Teaching Especially-Bright Students

Students who are especially bright can be problematic to teach. I speak here of children, not adults.

First, they have very little experience with failure. Most of them don't know to deal with it without being crushed. Because they are blessed with so many talents, everything is so easy for them. Thus, when they encounter a problem they cannot solve on the very first try, they decide they will -never- be able to solve it because they have no experience trying again and keeping at it until they master the difficulty.

I liken the situation to a track and field hurdle event. The average student encounters a hurdle fairly soon after starting piano study (or any musical instrument). He learns early on in the process that he must jump and jump to get over the hurdle. Eventually he surmounts it. Beyond solving the difficulty, he also learns the valuable lesson that if he keeps trying, he will succeed eventually. The exceptionally bright student, on the other hand, "runs" a long time before encountering his first hurdle. He is stunned! "What??! I can't do this??!"

Such a student responds well to a little chat - - I use the hurdle analogy. Help him understand that he -will- be able to jump this hurdle. Perhaps spend an entire lesson helping him do that. He'll leave with more than just the notes learned: he'll know that he -can- succeed if he tries again. And he'll discover that failure does not mean ultimate doom. And that not everything will come to him effortlessly.

Second, many gifted students are perfectionists. The reaction to failure - - or rather, to less than perfection - - is a complete shutdown: the student will not try any more and announces some form of, "Piano stinks!" His rationale is that it is safer not to try at all than to try, fail, and wonder if success is ever possible. It feels uncomfortable for him to be in an ambiguous situation; he wants to succeed or not to try. Like everyone else, he's in his "comfort box." When he stays there, he knows what's going to happen. In this case, he knows he will not be able to do it if he doesn't try again. If he leaves his box, he doesn't know what will happen. Maybe he will try again and get it this time. Maybe he will try again and still not be able to do it. (Of course, this is true of everyone and all things, which is why we are so resistant to change.)

Third, the gifted student has a very delicate ego, though it seems counterintuitive since because he has been a success at everything (usually academic work is easy for him; perhaps sports, as well). Failure at complete perfection on the very first try is often taken by the gifted student as an indictment of his overall worth, especially if the student fears withdrawal of parental love for less than complete and instantaneous perfection.

Fourth, the gifted child generally is short on patience. He expects instant success and gratification. Remind him that it's ok to try again - - as many times as he wants. Try to get him to think about giving himself permission to fail. "Failure is not doing something incorrectly or less than perfectly. Failure is not trying again."

Fifth, some students like this are arrogant or otherwise a challenge to teach. They think they know everything about everything already or make no bones about their impatience when the teacher is explaining something. It is difficult to teach someone who makes no secret that he does not suffer fools gladly. My solution is to suspend teaching and ask a candid question such as: "Do you wish to learn to play the piano?" If the answer is yes, then I explain that it's necessary to do as I ask. I add that have taught many gifted people over the years and really do know how to do it. Then I say quite baldly that I find it unpleasant to teach him when he acts rude to me. Note that I couch my remark so that I focus on what -I- am feeling in response to his behavior, not my opinion of his behavior. A by-product of the message itself is that the student is surprised to hear that someone finds his behavior rude and at least begins to think about how he is perceived by others. It is a long, slow process to sensitize the arrogant student to his behavior, but the teacher is doing the child an enormous favor by addressing this topic that no one else apparently has had the nerve to discuss.

If the student answers no, he doesn't want to learn to play the piano, I say, "Then, I'll talk to your parents. Maybe piano isn't the right instrument for you. Or perhaps you'd rather take dance or theater or art classes." Less than 10% of the time study terminates. The rest of the time, this dose of reality - - that the teacher's patience and desire to soldier on disappears in the face of rude behavior - - is a wake-up call. Of course, the student back-slides, as this is an ingrained part of his personality that is hard to influence in only one weekly session, but a quick reminder is all that it takes for the student to recall that the teacher is not required to keep him in the studio. Often, all of this resistance goes on with the parents unaware. They see only that practice is lackluster and unfocused; and that it is a hassle to get the child to the piano with regularity. The parents know the value of piano study and also know the child will regret suspending study when he is older (perhaps as early as high school). The problem is that the child doesn't know this. (Recall that he knows everything about everything already.)

Here are some other tips I've garnered over the years in working with gifted students:

A gifted student benefits from lateral studies.

Encourage him to apply what he has learned in piano study to other areas. Being able to put to use the skills he has is a wonderful motivator, too, to continue hard work in his studies. And, of course, there is a carry-over to his other fields of interest.

copyright 1996-2002, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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