How to deal with the Perfectionist Piano Student?
A while ago a delightful 7 year old boy walked in my studio with his mom.
His mother brought him to me after his previous teacher stopped teaching him because he was on the autism spectrum and she wasn’t getting results.
It didn’t take long to notice that he not only had perfect pitch but he was a perfectionist as well. Whatever the lesson was, he wanted to make it perfect!
At the beginning I thought that was absolutely great, until things started to drift into a different direction…
When he progressed enough and started reading music, he became really happy and excited to learn new pieces from his method book, and he progressed really fast.
When the pieces started to become a little more challenging he started to exhibit a certain pattern of behavior:
Once he started playing a piece, whether a new piece or an old one from a previous lesson; he would get angry at himself when he made a mistake, grunt and start from the beginning.
At first it would usually take 3 to 4 tries until he managed to get things right, which didn’t seem so bad…big mistake…
Later, as he progressed and the pieces started to become longer and harder and he couldn’t play a piece correctly within 3 tries, he started to become more and more frustrated, until on one occasion he was on the edge of a meltdown…
The following strategy helped me get back on track and got him to enjoy his lessons once again.
Hopefully it will help you too if you teach a perfectionist student who is very hard on himself or herself:
At the beginning of the lesson review your rules and expectations:
At the beginning of the lesson, when your student is calm, remind him or her of the rules and explain the consequences of certain behaviors, such as banging the piano or throwing a tantrum. Be sure to say it in a positive and kind way and do not sound threatening or aggressive.
I have to be calm in order to learn.
I need to sit tall on the bench. If I am not playing, I keep my hands in my lap.
I do not bang the piano while my teacher is explaining the lesson.
It’s okay to make a mistake, I can take a deep breath and try again.
If I am upset, I will say that I am upset and I can ask for a break and sit away from the piano for a while.
It is okay if I can’t play the piece without mistakes, I can move on and play something different…..
Be clear about the rules that work best for you and your student, and always stay in the position of authority. Be kind but firm.
Have the lesson plan printed out with visuals and explain it at the beginning of the lesson:
Before you start the lesson talk to your student about what is going to happen in the lesson and what activities you will be working on.
Children thrive on routine and they love to know what to expect. A clear schedule immensely reduces the chance of behavioral problems.
If you need to change anything during the lesson, that’s fine, explain this first and say why this is going to happen. Always try as much as possible to keep your lessons predictable.
After finishing a single task, mark it with a smiley, sticker, or stamp as a reward. This will help the child keep track of what is going on and give the child a sense of achievement at the same time.
Positively reinforce good behavior and you will start seeing more of it. Praise your student if you manage to finish all tasks and reward him or her by playing his or her favorite song. They can sing along or play a rhythm instrument along with you.
Help your student verbalize his feelings in an appropriate way, and have him calm down before continuing the task:
Things are bound to happen. If after doing all of the above you start noticing inappropriate behavior:
Stop the lesson and explain that this behavior isn’t appropriate and against the piano lesson rules. Be calm and help your student verbalize how he feels.
Example: He plays the wrong note and has an unpleasant or exaggerated reaction help him find appropriate words to express his frustration in his own way. " you can say: 'Oh no I messed up!' or, ‘I feel frustrated!' ...”
Many times, simply being able to get words like this out is enough to immediately calm the student. Many children on the spectrum struggle to express themselves verbally, which can lead to emotional overreactions.
For more ideas and tips on how to deal with meltdowns and tantrums go to: