8 Ways to Be a Great Teacher—Courtesy of Children’s Piano Instructor Jane Smisor Bastien
Sometimes you happen to be in the right place at the right time and are able to connect with a very remarkable person. When someone recommended Jane Smisor Bastien to our family as an outstanding piano teacher for our children, we had no idea that she was world-renowned and the author of hundreds of piano instruction books. While Mrs. Bastien is no longer with us, her legacy and continuing influence are impossible to measure.
After many years of trips back and forth to her home studio for lessons, piano theory classes, numerous recitals and competitions, and more practice hours than we could ever count, here are eight ways Mrs. Bastien inspired our family—as well as many thousands of people around the world over the years—on how to be a great teacher:
1. Be humble—and selfless.
No one would ever know that Mrs. Bastien was such a highly regarded teacher of piano pedagogy by how she comported herself. She was too busy focusing on teaching her students, encouraging them, and sincerely appreciating the beautiful music and beautiful people in her life. Mrs. Bastien would even take the time to manicure a student’s long fingernails before a lesson. No task was ever too mundane for her; Mrs. Bastien knew that in order to achieve greatness, one must not forget the basics.
2. Love life—and others.
Mrs. Bastien loved life, and she especially loved bright and joyful colors. Her home was always filled with flowers of all colors—neutral color schemes were unthinkable. She wore cheerful colors and a beautiful smile every day, yet her actions shined brightest. For many years, Mrs. Bastien faithfully and lovingly cared for her husband and fellow piano teacher/composer, James Bastien, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. The many unspoken lessons of what it means to be a devoted spouse were not lost on her students. Regardless of how difficult her circumstances were, anyone entering Mrs. Bastien’s studio was always uplifted by her beautiful smile and resolute determination to make the most of each day.
3. Have high standards—and be kind.
Mrs. Bastien not only had high standards for her students in their piano practice and technique, she also had fundamental standards of showing kindness and respect for every person—including oneself.
Mrs. Bastien kept a busy schedule each day, as she had many students, but she always managed to stay within each person’s practice time slot. She rarely went overtime (owing in part to the candy at the door that students knew awaited them at the end of practice!). During group theory lessons, she would give each person an equal opportunity to perform and answer questions. Jane was very inclusive and patient with her students, celebrating excellence publicly, and sympathetically understanding in private whatever was holding students back. She never judged but rather led by example.
4. Be diligent—and show grace.
Mrs. Bastien assigned her students a reasonable amount of practice each week (she did not teach during the summer months), and she expected the students to keep honest records of their hours. At the end of the school year, students who practiced a sufficient number of hours based on their individual goals earned a practice trophy. This was no participation trophy, as my children can attest. When students did not earn a trophy, they were disappointed in themselves and determined to do better the next year. Far from discouraging students, Mrs. Bastien’s standards spurred them toward higher standards and greater discipline.
Even so, she would allow for a little “inflation” in practice hours logged, as she knew how busy her students were with academics and other extracurricular hours. Mrs. Bastien never put in any less effort, gave up, or stopped caring just because she knew a student didn’t execute perfectly in-between lessons. Because of Mrs. Bastien’s diligence and grace, her students wanted to practice more, love more, learn more, be more open to her feedback, and generally respect everything she said.
5. Believe in your students—and always encourage them.
Mrs. Bastien never gave up on someone. She believed in her students at each piano competition, even (and particularly) when they did not have all the songs perfectly memorized or feel one hundred percent ready. She would constantly reassure everyone with her bright smile and kind brown eyes that they were going to do well. Mrs. Bastien relished students bringing their own style to classes and recitals, celebrating worthy differences while reiterating fundamentals. Her goal was not for everyone to be a world-class concert pianist someday but rather world-class human beings with a love for music.
6. Don’t rush the learning process—and have fun!
Mrs. Bastien had fun and creative ways to get students to learn their scales. For example, when students correctly identified all the major or minor keys for scales she presented to them on flashcards within one minute, they were part of the “One-Minute Club.” It was a simple exercise—and highly effective. She encouraged all her students to participate and even if you were the last student to make the club, she treated you as if you were the first. She showcased the student’s photo on the “One-Minute Club” board and gave everyone “super stars” that were redeemable for a fun prize.
She preferred not to rush her students into more difficult pieces and instead focused first on teaching them proper technique and hand position. The good habits they learned early on served them well at more advanced compositions in the years (and life!) to come. Before her students performed at a recital or competition, Mrs. Bastien would always have them place their hands in their laps and count to ten before beginning a piece. It is a good lesson for all of us to take a moment and calm ourselves before a significant event.
7. Always work toward a goal—and employ helpful resources to get there.
Perhaps you or one of your children has taken piano lessons but didn’t progress as much as you would have liked. Jane had a very effective way of avoiding this outcome: her students were always working toward participation in a local sonata contest or earning some kind of certification. The Sonata contest defined the fall; the Concerto contest (for more serious students), the winter; the Music Teachers’ Association Certificate of Merit, the early spring; and the Guild, the end of spring. Not all students participated in the Concerto contest, because it required a significant amount of practice. Jane took this into account, never wavering on her commitment to working toward a goal as she tailored those goals to each student (which was especially impressive, given how many students she taught).
8. Care for the whole person—and stay connected.
Mrs. Bastien’s passion, patience, understanding, and belief in her students fostered an environment where students didn’t just learn to play the piano—they learned how to be a hard-working, responsible, dedicated, and committed young adults. She recognized and valued that piano was not the only passion for her students and encouraged them to pursue excellence in all areas of life, being a quiet yet powerful influence in helping everyone—both students and their parents—determine how they would approach future challenges.
Her interest in her students continued after they graduated from high school, and Mrs. Bastien enjoyed attending their performances and special events—and even their weddings! She would host a holiday party every year the day after Christmas for her student alumni, and the merriment and ability to reconnect along with her cheerful smile and joy-filled home made it a highlight of everyone’s holiday season. This year is the first Christmas season without Jane Smisor Bastien’s physical presence, but she will continue to be held dearly in the hearts of everyone who had the privilege of knowing her.
Many thanks to Andrew Trees, Rebecca Trees, and Katie Trees Helton for their contributions to this article.
Piano for the Young Beginner - Primer A by James Bastien and Jane Smisor Bastien
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