What is a Piano Lesson?

 
Recital 2012
Recital 2012

I like to think that anyone who works in a leadership or teaching role with young people is in the business of making memories. In addition to helping our students develop skills, we provide experiences that we hope will make good memories for the rest of their lives. Exactly how does this happen in a piano lesson? Last week’s spring recital reminded me once again the real reasons to teach. Have you ever wondered exactly what parents receive for the lesson tuition paid to a piano teacher?

Certainly, we teach the elements of music.  From melody and harmony, to rhythm, tempo, dynamics and music theory, we share an international form of communication with our students.  Music notation is one of few things that is consistent worldwide. The notes our students learn will be the very same as those learned all around the world.

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We teach techniques specific to mastery of our favorite instrument, the piano.   With keyboard choreography (otherwise known as fingering) and articulation styles, we teach young fingers to dance on the keys. We help them coordinate foot pedaling techniques to achieve desired musical effects.   But we teach so much more than this.  A piano lesson is really a small lesson in life.  We cover personality traits like dedication, commitment, perseverance and concentration.  We help students learn the value of repetition in the mastery of a difficult task.  (Play it again.  And again.  And yet again.)  We help students learn the value of being flexible, and the satisfaction of a job well done.  Nothing else can top that feeling.

We share other tidbits about life too.   In just a minute or two at the beginning or end of a lesson, I have explained my collection of instruments from around the world, or my collection of rocks and how they were formed.  I have discussed the direction of earth’s rotation with students and tiptoed with them to a nest of baby bunnies in my garden. I have even, on occasion, shared my favorite remedy for hiccups.

In return, the students share things with me as well.  Through our weekly meetings, we come to know each other well. We develop a relationship that has the potential to become a lifelong friendship.  After all, how many other teachers stick by their students season after season, year after year?

I hear about family celebrations.  I know where families head for summer vacations, or for the holidays.  I know who’s coming to visit and how long they will stay.  I know what is planned for birthdays.  I hear about good days at school, and bad days as well.  I hear about contests won.  And contests lost.  I receive invitations to participate in the lives of my students.  I am invited to school performances, church functions, and community performances.  I am invited to participate in school fundraisers, youth club fundraisers, and symphony fundraisers.

I have helped prepare students to perform at weddings; I hold their hands as they deal with the loss of a grandparent—sometimes even the tragic loss of a close friend.

So, sure, we piano teachers serve as teachers.  We teach music and the skills needed to play a piano.  But relationships with our students, over the years, hold so much more—teacher, coach, cheerleader, confidante, and friend.  For me there is no greater reward.

Recital 2013: The calm before the storm.
Recital 2013: The calm before the storm.

 

Recital 2013. Photo by Carl Shultz.
Recital 2013.  Creating memories. Photo by Carl Shultz.

 

A Letter From My Mother

I’m convinced that one of the hardest things to do is to switch piano teachers during the formative years. It’s hard on a student. And it’s hard for the new teacher to assess prior skills and develop a rapport with a transfer student. I know this from both a student’s and a teacher’s viewpoint. Recently I stumbled across a letter from my own mother. She wrote in response to a long epistle I had penned as a teenager. I waxed eloquent in my plea to stop my own private study in piano after we moved to a new community. Her letter smacked with impact. I could have written it to my own daughter a few years ago. Since tomorrow is Mother’s Day, I remember Mother with love. Here are her timeless words, from another time and another place.

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Dear Daughter,

Last evening while thinking about the situation, I felt your father and I should no longer ask you to take lessons on the piano and resolved to discuss this with him. Upon reading your letter to us this morning, I wondered if your thought waves had influenced my thoughts. If you change your mind at any future date, please let us know; I had hoped that your experience with lessons under an inexperienced person would not preclude all future lessons. But in any case, do return to playing the piano for your own pleasure (and mine) and don’t hold a grudge against Chopin.

There’s little that I can say but to caution you that while you feel you are an adult, you still have much growing and learning to do. You have many “do-it-yourself” interests but I’m sure that after an initial learning stage you may find it wise to turn to someone more skilled or knowledgeable in that interest in order to keep improving. Try to keep an open mind. There are many things or ideas to which you have not been exposed.  In the meantime, we should all keep learning and improving in the fields of religion, music, writing, drawing, painting, speaking and personal development. No matter what one’s vocation, life will be richer and more complete because of these experiences.

Yes, darling, we are biased parents—biased in favor of our daughters. But we’re conscious that we have failed you in many ways. We love all of you very much and are proud of you.

Love always, Mother

Life: The Journey Continues

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At a recent writing workshop William Bernhardt asked us to identify three important values in our lives. This being an exercise I had completed in a different chapter of  life, my three qualities were easy to list.

I value creativity, both divine and human. My passion for the earth nestles within this category. Additionally my environmental activism, love for wildlife, nature, artistic attempts by my friends and family, music composition, and the process of writing fall under this heading.

I value harmony, in which individual elements fit together pleasantly into a whole. My passion for music and keyboard instruments is included here, of course. But I also list human relations, cooperation, love, honesty, integrity, generosity, service, and commitment.

