Conversations With a Clueless Teacher

By Mayron Ellis Cole

(Ed. Note: The following article is a composite of conversations and interviews Mayron Cole has had with numerous "clueless" teachers around the country. "Ms. Dingie" is fictitious, but the conversations are all too real!)

Ms. Dingie: I’m really interested in putting as many of my students in classes as I can. I’ve heard about group piano teaching and I want to do it. More money and less teaching time! I’m all for that!

Ms. Cole: Have you ever been trained in the skill of group piano teaching?

Ms. Dingie: What’s there to learn? I mean, you put a kid on every bench and you’ve got a group piano class. Right? I’m putting a nine year old with a five year old and two teenage transfer students.

Ms. Cole: That’s not going to work, Ms. Dingie. The idea is to put together students who are at the same level of piano playing skill. You also want no more than one year age difference between the students. All students in a piano class will be working on the same page of a method book at the same time. They will be playing aloud in ensemble.

Ms. Dingie: Well, the way I’m going to teach the class will work. I’ll teach each kid for ten minutes while the other students put on headphones or play with the computer. That way each student can be at a different level of piano playing skill. Plus, they can use any method book they like. I’m versatile.

Ms. Cole: So what you’re really doing is teaching each child a ten minute private lesson but charging the parent for an hour class.

Ms. Dingie: Pretty cool, eh?

Ms. Cole: But a well-taught group piano class means that each student receives an hour’s instruction from you each week—not ten minutes.

Ms. Dingie: They’re all sitting in my studio for an hour. So it’s an hour class. Besides, I’ve just invested in one of those gizmos that sits on top of your piano and you can plug into each kid’s piano without running around the room. Everybody wears headphones for the entire class. I’ve got students working on Bach Inventions, primer solos, church hymns, every method book imaginable--you name it. I just plug into each keyboard and listen for a few seconds, maybe offer a few comments, and then I plug into another student’s keyboard. They never know when I’m going to plug in. By the way, all my piano benches in every class stay filled. When a parent calls for a lesson, I just tell them the day and time that a bench is open. Makes no difference to me what level the kid is on.

Ms. Cole: That’s pathetic. You give real group piano teachers a bad name, Ms. Dingie.

Ms. Dingie: I have to admit I’ve had a little problem. I have a four year old in with a class of seven year olds. It seems the four year old goes a little slower than the other students—she’s not reading music yet. I keep trying to get her to sit quietly but she’s really starting to fret a lot. She’s in there with an older brother because her mom wants to drive over to my studio only once a week. Moms love me!

Ms. Cole: No kidding!

Ms. Dingie: The only other place to put the four year old is in with some nine and twelve year olds and an adult student. Maybe the adult student will baby sit the four year old.

Ms. Cole: Your piano classes are a mess. Why don’t you come to a seminar and get some real training on how to correctly teach class piano?

Ms. Dingie: Heck, I’ve got to pay off all these keyboards and that gizmo with all the headphones attached. I’ve even bought a computer filled with theory games to baby sit the kids. I’ve made a real financial investment—who has the money to get training? I want to make money—not spend money!

Ms. Cole: The cost of the seminar would be the least of your expenses. And it would help you to teach group piano correctly. Plus, teachers like you give the rest of us a bad name.

Ms. Dingie: If I get stuck, I’ll just call you and try to get you to teach me for free over the phone. And did I mention that I’m going to use a different piano method than yours? I know it wasn’t written for group piano teaching, but the parents don’t know that! And it’s cheap! I buy it at discount but sell it to the students at full price. Neat little profit for me, eh? Of course, now that I’m the church’s organist, I can photocopy all the students’ music at the church office. Can’t get cheaper than that, can you?

Ms. Cole: Do you know that there is a federal law prohibiting photocopying any copyrighted material? You’re breaking the law, Ms. Dingie! If you get turned in you’ll be arrested.

Ms. Dingie: Oh, that doesn’t apply to the church, darlin’. And I’m photocopying the music for a class that I’m teaching at the church. Illegally photocopying music is okay if it’s for God. Besides that copyright law doesn’t apply to piano teachers. Our rules are different, you see.

Ms. Cole: Have you ever considered teaching piano in Leavenworth—for say ten to twenty years? You would have a—captive audience!

Ms. Dingie: Hmmmm?

Ms. Cole: Never mind! How do you monitor your students’ progress if everyone is working in a different method book in the same class?

Ms. Dingie: That one’s easy. All I have to do is make sure every student learns one or two pieces in a school year. They play the same two pieces for Christmas, festival, and spring recital. I figure even a chimpanzee can learn two pieces in a nine-month school year. And the parents love it. They just want their kid to sound good on that recital. And yes, I know your piano method encourages students to learn many compositions during a school year, but I’d rather mine learn one or two and really shine at recital time! Right now, I’m arranging some popular music for my students to play. I know that’s also illegal as heck, but once again, I’m photocopying it at the church office so I think I’m covered.

Ms. Cole: Well, Ms. Dingie, you’ve been an experience. Thank you for the interview.

Ms. Dingie: You’re welcome. And you know, if you’d do a seminar in Crooked Toe, where I live, I’d attend. But I’m not about to travel to any major city to get that training that you keep talking about. Yessir! "If it’s not in Crooked Toe, I don’t go!" That’s my motto. Oh, by the way — I know that I don’t buy material from you or anything due to getting that cheap method that I use – but if I go out of business, would you sell my keyboards for me?

Ms. Cole: No.

Ms. Dingy: That other method that I’m using doesn’t offer any kind of teacher support or toll free phone. So I guess I’ll be talking to you a lot in the future. But I know you’re there to help group piano teachers. Hmmmm. Why are you gritting your teeth like that?

Ms. Cole: I’m trying to smile.

Ms. Dingy: Well, I’ve got to go. I sure do like the articles on your web page. Maybe you’ll do one about me sometime.
‘Bye now.

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