Differences between American and Russian Approach of Learning Piano

American and Russian flags
American and Russian flags flying together symbolizes my combined American and Russian approach to teaching piano!

I absorbed differences in American and Russian approach and philosophies in teaching and learning piano. I taught piano from 1982 to 1999 in Russia and from 1999 to present in America. I am grateful that I had opportunity to learn from both experiences.

I  would like to compare teaching styles in America and Russia. Then I will tell how I have combined them in my teaching.

Russian Traditional Way

I call it “aggressive” way. It is extremely demanding and almost threatening way. After such learning experiences, many students stop to play piano at all.

In Russia (old USSR,) we do not use the word “fun” regarding learning process. (Actually we do not use that word at all, there is no translation for “fun” in Russian language) . The piano lesson sound was nothing to do with “fun.” It was  strictly intellectual, more art-like activity for kids. We were very lucky back in USSR: almost every kid had opportunity to learn the piano at the local music school (seven years of study). And it was  affordable for “middle class” family. Please keep in mind that I am talking about my experience until 1999. Russia is changed now, and the way of teaching  and school and educational system changed too.

After many hours of practice (mostly pushed by parents), students forget what the meaning of the word “music” is. They question, “What piano playing  has to do with the music?”

While working in the music school in Moscow, I got  a student transferred from another teacher. The student was 7th grader, and it was her last graduating year. When we met at the first time, Masha have stated, “I will do my best to go through final exam, I will receive the diploma, I will present that diploma to my parents, and after that I will never ever play piano again!”  It was very very sad. I am glad that I could help her. At the end of the year, her attitude changed. Ffter her graduation, she thanked me with tears that I helped her to regain her love for piano again. It was very touching and rewarding.

Here, in US, a few people (when they learn that I am Russian piano teacher) jokingly asked, “Are you hitting your student’s hands with a stick?”

I never faced or hear about such things myself back in Russia. A few parents of my students would bring their memories about their piano teachers, when they were kids. Teachers were Russians, trained by Russians, or from other European countries: Germany, England. Those teachers  used to hit hands with rulers. Again, I never heard such stories from any of my friends, classmates, and colleagues while living in Russia (USSR) until 1999. So, if it was true, I can only say those teachers had no idea about pedagogy, child psychology, patience, and compassion, and they should not be teaching.

American Traditional Style

I call it ” fun,” easy way.

I am Russian American, and I love America as much as I love Russia. In US, I really like the way people try to live the life with joyful, fun attitude. I adore parents who strive to provide their children as much fun as possible. Unfortunately, not all  parents understand that piano is the most difficult musical instrument to learn. Tt requires commitment of practice. I met some families who were happy with their children’s 20 minutes, couple of times a week of practice. The students were of age between 12-15.

In my opinion, it is waste of time and money. I do not like to charge providing just fun. I like provide both fun and results.  I learned the word “fun” here in US and I like “fun” myself, too. Piano’s “fun” is very different than other mental or physical recreational activities. To make progress on piano study is not enough to have a fun lesson. The” piano learning fun” is a long-term fun. The “piano fun” will come when the student learn how to practice correctly. Then, he/she will achieve the goals and get level of  accomplishment and satisfaction. The best fun will come when the student will be ready to perform, and performance will be a great positive experience. The proud parents, the grateful audience, and the most important, the proud and happy student: this is REAL FUN!!! It will be different type of fun, and you cannot even compare it with fun lesson and 20 minutes of fun practice. However,  you have to work for it, and believe me, it’s worth it!

My American and Russian Approach

Combination.

I do not believe in Russian aggressive way of pushing child to learn piano. I do not believe in American way of learning skills by just having fun lessons without committed practice. I don’t agree  with attitude “my child does not want to be a professional pianist.” Be professionally trained is nothing to do with being professional musician. It will be a different topic.

I believe in child’s sense of understanding and smart motivation. I believe that parents and teacher can explain and convince children that to learn piano is not easy, it is very hard actually, and that all adults understand and appreciate children’s hard work. I believe in reward of hard work versus punishment of no or poor work. I encourage parents of my students to motivate and appreciate children’s progress rather punish them for not doing well.

