A Personal Perspective on Mentoring

The American Conservatory in Chicago had a great apprentice (mentoring) program . It was used and designed by Louise Robyn, a pedagogical front runner who was doing advanced pedagogy in her studio well before others recognized the value of her methods. For example, long before Mr. Suzuki was using his idea of "mother tongue" for students to learn rhythmic ideal and melodic lines, Miss Robyn was using similar concepts back in the early 1900's. She also promoted the idea that the best way for a person to learn the art of teaching was to have the student work with younger students at first.

Very often, this would involve practicing, sometimes up to 3 times a week, with younger students. This would work best if the mentoring student had worked with Miss Robyn's methods and ideas. Such practice sessions with younger students were often an eye-opening experience for me and for the parents of these students. I would go to the home of the students, work with them for sometimes up to 2 hours and not leave until the material was learned. The parents would be invited to sit in at these sessions, listen and take notes if needed.

Starting out as a beneficiary of a knowledgeable mentor and as a mentor helped one of us and her mentor's students greatly. First, it gave me valuable insight as to what "private piano pedagogy" was all about. Second, it gave the students a chance to decide if they really wanted to do all the work required to become a good pianist. It was an eye-opening experience for the student to learn how much dedicated work it would take to master the piano. Third, it helped the parents understand how much work was required for their child to really undertake the study of the piano. Finally, it helped the master teacher/mentor. When the master teacher/mentor would go on vacation, or a concert tour, she felt a some relief that the students would be taken care of very well by the student teachers/apprentices.

The mentoring experience was so valuable to me and my teacher that I feel that no pianist should teach private piano lessons until they have been mentored by a master teacher. Teaching piano well is such an art and a calling that mentoring is critical. Those teachers who may have missed out on the experience would be well-advised to spend some time being mentored by a master teacher, to learn the process as well as the mechanics of good piano teaching.

Teachers Need Mentoring, Too!

None of us can know everything about any, let alone every, topic. One of the most valuable resources available to teachers of piano is the advice and counsel of another trusted and experienced piano teacher. This teacher might be one you had as a student or it might be one in your community that you respect. You can ask for advice in lots of ways: ask to attend and/or help with another teacher's lessons, talk with the teacher/mentor at meetings of the local music teacher's association or just call the teacher and ask. Maybe all you need is some encouragement or perhaps you need some advice on dealing with a particular type of student. Either way, most teachers are happy to help other teachers, so long as it doesn't consume too much of their time. One of the best and most satisfying ways of getting and giving mentoring from multiple teachers is to become involved in a "peer review" process of the sort one of us has described in his article, Teachers Helping Teachers - A Proposal. Since the only purpose of such a process is improved teaching, you have everything to gain and little or nothing to lose by engaging in it. However it might come about, giving and getting mentoring is just as important for teachers as for students.

Should Parents Be Mentored?

A smart teacher will soon realize that parents of their students can benefit from some mentoring on how to be a positive force in the student's piano experience. Of course, you can't, and shouldn't, tell the parents how to parent their children. But, you can and should encourage them in every way you can to help you make the most of the lessons for which they are paying. The process is similar to that of mentoring students, but with an emphasis on helping the parent understand what they can do to help assure success in lessons, then rewarding the parent with one of those all-too-rare "pats on the back" when they have done well in helping their piano student.

What's In It For Me?

Teaching and mentoring are not the same thing, though it's hard to be a good piano teacher without doing some mentoring and it's hard to be a mentor if you're not a good piano teacher. Good mentoring takes a little extra time. You probably won't get directly paid for it, though, as you develop a reputation as a good teacher and mentor, your studio will probably grow. The real benefits for the piano studio teacher are emotional. As with almost any other occupation, oftentimes teachers feel unappreciated for the work they do. If you can mentor meaningfully, your students and their parents will appreciate you more. You will have a better rapport with your students and probably enjoy teaching more. That, by itself, probably makes mentoring worth your time and effort.

Page created: 8/13/11
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1, http://pianoeducation.org
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