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.

Reflections of a Piano Teacher

“What do you do?”

“I’m a piano teacher.”

For four years, this sentence has opened most of my conversations. New acquaintances, dentist appointments, Uber drivers, coffee shop baristas, and more.

Typically, my professional reveal sparks a conversation about a previous or current musical pursuit. Eyes light up, interest peaks, and connection happens.

I’m sure my profession is not the only one that makes for interesting small talk or inspires follow-up questions, but I sometimes underestimate just how unique or out of the ordinary it is for people to meet a full-time piano teacher.

In taking a moment to step back and reflect on why the mention of “piano teacher” seems to inspire such a spirited response to people I’ve never even met before, I had a revelation.

A piano teacher embodies two of the most inspiring forces in our lives: music and education.

Every one of us has a teacher or mentor from our past who inspired us, expanded our horizons, and crafted us into the people we are today.

Every one of us has a song that captured a special moment, memory, or person in our lives. A song that takes us back in time to our happiest, most fulfilling milestones in our lives.

Music and education are two of the most powerful and inspirational forces in the world, and the role of piano teacher evokes the soulful spark of both.

Everywhere I go, people open up as their most authentic, alive, and soulful versions of themselves. Their eyes light up and they share with me what instrument they play, their favorite song, or a goal they dream of achieving.

When I reflect on the powerful effect being a piano teacher inspires in complete strangers, it reminds me even more of the incredible significance of my role for my own piano students.

A piano teacher provides the horizon expansion of an educator, the motivational relationship of a mentor, and a key to the vast world of music. What a truly humbling position to have the honor of holding!

“What do you do?”

“I’m a piano teacher.”