Brenda Dillon

Recently, recreational music making (RMM) trailblazer Brenda Dillon generously spoke with me for over two hours. In the first part of our conversation, we spoke about the distinctions between RMM and traditional piano teaching, the challenges of teaching adults, and what prospective adult piano students may want to consider when seeking instruction.

Brenda, tell me about your current interests and projects.

I’m doing quite a bit of arranging and composing, and I started taking composition lessons a few years ago. The first projects were choral writing and I started alternating those with piano solos – intermediate piano solos that were a lot of arrangements of different kinds of things: classical, hymns and African-American songs. Today my life is much more composing and arranging than it is teaching. But all those years of teaching has certainly influenced what I work on. My husband, who’s also a musician, is an expert at Sibelius [music notation software], so lucky me. Anything I write he can make look really professional.

Terry Lewis, Chairman of the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute, said “Brenda has done more to align the interests of educators, manufacturers, retailers, and industry associations than any single person in the music community. She has helped to bring the experience of playing a keyboard instrument well beyond its natural and traditional boundaries to reach more adult students and recreational music makers than ever before.” Can you tell me a little bit more about your experience breaking through those boundaries to reach adult piano students and recreational music learners?

Well, first of all, I was very honored by what Terry Lewis wrote. I was teaching in community college, predominantly piano classes and freshman theory, and preparing students for transfer, mostly secondary piano students – music majors, but not piano majors, and they had to take a proficiency when they transferred. I did that for years and having to grade and be constantly under stress to get those students ready, I thought, there’s got to be more fun in life than this.

So, about that time, an opening happened with the National Piano Foundation and that was really primarily because of my husband, who was the Executive Director of Piano Manufacturers International. I worked on different projects that involved the piano manufacturers, the publishers, the retailers, the piano technicians, the teachers. That was an incredible experience for me. One of the things that we got to attend is NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants), which has this yearly convention, it’s enormous. And I saw a presentation on recreational music making (RMM). In fact, I pulled the page from my PowerPoint because I think it’s worth reading: “A new strategy for enabling people who never before considered themselves musical to discover the joy and wellness benefits of playing a musical instrument.” That’s from Karl Bruhn and Dr. Barry Bittman who were doing a lot of research at the time. It sounded like so much fun. And that’s what drove me back to teaching again. Because number one, you’re not having to give grades, and that was very appealing. Number two, they’re not music majors, they’re just adults from the community, but they’re going to come because they want to. So I found a senior center in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, and it was just the perfect environment for me, and I started teaching those recreational music making classes, and what started as one class grew into 13 classes by the time I moved to North Carolina.

Prior to getting involved in recreational music making, you were teaching secondary college students, or music majors, but I assume that at that time, or maybe before that time, you had a private studio as well?

I did.

So was teaching adults a brand new thing for you then? Had you never taught adults before?

Well, of course the college students, young adults. I’d had a mixture of adults and a few children. But I realized early on that I was not the best children’s teacher. I never would have recommended me for children!

Tell me about your and your husband’s piano popularization program that promoted teaching adult students.

At about that time we were pretty heavily involved with the piano manufacturers. Long before you and me, there was a piano in every home. Well, obviously, that had declined through the years. So the piano manufacturers felt there was a need to do some serious piano popularization. So we worked on something called piano marketing essentials and that involved all sorts of events, and that led to something called the SPELLS Program, which was short for “Study of Piano Enhances Learning and Life Success.” And that program, again, brought together the manufacturers, the publishers, the retailers, the piano technicians, really, the entire piano industry. We did so many different events. The piano manufacturers probably sent me to every state in the union.

So the piano popularization program was initially for piano stores or manufacturers?

It involved piano teachers as well. They were trying to do as many things on the piano as they could with families, with teachers. Oh, and another thing they did, they did a lot of mall concerts, where piano teachers would come.

Mall, you said?

