How to avoid becoming a sick piano teacher (and stay healthier in 2016)

By Paul Myatt | Piano Teaching

Jan 12

sick piano teacher

I recently saw a post from a teacher in one of the Facebook groups that I belong to asking others about how to keep well when students regularly bring in germs and disease. It got me thinking about how I stay well.

I teach about 120 students a week and have done so for over 25 years and I am rarely sick.

So I have put together a list of ways that I believe can help you stay well whilst doing your job. After all, if you’re sick and can’t teach, it’s very hard to earn an income.

How do you keep healthy when you have all these children bringing germs into your home or workplace every week? Firstly I’ve got a quick checklist of ways to make your studio a healthy safe place not only for your students but for yourself as well.

Then, I’d like to talk about positive mental attitude. Ever heard of the placebo effect? It is considered to have influence on 60-80% of the population. Imagine if you could harness the energy of those fake pills to think yourself well? What would that effect have on you and your students? Let’s make a start…

Wash their hands & yours!

Let’s face it, if we have a nice piano (I have a Yamaha C1 Grand at home and GH1 in my classroom) we don’t want to go using “Spray & Wipe” on it.

Yamaha’s care instructions are: “Keep the keyboard clean: The keyboard should be wiped periodically with a soft, dry cloth. Never use cleaners containing alcohol, as the keys will become cracked. If the keyboard is very dirty, wipe it with a cloth dipped in a solution of soap and water and wrung out well. The same cloth should not be used for cleaning the surface of the piano, however. A good habit to cultivate is never to play the piano with dirty hands.”

Sounds like we better keep our hands clean to keep our pianos in good order.

The first way to start your healthy year is hand washing. Please avoid anti-bacterial soaps, not only are they full of harmful chemicals, they have been proven to be less effective than good old fashioned soap (more on that here).

wash hands

I encourage all my students to go to the toilet and wash their hands before every lesson. I have a rule that only washed and clean hands are allowed to touch the piano. You’d be surprised how many parents appreciate this as well. Someone else telling their child to wash their hands means that’s one less time they have to.

As a further precaution I always have tissues and, as much as I hate them, “Wet Ones” wipes, in my classroom/studio for those inopportune runny noses, coughs and splutters.

You’re never going to extinguish every germ from your studio, so don’t waste time going overboard. Using anti-bacterial wipes on your piano is definitely not good for your piano keys and these wipes do not kill cold and flu viruses.

When cleaning my studio and classroom at Forte School of Music in Sydney, I always try to use products that are “good” or “better” for the environment and have little or no fragrance.

This will always assist your students who suffer from allergies. Allergies are rife in children these days, so as a matter of course, always check with parents if there is any chance of allergic reaction with certainly products. As I work with many children and have over 300 students in my music school, I also keep my First Aid training up to date. Thankfully I’ve never needed to use it, but worthwhile in any case.

Remember to regularly clean any areas that people touch, like seats, wash basins, toilets, etc. These are focal points for germs. Make a commitment to yourself to clean these areas thoroughly on a regularly basis: daily for high usage areas, weekly for low usage areas.

Getting yourself healthy?

Now you’ve made your workplace healthier, how about your own health?

Piano teaching can be a very sedentary occupation meaning you’re not doing a lot of movement or burning calories in this job!

1. Exercise

If you’re not a gym junkie, try to program regular exercise sessions into your week. Most doctors will suggest 30mins of higher cardio activity three times per week as a minimum. You could go for a walk, do yoga, Pilates, or even swim.

exercise

If you go for a walk or run, try doing what I do when I go running: I listen to Tim Topham’s podcasts. Makes the time fly and is a great opportunity for some regular professional development. [Great suggestion, Paul! – Ed]

Always go and get a health check with your doctor or health professional before you start an exercise program. I’m a qualified running & swimming coach (my hobby job) and one of my coaching colleagues just had major heart surgery without any family history of heart issues. He is a champion athlete, no one would have ever expected him to have a heart complaint.

Exercise is just one third of the story for a healthier you.

2. Eating

The next third is eating the right foods. There is a growing realisation that “no fat diets” aren’t necessarily better for you. I always recommend low sugar and as much as possible raw foods.

Eat red meat in moderation, usually no more than 2-3 serves per week. Avoid alcohol and no more than the recommendation of two drinks. I tend to limit my drinking to weekends, usually only 2 standard drinks. Having a good diet will always improve your overall health. This topic is huge – but it is important to everyone.

