The Varsity Musician’s Playbook Part 1: Studio Interdependence

Once my piano students hit middle school, I often lose them to sports.

If this is a statement you’ve either said at least once in your career or heard a colleague say, raise your hand.

Me, me, me!

Yes, you over there, with your hand up – this post is for you!

At every conference I attend, while there are many excellent sessions, there are always one or two whose message sticks with me for good. At this past MTNA Conference (2016 San Antonio), my “sticky” session was by far:

The Varsity Musician’s Playbook: Commitment Building Strategies from Team Sports to the Studio.

Bam! Wow, the title hooked me. As someone who enjoys the business side of running my piano studio – this was my type of session.

Unfortunately, it was only a 20-minute session and left me wanting more. Luckily, I got to hear the full version at the 2016 fall Indiana State Conference since the presenter, Christina Whitlock is a dear friend and fellow Indiana colleague.

This year I’ve started applying a lot of ideas from her session in my studio. It’s had such an impact on me I not only wanted to tell you what I’ve been doing but wanted you to hear it (going slang here), “straight from the horse’s mouth.”

In this three-part series, Christina will be sharing with you how we can apply principals from team sports in our studio relationally, psychologically and physically while interspersing specific examples of how these principals are being lived out in our studios.

Take it away, Christina!


Music vs. Sports: Enemies or Comrades?

I’m certainly not the first person to connect the fields of music and sports, but my recent presentations on this topic have garnered so much enthusiasm, I was happy to be indulged in the opportunity to share these ideas further!

It’s no secret that music and sports do not always enjoy the strongest camaraderie.  In fact, I’ve known many studio teachers who refer to athletic teams as “the enemy,” based on families who seem to always choose sports over studio activities.

Rather than dwelling on the frustrations we experience with athletics, we must ask ourselves:  What are we missing? 

First, some food-for-thought.  As music teachers, we boast all kinds of lifelong benefits for music studies, including sharper reasoning skills, improved coordination, discipline, academic performance, mental stability, etc.

Of course, the list can go on and on, but here’s the funny thing:  athletic teams often tout the SAME benefits (and, like us, they have the research to back it up)!

Let me take this one step further. Popular research topics in the field of sports psychology are currently subjects like performance anxiety, personality and motivation, effective practice, kinesthetic movements, etc.  Sound familiar?

With so much in common, it seems we may have some things to learn from those soccer teams after all!

Before we go any further, I’d like to take a “time out” to offer a few disclaimers:

  1. I am an independent piano teacher who gives private lessons. While the focus of this article is building “teams” within the studio, it is never my intention to diminish the importance of one-on-one relationships in our profession.
  2. To state the obvious: I am fully aware music lessons are quite different than team sports.  The idea here is to take what works and leave the rest.
  3. The concepts discussed in this series often involve building a particular culture in your studio, which may involve shifting perspectives of both parents and students. This process takes time and in some cases, years.  Don’t be discouraged if you implement an idea and it is not immediately successful.  Legacies of team sports are not built overnight, and your studio is no different.

So, without further ado, let’s get started.


Building Interdependence in Your Studio

I’m sure you all raised your hands at the beginning of the post because we’ve all heard it:

Students prefer sports to music because, at a certain age, they just want to be SOCIAL.

While that may be partially true, I believe the issue runs deeper.  It seems most of us – regardless of age – have an innate desire to be part of something.  Team sports are an obvious fit for many, but a sense of belonging can be found many places, including YOUR STUDIO!


Step 1:  Establish “Your Thing”

Years ago, I had a humorous encounter with a young student who nearly lost her mind when she realized I had a business card, a full schedule, and a waiting list.  She humorously said, “Mrs. Whitlock!  Studying piano with you is, like, a THING!”

It may sound silly, but this marked a real turning point in the student’s approach to her lessons.  It made me realize, while I’d been very careful to establish myself as an “in demand” professional with the parents of my students, the budding musicians under my care could benefit from the same understanding!

Bottom line:  Make sure your students realize studying piano with you is, like, a THING!  Of course, you can’t just tell them; you must show them by providing a studio experience that is more than just a weekly check-in.

An example from Amy:

In my studio I display all my professional degrees, awards, certifications, etc. After receiving my most recent certification in Music Learning Theory through GIML, for a couple of months, I proudly displayed my certificate on an easel directly on the shelf where students access their lab binders.

One of the lab assignments my students do from Leila’s Get Inspired Series, Episode 6 is to read some selections from the book What Music Means to Me then write their own paragraph. I have a freshman boy who, I feel the need to add, often totally cracks me up. His words fit perfectly for this topic:

“I started playing piano when I was 10 years old and while I never really loved playing and probably will forget how once I’m done with lessons, my teacher is very nice. She maybe has one too many degrees in music, but a sufficient amount of them. Overall, I do it for my mom.”

If anything, he took notice of my qualifications! 🙂


Step 2:  Building Student Roles

Beyond the social aspects of being on a team, I believe the popularity stems from the institution of well-defined roles.  Think about it: on a team, students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and what to expect of others around them.  The challenge of fulfilling their individual role is what fuels motivation, and, consequently, the amount of effort students devote to practice. 

