When I woke up this morning, I had received an email from a former student’s parent. My student, who we will call William, was one of my best pupils in my music theory classes. He was in my class the very first semester that I ever taught, and continued to take my classes until the highest level that I currently teach. I was very sad to see him go this past spring, but was glad that he had passed my class and would be achieving even greater heights.
Well, to my surprise, William’s mom emailed me to ask if I could teach him private piano lessons. I had a few initial thoughts. First, I was ecstatic at the idea of being able to teach him again. But shortly thereafter, I was filled with self-doubt…
Am I qualified to teach someone piano?
Do I even consider myself a good pianist?
I can teach music theory, but how would I do with private piano lessons?
I texted a couple friends, sent them screenshots of his mom’s email with some of my thoughts, and spent a little while mulling over the situation. William had been taking piano lessons at our school with an exceptional teacher—who is also my friend!—and I thought surely, if he has been taking lessons with her for a few years, by now he is probably better at piano than I am…!
I have never taken a high-level performance exam.
I don’t consider myself much of a performer.
My technique is pretty sloppy.
Sight-reading is the bane of my musical existence.
Then I thought of my own piano lessons, which I took during high school. I had signed up for “jazz piano” lessons, but they ended up being jazz, piano, theory, improvisation, musicianship, transcription, arrangement, composition… As if all of that wasn’t enough, my teacher ended up being one of the most influential people in my life, sometimes opening up to me about his own personal struggles (always at appropriate times, of course). He inspired me in so many ways, with and without music, and indirectly helped me through so many of my own struggles.
He built up my strengths, and challenged me to push a bit past my comfort zone and improve in places where he saw my potential.
I thought to myself, what do I have to offer now, as a teacher? Even though I do not have the typical skill set of a professional pianist, I do have plenty of strengths as a musician.
I absolutely love music theory, and am quite good at it. I thrive off of analyzing and picking apart music and discovering what techniques the composer used.
I really enjoy reading jazz lead sheets, and could definitely help someone else learn how to use them.
Improvising scares me a bit, but is also incredibly satisfying, and once I get in the zone, I can really whip up some snazzy stuff.
Listening to different songs and video game OST pieces and figuring out how to play them on the piano has always been something I have excelled at, since I have a really good ear.
I am a composer! I have a degree in music composition, and would absolutely love the opportunity to teach a young student how to do what I do best!!
I decided that I would respond to William’s mom as openly and honestly as I could. Initially I thought I would turn her down politely, saying that I was not qualified to teach him piano, but I’d be happy to help them find a more suitable teacher.
But instead I decided to ask her what her son’s personal musical goals are, lay out what skills I have to teach him, and see if they are interested in anything I have to offer. I told her that my own musical training was rather untraditional, so my teaching is also quite untraditional. If he is looking for practical exam preparation and guidance in strict performance techniques however, then I would not be the right teacher.
After sending the email to William’s mom, I realized that I had arrived to a very peaceful place within myself. If he and his parents decided to move on with a different teacher, I would not feel bad, because I had explicitly shown them everything I could teach. The decision to go with someone else would entirely reflect their own goals, with nothing against me.
I felt so proud of the list that I came up with. Shifting my focus to what I could teach William, and thinking intensively about my own strengths, was a huge confidence booster for me. But thinking about my own weaknesses also opened my eyes to something I had not realized before today.
I realized that I had spent most of my life—even during college, while pursuing a degree in music—focusing on the aspects of music that I am not good at.
I always envied people who were great at sight-reading, who had amazing dexterity in their fingers, and could play tremendously fast runs and trills, all with impeccable accuracy. These are skills that I simply do not possess, but for some reason I always dwelled upon them, thinking that I would never be a good musician until I had mastered those specific skills.
Meanwhile, I was honing so many other skills: I was training my ear, I was arranging songs for piano, I was analyzing chord progressions and starting to compose my own music… I was becoming a different kind of musician than anyone I had seen before.
My friends and family all told me I was a great pianist, but I didn’t listen to them, because I didn’t have what I deemed to be the “right” skill set to be considered “good”.
To be honest, I will probably never be good at sight-reading. I will probably never be able to accurately and rapidly play complex passages. I am not a classical performer.
But the thing is, I don’t have to be good at those things. No one ever said I needed to be. There’s no one formula to being the perfect musician, or the perfect anything, for that matter.
And quite frankly, at this point, I don’t even want to be good at those things. I would rather spend my time and energy focusing on improving the skills that I have. Some could argue that this is lazy on my part, but I would argue that I am simply being realistic. This is not to say that we should never improve—but rather, we should not focus so much on what we are not good at, when we all have so many things that we are good at.
Regardless of what William’s mom says in response to my email, I have come to a priceless revelation about myself. I have finally come to terms with and accepted my weaknesses, but in turn have also learned to acknowledge my strengths, and I am choosing to focus on the things that I am good at.
And the best part is, in continuing to share my strengths with other people—teaching in my three music jobs, writing here on my website, talking with my friends and family—those aspects of myself will only become stronger.
What are some of your greatest strengths? Feel free to share in the comments! They don’t have to be music related ♪