Third on my list is education, the quality of being a student for life. Openness, a willingness to learn, to explore and to seek new adventure cluster under this heading.

On the rare occasion when facets of all three collide in one place at one time, I feel euphoric. The past weekend at the OWFI annual convention in Norman, Oklahoma was such an event. Opportunities to learn new techniques and consider alternative viewpoints filled the education criterion. Everyone I met, totally involved in the creative process, affirmed my own aspirations. New friendships, laughter, frolics, and plans to meet again created a joyous cloud on which we practically floated home. Education, harmony and creativity—a weekend of bliss.

To have a publisher request to see samples of my writing topped the experience. A new corner has been turned. A new chapter in life has started. Whether the request leads to a published book remains to be seen. For now, I will enjoy the notion that someone wants to see what I have to offer.

Many thanks go to Bill Bernhardt for coaching my pitch and query, as well as instruction on the elements of manuscript creation. Thanks also to my writing friends for reading and offering constructive criticism to polish the words. We are indeed word weavers. The process—the journey—continues! Such is the creative life.

The Consideration Project

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I’ve been thinking about my mother a lot lately.  Last week marked a full decade since we celebrated her last birthday with her.  It’s only natural she has been in my thoughts.   For our appreciation of all the finer things in life, my sisters and I have Mother to thank.  She loved music, literature, and the finer aspects of our culture fostered through the arts.  Education was a priority for her.  Based on her own experience, continuing education was the key to rise above desperation and hardship.  She fostered within each of her daughters the value of knowledge, hard work, and a sense of justice and opportunity for those down on their luck.  She was also pretty hard-nosed about second chances if one failed to recognize the gift of a first chance.  But she remained generous to others all her days.

Actively involved in our childhood education, Mother assigned me the first big project I recall.  She became upset by the daily arguing of her three daughters.  To combat the incessant cacophony of our constant bickering, she assigned each of us to do a “Consideration Project.”  We were to consider each other’s feelings and viewpoints before we erupted into a shouting match.  There was paperwork involved.  By the due date, I had written a journal of thoughts, choices, and conclusions.  This project became a major activity for me. Though I don’t have a copy of my final report, I learned a great deal from the activity.  I believe this was the first major writing project assigned in my school years.  It was Mother who assigned it, and I still remember the “Consideration Project.”

I can draw parallels to lessons recorded in the gospel books of the Bible.  Jesus instructed, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  (Matt. 5:41)  “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt.”  (Luke 6:29)  In other words, Jesus also encouraged his followers to be considerate of others.

Is there anything more difficult to master about life?  My natural response toward someone who has acted harshly against me is to retaliate in kind.  Yet, if I stop a moment and give consideration to the other, I might imagine a bit of bad news they may be facing, a hardship in their family, or an argument they may have had with the most important person in their life.  Even though a person may treat me unfairly, it helps no one if I pass that injustice along.  Not even me.

There have been times after I finish a service job when I am offered payment with a check that bounces.  I fretted.  I worried.  I fretted some more.  But when, in my heart, I made a gift to the person of my work, my distress was instantly relieved.  Jesus’ instructions for giving beyond expectations were spoken not to benefit those who wrong me, but to lift the load of hatred and resentment from my own heart.  Freedom and contentment were my immediate rewards.

Jesus also said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”  (Matt. 7:1)  How can I possibly know all the details of another person’s choices?  I can’t.  Granted, I have never been on the receiving end of a violent criminal act.  I have never faced the loss of everything I hold dear at the spiteful actions of others.  I honestly don’t know how I would react in those cases.  But I do know that I can choose my actions carefully today.  I have the power to affect my own life and future, and I can support others who face unknown crises without judging them from my own perspective.

It seems that our nation is in need of a consideration project.  Diversity has always been one of the strengths of our country.  We defend the right of others to live as their hearts dictate, as long as their choices hurt no one.  The bitterness and rancor we see today in our nation gets us nowhere in the long run.  The art of politics should be the art of compromise, striking a deal somewhere in the middle that the majority of people can embrace.   We defend the rights of those who have few resources.   We defend our diversity.

Extremists who deny compromise and refuse action of any sort unless it’s what they want only hurt our country.  There should be no room for a “My-way-or-the-highway” attitude.  How do we find common ground with folks who will not listen to differing views?  On a national scale, we seem to lack something basic.  Something like . . . consideration.

Mother, we need your “Consideration Project.”  I suspect that if we try, we could find some common ground between the blue and the red.  If we consider the views and thoughts of those who differ from us, we might find we share many things.  We love our children.  We revere the life and opportunities we’ve had.  We want others to share similar good fortunes.  We worry about what the future holds.  The basics of humanity exist in the hearts of people regardless of their political persuasions.  If we listened considerately to each other, we might find we share a lot.  Our states are not totally red nor blue, just as our own hearts are not absolutely conservative or liberal.  We are closer to various shades of purple than perfectly red or perfectly blue.  Purple should be the color of our future as we strive to find commonalities in our concerns.

How about a little consideration for each other?  I’m ready.  Are you?