My Brilliant Beginners: Tonara Teaching Moments

sharon ellam, brilliant beginners

By Nicole Douglas

One of my favorite things in life is talking with other music teachers. As we share our ups and downs, we feel that connection that music and teaching can bring—and it energizes us to share that connection with our students. The morning I got to meet with Sharon Ellam was a true joy. (Sharon is one of our Tonara teachers from Newcastle, Australia.) And it was her birthday, no less!

Nicole: Let’s get right into the reality of life these days—what does teaching look like in your studio because of coronavirus and experiencing quarantine?

Sharon: When students come to my studio the first thing I introduce them to is this cake of soap. You know, music and human connection go hand in hand. So, we have this nice ritual around this cake of soap.

They walk in the door, and I say, “I’m really glad to see you! Let’s go share the soap.” We head to the bathroom sink, and with their cake of soap and my cake of soap, we lather up while I ask, “How are you? What’s the best thing that happened to you today?” They are often tired because they just came from school, and taking this moment to think about the best thing of their day brings in the positive energy. (Not to mention, I am modeling good handwashing skills!) Then they are energized and ready to go.

Whether they be a child or an adult, I view the piano lesson as a partnership. I believe you get more outcomes when you have a partnership approach—a sharing exploration rather than a didactic approach.

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Nicole: Tell me about your music lesson journey. How did that affect the teacher you are today?

Sharon: I didn’t start learning to play the piano until I was age 10. My first teacher loved cats. She would be stroking her cats while listening to me play, and sometimes they would walk along the keys while I was playing. I learned I was highly allergic to cats! It would take me a week to recover, just in time for the next piano lesson.

My second teacher was an older lady with horn-rimmed glasses, and she would knit baby clothes for her grandchildren while her students played. The clicking of the knitting needles was like a metronome to me. She taught everything by rote, but I’ve never been a rote learner. With scales, I had no idea what she was trying to get me to do. No wonder as I got older it got harder because when we were young, children were expected to follow, rather than to truly learn and explore.

So, I try to be the teacher I didn’t have.

Nicole: Exactly! I came into teaching late because I always thought I wouldn’t enjoy telling other kids what to do—because I didn’t like being told what to do when I was young. It never occurred to me before I started teaching that I could teach in a different way than how I had been taught. 

So when life changed and this teaching opportunity fell into my lap, it was so enlightening and refreshing to realize I had a chance to make a difference in these children’s lives for the better and to help them feel heard, listened to, and loved—and to have a place where they can just be themselves.

So, I tried it out for a month. I experienced that feeling of “ahh…I’ve just gotta do another task to get to that score” and of “oh…5 seconds short of the one-minute goal.” It made me want to do just a little more. I loved that I felt those feelings of fulfillment and achievement, that “yeah! I made it!”

Sharon: And where they can be valued! And feel valuable! I think that is so important.

For the first 20 years of my career, I was a highly specialized nurse working in the public health system, and I was a midwife. I spent the last 8 years of my nursing career working with preemie babies in the intensive care nursery. I am also a qualified counselor, with a specialty in childhood anxiety. So after that, I guess I think I just morphed into piano teaching because it seemed to be something that I loved. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I say to people, “Every day I get to laugh and sing.” What other job do you have where you get to laugh and sing every day?!

Nicole: I love that!

Sharon: It’s beautiful. You know, I can’t remember any of my teachers ever laughing or singing or even smiling.

Post interview: I am typing up these notes and realizing that the journey to becoming a music teacher has many different paths. As I reflect back on my childhood experiences with music lessons and consider Sharon’s journey, I am struck by how experiencing a lack of something as a child can often be a powerful motivator. Without those experiences, Sharon may never have realized that she wanted to be a teacher who laughs and sings and smiles. And without my experiences, I would never have become the teacher I am today. So, in this moment Sharon and I shared, I am reminded that I do not need to look back with regret or disappointment. Only gratitude that life gave me the lessons I needed so I would become a passionate teacher who advocates for children. And I smile, realizing that it may very well be that my teachers passed on these same hopes, so that with each passing generation we increase in our power to effect change.

Nicole: Switching topics here, where did you first learn about Tonara?

Sharon: I think it was in a Facebook group called Teachers Gotta Have It. There was some kind of promotion posted there and I thought, “I’d like to try that.”

The first thing that hit me was that points matched effort, not achievement. That is aligned with a lot of motivational programs I’ve designed over the years with my students where rewards match effort. I always test things out myself first so I can experience things just as my students will. So, I tried it out for a month. I experienced that feeling of “ahh…I’ve just gotta do another task to get to that score” and of “oh…5 seconds short of the one-minute goal.” It made me want to do just a little more. I loved that I felt those feelings of fulfillment and achievement, that “yeah! I made it!” And the fireworks made me laugh. I also experienced the feeling of frustration when the app didn’t work. It’s important to know what it will be like for them.

Then I tested it with a few of my most trusted students. Some of them loved it, a couple of them said it wasn’t for them. My group of 12-14-year-old students really got into it. Every day at school they were having conversations about challenging each other, especially if I awarded them extra points for doing something.