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Supplements can be beneficial as well, however seek out some professional advice before you take them. I’m happy to share what supplements I take and why:

  • Probiotic – gut health is where all your immune defence systems stem from, so a little gut help never goes astray
  • Fish Oil – great for joints, let’s face it none of us are getting any younger! I’ve already got a few issues with my thumbs when I play piano. Also good if you exercise regularly.
  • Multi-vitamin – for overall good health.
  • Ease-a-cold taken the minute I feel like I’ve got a touch of a sore throat. Seems to work well if taken before the storm of a cold reducing the symptoms and severity.
  • Gender based supplements are also sometimes useful depending on your time of life.

3. Mental Health & Communication

Finally the last third of the puzzle, your own mental health. Have you ever noticed how successful people tend to never complain, accepting mistakes, learn from their mistakes, have lots of friends and have a generally well rounded lifestyle?

Your own mental health is vital when you’re teaching children. How you feel will impact on your interactions with everyone.

mental health

Here are a few tips that were recently posted and reposted on Facebook, written by a child psychologist on the best way of talking to children. Using this sort of language is challenging to remember, the benefits of the outcome enormous:

Instead of this:

“If you don’t finish you lunch, we’re not going to the park”, try this:

“Once you finish eating lunch, then we can go to the park.”

Instead of this:

For the last time, come here right now”, try this:

Do you want to come by yourself, or should I help you?

Instead of this:

Don’t slam the door!”, try this:

Please close the door gently, would you like me to show you how?

Instead of this:

Stop throwing a fit or I’ll put the toy in the trash!”, try this:

I know you’re very sad that you can’t play with your toy now. Would you like a big hug until you feel better? (source: thejoyofthis.com)

What I hear from this language is all about telling children what they can do, rather than what they can’t do, so instead of this:

“…because you haven’t practiced we will have to work on your scales now”, try this:

“Never mind that you didn’t get a chance this week to work on your scales, that’s ok, [SMILE] we can do it right now. How about we play this scale and lets make it fun by playing this scale game.”

If you don’t have a good mental state of mind, you’re going to find it hard to reframe your language to be appropriate for your students.

For older children, I make it a policy if I’m going to say something negative I use the KKK (Kiss, Kick, Kiss) principle. This works really well with adolescents, especially if you’re able to get them to articulate how they need to improve.

Always avoid saying, “that was great, now let’s do it again”. That isn’t teaching, that’s just getting students to do pointless repetition. If you want them to repeat something, tell them how to repeat so they improve their performance.

A feeling of mental well being is contagious. You’ll be amazed how many other people will start to feel better if you feel better in yourself. This will also help your physical health.

Technology, practice & PD

Get away from the computer screen for a few hours everyday. Facebook & the digital environment are addictive. My strategy is to practice. It’s a time where I leave the digital environment behind and work in the here and now.

Make time for your own practice and performance. After all you’re a piano teacher you should actually be able to play your instrument. I am what could only be described as a hack piano player. I do play professionally in a cabaret show. I’m a great accompanist for a singer, definitely never a soloist. I am however out there doing it, so my students know that I can play and that I like to play.

I started singing lessons as a bit of fun and professional development a couple of years ago. In 2016 I am about to do my AMusA. I am performing in a concert with a couple of other singers in March. My students all know I’m doing that, and they’re keen to see me perform. I believe these sorts of activities really give a teacher credibility that you can actually demonstrate what you’re talking about in lessons.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help – there are many opportunities on Facebook groups or Tim’s new Inner Circle to seek help and guidance from others. Just remember sometimes your question or post may bring up other people’s issues. Be aware they may give you advice based on their experience, which may or may not be in your best interests. This is neither good nor bad, just be aware of it.

Lastly, make time for your own professional development every year. Piano teaching is one of the few professions where ongoing professional development is not a requirement. As an unregulated industry, piano teachers are rarely qualified in pedagogy.

Having a diploma in playing the piano doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher. Reading this blog and others like it means you’re on the track to being a great teacher!

How’s your health?

What are your 2016 goals – have you set them already?

Please feel free to share what your goals are for the year.

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About the Author

Paul Myatt is a Director of Forte School of Music and a passionate piano teacher. He believes strongly in professional development for piano teachers and regularly participates in conferences and workshops to improve his skill. Paul along with Gillian Erksine has written and created the teaching materials which are incorporated into Forte's education system which has over 4,000 students. Together they also write easiLEARN® Fundamentals Theory and Piano (available through all good music shops and Hal Leonard Australia, previous published by Warner Bros & Alfred Pub) which have been best sellers with many piano teachers. The AMEB has included their arrangements in examination books. As a performer, Paul sings Bass in the Sydney Symphony Chorus and plays piano in a Cabaret show called 2Pauls. As part of his own professional improvement he is currently studying his A.Mus.A in Classical Singing. Paul has his own blog at www.paulmyatt.com.au

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