Yes, shopping malls. And the National Piano Foundation also had brochures that went out on a regular basis. It was a good marketing campaign. I think ultimately, the piano manufacturers felt that once RMM came about, that that probably was going to be our best way to expand the market. We knew that adults were open to the possibilities of being able to play. Many of them had not played before. Some had taken lessons as children and it maybe took or maybe it didn’t, and maybe it was not so positive for them. I found it fascinating that they always blamed their mother for letting them quit – all of them!

I think the SPELLS program ultimately led to recreational music making. That seemed to capture the imagination of a lot of piano teachers who also wanted to have fun. Not that they weren’t having fun with their teaching – I don’t mean to imply that – but I think that they saw there was a way that teaching could be far less stressful. And it was so much fun with adults – the adults were fun, they were funny. We did our best to completely remove stress. In my classes, all playing – solo playing – was voluntary. That worked out great because even if practicing had been bad that week, they knew they could come to class and not be embarrassed because they weren’t going to be called on to play. But I got kind of amused at that because eventually, those that didn’t always volunteer, after they heard some of their peers play, they decided they could too.

That’s fantastic. Well, a little detour. Could you tell me a little bit about your Piano Fun for Adult Beginners series? In particular, what was the genesis of that series?

Well, what happened is that when I first started doing the recreational program, I was familiar with a lot of the adult piano methods and certainly have some positive things to say about them. But it was too much material for the classes I was teaching. They were eight weeks long, and then they’d register again for another eight. And I thought – I mean, if I had known that they were going to go a long time, some of those methods would have been perfect. But I decided I would just focus on the music fundamentals that I thought were the most important for learning to play the piano, for learning to read, and I also wanted them to learn lead sheets, to be able to play chords and all that. I happened to be fortunate to be having lunch one day with Jennifer Linn, an editor at Hal Leonard, and told her about my materials, and she was interested in publishing them. So Piano Fun started out with that one book – and by the way, I don’t call it a method. It’s not a method in the traditional sense. That book led to pop hits, romantic hits, folk songs and spirituals, and classical favorites.

Wonderful. So what do you see as current musical trends in RMM? What are the current and future trends that you see and what factors might be influencing those trends?

The only reason I’m a bit hesitant to answer that is because I’m not teaching now; however, I do watch the National Piano Foundation webinars, I watch virtual MTNA sessions and I’m going to watch the NCKP this summer as well. Now, personally, I think some things haven’t changed. I think that in terms of trying to relieve stress, trying to make it a very enjoyable but quality learning experience, RMM is going to stay the same.

Does RMM as traditionally defined cover all types of adult students that you’ve encountered?

It does for me because typically when I taught those classes, those students knew what they wanted. They knew they wanted to learn how to play. They wanted to learn how to read.

My understanding about RMM is that it is defined as being for adults. So does RMM include adults only, or can it include kids?

Oh, it can definitely include kids. I have friends who are doing RMM with children and are very successful.

How would you explain what RMM for kids is vs. the traditional approach?

Well, because my emphasis was so heavy on group lessons, I can speak to that more clearly than I can of individual lessons. If you talk to parents about their own piano lessons, there are some for whom it wasn’t positive at all. It was lonely. They were primarily taking lessons privately. They had a teacher – a very strict teacher – they didn’t exactly talk about rulers on wrists, but they look back and didn’t feel so positive about it. So I tried to explain this was a whole other way of going about it. And mostly I was talking to adults who were going to take the lessons. I told them it’s going to be likely very different from what you experienced as a child. For example, I know teachers who will focus on technique at the beginning of teaching, and certainly students need to develop technique. But I always felt that if I hammered certain things really hard about technique at the beginning of class or at the beginning of the time they started lessons, I wasn’t going to keep those students. I think technique develops over time. And I learned in teaching groups, and including technique in lessons, that students learned a lot from hearing others play and watching their technique, and that peer motivation was as good as anything I ever could have done.

Hmm, that’s interesting. So are group lessons essential in RMM? And what would you say to teachers who only teach recreational adults privately? Are they doing RMM?