I also formed a group of two of my students who were practice buddies. They were 12 years old, and they used it for a while, but these particular students stopped using Tonara eventually. At first, I thought that was concerning, but then when I saw their progress in lessons, I realized they had learned to motivate themselves to practice. They were self-motivated!

Nicole: That’s wonderful! Especially because one of my main goals as a teacher is to teach my students to not need me someday—that they can have the tools available to unlock any music, even when I’m gone. So that still sounds like a success story, because we’re helping them develop the musicianship skills they need for life.

They love the built-in chat feature. They are constantly filling it with positive encouragement, using words well beyond their years

Sharon: Exactly. What I did find was a little “bush fire” occurred with my students who were ages 6-10. That really morphed during the three-month lockdown due to the virus. Being in lockdown was really tough on the children. They had started their new year and attended for 7 weeks, and then were locked down for the next 12 weeks. It was especially tough on the children who did not have siblings or did not have siblings that were a similar age. So that’s where I found Tonara really came into its own.

I have a small handful of girls who are similar ages and have similar motivations, so I created a group for them in Tonara. I needed a positive name and since they were all beginners, I called it “Brilliant Beginners.” They love the built-in chat feature. They are constantly filling it with positive encouragement, using words well beyond their years: “Really well done, Isla! That was so good.” “Hello, how was your day?” They’ve turned it into a support group for each other, and yet they’ve never met in person. The parents have never met each other, either. They are having their first playdate ever tomorrow!

In the beginning, one thing I did to help the group get going was to talk about the members of the group during the students’ lessons. I would say things like, “Mya is learning the same songs as you! And she’s your age, too.” “Did you know she wants to do this?” “I wonder if one day you might play a duet together.” It helped introduce them to each other. They send each other pictures and stickers. Mya had a birthday and she had a piano cake with her name written out of music notes. And they’re wishing each other “Happy Birthday!”

But at the same time, I’m also seeing work, and I’m seeing them be rewarded for effort. The youngest is not quite 6 years old. She’s the younger sister of one of the 9-year-olds, who a few weeks ago, had been top of the leaderboard. This younger sister really wanted to beat the big girls. So I said to her, “You can be top of the leaderboard because this has nothing to do with how old you are or how good you are—it has to do with you practicing 5 minutes every day. That’s all this is.” So, she said, “Alright. I really want to beat my big sister.” And she did it! All she did was ask her mom to do her hair (she has really long hair) at the piano bench while she practiced for 5 minutes on Tonara every day for that week. She was so excited! She went off to school, jumping with joy.

And then what was really beautiful to watch was the comments the older girls made in the chat: “That was really well done, Lilian!” “That was terrific! You deserve that.” Normally children at that age are focused on themselves and are quite competitive. For the 8-9-year-olds to be beaten by a 5-year-old and then to give her that positive encouragement back, and for the 5-year-old to write back and say, “Thank you,” was just wonderful to watch. Then the following week, another girl was on top of the leaderboard, and they were encouraging her.

Something else that happened was when one of the 9-year-old girls noticed Lilian was getting lower on the leaderboard, she said, “Sharon, can you please give her 2000 points because I can see that she is trying and she’s such a nice person and she really deserves it.” Just two days ago, she asked me to give points to a different girl “because she is such a nice person and she really deserves it”—she’s saying all this and yet they’ve never met in person.

The warm-fuzzy feelings in Tonara come from the teachers and students in that studio.

Nicole: You know, that really speaks to the relationship you’ve built with them, because you have made it a safe place where they don’t feel like they have to fill their cup in order to be okay. They’re ready to share.

Sharon: Yes! There is equal validation. And not only is it validating each other, it’s self-validation as well. This isn’t something that happens by chance. I realize my experience is limited to what I’ve experienced, but to a certain extent, with students, you get what you give—you get what you create. So I think if I were to have a student who was not being positive in the chat, I certainly would look upon that in the same way as when I’ve got a student who is not responding to my teaching. Rather than looking at the student, I’m looking at myself. What is it that I am stuck with? What do I need to change?

With the social side of Tonara, we as teachers have the responsibility to create this safe space, in the same way we are responsible for creating a safe space around the piano that we teach from. The warm-fuzzy feelings in Tonara come from the teachers and students in that studio. So, if students aren’t treating each other nicely, from my experience, it’s time to ask, “What is happening here so that these students are acting in this way? What haven’t I done?” It might be around boundaries. It might be how you got them joined up together—did you join them up as a cohesive group? Did you puff each other up with things like “Ah! You are really going to like Mya. She has the greatest stickers!” Did you introduce new members to the rest of the group and help them get to know each other?

Nicole: Wow. So true. And how are you personally coping with this virus situation?

Sharon: Gosh, it’s hard. I lost several students during the first lockdown, so things are really tight financially. Before, my iPad and my laptop were both already old. I had a terrible internet connection and no webcam, plus no adapters and cables. It really adds up. If we go into lockdown again, though, the positive is I have all of the technology now. I’ve got everything I need. So, then it will be about living within the income that’s left.

