Social creatures, us humans.

But if you think words are enough, think again – body language and silence often tell you much more about a person.

So, what does this mean for us teachers? Well, if you can’t read the nonverbal signs, it makes it very hard to help the student. If you can’t help them, it’s only a matter of time before they leave your studio.

Years ago, I worked with a 7-year-old girl in Brooklyn for 6 months.

At one of our lessons, she raved about “Summertime Sadness” by Lana Del Ray.

I check it out and decide to write up my own sheet music. I tailored it to her skill level. After all, she’s just a beginner.

A week later, we sat down to work on each hand separately. We made progress for two weeks.

Then she stopped practicing.

For three weeks straight, nothing.

Uh oh. Maybe she’s lost interest? Two weeks later, her mother tells me she wants to stop lessons. Months later, I realize that I screwed up.

That written music I had tailored for her – even that was way too hard! She was too nervous to tell me. I missed the signs, lost a student, and my business declined.

Keep reading, mistakes like this will cost you your students (and of course income!).

Here are the nonverbal signs to watch for (and the remedy)


(a) They stop practicing.

A quote from piano pedagogue Abby Whiteside:

“If a child of average intelligence, average musical equipment, and an average coordination does not have, after studying for a while, a sense of accomplishment and an interest in music and the piano, it is ALWAYS the fault of the teacher and never the fault of the child.”

[Abby Whiteside on Piano Playing: Indispensables of Piano Playing and Mastering the Chopin Etudes and Other Essays]

If they stop practicing, they’re already associating piano with some kind of drudgery. You may have jumped to the wrong “Stepping Stone”, too far apart from the last. Reconnect with why you practice – it’s just fun to play music.

Keys to Remedy

  • Be prepared to change your entire approach. If you map 3 things to work on during the week, change it to 1 thing, and make it a tiny assignment.
  • Are you playing games? Play some games.
  • Are the songs dorky? Change it up. Film music is great (Star Wars, Disney). Ask them for their favorites. Don’t read the music, just show them a melody.
  • Use percussion. This often lights them up. It helps keep it simple, visceral.
  • Learn to stoke their enthusiasm. Whatever you do, know that their enthusiasm will take care of 90% of problems.

(b) They show you old pieces for no apparent reason.

We dive into a new piece, then the student stops, interrupts me, and starts playing easier, older pieces. It used to confuse and frustrate me. I lost focus. When this happens, think of this like a young child playing with his friends, then looking back at his mom to make sure she’s still there. Sometimes, he’ll even leave his friends for a moment, run up to mom, tag her on the leg, then run back to his friends.

Old pieces are like comfortable home bases. When a student does this, she may be communicating “I need to feel safe again”. New pieces can be uncertain and scary.

Keys to Remedy:

  • Have them write out a list of songs they’ve learned. They love it and it helps them feel accomplished. A visual list helps them see how far they’ve come.
  • When they start to play old pieces, let them finish. Use what they’ve played to glide into the new piece. Sometimes I’ll say “Hey it looks like the left hand part is easy for you now. Remember when it wasn’t? It’s like this new piece…”

(c) They REFUSE to listen.

A year ago, a four-year-old girl refused to do her first lesson, but has since blossomed into one of my best students. It went from hopeless to awesome. Here’s what happened:

When I showed up, she clung to her father, screaming. I was a stranger and she was uncomfortable. I pretended to not be fazed. I set up and started playing simple pieces. With her father a few steps away, she began to listen to me, slowly, cautiously, and angrily. She wanted to play music, she liked it. Within 30 minutes, I regained her interest only to lose it moments later. I’m writing now after reflection, but at the time I was annoyed. I’m human, moody, and my patience was tapped out after a frustrating morning. I lost her interest, so I switched to a music symbol card game. It’s dynamic and usually a hit. Not this time – several “No!” refusals later I was enraged. Nothing like the feeling of being powerless against a small child.

The parents were watching and this adds to the dynamic. I felt a subtle self-imposed expectation that I’m the one who needs to fix this. Frustration, hopelessness, obligation, etc. That’s a lot of feelings to wrestle with, and yet I had to keep a clear head and help the student. I was enraged, but at least I knew this. The only problem with being enraged is not knowing it. I settled in to it.

A Solution

Suddenly, I realized it was simple – she was just scared. Of course, she liked what we were doing, but maybe the way we were working was too…close? Private piano lessons can be an intimate sort of thing, so maybe she needs some space.

I rearranged our rhythm card game so that she’d have “her game” and I’d have “my game” two feet away from her. We kept playing, but it wasn’t full-on collaborative anymore. I simply narrated what I was doing like a distant, objective voice commenting.

She visibly relaxed.

She copied “my game” with “her game” two feet away. I’d gently ask questions and she’d cautiously answer. All of this went smoothly until the very end.

She was helped because she felt less pressure and obligation.

Closing Thoughts

These few scenarios above taught me a lot.

But this goes deep – if you found the above helpful, you’ll love the free worksheet even more. Once I learned to read the nonverbal signs with ease, my teaching has improved, students have stayed with me, and I have watched my studio grow to full capacity.


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