They can be, because it’s primarily a difference in attitude, which is can you make it stress-free? Can you focus on concepts rather than learning a few pieces for recitals? I prefer group lessons because I like the social part of it. I can’t speak with great knowledge about private RMM lessons.

You just alluded to my next question, and maybe partly answered it, but what does it mean that RMM students focus on “mastering concepts rather than mastering repertoire”?

Well, I was in band growing up, and in band, we learned three contest pieces a semester, and we went over and over them in order to be able to play for the University Interscholastic League in Texas. And that didn’t have much to do with music education when it came right down to it. I know piano teachers who will focus on ten pieces, that’s all they do. To me, far more important is to work on concepts, the real fundamentals, because that leads to a lot of different kinds of music, rather than perfecting just a few pieces of music.

That’s my approach too. So by concepts, you mean fundamental skills including reading and technique and perhaps ear skills?

Right, all of the above. The way I looked at it is the students would be able to apply a concept to a lot of different things.

How can RMM teachers “value the whole person rather than just their musical development?” This is a quote from – I can’t remember where I got it.

Well, I’ve known teachers who only cared about students who played really well, and didn’t care about that whole human being. I’ve known teachers who have been unflattering to students and have really discouraged them. And I always thought that if this wasn’t a good experience for a human being, why do it? I mean, how many people do we know who have taken lessons for nine or twelve years, through their schooling, and hope to never touch a piano again? What a sad commentary!

Yeah, well you’re preaching to the choir here! Do recreational adult piano students exist on a spectrum that might take some of them closer to traditional students? For example, do some adult students have more serious goals and intentions than others?

The answer is yes to all of that. And when I saw that happen within a class situation, I would usually talk to the student privately and encourage them to study independently. But I had some who said, well, I don’t want to! I don’t want to do that because this [taking group RMM classes] is too much fun, and they had bonded as a class, almost like a family. When I first started teaching, I thought they’d all go to individual teachers after eight weeks. And it was eye-opening for me that they didn’t want to. They wanted to keep studying together in their tight-knit group.

That’s so neat. You’re a good salesperson for teaching group lessons! I’ve actually never taught group lessons and hearing you talk about it just now is making me think again, wow, I should really try this.

They’re fun. There sure is a lot of reward in it. It also has its challenges. You have to know how to engage all of the students, and keep them engaged throughout the class, and then you have to be able to read body language and know which students are getting bored. But the rewards far outweigh any negatives I could possibly name.

What are some questions recreational adult piano students should ask prospective teachers?

They might ask if they must play for the class every time (if it’s a group lesson). I think if you sense some rigidity in the teacher, they might not be the right one for you. Then again, they may be the perfect teacher for you. Maybe you want fast progress. You want to be able to play some very advanced repertoire fairly quickly. So it’s up to the individual.

How can more serious, traditional teachers, who may be generally more inclined towards perfectionism, find enjoyment and satisfaction in teaching RMM students?

Well, some of them, in my experience, have thought that RMM was a dumbing down of piano lessons. And I had to really do some clear thinking about that. First of all, it’s not a dumbing down. If it’s in a group setting, not everyone is going to progress at the same pace. So, some teachers would just say, “I don’t want to do it. I enter students in competitions and festivals and I’m really big on recitals.” My own RMM students would make it very clear to me to please never bring up the “R” word, because some of them had terrible childhood experiences with recitals. So we had what I called the “RMM Players’ Club” instead. But the percentage of adults that play to a high, technically-evolved level, is a smaller group. And I think we need more adults playing piano, not fewer. We need to have this be more universal, even if it isn’t at that high, technically-evolved level. And that, again, comes back to attitude.

Where do you think the traditional attitude comes from? Is it because so many of these more traditional, serious teachers studied in very competitive college programs?

