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Tough Lessons

While living in College Station, Texas, in 1989, I studied with a teacher by the name of George Rutherford, student of famed pianist Abby Simon. Mr. Rutherford, as I called him, prepared my weekly lesson plan before my arrival, sometimes penciling in notes at the margins as we went along. I had never known a teacher to do this, and was happy to have found a teacher so devoted as to dedicate at least a half hour to carefully typing my assignment on an old fashioned typewriter. Lessons were given at his studio, which was a front room in a spacious, probably rather stately in its day, historic home. There were no overhead lights -- only a small lamp on top of an old upright Steinway, which had seen its better days. The house was musty and quiet, probably what I would seen as creepy in any other setting. But this house was home to my piano lessons -- so I loved it.

I spent 60 plus hours a week working in college football at that time in my life … and precisely 90 minutes a week teaching three students: two children whose names I’ve forgotten and a middle-aged woman named Ellie. I was 21 years old back then, and so admittedly middle age probably appeared differently to me at the time. Perhaps Ellie was only 30, for all I knew.

Besides somehow finding time to practice piano late at night, I devoted an inordinate amount of time to preparing for those three weekly lessons. I had a printer at my work office, which I used late night weekends to print off a vast number of my own creations. I produced resources for students like there was no tomorrow: scale charts, theory sheets, diagrams of one thing or another, certificates of achievement, rhythm flashcards, syllabus requirements -- a whole folder full of things I probably never used. But, I had them on hand should the need arise. I felt a great sense of satisfaction knowing I was doing my best to serve my three students. I absolutely cherished my time with them.

It’s been 30 years since I began teaching, and I still adore my work. I am one of the rare people in life who is fortunate to say I do what I love. I would choose it as my dream job. I should note: no child dreams of becoming a piano teacher. However, when I found myself living in College Station and working in football, but really just wanting to spend time at the piano, I began to reconsider things. I applied for a job working two hours, one night a week, at a local music store, teaching piano lessons. I was a bit affronted, I will admit, when I didn’t get the job. Always a spirited one, I decided I could do the same on my own -- and so that’s how I created 90 minutes a week for myself, to do what I loved.

I have always said, in teaching and in life, it’s almost enough simply to care.

I cared then, and I care now -- very much so.

Fast forward to 2006, when I began the adult piano program. Remarkably, my first adult student was named Ellie.

I wish I had made lists of all the students and notes about them so that I could keep them forever in my memory. I do take lots of photos, as you may know from my last blog -- same photo, different setting. But sometimes I forget names, like I did with those first two young students. I can honestly say I’ve never had a student I didn’t like -- though sometimes I have a student I need to get to know better, so that I can discover those things I love most about them.

I’ve gotten a little off track at this point and would like to come back to the topic at hand: Tough Lessons. I had a rather upsetting encounter recently with a family member of a student, who addressed me with concerns about the student’s progress. Perhaps well intentioned, it’s notable that this individual has never played piano. The practical outcome of this type encounter is that the student feels he or she is coming up short. It’s hurtful and it serves absolutely no good purpose. That encounter brought to mind a tough lesson from years ago.

I was working with a very hyperactive little five year old boy, out of hand at school, couldn’t sit still and was frequently being called out in the classroom for his behavior. He told me none of his classmates liked him. He wanted to have a friend, he said, but the other children didn’t like to play with him. He was crying when he shared this with me. I asked him what else he liked, besides playing with a friend. “I love the piano,” he said. “I love it.”

I didn’t make him sit at the lesson. He stood much of the time, which worked as his lessons were at the local elementary school and the old upright piano was positioned on a dolly. I had to send him running down the hall every now and then, for which I likely could have been reprimanded, but fortunately never was.

While I consider sight reading to be one of the most important skills to cultivate in the adult student, it was most definitely not my priority with this little boy. He needed to learn to play the music he loved, in a safe space and with someone who liked him just as he was. Reading would have slowed his learning to a snail’s pace. He loved jazz sounds and could easily shift to a swing rhythm. He learned two pieces in two weeks that absolutely thrilled him, each in the same jazzy style.

The next week, his father came with him to his lesson. This father had concerns about his son, and he wanted to me to know he felt I should be teaching him to properly count. I didn’t point out the obvious, which was that it was going to be an impossible task to have him count the 8th note pairs and continue to love the music. I didn’t open my big fat mouth. I just nodded in acknowledgment of what he had said. Nonetheless, I had absolutely no intention of undoing our good work.

Next week the little boy came back, limped over to the piano, and opened up his music, which had the count penciled in the middle of the staff:

1-and-a 2-and-a 3-and-a 1-and-a 2-and-a 3-and-a ……

This was written into the middle of each measure and continued throughout the entire two page score. It appeared to have been hastily penciled in with big curvy writing which flowed on and on, like cursive writing practice.

I said nothing at first. I watched the little boy hang his head low, then wrap his small fingers around his scalp, squinch his eyes closed tight and say in despair, “I feel like my head is going to explode.” He told me the “other teacher” told him to do it “this way.” Sadly, he couldn’t remember how to play the piece he had loved so much. Nor could he count it.

I rarely get angry, but I was angry. I felt tears, but I knew I couldn’t cry in front of the child.

The father had taken away what belonged to the little boy, which was this music that he loved. His only companion was the piano, and now he couldn’t depend on his one true blue friend.

Rather than cry, I decided we would do something new, just for fun. The little boy revived himself enough to make several runs around the room. We re-inflated his sense of self and had a happy lesson. I didn’t write an assignment. I frankly didn’t want the father knowing what we had worked on, for fear he’d undo our good work.

Next lesson, the father returned with the child, again instructing me to teach the swing beat count. I kindly asked the father to demonstrate what he meant by that, something he couldn’t do, and which, of course, I had anticipated. My indignation didn’t serve the little boy, as the father never brought him back. Through the years, I have hoped the little boy’s love for piano was stronger than the will of the unwieldy father. I’m sure he grew out of his hyperactivity by now, but a broken spirit is a hard thing to mend.

The tough lessons are rarely related to learning music.

What every student needs, child and adult, is support and encouragement. Adults are born from the wounded children’s early experiences -- which can make them far more fragile than the kids, as they carry their open wounds for years on end. When an adult begins lessons, they’ve already “put it on the line.” They don’t need constructive criticism from family members who don’t play piano. It’s never helpful. We have frequent gatherings here not only because they’re loads of fun, but also because we can truly appreciate the difficulties and challenges that come from learning piano. We celebrate this experience by sharing our music with each other. This matters because it helps rebuild us. It’s how we re-inflate ourselves and each other, much like the little boy. At some point we stop worrying so much with making things perfect and begin to simply enjoy making music.

To this day, I can honestly say I look forward to each student and every lesson. I don’t spend as much time creating things like scale charts, and I have far more resources here than I’ll ever actually use. Beautiful experiences are the norm, and the tough lessons are rare -- though they do present themselves occasionally.

We are, after all, only human.

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