Grousing

My biggest gripe with piano teaching is not what you’d expect – students who don’t practice.

It is the parents.  For the most part, I have wonderful parents: they are involved, interested, supportive, good communicators.  But there are a few bad apples and they really sap my energy.  I have been saying for a long time that I can handle pretty much any student, supposedly difficult or untalented or otherwise not ideal, as long as I get along with the parents, as long as we’re on the same page and they support what I do.

I have a few students who move slowly because they don’t practice as much as they could and should, but they do progress, and the parents and I are on the same page, content with how things work.

In our lessons, my goal is always to give honest and supportive feedback to the student and make sure none of my students leave the lesson until they have understood what it is they are to practice, and how.  I even make the younger ones read my hand-written assignment out loud to make sure they can read my handwriting and understand all abbreviations – much of the assignment often reads like some secret code, “LH 3 mf” for instance.   (And there are students of whom I ask not only “what does LH stand for?” but also to show me their left hand …)

I praise them pretty much every chance I get, but I also let them know when they are not doing well.  I don’t think I have any students who do not want to do well.  So, when they don’t do well it’s usually because they don’t understand a concept or because they are tired or distracted.  To the surprise of many parents, I don’t chide them for being tired or distracted, but I draw their attention to it, put it in words, and then say that we have a choice:  either say, yes I am tired and I need to take a break, or, yes I am tired but I’ll try again anyway.

And I make sure they understand that one is not better than the other.  I wish more people developed some sense and understanding of their state of mind, and their limits.  Somehow, perhaps because of the liberty of being able (allowed?) to say “I am tired/distracted” most students choose to try again and often play better than before.  To students who would benefit from it, I offer strategies for coping with the challenge of playing / listening / thinking while being tired.

While I try to be honest and supportive and praise my students for doing a good job thinking or listening or having patience (when they do), I do NOT comment on their being “talented” or “future pianists” or any such thing.  And parents who gush at their children (in front of me), telling them how talented they are because they understood a difficult concept  immediately lose points with me.   I similarly cringe when I hear parents say things like, “Ms. Kuder wouldn’t be teaching you if you weren’t so talented!”   So very much NOT true.  “Talent” is a promise, nothing more.  I have had “talented” students who were not interested in learning – how’s that good for anything?

Then there are parents who answer the questions I directed at the child, for the child.  When I ask a question, I get so much more out of the answer than just the answer.  Many of my questions are leading questions and I am interested in the student’s chain of thoughts to get to the answer, convoluted as some of those chains of thoughts can be at times.   Some parents interrupt the child if they think that the answer will be incorrect, but even an incorrect answer tells me what I need to know, namely that there is something that hasn’t been understood 100% = something I need to teach.  Or sometimes, students realize as they speak that they are headed in the wrong direction and correct themselves.  So much more valuable than having mom or dad present the right answer!  To me, piano lessons are about learning, and learning doesn’t do straight lines.

Most of my students learn quickly that there is no wrong answer to my question, “What do you think needs more work in this piece/section?” except “I don’t know.”  (Most of them have also learned that “dynamics” is a pretty sure-fire answer as it is such an elusive concept and one that always seems to benefit from more attention.)

Once I observe the student-parent interaction, I find that most students who prefer the “I don’t know” answer do so because their parents don’t encourage them to think, or, worse, jump in every chance they get and correct their child.  No wonder “I don’t know” seems like the safest thing to say …

Addendum:  There are two different ways students tell me “I don’t know” – the one I referred to, above, is not the one where a student honestly doesn’t know and sometimes even has trouble admitting so.  This kind of “I don’t know” actually is more of an “I don’t know and I don’t like that I don’t know!”  The one I was referring to, above, is the one that sounds like “I don’t know and I don’t care and will you get off my back already!”

(Originally posted May 17, 2010)

Edited to add: one way to keep parents from interfering with the lesson would of course be to simply not allow parents at the lesson. But that would only mask the problem because at home the parent *is* there, and interfering. Having a parent at the lesson and seeing the interaction between parent and child helps me understand how things go at home and gives me an opportunity to educate the parent how to help in a more productive way. – Although, I have on occasion realized that there was no educating the parent, that there was too big a discrepancy between how they viewed their role and what I would have needed from them.

Planning and growth

Many, many years ago, when I was still in the first ten years of my teaching career, I was successful. I was able to attract good students, where good meant talented and dedicated, with supportive parents.