Yes, and they probably thought that was a good thing. But I think back to my childhood piano experience. I grew up in a small town and I had the most wonderful piano teacher who taught musicianship, who taught sight reading, ear training, everything. She was excellent. Well, about that time, another teacher began to come to our little town once a week and was looking for students, and a friend of my parents convinced them that I needed to study with that teacher, rather than my excellent teacher. My parents didn’t know. They had no way of really knowing, and I wouldn’t have known then either. Well, I can already tell you, I did progress, but this woman was awful. She was everything bad. I looked at her one time and I thought, “What am I doing? If I were to turn into her, that would be awful.” I got better, certainly technically there were some good things that happened, but my parents should have kept me with the first teacher.

Real broadly, Brenda, what has been your biggest challenge as a teacher of adult students and how have you addressed it?

It’s self-confidence more than anything. They have that little person in their head that talks them down. What I learned to do was talk to my students about the word “talent.” I said I’m really sorry we even have that word in the English language when it relates to piano playing. I said what I’ve learned over time is that success is really just slow repetitions and persistence. That’s what success really is. It’s not talent. I told them about my brother, who hit tennis balls against the garage door for hours. That was his practice. Now, not all of those balls did what he wanted them to do. But eventually he got better and better because of that persistence. So another thing I did was talk to those students about getting rid of that little person that’s sitting on your shoulder and trying to drag you down. Don’t let that happen!

What are the most common reasons that adult piano students stop learning, practicing, and taking lessons, and what strategies can they use to continue their studies when they experience roadblocks, resistance or time constraints?

If I found the issue was their self-confidence, then I kept encouraging them to come to class, because you’re not going to be embarrassed.

One story comes to mind. A student called and said she’d decided to take a break because she didn’t think she was progressing as fast as some of the others in the class. Well, I knew better. I mean, it was a different kind of progress for her, but still not enough to keep her from coming to class. So I said, I don’t want to lose you, but you’re an adult and you need to make the best decision for you, but I’m not going to replace you in the class. Your spot will remain open. The next time they met, she told them that she was going to drop out for a while, and unbeknownst to me, after that class, her fellow students called her, took her to lunch, and did piano intervention. I didn’t know there were piano interventions! It worked, and she called me that afternoon and said, “I think I’ve made a mistake.” The other students had told her, “No, you cannot drop out.” This taught me a very important lesson about how much more powerful the peer group is than the teacher, because I had done my best to keep her, but it took them to do it.

I love that story! On a different topic, what is your #1 recommendation for how adults can get the most out of their practice time, which for many adults may often be less time than they would like to give to the piano?

With adults, I’ve found that what’s often most important is practicing at a consistent time of day, a time when they can really focus. And more than anything, I found if I could get them to practice slowly, they were going to have better results. I also encouraged them to keep a tip jar on their piano when they practiced, because you never know when somebody is going to walk in and give you money! And there are some wonderful stories related to that. One time a woman came to class with a $5 bill and said her husband had tipped her. And the class, which was by that time very comfortable with teasing, said, “Did he give you the $5 to quit playing?” But slow practice may be the hardest thing for all of us. I also had to teach them how to practice in segments, like all teachers do. I didn’t give them gold stars or other things that teachers do with children. I also asked them if they thought they were going to volunteer to play at the next class, to imagine they were playing in front of the class. Because I really believe that in many things in life, it’s what we imagine that causes us to walk towards the actual experience.

Right, right. Are there different types of adult piano students, and if so, how might you characterize the differences between them, and should RMM teachers teach these different types of students in different ways?

Perhaps more than types, there are different skill levels. I always started classes by saying that the train of knowledge leaves the station and gradually moves forward. Well, you’re going to have some who are going to struggle, and you’re going to have some who will soar. If they were struggling, I made sure their assignments were easier so that it would be less discouraging. If they were soaring, I figured out ways of accommodating that as well.

How about different ages: younger adults vs. older adults? Have you taught adults of different ages in different ways?

I didn’t teach in different ways, but I do have a story related to that. The senior center where I taught had a catalogue for ages 55+, so I knew that students would be mid-50s on up, which is exactly what happened, except that what I learned later is that some of them had been dishonest about their age and were younger, but they really wanted to take the class. I thought that was just great!

Continue with Part 2 of our conversation.

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