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Does your studio have a sense of humor?

Updated: May 10

When I started teaching piano lessons, I took myself WAY too seriously. I was studying music in college and treated it like I was cramming for the LSATS. After five years, my studio was full, but I had more turnover than I liked and I wasn't enjoying it. Don't get me wrong, I loved my students, but I rarely planned ahead and my supplemental books were exam etudes and rep. Not exactly inspiring.

I cringe when I think about those early days. Fast forward twenty plus years and I've learned a few things since then, including the value of self evaluation. I promise this has nothing to do with "rate yourself from 1 to 5". It's so much better and worse. I record myself teaching a variety of lessons every third year, especially with students I find challenging to teach. Then, I watch the recordings and look for things I've done well and places I can improve. If you've never watched yourself teach, grab a media release form for your student's parents and talk to them about your plan. They'll be impressed that you're so dedicated and you'll be in for the surprise of your life.

Now what does this have to do with my studio's sense of humor? Well, with most of my students I'm bubbly and full of fun, but occasionally I find that I just don't make a connection with a student. Maybe I was off during our first lesson, or they've had a bad experience with music education, or maybe their parents are forcing them to play an instrument they can't stand. Whatever the reason, I come across differently in these lessons. I don't smile as much and there is very little laughter. When I make an effort to pump up the fun factor, our lessons improve and the student's enthusiasm goes up (maybe only a little, but I'll take it!).

If you'd like to inject some humor from classical composers into your lessons, here are some suggestions:

  • Talk about Haydn. This guy was hilarious. His "Farewell Symphony" and "Surprise Symphony" are two examples of his "musical jokes" (also known as political statements for us older folks). This is my favorite video on Haydn - EVER. I love the genuine reactions of this school class. I wonder if any sleeping aristocrats fell off their chairs in the first performance of this symphony.

  • Mozart was a ham! The uninitiated think he composed "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star", but in his time, that melody was a well known French folksong, "Ah, vous dirai-je maman". I can just imagine Mozart playing this for the first time and the audience laughing. Here are the lyrics in English:

Oh! Shall I tell you, Mommy

what is tormenting me?

Daddy wants me to think

like a grown up.

But I say that candy

is better than thinking.

  • 3/4 time can be challenging for musicians, but this piece makes 3/4 time just as difficult for dancers. Waltz No.2, also called the Joke Waltz by Shostakovich, seems conventional until you get to the repeat when the rhythm and pitches fall through the cracks. Try dancing around your studio with your student, or swaying from side to side. Good luck on the repeat!

Now that we've established that classical musicians do indeed have a sense of humor, it's time to move on to your studio. Enter GAMES! "Tie Guy" by Andrea and Trevor Dow at Teach Piano Today was the first game I ever purchased. I love this ear training/mad lib game and so do my students. The nonsense words make each version of the "Tie Guy" story ridiculous. You can use mad libs in your studio to teach ANYTHING! The trick is random words (I let my student's choose), a fill-in-the-blank story, and your skill of choice.

Improvisation is another great way to laugh in a lesson. Get yourself two paper bags. Fill one with slips of paper labelled with feelings and the other with animals or well known Disney characters. If you're tech savvy, you can use a "spin the wheel" site instead. Have your student pull a slip from each bag and improvise in your key of choice. I'll never forget the first time I had an "excited duck" or "exhausted Elsa" in the studio. Your students will love this and they're practicing important music skills while developing emotional sensitivity.

If you're looking for a way to build a sense of community, I suggest holding a screening of some classic cartoons. Most students have never seen original Bugs Bunny episodes. If you haven't watched any of these in a while, I HIGHLY recommend that you make your selections carefully. There is nothing politically correct about Looney Tunes; not even the title! My favorite is "Bugs Bunny Goes to the Opera". Try showing a short clip of the video without sound. It's incredible how boring it is without the music. When you turn the volume back up, your students will be more aware of how the music impacts their emotions, including humor!

Music lessons are a serious business. It's literally how I make a living, but I know that when my students are having fun, they're more likely to enjoy classical music into adulthood. If they don't become professional musicians that's ok, we need audiences too. And adults who love music buy the tickets that fill theatres!

I'd love to hear your ideas for ways you use humor in your lessons. Do you have a favorite music joke? Puns are welcome. Drop a comment and share!

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