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How Being a Pianist Made Me a Pianist (and How to Make Our Students Pianists Too)

This may come as a shock for some of you, but I've never really thought of myself as a pianist.


I guess it's time for my confession. When I started teaching piano lessons I was a 16-year-old girl with a freshly printed driver's license who thought it would be a convenient way to make some cash before I went to college to become something like a nurse or some respectable career. I remember my piano teacher's wife telling me that maybe one day I could play piano for weddings and make some money performing at different events. I remember thinking she was crazy - why in the world would I want to do that? I barely liked practicing as it was, and performing for people's biggest life events seemed like a nightmare.


Fast forward to today, and I've played piano for at least 5 weddings (this may sound silly but I'm actually starting to lose track), as well as several funerals, business events, concerts, Christmas parties, one cabaret show, and countless worship services. On top of that, many of my clients are themselves respectable musicians or pianists - the first wedding I ever played was for one of the top pianists at my school with my college professors there in attendance! And believe it or not, I actually enjoy performing for these events. The funny thing is that it wasn't until recently that I really began to realize that somehow, someway, I actually became a pianist. It was totally by accident. In college I felt like I was maybe an average or middling pianist, and it was the best I was ever going to be. Now, 3+ years out of college, I feel like I'm in my prime and will continue to grow, involved in music academically, professionally, and in my community.


So how did I get here? I often ask myself that. The obvious answer is by the grace of God and His leading. If it weren't for Him being there every step of the way I wouldn't be here enjoying the colorful and musical career that I have. The less obvious answer, however, is that I kept saying yes. Even though I didn't feel like a pianist, and at each event I had some certainty I would fail, I just kept trying, and just kept saying yes until being a pianist actually made me a pianist. I didn't mean to say yes. Part of the time I just wanted the extra cash. Other times I was just helping a friend out. But continuing to perform has made me more confident and more skilled than I was when I was just studying music.


I hope none of this comes across as braggadocios. For any piano teachers or musicians reading I hope this blog can come as an encouragement to you. I believe that there is a really practical takeaway from my story, and I'd like to share it with you. It's a takeaway that exists in many many other careers, disciplines, and industries. Picture a medical student who has never had any clinical experience is assigned to perform a surgery. They may have all the head knowledge in the world, but they've never had that "boots on the ground" moment that makes their skills a reality. They've never had the experience necessary to go from student to professional. Some of us have a really hard time motivating students (or let's be honest - ourselves) to growth. We tell them to practice and practice and practice and study and yet they keep plateauing, never going anywhere with their musical knowledge. But I'm starting to develop a theory that what really takes students from practice to professional is opportunity. Are we giving ourselves and our students opportunities? Are we encouraging them to be active musicians in their communities and in their schools? As I reflect on my own piano lessons growing up, I'm so thankful at the amount of opportunities my piano teacher presented me with. Without me really noticing I was regularly competing and performing, and it motivated me to be better because suddenly piano practice went from endless torture to necessity.


That's what opportunity does. Saying yes to different opportunities makes practice practical. Practice has never been my favorite chore, but if you tell me I'm playing a wedding next week I'll practice for hours and hours, and every time I'm learning something about how I learn new music, what kind of time I need to commit, how tools like chord analysis can help me, and ultimately my skills are getting sharpened. The last wedding I played for I learned 6 new songs in four days and accompanied two other instruments! I also learned so much about techniques that help me learn songs faster and better so that next time I'll be able to play with even more confidence.


This is what I mean by "being a pianist made me a better pianist". Something about actually doing and putting myself in positions where I have to adapt and overcome allows me to continue to grow. I want to give you a few practical ideas on how you (or your students) can pursue different opportunities to become confident pianists and performers, based on some of my own experience.


  1. Become a church pianist (hymns). Hopefully if you pursue this you hold to the Christian faith yourself, but even if you don't there are many churches in desperate need for pianists. I think the best thing I've ever done for my sight reading is become a church pianist. Prior to being a church pianist I felt like my sight reading skills were fairly weak, but now I practice almost every week receiving hymns and having to learn them in about 15-45 minutes. I've even had occasions where I've had to just play a hymn on the spot if it wasn't sent to me ahead of time, and because of this regular opportunity it wasn't the nerve-wracking challenge it would have been before.

  2. Become a worship pianist (chord charts). Yes, there is a difference, above I'm specifically referring to traditional hymnody, and here to more contemporary music. The most I grew as an improvisor was by playing contemporary worship in my college's chapel band and at my church, but it actually started for me as an opportunity my piano teacher gave me when I was about 12. He taught me the chords, theory, and technical skills necessary to try new things and play piano for my youth group in jr. high, and I've been playing worship ever since. Because of this regular opportunity in my life I've become a far more confident improviser, playing in almost every key (I'm sure I've playing in every key at this point, and even at times in a combination of keys), to the point where it feels second nature. Encourage your students to play in their youth groups!!

  3. Volunteer for other musicians. Ensemble playing is a great way to encourage growth in piano skills. If you or your student is in an ensemble or a music program, volunteer to accompany another soloist in their performance. You'll learn so much about how to follow, collaborate, and compliment while needing to know your music well, yet you can take some of the pressure off because you're not the star of the show. One of the craziest opportunities I had was playing piano for a voice camp one summer where I had to learn 32 songs in less than two weeks. It was something I'm not eager to do again, but by intaking such a wide variety of music in such a short period of time I learned a lot about reading different patterns, styles, and rhythms.

  4. Finally, recitals are important (of course!). I know, I know, the dreaded recital, but for students it really is important because it teaches so much about refining and polishing literature. Even the mistakes we make in recitals (and trust me, I've made my fair share) are a valuable part of the learning process. If it weren't for my mistakes I wouldn't have learned the importance of having pickup spots, or even how to improvise my way out of a memory slip, and believe it or not the more I've performed the less nervous I've gotten. Now, that doesn't mean I'm exactly thrilled at the idea of doing a solo recital, but as a teacher taking time to refine a piece or two to perform alongside with my students is a great way to not only model to my students what performance looks like, but to keep refining my own skills. If your students aren't performing... get them performing.


I'm sure for any seasoned musician many of these things seem obvious. Perhaps I can eventually write a post going into a little more detail about how different opportunities can refine specific skills, but in the meantime if you have the time and energy, don't be afraid to try something new! I hope that one day as you look back you too will be able to be amazed at how, in the blink of an eye, you've become a real musician.


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