Earlier in his teaching career, Jeffrey Uhlig would scrutinize each of his beginning students very closely, performing an in-depth evaluation based on the student’s previous experience, their level of interest in music, and other factors. Almost right away, he would predict how long they would continue to study piano.
“I don’t do that anymore,” he says. “I was wrong too often.”
Uhlig still evaluates each of his students, and from day one, he thinks deeply about helping them improve their habits. His assessment goes toward helping to meet their individual needs, and because each student is different, he doesn’t make sweeping judgments. However, since his students range in age from pre-teens to retirees, he approaches each one as a friend, whatever their age. “Patience is at the top of the list for being a good teacher,” he says. “It’s my job to help them learn.”
Uhlig’s own work as a professional pianist compliments his teaching. He frequently accompanies top-level musicians – singers from the Metropolitan Opera or the Academy of Vocal Arts, and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra – and because of this, he says, “I learn difficult pieces all the time.” Every time he undertakes a new piece, “I have to teach it to myself.” For that reason, he finds himself fascinated by the processes people use to learn.
Practice, of course, is often the best way to learn, and he finds most students benefit from making some adjustments to their routine. He lists various tweaks he’s made: changing their practice speed or tempo (most go too fast, he says), working on more difficult parts before the easier ones, starting with the last page first, changing the number of days each week spent practicing. To aid in learning, anything is under consideration for change in order to make improvement.
Younger students, Uhlig has found, benefit most from structure and organization, guided by Settlement’s piano curriculum. He says he gets satisfaction from seeing them make progress, especially in terms of “learning to enjoy music” – that is, gaining an appreciation for classical music and branching out from the music they typically listen to.
Uhlig has taught adult students since nearly the beginning of his career at Settlement, and he sees their goals and accomplishments differently. The curriculum is relaxed or modified, and both teacher and student can pursue flights of fancy more readily. With adults, Uhlig says, he looks to “help them to fit music into their life the way they want it.”
With some students, this has led to a bond that has had remarkable longevity. Some of his students have studied with him for a decade or more, and on several occasions he has taught multiple members of the same family – spouses, siblings, and so on. He has fond memories of students who started studying with him when they were young, but he has a special place for his longtime adult students and the stories they’ve shared. “They’re fascinating people,” he says.