Every family is different, and I believe parents know what might be motivating and rewarding for their child. I had a student who came for a lesson, playing with high level of confidence. However, 50% of playing was full of wrong notes and rhythmical errors. I could hear that he practiced many, many hours … There was no needs to ask him how he practiced. It was obvious: he had timer, and quality was not his priority. I asked him to tell me about the practice. He said, “I practiced one hour. It was my regular daily practice, and I practiced one hour extra because I was punished …”

The practice is good, and lots of practice is great. However, smart and motivated practice is the key to the success.

American fun way is entertaining and attracting to  kids. However, it does not do good in long term to pursuing learning skills. Russian way in original form in US is just too much stress for kids who are used to be only praised at schools and by parents.  I used to have a student, very sweet boy. His dad emailed me that I used the word “disappointed,” which put  his son in tears. A joy and demands of commitment are must.

Russian school of teaching piano is traditionally the best due to centuries of polishing teaching skills by greatest musicians and teachers.  We strive to master both technique and artistry. There is no music without both. However, in reality, to achieve this is very challenging. A little fun makes better. I use a combined American and Russian approach. To help students keep progressing, balancing between hard work and fun attitude, between technique skills and artistically emotional performance is my philosophy and mission.

12 thoughts on “Differences between American and Russian Approach of Learning Piano”

    1. Thank you Mark for reading and leaving website regarding to music sheets online. I will definitely go there to check it out as soon as I have a chance… Is it your creation or you just commend it? Thanks again. Elza Ritter

    2. Hello Mark, Sorry for late reply. I was busy with teaching and performing. Thank you for reading and commenting. I believe some of my students using your site. I like to go to music store and enjoy to buy hard copies, choosing the best edition. However not so many around. Just one and 30-60 min. driving. However, for me it is fun! So, one day, it might happened, I will become your costumer too:) Musically yours, Elza Ritter.

  1. Hello Elza,

    I found your article and was fascinated how precisly it expresses my thoughts on the same subject. Thank you very much for posting it! There are many professionals (including myself) out there dealing with the same challenges every day..

    1. Hello Dina, Thank you for reading and commenting.. Would be great to hear your opinion on the same subject or other topics. I guess we are both Russian-American piano professionals? Where do you teach? Horoshih vam uchenikov! Elza Ritter

      1. Hello Dina,
        I really would like to meet with you when I will be in NY:) Hope your school doing great:) At least we should reconnect via phone.
        Musically yours, Elza Ritter 7039013614

  2. I like your philosophical approach to teaching kids. My son is 3 years old and has been taking piano lessons. He is doing great. His teacher thinks that he is gifted. He practices piano 2 hours a day, more or less, onene hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. My friends and family when heard this all looked at me like I was some kind of child abuser. Some asked me “What are you doing to this poor child?” or “Are you a dragon mom?” Luckily my husband is solidly behind me. My son has a lot of fun and inspires his older brother to retake piano lessons. He also inspires us to purchase a grand Bosendorfer. We now have 2 pianos at home, one Yamaha upright and one grand Bosendorfer. My husband could not wait to go home and plays. I have been thinking seriously about taking lessons again. I used to study with a teacher who were trained from Moscow Conservatory when I was younger for 2 years so I am familiar with Russian school of teaching. I did not appreciate her at the time because she hit my hand when I did not do well. I appreciate her now though now I am older.

  3. Very good article. I took piano classes in Russia when I was a kid for 3 years (I’ve also never heard of the ruler thing, BTW), and I went to college and taught adult ed in US. I completely agree with your descriptions of Russian vs. American attitude in learning style and that the best approach is combining the both.

    1. Hello Sveta! Zdravstvuite! I am sorry for such late reply. All comments went to my web developer account, so I did not know people writing here. Thank you for your comment and support of piano teaching matter. Vsego Horoshego!

  4. Hello dear Elza
    Thanks for your article. I read it twice because I am a piano teacher and the issue you mentioned is mine too. The word “fun” is tricky I think; because it can convey two different meanings at the same time. One is “to speak or act in a way that is not serious, and so there is no need for contemplation” and the other (that I am for it) is “how a serious issue can be treated pleasurabley.
    And the problem is how a serious artistic music can be instructed pleasurabley. I really like to know your methodology dear friend.

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