Would You Start Taking Piano Lessons From A 14 Year Old?

A few weeks ago economist Tyler Cowen discussed how he had taught chess when he was 14-15 years old. His regular clientele were two adults in their 50s and 20s and a child prodigy around 10-11. He said he would have likely had more students if it weren’t for transportation issues.

My first thought was to wonder if anyone, especially and adult, would ever pay a teenager to instruct them in an artistic discipline. I don’t know about acting or visual arts, but by 14-16 there are some pretty skilled dancers and musicians out there.

Yes, I know there are summer camps, etc where teenagers are placed in a position of teaching younger kids, but I was thinking more along the lines of hiring someone in your hometown to provide lessons.

Cowen does admit that his situation was something of an outlier, but only because he felt most teenagers would assume no one would take them up on the offer rather than just offering their services. It also doesn’t appear that Cowen was necessarily exceptionally skilled. He said he stopped teaching when he stopped playing chess and characterizes it as something of a transactional decision. But that might be adult Tyler imposing his economist bias on his memories.

It has long been recognized that teaching your skill to someone else improves the teacher’s understanding of that skill so there is a benefit to teens hanging up a shingle and offering to help people get started.

Looking at some of Tyler’s reflections on his experience, there seem to be applicable parallels to teaching an artistic discipline.

2. Chess teaching isn’t mainly about chess. A chess teacher has to have a certain mystique above all, while at the same time being approachable. Even at 14 this is possible. Your students are hiring you at least as much for your mystique as for the content of your lessons.

3. Not everyone taking chess lessons wanted to be a better chess player. For some, taking the lesson was a substitute for hard work on chess, not a complement to it… Some of the students wanted to show you their chess games, so that someone else would be sharing in their triumphs and tragedies. That is an OK enough way to proceed with a chess lesson, but often the students were more interested in “showing” than in listening and learning and hearing the hard truths about their play.

4. Students are too interested in asking your opinion of particular openings. At lower-tier amateur levels of chess, the opening just doesn’t matter that much, provided you don’t get into an untenable position too quickly. Nonetheless openings are a fun thing to learn about, and discussing openings can give people the illusion of learning something important, if only because you can share opening moves with the top players and thereby affiliate with them.

As I read these, (Cowen offers seven insights in total), it seemed that paying attention to why people took lessons had a lot in common with why people attend performances. Some people want to improve, but others’ goals are to obtain a lesser degree of knowledge, mastery and affiliation with the people and practice of those skill sets.

Gaining an understanding of these motivations from the point of view of a teacher, even if it is in retrospect as an adult, might help artists do a better job of relating with audiences as an adult.  There is a difference between understanding what audiences want having learned it from teachers and mentors who are providing their worldview and reflecting on direct experiences you had before your perceptions were colored by years of formal training.

I think about the tasks I resented having to do and the difficult experiences I had when I was a young kid and a teenager that I would later realize gave me a competitive advantage when interviewing for a job. Now I resent that the foul medicine turned out to actually be good for me.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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