Why Piano Teachers are Safe From AI
AI is eliminating industries so fast it’s making our collective heads spin. ChatGPT can write in any style (goodbye, professional writers), edit and clean up prose (goodbye, editors), create code (goodbye, programmers), describe a picture that can be rendered with DALL-2 (goodbye, graphic designers). The only people who will be left are the ones who sell ChatGPT’s services!
Except for piano teachers.
|TABLE OF CONTENTS
|How Piano Teaching Actually Works
|The Piano Teacher's Dilemma
|What's the Alternative for Piano Teachers?
|The Third and Best Reason
It’s a terrifying time to try to find work. The old vision of robots doing the dirty jobs like housecleaning while humans write music and create art has flipped. Instead we find that robots are writing the music and creating the art, and humans have nothing left to do but the dirty jobs like housecleaning.
Artificial Intelligence is completely reforming the landscape of work, and it’s doing it fast! Everyone’s industry is at risk, from people who drive cars to people who draw them. Why would anyone pay a human a living wage when a computer can do it better and for nearly nothing?
But there is one industry that is surprisingly safe from automation, and you’re not going to believe it.
I know what you’re saying. “That’s ridiculous. Piano lessons have already been replaced by online courses. It’s only a matter of time before AI creates and hosts even better ways to teach piano.”
How Piano Teaching Actually Works
Let me explain to you how piano teaching actually works.
- Parents hire a piano teacher to teach their child.
- The piano teacher offers instruction in the lesson, and then tells the child to practice.
- The child goes home, and the struggle begins because they don’t want to practice.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The only way the child will practice is if the parents
- help them
- make them, or
Most parents don’t feel comfortable helping their child practice, and these days they don’t even feel comfortable making them practice!
That puts the piano teacher in an interesting place.
The Piano Teacher’s Dilemma
Piano teachers work for the parent. The parent hires the teacher, and the parent is the person who decides when the child will stop.
But if the piano teacher wants the child to practice, they have to put pressure on the parent because that’s where the impetus for practice will first come from.
But even though parents are the ones who actually have to solve the practice problem, the parents didn’t sign up to be the villain…they hired the piano teacher to take care of everything piano related, and usually they know nothing about music.
If you pressure the parent of a child who isn’t practicing, the parent is going to feel bad about themselves, or blame you for your incompetence as a teacher, or both, and either way they’re going to end the lessons.
A smart piano teacher must find a way to navigate this impossible situation: You need the parents to support the child’s practice without forcing them to do “your” job. There are lots of solutions to this problem.
- Be authoritarian. This will filter your client base so that you end up with mostly high-pressure parents who are more comfortable pressuring their children.
- Make the child’s happiness the highest priority. This will filter your client base so that you end up with mostly low-maintenance parents with children who are constantly following their own muse, with you playing catch-up.
While either of these solutions may be workable depending on your personality and business model, they both have liabilities. The first creates a very disciplinarian vibe which will teach the child that their joy will come from making the adults in their life happy.
Any intrinsic enjoyment will be pushed off for years or, in worse cases, indefinitely, resulting in high-level students who do not actually love making music.
The second creates a situation in which the child is in charge. Unfortunately, children lack the experience to know the benefits of sticking to a plan. When offered candy or green beans, they’ll pick candy every time.
Once you start down this road, it’s nearly impossible to convince the child to do what you say. Following the child’s path may lead you to some wonderful places, musically and otherwise, but it’s unlikely to create a situation where they can gather a set of related music experiences that they can build on.
The result will most likely be that the student will eventually get bored, and the parents will no longer want to pay for your babysitting services since you’re not getting anywhere.
AI can replicate both of these strategies. Eventually, we’ll have a virtual authoritarian piano instructor whose rules and procedures must be followed or the program will not continue to teach. We’ll also have a virtual “best friend” piano instructor that will have endless new directions to take the child whenever the child loses interest.
What’s the Alternative for Piano Teachers?
