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Crying over a Student

Hello, friends.

I vividly remember my first piano teacher when I was four years old. Every afternoon, at about two o’clock, I grabbed my piano bag and went out the door alone. As my parents were busy with their work, going to a piano institute as a four-year-old was my only responsibility, which I took seriously.

On the exterior, the piano institute looked like a residential home, but inside there were many small rooms, and in each room was a piano. The floors were wooden, and we took our shoes off as we entered the room. Each day, when I arrived at the institute, my piano instructor greeted me with a warm smile. Even though she might have been in the middle of another lesson, she made sure to talk to me and check that I knew which piano room I should go into. Once I sat down at a piano, I started with a finger exercise called “Hanon.”

I honestly don’t remember much of what I did other than sporadic memories of scenes in the piano institute and music I played. However, I remember how she made me feel during those lessons; she always supported me and made me feel loved.

When I first started my undergraduate studies in Korea, teaching piano on the side was a luxurious resource that not all university students had. On the first opportunity to teach five-year-olds in my freshman year, I happily took the job. I thought to myself, I have been playing piano for 15 years, already with an advanced repertoire. How difficult could it be to teach a five-year-old beginner?

In our first lesson, I went to their house to teach the piano with the excitement of starting something new. However, unlike my perfect plan for the first lesson of teaching a prodigy who could do everything I asked, the reality was a kid who was not interested in piano, accompanied by one dog and a cat whose main motive seemed to be disturbing our lesson by barking and jumping up to the piano. Her parents also thought that this was a babysitting opportunity during which they could go out and do their errands during the lesson.

My initial thought was how fortunate I had been to have had a skilled teacher who knew what she was doing when I was four and how well behaved I was at that age. For weeks, whenever I went there to teach, I thought about quitting. Every hope or change in the lesson plan in advance still ended with an unexpected disaster scenario I hadn’t prepared for.

I did end up quitting the job, after all. In the last lesson, I cried in front of my five-year-old student, lamenting, “What do you want me to do? ‘Cause I really don’t know what to do.”

I felt embarrassed and helpless.

Teaching piano is difficult . . .

Fast-forward years later. Fortunately, I didn’t give up teaching the piano. On the contrary, I have come to enjoy it very much. Unlike performing myself, teaching fascinated me in the way that I drew music from someone else. Finding the unique beauty in a person and drawing it out of them through music is a creative process. Throughout my school years as a piano major, I continually taught piano on the side and, during my doctorate studies, even taught undergraduate group piano classes as a teaching assistant.

Although I haven’t had to cry in front of my students since that first one, I still had the hunger to ask, “If I could go back in time with that five-year-old student in Korea, would I know how to do what I do now?”

That was when I decided to return to school to get another master’s degree in piano pedagogy and to learn how to teach piano properly. I couldn’t believe I was going back to school, even after a rigorous doctoral program in piano performance at Indiana University. Haven’t I had enough schooling already? Yet, I knew I had to find an answer to the doubt I had in myself as a teacher.

In my audition interview, the advisor asked me, “What do you think your weakness is as a piano teacher?”

I said, “A very young beginner. Imagining teaching a group of four-year-olds terrifies me!”

I didn’t realize that the answer would lead me to become a certified teacher for the early childhood music program Musikgarten, which I went through officially in Chicago. For the following four years, I taught music to kindergarten and first-grade students every Friday in public elementary schools in Indianapolis—yes, a group of them at the same time! Though challenging, I cherished every minute of this experience, jumping and dancing with them with music and happily singing a song, hand in hand, with those kids, who were a bundle of joy.

After performing, teaching the piano is one of my biggest passions. I can picture myself teaching piano as late as I am able to as a part of my life. If my health allows, I might even be teaching piano in my 90s. (Fingers crossed.)

Now, I am NOT scared anymore of teaching young beginners or a group of small kids. However, having had experience over the last two decades teaching in almost every possible setting, from an early childhood music program to undergraduate piano majors, I’ve discovered the specific group of students that I most enjoy teaching: 1. passionate adult students, and 2. intermediate or advanced-level late teenagers. I finally realized that whenever I teach a young beginner, I have to expend more energy than I gain, regardless of my skills as a teacher.

The piano has been a place to comfort my soul, especially during my teens after my parents’ divorce. Taking piano lessons and practicing piano were my sanctuaries to replenish my energy and heal. Throughout my life, using the piano as a source of growth has been a recurring theme. If I were doing good, focused work while practicing piano, it meant that my mind was on the right track to becoming calm. Piano and life have long been inseparable for me. That is why, as a teacher, I am also drawn to these two groups of students.

Adult students bring a whole different challenge into a lesson about life, a struggle of one’s personal challenge, yet they enjoy creating music as an oasis in their lives. They become kids on a musical playground. I get to help with the unique challenge of playing the piano as an adult, which is different for young beginners. Additionally, mentoring teenagers is rewarding for me to guide their lives with music, as I received in my youth. Not to mention, I enjoy teaching advanced repertoires. Those students tackle it without qualms or fear.

I am proudest of myself in my journey of teaching piano because I kept pushing toward the bottom of what I was afraid of. Doing exactly what I didn’t want to face has taught me much about myself, what I love doing and how to navigate my life confidently.

Do you have anything that you are afraid of? How did you get over the fear?

I encourage you to take a chance and work toward it directly. Taking those uncomfortable steps might be the best thing you can do for your future self and unlock a new discovery within you.

Please share your story with me!

Have a wonderful week!


p.s. I have spent the last few months working on a brand-new three-week online summer piano camp for 15 adult amateur pianists. This interactive online coaching program, starting on August 3, teaches you how to practice piano properly so you can jumpstart your piano journey to the next level. I can’t wait to share more about it when enrollment begins in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

At the Masterclass with my adult piano students

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