Nicole: I hear you. This has been a really tough time for so many teachers. It’s hard for our students, too. I wonder, given your training in nursing and counseling, how does that affect the way you teach music?

Sharon: I focus on teaching the student as they present to me, not according to what diagnosis they have been given. That can confuse some parents. Diagnoses are just names. They don’t necessarily describe the condition students have. Caring and kindness are key. Kindness is pivotal to what I do. I give kindness and I expect kindness.

Very rarely will I have a student that acts up during their lesson. If I do, I remember to speak quietly. The quieter you are, the more people will listen. So, when I have a student who needs something said to them about their behavior, I slow down, stop, I look them in the eyes and in a slow, quiet voice I say, “I’m not really happy right now. The person who came and saw me last week was such a nice person. Gosh, I really liked the person that was here last week. They were fun, and we got to do heaps of stuff, and I was looking forward to seeing that person today, but they didn’t come. I really hope I get to see that person next time.”

Nicole: Yes, that really helps them see what your expectation is, and that your expectation is achievable since the student has already demonstrated that they were able to be that person last week.

Sharon: Yes. And I think because I become really quiet and I slow things down, I don’t think they feel that sense of threat that they feel when an adult becomes big and loud. When I handle disappointing or disruptive behavior in this way, I rarely have issues.

Nicole: Something else I liked about what you said is that you look them in the eyes. I think as teachers we probably don’t look our students in the eyes enough, because we are sitting side by side or at a separate instrument.

Sharon: Speaking of eyes, I’d like to introduce you to “Baa.” He’s the “baaad” sheep. And this is Moo. He is the moo-sic expert. He really likes nice sounds and nice music. Baa, on the other hand, is fussy and he’s not afraid of telling you how it is. And it doesn’t matter if we’re online or in person, he gets right up there to the camera and eyeballs the student and then says, “Excuse me. Was that the right note you just played then? Because I don’t think that sounded very good.”

Now, there is something about these puppets. Firstly, they manage to deflect the negativity away from me into the puppet. The puppet says what I would never say to a student and the puppet gets away with it. Some of the students think that is hysterical. Most laugh. Most will then eyeball Baa back and say, “Don’t you speak to me like that,” or “You watch. I’m going to do it now.” And then Baa will say, “You’re right. I dare you.” It makes teaching so fun. And they take the lid off potential. They take the limits away. I’m engaging with the children at their level. And the way these children respond to the puppets tells me a lot about them: how they think, how they learn, and about their motivations based on what they say back to the puppet.

They learn to know exactly why Baa did that because Baa takes the place of me stopping the student while they are playing and telling them to fix that measure. Instead, Baa will eyeball the student, then eyeball the measure that needs help, “What were you doing there?” Even the 13-14-year-olds laugh. It puts a positive frame on it. And using these toy animals creates this mystical experience. It’s magical and beautiful. I think it makes happy kids.

Nicole: I think so, too. And I think a lot of our students are going to be dealing with recovering from this traumatic experience and they’re going to need teachers who speak to their level and help them feel safe and valued. Sometimes the trauma won’t manifest itself right away, so we have to be so patient and understanding.

Sharon: Yes. I had one student who lost swimming, drama, birthday parties, Nanny and Poppy, and school. The only thing she had left outside of the house was me. I don’t think this is being recognized enough. We talk about what kids lost. But we don’t often take that next step and ask, “What did they have left after those losses?”

Each student will handle it in their own way. Some students even thrived more with online learning because they learned to move ahead on their own, or their older siblings helped them during the week. One of my 5-year-old students now is sight-reading really well and moves ahead in her book during the week—and yet she still struggles to read regular books and tell left from right! It’s amazing.

Nicole: Yes! I’m noticing some students are taking more responsibility for their learning.

Sharon: With my students, we’re having discussions about self-belief and courage. I’ll say something like, “If you feel confident enough during the week to move on, do it! See what you can do this week.” And then when they come back, I’m right there saying, “Wow! Did you think you could do that?” We need to give them that self-belief that they can move forward at their own pace. And to have the courage to move ahead, to learn to trust themselves and to have the self-responsibility of saying, “I got this far and this is why I stopped. Can you help me with this?” Isn’t that beautiful? It’s heaven! And then I’m saying to them, “Thank you so much for that question. That has made my day.”

Like you said earlier it’s about them growing out of you. And it’s life lessons, isn’t it. Learning how to live and trust yourself to walk forward into the world and take risks and be able to judge future risk. “What will happen if I make this step ahead, and do I have the courage to take this risk?” Why would you want to turn that off as a teacher?

Nicole: This has been fabulous. Final thoughts?

Sharon: We are one world. We are so far away, yet we can be so close. Having these human connections is so important. It’s so valuable especially now when we’re all scared and worried and really stressed. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or who will be here next week. But we have human connection.

As I finish typing Sharon’s thoughts, I picture myself in her home ‘sharing the soap.’ I look forward to the day when we can ‘share the soap’ in person.