Creating a Hyggelig Space For Our Students to Thrive
I recently received an email from a parent who still drives by our old California home. In the update, she notes:
The house is still green, and the garden still growing. I can still see your warm living room. You were always wearing a sweater and super thick socks, sipping on something warm in a mug, as you gave our little ones their lesson. Jamie would get distracted and talk about his best friend or race cars. You were excellent at listening to him, and then refocusing him.
Sitting in our new studio, some 6000 miles away, I shed a happy (and nostalgic) tear and smiled: the goal of creating a nurturing, beautiful space for children to learn the piano had been realized. I had done my job. And then there’s the hygge factor: Garden, mug, super thick socks, listening, refocusing, talking about best friends, warmth. A hyggelig piano studio.
But what is this "Hygge" anyway?
A lot has been written about hygge since Meik Wiking’s beautiful book surfaced last year. I read it cover to cover in a flurry. It was affirming in some ways (much of my self-care routine was suddenly validated by the nordic way of life and studies), and eye-opening in other ways (was our studio adequately hyggelig? Was there enough hygge in our personal lives? There wasn’t, I decided immediately). In an effort to ameliorate the potential lack of hygge, I drove to the store and purchased candles. Dozens of them. Later in the day, as I happily unpacked the new housewares, I explained to my skeptical fiancé that these were not indulgences, but a necessary step to promote balance and happiness in our house and studio.
For those of you who are new to the Danish concept of hygge, a quick Pinterest search yields images of slippers, warm drinks, fireplaces, thick sweaters, and cookies. These cozy photos may be misleading because, unfortunately, hygge simply can't be charged on a credit card. At its core, hygge refers to an ineffable but clearly recognizable feeling of safety, security and belonging. Wiking points out that these moments occur most often when surrounded by friends and family, or, simply speaking, those we trust.
Wiking’s book is focused on how Danish people hygge. However, hygge will be slightly different for all of us depending on where we live, our age, interests, lifestyle preferences, and childhood memories. For me, hygge is pesto pasta, heirloom tomatoes, the Vermont mountain color of green, milky hot chocolate, my mom’s music room, pianos, classical guitars, fluffy dogs -- most notably our family pug named Pug. Of course, these things are particularly hyggelig to me because I experienced them with family and friends. I doubt there are many others who share my exact hygge palatte (or a pug named Pug). This is the really unique and fun part of mining and harvesting your own hygge.
Hygge and Teaching
Surrounded by the new candles, I began contemplating where hygge as a lifestyle-philosophy and teaching music to children intersect. To create an ideal learning environment, we must offer hyggeligt physical spaces for our students. Moreover, we must facilitate and promote the warm and “fluffy”* feeling of hygge. In the end, the empirical and philosophical are wed together and inextricably linked.
Let's think about it this way: If you put a young student in a cozy space with loving people who offer a clear pathway toward growth and success, they will naturally excel. If you put a young child in a cold, dreary place with strict, unsupportive authority figures, they will naturally want to run far away and back to their own hygge nest. Interestingly, I would even argue that the majority of adults who declare that they are simply “unmusical” may have suffered some version of the latter experience, which really makes me sad. Our early environments are everything.
So how do we do it? Below are a few thoughts on the subject to springboard your own ideas.
Light is very important. Actually, I still remember the terrifying fluorescent lights at my first piano lessons. (Is this why I could only sit for 5 minutes at a time?) Luckily I had a wonderful, very nurturing teacher to help offset the uninspiring décor.
When searching for our studio space in Austria, Steve and I found one with big windows that would provide ample natural light during the daytime. When the sun goes down, we’ve added various sources of soft light throughout to create a soothing atmosphere. And candles. Not an indulgence, a necessity and by far my favorite way to invite graceful and calm energy to the studio. That said, candles do present an obvious fire hazard, so make sure these are 1000% out of the reach of children and not somewhere where they could tip over. [True Confession: Shortly before writing this paragraph, I had put on hot chocolate that I forgot about until the smell of burning milk reached my office. The irony was bitterly obvious. So be mindful with anything involving stoves or candles or windows or sharp corners, you get the point!!]
Back in California, we had an edible front yard. We took out all the grass (which was a huge waste of water) and built big garden boxes. Over the years, my piano students observed hundreds of plants grow from tiny seedlings into fruit-bearing, mature plants. What could be more life-affirming?
Here in Austria, we no longer have a garden outside our studio door. But this spring, my new students will plant a seed, nurture the young plant and watch it grow week after week (we will keep them on the windowsill). Students will connect the idea of a plant’s growth with their own musical journey.