When developing student roles in my studio, I try to consider three questions from the student perspective:

  1. What is expected of me? I imagine most of us are fairly clear here already, but we must continue to communicate practice expectations, respectful boundaries, performance commitments, etc.
  2. How am I contributing? This is not as self-serving as it sounds; I promise!  Students need to know they are making a difference with their efforts.  Another way to phrase this could be “How am I helping other students?”  I try to incorporate as many opportunities as possible for students to mentor/encourage/educate one another.  Motivation will soar, and progress will follow!
  3. Who will miss me if I’m not here? Most students (and parents) feel as though they are the only ones missing out if they skip a studio event.  Incorporating more collaborative opportunities will help your students understand their presence IS missed!  Think outside the box here:  Try assigning students to be program-passers, cookie servers, or even MC’s at your next recital.  Even more “left field,” consider forming a recital-planning committee of parents/students.  It certainly works for homecoming dances, and I bet the families involved will never flake out on a program again!


Step 3:  Roles in Action

Group Classes: The most obvious way to engage your students in cooperative learning opportunities is to hold occasional group classes.  In addition to musical benefits, these classes are the foundation for relationship-building in your studio.  Many of you are already well-aware of the benefits of group meetings, and there is a wealth of information available on the subject.  Rather than reinvent the wheel here, I will simply say:  whether your groups meet every week, every six weeks (like me), or twice a year, find what works for you and make it happen!

Collaborative Projects:  Okay, friends – this is the REAL treasure trove of opportunity.  In addition to occasional group classes, I’d like to suggest three types of collaborative projects for your students:

  1. “Select” Performances – Create opportunities for students of similar ability levels to present their skills. This could be as simple as an informal group class, or a large-scale public performance.  The true beauty of these performances is found in the process of featuring students in a positive light, while also offering a subtle glimpse of where students “rank” in the studio (if the idea of “ranking” students into groups concerns you, consider the rarely-disputed distinctions of team sports:  Varsity, Junior Varsity, etc.).
  2. Complete Works Projects – Enlist students to collaborate in the presentation of an entire collection. Assigning students the task of presenting one part of a complete work gives them a clear understanding of their ROLE.
  3. Service Projects –Students enjoy being part of a positive contribution to society. Academic institutions continue to place increasing value on community service, so students are more eager than ever before to earn this type of “credit.” Collect donations at a performance event, recruit a group of students to help someone in need, or offer to help raise awareness for a good cause.  Insider tip?  These types of projects often result in a decent amount of free, unexpected publicity. 


An Example All Rolled Up Into One

While each of the three above examples could be stand-alone efforts, who doesn’t love getting more bang for our buck? Here’s how I pulled all three into one event.

In the fall of 2015, I selected 14 of my students to perform Burgmuller’s Opus 100 in its entirety.  We also collected donations at the door for a local charity.

For those keeping score:
Select Group?  Check!
Complete Work?  Check!
Service Project?  Check!


True confession: I have a terrible history of forgetting to take group photos at recitals, but here are nine of the fourteen at a group performance class before the Burgmuller performance. Aren’t they a precious looking group? I digress…


I could go on for days about the many successes of this particular event, but here are the highlights:

  • This performance offered a terrific opportunity to showcase some of the strongest players in my studio. Additionally, inviting students into the “upper-echelon” of the studio proved to be incredibly motivating, particularly for three students who had been under-performing for years.
  • The students were incredibly enthusiastic about playing from the same collection. Of course, some pieces in Opus 100 are more challenging than others, but everyone reported feeling like they were playing on an equal playing field.  Many noted it felt less competitive, and more like sharing music (which is what I aim for in every performance: a musical “show-and-tell”). 
  • Pedagogically, largely due to the performance classes leading up to recital time, all 14 of these students can now name and discuss the technical challenges of every piece in Opus 100. It may not be music’s most monumental collection, but it is certainly not without significance!
  • Ready for the best part? In addition to the 14 performers, I also had 25 of my youngest students create original artwork to correspond with each piece.  An easel was placed next to the piano, and a student assistant was given the task of changing the art for each selection.

Not only did this give younger students a great listening assignment as they prepared their art, but it also brought more parents and students to the recital.

Lastly, it fostered more interest from each student regarding when THEY would be chosen to play in the “selects” recital.  This ended up being one of my most popular ideas, and I beg you to try it!


Consolation (Opus 100, Number 13)


Austrian Dance (Opus 100, Number 14)


Consolation (Opus 100, Number 13)


If you’re interested in pursuing a project like this, keep a few things in mind:

  • Have a backup plan. Inevitably, your best-laid plans may be jeopardized by a last-minute cancellation.  In this case, I simply resolved to play any missing pieces myself (for the record, I only ended up having to play one piece out of the twenty-five, and I was happy to do it!).
  • This does not have to apply to more advanced players. For example, this year, I’m considering a Pre-Mother’s Day tea celebration, where my younger students present, The Best of Martha Mier, Book 1, as well as a picnic-themed group class featuring all the pieces of Tasty Tunes by Wendy Stevens.
  • Don’t exclude your adult students! Four of my Burgmuller recital performers were adult students who do not typically choose to play in studio recitals.  They were intrigued by the project and gave wonderful performances.


Stay tuned for future posts in this series, including ideas concerning your studio’s physical environment (aka, your Studio Locker Room), along with ways to enhance your community presence.

Short of writing a book (which I am considering once I get my babies raised!), I will never be able to fully communicate the wealth of ideas I have on this topic. If you found any of these ideas helpful, can share examples of similar things you’ve implemented in your studio, or have questions, please leave a comment below (or look me up at MTNA in Baltimore!).

christina-whitlock-headshotChristina Whitlock, M.M., N.C.T.M., operates a vibrant independent studio in Muncie, Indiana.  Celebrating twenty years of teaching at age 34, Christina serves as President of Indiana Music Teachers Association (IMTA) and enjoys a lively assortment of performance, instructional, and volunteer commitments throughout the state.   Christina is a grateful wife and mother of two daughters.  


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