I have a third method that I’ve used successfully for years. It keeps my students practicing, and keeps them re-enrolling year after year. The best thing about this strategy is that AI really couldn’t do it.
The great hidden secret of piano instruction that nobody wants you to know is that students can get better week-to-week without practicing. This is such a terribly subversive truth that many piano teachers will instantly go on the offensive if anyone suggests that such a threat to the idea that practice makes perfect, and no pain no gain, has any merit.
Let me qualify the statement.
Students will get better faster if they practice. A lot faster. My students who practice six days a week are my studio-stars.
But my students who don’t practice, or who rarely practice, still get better each week, just very slowly. And if I can keep them in my studio for a year or more, they start to want to practice.
By then they’ve seen the progress they can make over time, they’re hearing themselves read and play music that sounds like something, and it all happened in the absence of any yelling or telling them how bad they are.
All that I have to do is keep them coming back to lessons long enough for that intrinsic love to kick in.
How do I do that?
I make the focus of my students’ practice routines the log. I tell them from the get-go that how much they practice is up to them, and that I will never yell at them about it.
On the other hand, I expect a complete log of how much practicing they’ve done that week, including the words “Did not practice” next to the dates they skip (even if that’s all seven days), and I will yell at them if they forget to log.
I make sure the parents hear all this. What’s wonderful about this method is that parents will put the pressure on their kids to log, or will log for them, because it’s such a neutral thing to keep a journal, and it’s in their skill set.
I can even browbeat the parents (with a smile) if the log isn’t there, and the teacher-parent relationship remains intact.
The log reflects the student’s work-ethic, but it’s not the work-ethic we’re insisting on. It’s only the idea that the student and parent must keep track of their work-ethic.
Whether they’re proud or ashamed of their practicing, all we as teachers will shame them for is failing to keep a record, which keeps them on the hook in a much less stressful manner.
Logging by itself isn’t sufficient. You have to discuss the log each week, in a neutral, non-judgemental way.
The log provides information to you about the student’s engagement with the material which you can use to tailor your next assignment.
If a student hasn’t practiced, half the time it’s because they were out of town or on a break. You can let that go, and encourage them to get back on the horse next week.
The other half the time, it’s because the assignment you gave was either too hard or too easy.
So you modify your assignment, make it harder or easier, week-by-week, depending on what the log tells you. If you’re seeing 2-3 days of practice regularly from a 7 year-old, that’s an indication that they’re reasonably engaged with the material given their age and ability.
If that number goes up or down, you can figure out why and act on that information.
The Third and Best Reason
Best of all, logging forces the child to engage in something called metacognitive thinking. If you keep their practice neutral, rather than shaming or positively reinforcing the behavior you are seeing, then they begin to understand that they are practicing for themselves and not for you.
They get in the habit of examining their own behavior dispassionately, and they relate the information they are logging with the results they are getting, rather than have you tell them how good or bad they are.
This is what professional musicians do: self-assess. Professionals have music to learn, and a certain amount of time to learn it, and they decide how much and what to practice each week. This is the skill that turns your students into real musicians who will partner with you for years.
AI is a very smart dummy. It makes guesses about what someone wants from what they say.
Then it spits out information stored in its endless gut that its algorithm suggests may be useful.
It’s not going to cross the line into understanding the user any time soon. It’s only going to get better and better at giving us what it thinks we want.
And given the market-mindset behind its growth, developers are going to push it that way, rather than towards genuine intelligence.
Our logging model requires a constant interaction, a real relationship, with the child and parent. We decide what to assign the child based on our experience as a player, and our knowledge of human nature.
Then we revise our knowledge based on what we learn, rather than simply add data to our stack.
So if you’re looking for a safe career, piano teaching may be it!
I’ve written a course for beginning piano teachers that outlines this logging method, plus ways to teach pianists, young and old, how to read music and to improvise.
These approaches are designed to be so easy they can’t fail, and yet generate sophisticated readers and improvisers who never have to be guilt-tripped into practicing. Want to see more?