Piano Lessons

He's had this book for two years, bringing it out occasionally to try then putting it away until later.

Piano is our family’s instrument of choice.  At six, my older son started lessons with me. When he came home from school at seven-and-a-half, we fired each other and hired a “real” teacher.  Four months later, we switched teachers, the first being a poor match for my son. After a bit of looking, we found a teacher who managed to challenge him and hold his interest.

Several years later, he’d advanced to a point beyond what his teacher of many years could comfortably and competently provide.  He asked to move on, so we spent a few months vetting potential teachers. After phone calls and interviews/trial lessons, he settled on a young woman with loads of talent for both performance and teaching.  He flourished under her tutelage, within a few months, making enormous leaps in expression and technique.  Much of that technique was learned within the repertoire they selected together.  She encouraged him to play what he enjoyed while providing a balanced diet or music. That year and a half was exquisite, and the fit between student and teacher, divine.

So of course, she moved. Out of state.  My son spent a few months mourning the loss of that relationship but agreed to try another teacher from our explorations a few years earlier.

That was five months ago. My son has given this new relationship a good try, but over the last few months, he’s expressed concerns and lost interest in playing. Most of his concerns center on partnership.  As a homeschooler for seven years in a home where his opinion in curriculum matters, he expects to have a fair amount of say in how he learns. That’s seemed fair to me, given it is his education.  While I insist on a certain set of basic skills and score of knowledge, I have remained generally flexible about how those skills and knowledge are obtained.  His last piano teacher, too, was flexible as long as he was learning what he needed to reach his goals.

Of course he expected the same from all his musical education. So over the past month, we talked about what he wanted, now and in the long-term. He has no interest in making music his career. He wants to be able to play for his own pleasure, and perhaps for the pleasure of a few others. He neither shuns nor seeks the spotlight, willingly played at church when asked but never asking himself. He wants to play more ChopinMussorgsky, and the other Romantics because he loves them. Eventually, he wants to play Rachmaninoff. He wants to sight-read with ease.  His goals are highly personal.

Furthermore, he sees no purpose to competitions, like Student Achievement Testing and Federation. Scores just don’t matter to him (although he excels at these events).  He sees the preparation for these as an interruption in his studies.  He simply wants to learn the music he likes and work toward him personal goals.

So at his last lesson, with a good deal of angst, my older son approached his piano teacher, with me in a chair some ways off.  He advocated for greater choice in his pieces, more focus on the Romantics, and an end to competitions.  And she hesitated.

I agree with him, to a point.  This is his education, and in no place in it is he clearer about what he wants than in piano studies.   Before we’d arrived at the lesson, I’d alerted him to possible reactions she may have at his request to veer from her regularly scheduled programming.  We’d hired her to teach him, and after years of training to teach piano, she likely had strong feelings about the best path for learning the instrument. That turned out to be the case.  While dropping the competitions was fine with her, deviating from the path she’d set was not. Her brow furrowed as I mentioned his learning preference to be more whole-to-part than the traditional part-to whole. After much discussion, she was willing to vary her approach, for a while, if “his soul really needed to find enjoyment in piano again.”  But, she insisted, her path was the only way to a sound piano education.

At this point, I flashed back to his first grade Montessori classroom.  My older son has done dozens of drills on the noun, a concept he mastered years earlier.  “How can I move on to the other parts of speech?” he asks his teacher?

“First you must do all the noun activities,” she tells him.  “Then you can move to verbs.  This is the way we do it.”

At home repeats the question for me, and at our next meeting with his teacher, we go through the question and answer again.  In fact, she tells me, he is moving slower through the drills, and she thinks he needs more repetition to fully understand the concept.

After a deep breath, I speak. “He will do far better if you show him the whole thing.  Give him all the parts of speech, in context, and watch what he does.  He needs to know where he is going, and he’s highly likely to master the whole works quite rapidly.”

She is so tired of us, repeatedly asking for more challenge.  She’s not interested in the idea that a child might actually perform better at more challenging material that fully engages his mind than at simpler material.  She doesn’t really think he’s that smart anyway (she’s said that).  But she’s tired of us, and she agrees to try.  A few days later, my son reports he’s now allowed to do all the grammar “works” in the classroom, with all the parts of speech.  He’s happier than he’s been in months, and my heart follows his.

We end up leaving the school at the end of the year, since grammar was the only area where he was allowed to learn from whole to parts, allowed to take great gulps of information then sort and reorder them. It’s a sad ending.

Yesterday’s conversation with his piano teacher brought a bit more hope.  I’d guess he’s the first student in her teaching years to make such a statement of desire.  In the end, she agreed to some changes, with more music of the type he’s interested yet still enough other to teach him the variety of technique he needs.  As we talked, she warmed to his view-point, although while voicing a fair amount of caution to him and to me.  My son is satisfied, feeling more sense of partnership than previously.

I’m dubious. Perhaps I’ve just been on the disappointed end of too many parent-teacher conferences. Perhaps I know how first-hand how difficult it can be to step off the path I know and trust a child to show what works best for him or her. In time, we’ll know.  However it comes out, I’m proud of my son for advocating for himself and negotiating a solution that, today at least, seems to meet his needs. Whatever he does with his piano studies, this lesson will serve him well.

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2 thoughts on “Piano Lessons

  1. I really like your son’s approach to music – what a wonderful thing that he knows what he wants and needs. And kudos to you for working with him so that he can see and express these ideas.
    Good stuff. Hope the teacher can keep up with him!

    We do Suzuki method piano and my eldest DD (8) is very compliant (well, when she is at piano LOL) and is zooming along with this method. My younger DD (6) however really digs her heels in as she likes to be the master of her own domain. Tiny bit by tiny bit? Parents minutely supervising practice? No way. But the teacher DID NOT approve of us leaving her to it – Suzuki method really pushes the parent’s involvement. I asked my DD not to tell her teacher that she practised independently (I am loathe normally to be dishonest, but it was at crisis point). Her playing improved enormously and she is enjoying it again, and the teacher has stopped quizzing her. Maybe sometimes the teacher can do with learning new things too 🙂

    • I knew Suzuki would be a poor fit for my older son, so we stayed away. Honestly, with homeschooling, I needed piano to be something I didn’t have to supervise, too. Yes, I make sure my boys get to the piano for their practice every day. Yes, I point out problems when I hear them (largely for my younger — my older recognizes his mistakes). But sit there with them every day? I’d lose my mind.

      I’m glad to hear your daughter is enjoying her playing again. The process seems pointless if the child is miserable. I hold out hope (some) that my son will do the same and his teacher will learn a bit about different learners during this time.


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