So it was quite a shock when the mother of a younger (3rd grade?) transfer student after about one semester decided to quit lessons with me. She explained that her daughter still missed the previous teacher’s daughter with whom she had been good friends, so “piano lessons” had always meant a play date as well.

But also, and more importantly, the mother explained, I just didn’t have a plan. There was no plan in my teaching, she said, no logical progression, no first this then that, nothing to look forward to, because nobody knew what was coming up.

This was a slap in the face. I had been so proud of being more creative than other teachers who used a cookie cutter approach to teaching: same method for every student, same materials, same pieces on every recital.

I easily dismissed her criticism, and explained it away as the uneducated opinion of someone who simply did not know how to appreciate my creative approach. After all, if this had been a real problem then other parents would have said the same thing, right?

Wrong, of course.

I now know – but don’t remember how I came to learn – that she was absolutely correct of course. I now value having a plan, thinking ahead, designing individual assignment sheets for my students (printed out ahead of the lesson). I try to balance having a plan and at the same time being creative in the implementation of the plan, and I always try to pay attention and make changes as necessary. I appreciate being able to spend the time to do a lot of thinking about my students, where we want to go, and how we will get there. I still don’t have an answer to a parent’s question, “How long before she’s going to play the Moonlight Sonata?” but I can lay out the (kinds of) books and materials I anticipate using, and in what order.

Different but related: eleven weeks ago I got braces. Because the first appointment with the woman who took care of the financial aspect and offered to explain everything was somewhat unhelpful – every question I had was answered with an enthusiastic and just-barely-not-condescending “Oh – it’ll be so easy!” – I made an appointment with the orthodontist, about six weeks into this adventure, asking if he would share the treatment plan: what are the issues he is seeing, and how will he address them, what are his goals, and how will we get there.

It was a most frustrating experience. He seemed genuinely stumped at these questions. “Well – we’re gonna put braces on your teeth …”  He didn’t mention any specific issues, and when I brought up one of them (that I was aware of), he still would not explain what he planned to do about it but spent a good five minutes explaining why we had to address the issue, and how my teeth got to where they are – something he had already explained in detail at the first consultation.

He emphasized how very individual every patient and therefore the treatment is, using the example of two different kinds of trucks: a Ford, and a Toyota – both are trucks, but very different vehicles. I played along and said, “Tell me about my Ford, then.” Again, he spent most of the time explaining why we had to address issues and how my teeth got to be where they are, but no real answers to my very specific questions.

Afterward I thought, either he doesn’t have a plan (not likely), or he is not used to being asked to explain, or he sucks majorly at explaining. Or maybe he misunderstood my questions as concerns and worries that he felt compelled to make me feel better about. The problem is that I didn’t have concerns or worries, I wasn’t looking for consolation, I was looking for information, something I thought was clear from my questions.

Fortunately, my dentist is very good at explaining, clearly and concisely, so he has on occasion filled in when I had questions.

I guess the orthodontist is where I was twenty or twenty-five years ago: toward the beginning of his career, with enough experience to do his job, but with plenty of room to grow.

 

Standards and Expectations

Many parents, after looking at my website or after the initial meeting where we discuss piano lesson details and the student plays for me, comment that they like that I seem to have high standards and expectations for my students.

They seem to appreciate that their child will be challenged, and seem confident that I know how to work toward pianistic success, taking into account each student’s personality, learning style, individual strengths and areas in need of improvement.

They understand that this is a triangle: teacher-student-parent, and everyone has a part to play. I as the teacher have the training and experience, and desire, to help the student succeed, the student is motivated and enthusiastic about learning, and parents understand their commitment to making sure that their child is well-prepared and has the necessary materials, including a good piano, bench, and so on, to practice at home.

It makes me incredibly sad then when a parent does not see any problem with expecting their child to make do with an inferior instrument and or bench. They seem to think, “Well, of course our instrument is not as fancy as the teacher’s!” but don’t understand that there is a certain minimum standard below which things simply do not work.

The thinking seems to be that as long as the child learns a new song every once in a while, things must be going well.

From the very first meeting, I emphasize the importance of a healthy technique – where technique has nothing to do with plowing through fast and furious etudes, but everything with figuring out how to move at the piano: how to move fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders, how to sit well-balanced, etc and so on. It also has to do with developing an ear for sound, and a feel for touch – what sound do I want? and, what do I do to produce that sound?

All of this requires the kind of instrument and bench, plus footstool for short students, that allow them to work on these things, to be able to experiment at home, and work on issues we covered at the lesson. An out of tune piano is actually not as bad as one that does not respond to the student’s touch, or where the keys respond unequally, because it forces the student to compensate in unhealthy ways.

At the lesson, I explain and demonstrate to the parents and students frequently why it is so very important to sit at a good height and distance from the piano. I also use my digital piano to explain and demonstrate – allow the student to experience – the differences between an acoustic instrument and a digital one. I also emphasize that a good digital piano is always better than a not-good acoustic piano.

Once students are at an intermediate level and have developed a good technique, it is not the end of the world when they occasionally practice on a piano that is less responsive. But in the beginning, a good, responsive, instrument is really crucial because we are laying the foundation for a lifetime of success and love for playing the piano.

It is so disappointing when a student struggles with technique – despite seeming to understand and being able to demonstrate that understanding at the lesson – and I suspect that their piano at home may be contributing to their struggle.

A few months ago I asked the parent of a second-year student who played with a lot of tension, especially raised shoulders, whether the bench at home could possibly be too low as that can cause the student to try to compensate by raising their shoulders. The parent thought about it for a minute and then thoughtfully said, “No … I don’t think so.”  –  Fast forward to last week when, after asking the parents if it would be ok for me to look at their piano to see if the piano could perhaps explain the children’s continued struggle with technique, and overall unusually slow progress – and being invited to do so and thanked ahead of time for my time and effort -, when I discover that the stool the children were using was so low that when sitting, the younger child’s shoulders were at the same height as the keys, forcing her to play with straight, out-stretched arms. Even the older child was still sitting much too low, having to reach up to the keys.

The piano was out of tune and not very responsive, keys responding unequally, some of the key tops missing. They had never had it tuned, and from looking inside I could tell that it would take major work, and probably a lot of money, to get the piano to a point where the children would be able to practice the things we are working on at the lessons with any kind of success.

This is a family who had, before starting lessons, met with another teacher who made them “even more determined” to study with me, presumably because of my high standards and expectations.

There is such a disconnect between wanting their children challenged, but at the same time being unwilling to supply the children with what it takes to meet that challenge.

For me, the important issue here is that the instrument and bench are doing actual damage, physical damage. It’s not just that the children are unable to practice at home what we work on during the lesson – that would be annoying, was disappointing -, but that the piano and bench are setting them up for injury and pain. It would actually be better if they didn’t practice at home.

I explained to the parents that their current piano is detrimental to the children’s development, in an email so they could read and re-read and think and discuss, and after they repeated that a new instrument is simply not in the budget, I suggested to put lessons on hold for, say, ten months, and use the money they save on lessons toward a new piano because I cannot in good conscience continue to contribute to this unhealthy situation.

I knew that my thinking here might come across as haughty, arrogant, privileged. I didn’t know how else to say it.

The parents made the decision to discontinue piano lessons.

Contrasting experience: I have recently started to teach two new (transfer) students, unrelated, both of whom had only an electric piano at home, with what they described as unweighted keys. But both of them had somehow been able to develop an adequate technique. The first student hit a wall after a few weeks, with no more progress possible on the current instrument, so I said, Let’s put lessons on hold until they have a good instrument which they said they were planning to get but for now was too expensive. Two weeks later they had bought a new piano, and things are progressing marvelously now. The other student’s family cannot afford a new instrument at the moment but the parent found a grand piano in the university’s Student Union where they go every so often to practice now, in addition to continued work on the electric piano at home, and, again, very satisfying progress is happening.

I suppose it is a matter of what one values. Learning to play the piano is challenging enough without hampering a student with an instrument that is simply not suited to the task. I strongly believe in the benefits of challenging my students but we have to give them the tools to meet that challenge. An Against-All-Odds attitude can be carried too far.

The frustration of not playing well at your lesson

A common complaint of many students is that they never play as well at their lesson as they do at home. They are frustrated but at the same time seem to accept this as a fact, as something that is just the way it is, nothing you can do about it.

Here are my thoughts on this matter.

The reason you don’t play as well at the lesson as you do at home is because you are not as well-prepared as you think you are. At home, you are comfortable and relaxed, and you probably never perform, instead you can always try again if something wasn’t quite right. At the lesson, you are nervous, and you expect to play your piece once and get it correct the first time.

If you want to play at the lesson (almost) as well as at home you have to practice differently: you have to be much more detailed in your approach: hands separately, not just once but many times, with metronome and without, looking at the book as well as from memory, ultra-extra slow, then faster, repeating one measure or phrase at a time, many times, always listening for things to improve (and then improving them), hands together with the same focus as HS, then stringing two measures or phrases together, etc and so on. That way you get to REALLY know the piece, or part of a piece, not just from having played it many many times, but from really understanding. Test yourself: before you start playing a section, look at the book, then look away and name the first note(s). Can you do it?

Since at the lesson your goal is to show me that you have improved or learned something new – show me by playing something, once – you need to practice this at home. With a completely different focus now, you have to set the goal to perform whatever you want to play/perform (whether it is two measures or two pages): start and keep going until you are finished. Do not stop and fix something, even if it wasn’t perfect. This requires a completely different mindset because you have to take mental notes but you cannot be bothered by mistakes. You need to practice to perform especially at the beginning of your practice session, when you are not warmed up yet (mentally, mostly) . The way you play then will be the way you play at your lesson.

Being Creative in the 21st Century

For as long as I can remember, I have been improvising and composing at the piano.

A few weeks after I started lessons, my fourth grade class listened to Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition, and shortly thereafter I brought my teacher my own arrangement of The Great Gate of Kiev. I believe I did write it down, with what limited experience I had in note-writing.

My “practicing the piano” has from the beginning been interspersed with improvisation: all it took was one accidental wrong note in one of my pieces, and off I went into my own piece because my imagination had been piqued. Sometimes I wrote things down (wish I had saved them …), most often I didn’t.

Now, when I sit down to play the piano I just play and see what comes out of my fingers. Sometimes, when I like it, I keep spinning, and sometimes it turns into a “thing”.

For a long time, I hadn’t taken the time and effort to write things down, but with notation software, and especially the option now to publish through sheetmusicplus, I have started to write my compositions down and submit them for publication. I have chosen not to do paper versions of my pieces, just down-loadable PDF files. I find it environmentally more responsible to not have paper copies of my pieces out there, whether someone buys them or not, but to offer people to print one copy at a time as needed / purchased. It also allows me to make changes, without having to wait for an official second printing.

It’s a form of self-realization. It is definitely not something to get rich by: sheetmusicplus pays a 45% commission on every copy sold, and when they offer a sale, say, 20% off, then I get my 45% off the reduced price. So, for the time being, I’ll keep my day job as the owner of a piano studio, but slowly and not entirely surely, I get to share this other side of me, too.

So far, there’s a Sentimental Waltz, and the first of several Etudes available. Go have a look!

What good are the Arts?

You’ve heard it a million times.  “We need the arts because …” and then come all kinds of good reasons.  For instance, Yehudi Menuhin said in an interview with the UNESCO Courier that “Art develops the intellectual, physical, imaginative and sensory spheres, and hence all human potential.”  He refers to “art as hope for humanity”.

And it can certainly be true.

Disturbing as it may be, however, and as Robert Fulford points out, “The arts won’t make you virtuous and they won’t make you smart”.  It’s not a popular thing to say, and it likely will not be mentioned in the Board of Education meetings when art and music teachers have to lobby, yet again, for more funds – if their programs haven’t been cut already.

Robert Fulford continues,

Great art, alas, has sometimes been loved by monsters, famously the Nazis. George Steiner, the eminent critic, delivers the bad news: “We know that a man can play Bach and Schubert and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”  […] cultured death-camp guards […] eliminated any foolish belief that great art comes with ethics attached. […]

On a more trivial level, we also can’t claim that immersion in the arts will create a lively mind. Art education has produced armies of learned bores. […] As for those who create art, we get it all wrong if we imagine their work makes them admirable in private life.

The arts come “with no guarantees of virtue or enhanced intelligence.”

What, then, does it guarantee? Those who give it their time and love are offered the chance to live more expansive, more enjoyable and deeper lives. They can learn to care intimately about music, painting and books that have lasted for centuries or millennia. They can reach around the globe for the music, the images and the stories they want to make their own. At its best, art dissolves time […]

There is still hope.

