Posted by: Marie | November 28, 2014

(965) Stupid homework

Post #965
[Private journal entry written on Tuesday, September 18, 2012]

I had a lesson with Renee today . . .

She came in a few minutes late and said that she had forgotten she had a lesson and had started walking home from school, then remembered she had a lesson, so she turned around and came back. I assured her it was no problem . . . we still had enough time before my next lesson to do the full 45 minutes.

Before we settled into the lesson, I asked her how she was doing. She said she was not doing very well . . .

She said she was getting bad grades and that, as a result, her parents had grounded her and had taken away her phone. When I asked her what was causing the bad grades, she shrugged . . . I pushed her a little bit for an answer . . . she finally told me that the classes are stupid, the teachers are stupid, the homework is stupid . . .

I could see that she was very much in her helpless stance and that she was shut down emotionally, so I didn’t push her further . . .

When I asked her what she wanted to focus on in our lesson, she again shrugged . . .


Me: Last time, we were figuring out how to add chords to a popular piece . . . would you like to continue working on that?

Renee: I didn’t bring the music for that.

Me: Oh . . . did you leave it at home by mistake or are you not wanting to do anything more with it?

Renee: By mistake . . . I just forgot to put it in my backpack this morning.

Me: Oh, okay . . . that’s okay, we can do something else today . . . it would be good to spend some time today on the basics of reading music since we’ve spent a couple of lessons on chording . . . they are two very different aspects of music and it is good for you to have an understanding of both aspects. So, let’s practice some sightreading today! We’ll play some pieces in your lesson book.

Renee: I didn’t bring my lesson book, either.

Me: Okay . . . I have my own copy of it. We’ll use my copy.


I pulled out my copy of the lesson book and put in on the piano’s music stand. I asked her to play though some of the simpler pieces at the beginning of the book . . . she responded by acting totally helpless and not capable of even finding the first note . . .

Hmmmm . . . I wasn’t sure what was going on with her . . . I wasn’t sure what the best response on my part would be . . . should I let her be in that helpless stance and gently inquire into what is causing it? Or, should I push her to do the sightreading so she can have the experience of mastery which, in turn, could help her move out of the helpless place?

I decided to address the helpless act head-on . . .


Me: I’m curious about your behavior . . . we’ve made so much progress in your ability to play piano in recent lessons . . . I’m curious what is going on today . . . I know you know how to play this music . . . if you are stuck on something in particular, I’m more than happy to help you work through it . . . but I need some help from you to understand what’s going on . . . can you help me with that?

(Renee shrugged)

Me: Did something happen today at school?


Photo by Martin Chen

Renee: It’s just the thing about getting bad grades . . .

Me: What do you think is causing you to get bad grades?

Renee: I’m not doing the homework.

Me: Why are you not doing the homework?

Renee: Because it’s stupid.

Me: Tell me more about that . . . what makes it stupid?

Renee: It’s boring . . . the homework is boring, the classes are stupid . . .

Me: Hmm . . . let me ask you this . . . I want to see if I understand what’s going on . . .

So, the classes and the homework are boring . . .

Renee: Yeah . . . .

Me: You are capable of doing the homework, but you don’t because the homework is boring.

Renee: Yeah . . .

Me: If you don’t do the homework, you get bad grades, correct?

Renee: Yeah . . .

Me: If you get bad grades, you get grounded and lose your phone, correct?

Renee: Yeah . . .

Me: If you buckled down and got the homework done, then you would get good grades and you would avoid being grounded, correct?

Renee: I suppose . . .

Me: So, it is more painful for you to do boring homework or to be grounded?

(She shrugged . . . and one leg was jiggling up and down with nervous energy . . . I could see that her mental gears were cranking at full speed . . . )

Renee: I suppose it’s worse to be grounded.

Me: So . . . would you maybe be willing to do the homework if it meant you avoid being grounded?

(Very long pause and more nervous leg jiggling . . . )

Renee: I don’t understand the homework . . .

Me: Oh! Well that’s a different scenario, then . . .

Any particular class?

Renee: Choir . . .

I wouldn’t have taken choir if I had known it involved all the dumb homework. I through we were actually going to get to sing. But, instead of singing, we have to take all these stupid tests on reading music. It’s stupid and the teacher doesn’t explain it well.

Me: What part doesn’t she explain well?

Renee: Well, the notes on the staff . . . I don’t know how to put letter names on the notes on the staff.

I told the teacher that I didn’t know how to do that, but instead of helping me, she said, “Don’t you play piano?” I told her that I did . . . then she said, “Doesn’t your piano teacher teach you how to read the notes on the staff?” I told her no.


By the way, Renee is correct . . . I have not taught her how to assign letter names to notes on the staff without the intermediary step of referring to the keyboard. I first teach the association between the physical keys on the keyboard and the letter names. Then, I teach the association between the physical keys on the keyboard and the lines of the staff. Then, lastly, I teach the association between the letter names and the notes on the staff.

There are several reasons why I do this . . . one of the main reasons is because it establishes a spatial and directional relationship among the notes on the staff that I have noticed is unfamiliar to most elementary piano students. The most common complaint among piano teachers is that their students know a note on the staff is “C”, for example, but don’t know which C it is on the keyboard. By teaching the spatial relationships first, I address that situation. Furthermore, students with special needs or students who are just learning to read struggle to keep track of the order of the letter names, especially when moving back down the alphabet. So, I save that concept for last to give them time to develop those reading skills.

I have taught Renee the first two associations but we had not yet made it to the third association. Therefore, she is correct in telling her choir teacher that her piano teacher has not taught her that association yet. She could figure it out if she were sitting in front of a keyboard because she could find the note on the keyboard and then identify the letter name that way. But, she doesn’t get to sit in front of a keyboard in choir, so that doesn’t help her there.

So, in response to Renee’s comments, I validated what she was saying, and I explained what she does know and what is missing in her understanding. I drew her a diagram that showed the three circular relationships and called her attention to the part I haven’t taught to her yet. I made a point of telling her that it’s not that she can’t learn it, we just haven’t gotten around to learning it yet.

And, I offered to teach her that part in today’s lesson . . . her response was a shrug . . . so, I rolled with that idea and made it less of an option . . . I pretty much announced that that would be our focus . . . she didn’t resist . . .

We wrote out the sayings (the mnemonics) for the bass clef lines and spaces, and for the treble clef lines and spaces, and for the three leger lines above and below the grand staff. I broke the deck of flashcards into those five groups and she practiced naming the note for each group. Then, I started mixing them together . . . within 30 minutes, she was flying through the entire deck. She caught on so very quickly. I made a big deal about how quickly she was learning how to name notes . . .

It was awesome . . . by the end of the lesson, she had totally abandoned her helpless stance. She was laughing and giggling, and cutting up . . . she seemed to be really proud of herself for catching on so quickly. And, I think what she learned will help her in choir . . .

So, that was a good piano lesson! I’m tickled!



  1. What a great opportunity to use all of your skill sets–sounds very satisfying.

    • Working with Renee taught me a whole lot about what I have to offer . . . she had a significant impact on my life!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: