Story Time Piano: Unconscious Bias, and How to Teach With Better Representation!

This past week, in playing a compositional improv game with one of my piano students, I had a moment of unconscious bias recognition. I used this as a learning moment myself, and reflected on how to better incorporate this game into my lessons moving forward!

Story Time Piano

One of my favorite games to play with piano students is called “Story Time Piano.” In the game, we take turns naming:

– A character (theme development)

– A problem (conflict)

– An ending (resolution)

As each point is creatively told, the other person has to improvise a short composition on the piano representing the story being told.

For example:

Me: “Once Upon a time there was a penguin named Fred.”

Student: *plays happy-go-lucky theme*

Me: “One day, as Fred was swimming up and down by the icebergs, a polar bear appeared!”

Student: *plays notes up and down on the keyboard, then suddenly slams them all for a polar bear jump scare*

Me: “But it turns out the polar bear was just looking for fish to eat, not Fred!”

Student: *happy ending (hopefully on tonic?)*

My Discovery

As you can imagine, students love playing this game, and some great introductions to ideas like themes, musical structure, and pure vs. absolute music can come out of playing it.

As me and my student went back and forth telling stories, I suddenly realized every character I’d called out had been male. This wasn’t intentional, and it’s not like my student was bothered that I had done so. However, it suddenly struck me that there had been absolutely no representation or gender diversity in my examples.

How to Be Better

I’d already called out the next character as an “astronaut” but realized I could change this. I began: “And… she was about to go to Mars!” I didn’t make a big deal of it, but I’m pretty sure my student paused for a second, then smiled and continued onwards playing the astronaut going to Mars.

It probably threw her having a male teacher use a female pronoun for an astronaut, but she of course was thrilled. Later that day, I made this small adjustment with all of my students, subtly throwing in more gender diversity to my stories.

I realized that as an educator with a lot of identity privilege (cis, straight, white, male), I have a responsibility to my students to present them with a world as diverse and big as the one we live in, and not limit examples to my perspective alone.

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