In this enlightening guest post, Megan Desmarais, a piano teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, discusses her experience as a teacher of recreational music making for both children and adults. Thank you, Megan!
I run a large in-home piano studio with 2 unique twists:
- Most of my students start on a recreational music making (RMM) path with the option to take a more traditional approach if they prefer.
- My studio is a pedagogy training studio where I mentor a team of high school and college students who are excited to become piano teachers.
These two aspects of my studio complement each other beautifully and it results in an exciting atmosphere that fosters learning, curiosity and creativity. I feel really lucky to spend my days surrounded by both my students and teachers who are excited to learn and who are committed to sharing music in such an accessible way.
My RMM Background
Teaching piano as a career was an obvious choice for me. I’m a natural-born teacher, but I don’t quite fit into a traditional school setting. My piano background is a huge patchwork of different teaching styles from the neighborhood piano teacher to a very strict Russian piano teacher and many others in between.
I studied music in college and continued on to get a masters in piano pedagogy. RMM was a topic that kept popping up during my master’s program and shortly after I graduated a local music store approached me about teaching RMM classes for adults.
The idea of stress-free piano lessons with less emphasis on the academic side of music and a focus on playing for enjoyment was really intriguing to me. After years of serious music study, I knew I wanted to share music with the masses and it was obvious that the path that I took to learn music wasn’t the only way to go.
For serious musicians who start learning an instrument as a child, master it and continue with a career in music, it might seem like a traditional, academic approach to learning music is the best or only route. When I first started teaching piano, I was determined to point all of my students in the same direction that I went. I held them to a very high standard; I wanted to teach them all of the classics; I wanted them to enter competitions and take music exams.
That was a frustrating approach to take. Many of my first students made it clear that they were learning piano as a hobby. I lived in an area where parents valued piano lessons as a small part of their child’s total educational experience. They wanted their kids to learn piano for a few years because they knew it was a valuable experience, not because they wanted their kids to study music for the long term.
As I settled into teaching RMM for adults, it became more and more clear that the RMM philosophy is also what most parents were looking for in piano lessons for their children.
I flipped my teaching upside down. Rather than assuming that every student would want to become a high-achieving pianist, I assumed that every student would want to play for fun for the rest of their life. This assumption is very sustainable for most students. It quickly becomes clear which students are suited for a more traditional approach. It’s very easy to segue into more formal, academic teaching with RMM as a starting point.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that I still hold my students to a very high standard. I’ve never once compromised the quality of my instruction or watered down my expectations for my students since adopting the RMM philosophy. I expect them to do things well and to play correctly and accurately.
RMM for Adults
Before I became immersed in RMM, teaching adults was a bit of a puzzle for me. I’d get frustrated by their slow progress. Their inconsistent schedules made it feel like it was hard to get momentum from week to week. Most adults have fairly specific musical interests that don’t always align with a traditional piano method. All these things made it difficult to help adults feel successful at the piano.
While RMM is a different approach to teaching, a lot of it is simply a different mindset about teaching and learning piano.
I’ve always liked the saying “It’s only a problem if you make it a problem” because it brings a lot of life’s little inconveniences into perspective. Once teaching the RMM philosophy became ingrained in me, I realized that many of the “problems” I had once faced with adult students weren’t really problems at all.
Adult students missing lessons due to work, travel and other obligations is just a reality. Their schedules definitely aren’t as consistent as children’s schedules and that’s OK. Instead of viewing this as a problem, we can enjoy our time together making music and appreciate that they have chosen music as a way to ground them among the chaos of a busy schedule.
Most adults aren’t seeking out ways to add stress or pressure to their lives. They acquire plenty of stress via their jobs and managing their other responsibilities.
RMM gives adults a chance to learn music as a way to escape their hectic life, to explore a new interest in a stress-free environment and to enjoy their new hobby at their own pace.
Early in my RMM teaching days, I always taught RMM classes in a group setting. I love that the classes can bring people together and they give beginners a chance to join a team of other new learners who are in it together.
In my current season of life, classes aren’t a good fit for my schedule, so most of my adult students start with private lessons, using the same RMM curriculum that I would use in a class. And most of them have stuck around as long-term students who prioritize their weekly escape at the piano.
RMM for Kids
As I settled into teaching RMM for adults over the years, the same approach began to make sense for teens and kids in my studio.
I started to notice that putting all students in the same box was very limiting. Assuming that a student might take the same academic path to learning music that I took set me up for years of frustrating teaching.
Once I began to approach every lesson as an RMM lesson, it became easier to enjoy every student where they were at, with their unique gifts that they brought to the piano. I made it my goal to set up my students for a lifetime of musical enjoyment and I understand that that will look completely different for every student.
An interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that once I backed off of my own pursuits of setting every student on an academic path, many of them gravitated in that direction anyway. Many students who have a strong foundation from RMM become interested in studying classics, learning theory and participating in competitions.
I appreciate that there are many different ways to approach learning and sharing the piano. I love that some of my colleagues have a reputation for training award-winning students. It’s wonderful that many teachers have found a way to incorporate exams, competitions and theory workbooks into their teaching. Drawing from our rich history of piano pedagogy allows for plenty of room for all of us to thrive. RMM is just one more piece of that puzzle.
Megan Desmarais runs a pedagogy training piano studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She blogs for piano teachers, students and parents at verypiano.com.