(Originally published December 15, 2015)

play – practice – perform

play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part One

Playing, practicing, performing are the three basic ways we spend time at the piano. Neither one is better or more important than the other, all three are essential. They are related, yet distinctly different. It is therefore important and necessary to define what it means to play, to practice, and to perform.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  Whatever happens is ok. Wrong note? No problem. Tempo all over the place? Don’t worry about it.  Which is probably why we call it “playing for fun” – because it’s fun not to have to worry about stuff. “Messing around” at the piano falls in the playing category, as does trying out new pieces.  One could compare playing to the way one meets people at a party or public function: due to the setting, interactions are usually less thorough, less intense, than in a one-on-one meeting. You will probably not take the time to divulge your inner-most secrets to every single person in the room – as a matter of fact, it would be inappropriate to do so; nor would you spend the time and resources (questionnaires etc) to get to know every last little detail about everyone present.

When you practice, the goal is to improve. This requires two things: you need a goal (what do I want to improve?) and you need a plan, a strategy (how will I go about improving? What do I need to do in order to improve?). Having a goal but no strategy is similar to having a destination (Kansas City) but no knowledge of how to get there (I-70, mostly). On the other hand, having a strategy but no goal will make you wander aimlessly.  It is helpful to have an evaluation system in place: how do I know when I have reached my goal? (“Kansas City – City Limit”  =  you’re in Kansas City.)

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  A pianist in a recording studio does not have a real audience, but he/she is playing as if there were an audience because once the CD or DVD has been published, it will be listened to, and/or watched by an audience. When you perform for a real/live audience, you get one chance at presenting your piece and for that reason it is different from playing. Most people underestimate what it takes to perform. They think that performing is like playing, except with a lot of concentration because you don’t want to mess up.  They think since you know how to play, you should – with a lot of concentration – be able to perform.  However, that’s like saying you’re qualified to give a speech just because you know how to speak.

Even though all three elements – playing, practicing, performing – are equally important, this is not how most students and pianists spend their time at the piano: we tend to spend a huge amount of time practicing, some time playing (feeling guilty because we’ve been told that we should be practicing), and even less time performing. We especially don’t practice to perform. This means our performance success is based on luck (“Just focus and you’ll be fine!”) rather than skill (“I have practiced to perform, I am well-prepared.”)

 

play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part Two

A different frame of mind is required for each of the three basic ways we spend time at the piano.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  In other words, you don’t care what happens. You should not care. The point is not to care. The moment you care, you are actually practicing.

When you practice, the goal is to improve.  In other words, you must care. You must listen and take stock and correct and aim to improve.  If necessary, you must interrupt your playing in order to fix something. You must be prepared to interrupt, and to repeat short sections. If you don’t care, you’re not actually practicing, you are playing.

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  In order to perform successfully, you must leave the “practice” frame of mind behind. You may take mental notes of your performance, but you must not care. Any accidental deviation from the perfect ideal must not distract you or interrupt your playing. It takes practice to change one’s frame of mind, intentionally, from practicing to performing.  Naturally, there is more to successful performing but this different frame of mind is probably the thing students and pianists overlook the most often.

The Pressure of a Day Off

My schedule in the summer is wildly irregular. Not only does it change from day to day but also from week to week. Which sounds stressful but I actually enjoy being able to be flexible and accommodate my students’ changing schedules: summer camp in the afternoon one week, evening swimming the next, afternoon camp and evening soccer the third, etc.

My policy states that I expect to see my students for a lesson unless they are out of town; there is no scheduled break in the calendar other than spring break, a week after Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Thu through Sun, and the week between Christmas and New Year, but students have the option to take a week off every ten weeks if they wish (many don’t). So it seems only fair that I try to work around their schedule as much as I can. Some students even change the lesson format: two 30-min lessons in a busy week, two 45-min lessons when there’s more time; others try to keep it more regular. Whatever works for them, I’ll try to do.

Because an unusually high number of students are taking two lessons a week this summer, all of them Mon/Thu, those two days are really full. Not much the other three days. Last week, it so happened that all Wed students were out of town. Which meant that in the middle of the week I unexpectedly had a day off. A glorious nothing-on-the-calendar day.

