12 Golden Rules I live by as a Music Educator

12 Golden Rules

It has been two years since I had a drastic life and career change and started teaching full-time under “Kristina Lee Music.” At this two-year juncture, I’m listing some things that have been and become my guidelines for leading a music studio that I love and am proud of. This list probably will change and transform in another couple of years, but here it is for my own sake to assess and reflect on the last two years and for those who may find this list helpful.

  • Always work on developing your content: As educators, the product we offer foremost is the content of what we teach. When I was in retail and owned a small storefront, one thing I did not delegate was the buying part; I learned that if I was super careful and selective about the products I brought to the shop (the standard was, “If it never got sold, would I be happy keeping it for myself?”) it was matter of time for the product to be sold. I approach the “product” I have to offer in my teaching the same way. Just like I used to go to Trade Shows in retail, I try to see and learn what everybody else is doing. If there is something that resonates with me, I bring it back and start incorporate it into my teaching right away. In our field, it is not just about being judicious about what we give, it is also about learning to teach and communicate the same concept it multiple ways because at the end of the day, we’re not just selling a product but molding and transforming minds. In order for us to reach the minds of individuals, we need many “tools” that can get through to them.
  • Set a standard for your studio: When students become part of your studio, they’re part of a group, an organization. Every successful organization has principles that guide them. Standards in this context includes things like responsibilities in  their musical studies, their conduct with the teacher or their peers or financial responsibilities (this is for the parents/guardian). Your part as the leader and the educator of the organization is to foster the best organization possible that your students and their parents are proud to be part of.
  • Challenge your students a little more than their comfort level: I study my students all the time. It is my job to know what that fine balance is. Most students don’t know where that line is and will not challenge themselves on their own. I’m that trainer at the gym that gets results because I will push my student a little more than what they think they can do. Because I know they can do it (there are always exceptions, but I believe that it is job of the professional to study these things)! I will be that drill sergeant if I have to and I will be the biggest encourager along the way. I will laugh with them, cry with them, struggle with them and think about that one rhythmic problem a particular student had while I eat my breakfast. That’s why they pay me the big bucks 😉
  • Make opportunities to observe your students in multi-faceted ways: One of the things I do during an interview with a perspective student is to do an improvisation. I do it because I believe that it reveals something deeper about the student’s personality and musical inclinations than a piece of music they have been working on. I do it with even students who never took piano lessons and some of my most endearing experiences have come out of that. I also do group sessions, piano camps and student duets where I get to see different sides of my students than what I get during one-on-one lessons. Every new setting reveals something about the students’ strengths and weaknesses. I love it when these opportunities allow me to see something new in my students.
  • Strive to have the student learn something new every week: One of the best ways to understand the process of learning music is comparing it to the process of learning a language. Besides my mother tongue (which is Korean), I’m fluent in two other languages and have studied three more, so please excuse me for acting a bit like an expert in this area. When I lived overseas, I often met people who could recite a whole “I Have A Dream” speech but could not carry simple conversations in English. Sad to say, most of my transfer piano students might be able to “recite a speech” but it becomes apparent very quickly that they don’t understand what they’re saying. It is okay for our students to be working on something grand and ambitious, but they should be reading something new every week (if not everyday) just like children get whole bunch of books from the library and read when they first start reading.
  • Delight your students with small (or big!) surprises: I try to have some kind of activity or reading material at the door of my studio so that they’re not arriving to the same old door every week. I incorporate activities during their lessons that would be something they didn’t anticipate; that way, the lessons are not just about correcting and giving feedbacks on the pieces they’re working on but also about getting exposed to musical contents and experiences they didn’t anticipate. At every recital, I try to have little surprises like a trivia game with $5 Starbucks cards as prize, group games or improvisation with an audience member. Now people come to the recital knowing that there is going to be a surprise and that there’s going to be a good chance that they’ll have to participate.
  • Give them options, but not control: I often ask my students what they would like to start their lesson with (not every time, but I often to). For recitals and concerts, I almost always have a few things I picked for them and we go through them together so that they can make their top choice. I’ve also learned that there comes a time when a student will test how far they can go to get their way. In those instances, you have to be clear; they don’t get their way.
  • Always communicate with the parents/guardians: They know things you don’t know. So ask them, talk to them. You also may know things they don’t know. So share with them. They’re the biggest ally you can have. When the teacher and parent can forge allegiance, the process goes so much smoother and better!
  • Be ready to reinforce the foundational skills like technique, form, reading and rhythm thousand times and more: Yes. This is our job. I often say to my students, “Okay, that was good. Now do that a thousand times.” At about tenth time, I let them stop and they’re glad that they didn’t have to do it a thousand times.
  • At the same time, don’t wait to empower the student to bring out their musicality: I have been surprised to find out that often technique and form will happen much more quickly and naturally when I can demonstrate to a student what kind of sound I am looking for and ask him/her to imitate the sound I demonstrated. Don’t wait for all the foundation to be there to make music beautiful. Often, if you can show the vision of where they’re going, they’ll work to get there.
  • Help make connections with what happens in the lessons with the rest of their world: I always encourage students to take their music to their communities. I will help them do that even if it means I teach “Let It Go” to five different seven year olds in several different keys (because they usually come and tell me that they figured out a part of that song). When students approach the teenage years, I teach them to read chord charts and show them what to do with a pop song. If they were asked to play something by their peers (usually a pop song of their generation), I want them to at least have an idea of what to do. I want them to feel proud and confident about their ability. I also try to have at least a few things they know by heart so that if there is a family gathering or a piano at a hotel they stay in during vacation (these examples are based on real feedbacks I get) they feel comfortable to play them.
  • Above all, “love covers multitude of sins”: We are in people business. And when you work with people, things happen. Feelings get hurt. Disappointments happen. I have made mistakes as a teacher and I had to own up to those. My feelings have been hurt at times and I have hurt other peoples’ feelings. But in a strange way, I do feel that those students I have struggled with the most have come to love me the most. I do truly love my students and I work on loving them. How? I pay attention to them, I am present with them and I make mental notes about the human beings they are. Appreciating their uniqueness allows me to relax and laugh with them especially when they make absurd mistakes in their playing. And because I love them, I want them to feel free to move onto something else, if music and piano is not their thing. At the same time, it is my belief that if children (and all human beings) can find a place and a person who they feel that really sees them (like “I see you” in Avatar), they’re going to want to stay there for at least a while, if not for counting and sight-reading and counterpoints, for the company.