3) Soft Edges & “Useless” Space
Meik Wiking discusses the importance of “soft edges” (a courtyard bench, neighborhood garden) to cultivate happy communities in his newest book, The Little Book of Lykke. (HIGHLY recommend this one as well.) Equally important in our music studios, these spaces allow parents and students an opportunity to chat with each other, improving the general energy. These spaces may be modest or small, a bench, a corner, a hallway, doorstep, or kitchen. In her pragmatic and beautiful book, Frame for Life, designer Ilse Crawford argues that such "accidental spaces" encourage social behavior and invite meaningful conversation.
4) No Shoes
We have a no shoes policy at our studio. Students bring their own thick sock/slippers and we have a collection for ourselves by the door. At home, we have hygge sock baskets (another idea from Wiking’s hygge book and my friend Stephanie). Not wearing shoes keeps the space clean and creates a much more inviting atmosphere.
Design is a complex topic and, of course, deeply personal. In our current spaces, we gravitate toward a minimalist & scandinavian design aesthetic. What is most important is that every single item be both functional and beautiful. And no clutter, which leads me to the best life hack I’ve embraced: Throw things away. (If you haven’t already, read Marie Kondo’s book, it's worthy of its fame! She despises clutter so much that she even gives you permission to donate her book if it ceases to be useful or spark joy.)
According to Ilse Crawford, we want to create spaces “where people feel good, grounded, and motivated.” While tastes will differ, the design of a studio will either comfort or unsettle those we work with and teach. In whatever ways you choose, make a conscious effort to make your teaching space as comfortable and hyggeligt as possible.
6) Togetherness & Equality
For me, togetherness and equality are the most important aspects of hygge. In teaching terms, this means focusing on elevating the group dynamic.
Equality: All students should be equal in the eyes of their teacher. While this seems obvious, it is incredible how much preferential treatment goes on in classrooms and studios that degrades the quality of otherwise fine teaching. As educators, we must focus on the qualities that bind us: “We all play the piano.” “We all work on dynamics.” “We all must practice to prepare for recitals.” While it can be tempting to think this way, there should be no ‘stars’ – even if you have developed a student who may soon win an international competition. This sense of equality is deeply important for all of the students to feel secure. From this point of stability, each will naturally navigate themselves toward success. Remember that under the tutelage of a great teacher, the students meant for concert halls will head in that direction, while the great majority will allow music to enrich their lives, bodies and minds as they journey toward finding their unique vocations.
(Note: who you take as a student is up for debate. Only take students who agree to your expectations and studio policies, otherwise an imbalance between teacher and student will occur.)
Togetherness: Togetherness is critically important for any private studio or music school to thrive. All parties, students, their families and the teacher(s) must feel that they are part of something bigger and not simply sending their children to ‘piano lessons’.
Create ample opportunities for parents and students to connect.
Idea #1: Group Classes in addition to private lessons
My piano program meets twice a week; once for a private lesson (me, student and parent) and a group musicianship class (3-7 students). During group class, which parents do not attend, the children form deep friendships. While we follow the curriculum I’ve developed, the overarching goal is to foster camaraderie. Once, I even allowed a class to enjoy a ‘laugh attack’ that Steve could apparently hear from halfway down the block! He was startled about the ruckus, assuming something might be wrong, but relieved to find out that it was just laughter!
Idea #2: Themed parties/recitals
Shortly before we moved, one of the wonderful studio families hosted a duet garden party. Yes, such a magical event really did occur. Rather than a goodbye, it was a celebration of our studio’s togetherness fostered over five years. We moved a piano outside (perhaps the single perk of California’s drought), listened to all children play duets, and then enjoyed a potluck. To conclude the event, one of my students performed a ‘folk’ song that she had composed, “A Cold Winter Day” (actually what California kids dream of!). As she sang and played the piano, her classmates from group class joined in with tambourines and shakers. It was as heart-warming as it sounds. When I reflect on the garden duet party, though the playing was beautiful, it was our shared sense of community that was the greatest accomplishment of all.
Our job as teachers first and foremost is to create a safe and nurturing atmosphere for children to not only learn, but to thrive. When we do this well, it is manifested in smiling eyes, effortless collaboration, a willingness to leave drama elsewhere, and all-around good energy. Our studios are not merely spaces, but sanctuaries. Within these walls, we can all rely on each other and in this state, we are our most authentic, loving versions of ourselves.
Please comment below with your thoughts on hygge and thanks for reading!
*Fluffy” as a positive adverb/adjective was brought to my attention by Kieran and Lila, two students who called people and things they liked, “fluffy.” Appropriate, right?!
References & Favorites
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