Maybe it’s the heat – it’s been unusually hot, or maybe it just feels like that – maybe politics which cause a great deal of stress these days, but on this day off I felt a lot of pressure to ENJOY THE DAY! or at least MAKE GOOD USE OF IT! so that it feels like the special day it was. So much on my list of things I would do if I had a day off from teaching and nothing else on the calendar either – ARE YOU RELAXING ALREADY??

It used to take me a couple days to get into vacation mode but over the last two, maybe three years I have been able to switch gears more quickly, so I was surprised that on this day off I only felt pressure, no relief, and that I couldn’t get into “vacation” (if only for a day) mode. At the end of the day I had accomplished a bit of what I thought I SHOULD! do, taken a bit of time to relax, but mostly I was struggling with how to make this day off worthwhile? count?

During the school year I teach Monday through Saturday, but in the summer I take Saturdays off. And every Saturday I say, Thank God it’s only Saturday, Thank God I have two days in a row, enough time to get stuff done, and also some time to just be off.

Goldberg Variations . Aria da capo e fine

Around the middle of February, I decided to join 31 other Kansas State University piano faculty, students, alumni and guests, preparing a performance of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, to take place April 2.

The entire work, 50 pages of “technical  virtuosity, compositional ingenuity, and transcendent musical expression” (according to Dr. Virginia Houser’s program notes) also takes between 75 and 90 minutes to perform, depending on one’s tempo, and is therefore not something that the mortal among us endeavor to tackle in its entirety by oneself.

Since I came in as the preparation was already well underway, I had no choice in which variation I would perform; it so happened that the person who had signed up for the reprise of the aria at the very end was unable to perform, so that’s what I got.

I had heard the piece but had never taken the time to learn it. It was surprising, and a bit depressing, how long it took me to just learn the notes. There is some polyphony, some tricky rhythms, a bit of ornamentation, and then there was, for me, the challenge of trying to figure out what to do with such deceptive simplicity. I listened to a few YouTube recordings but didn’t really like any: most of them were either sentimentally swooney, or strict and unfeeling. Glenn Gould was extreme but actually came close to what I thought it should sound like.

I practiced, and played, practiced, played, over and over, trying different things, and finally realized that I had no real concept of the piece. No plan, no image, no anything. It was such a perfect example of hitting all the right notes and still not making music – at least not the kind of music this utterly sublime Aria deserved.

With some panic, and hesitation – I should be able to figure this out on my own, shouldn’t I?! -, five days before the performance I emailed my professor from grad school, Bob Edwards, asking if he would be willing to listen to me. He was, and did, and mostly encouraged me to use a bolder tone, carrying the sound to the last row, and to linger a bit more, here and there, employing a very careful rubato. He used words like “delicious”, and “scrumptious” to describe the tone and sound to aim for. And always, sing! Sing! It opened my ears, and I liked the new sound.

When I told Mark, who had patiently listened to my practicing over the last couple weeks, that I had found a new tone, but that – three days before the performance – I still wasn’t entirely sure of everything, he asked how this Aria fits with the piece that comes before it – the Aria should be a somewhat logical continuation, or perhaps contrast. Without thinking too deeply about it, I said that this Aria, unlike the first one which – note-wise – is identical, should sound retrospective, perhaps like an old person looking back over their life, remembering the good, and the not so good.

Suddenly I saw my mother who a bit more than seven years ago had just been informed by the hospital physician that the mysterious neurological symptoms that had plagued her for a good ten, twenty years, gradually worsening, were in fact ALS. No cure, no prospect of ever getting better again, or even going back home, only gradually losing more and more of her ability to move, swallow, speak, eventually breathe. She already was unable to use her legs anymore, and because of severe osteoporosis wasn’t able to sit up, comfortably.

My mother used to love to travel – she was in Turkey when she became too sick to stay and had to be flown to Germany -, and she delighted in good food, whether prepared at home or dining out. I remember her phone call from Turkey, “You should taste the food here! The carrots! I’ve never had carrots that tasted so fresh!”  Now she would never be able to travel again, and eating had become a chore already.

While she had a preference for sentimental books and movies, when it concerned her life, herself, she was refreshingly unsentimental. She had short bouts of honest sadness and despair, allowing – once – that her diagnosis was “crushing”.  But she also, in one of the many introspective moments she shared with me, said, in a voice as if it had just occurred to her, “You know … we really did have a good life.”

The next time I sat down to play the Aria, I saw my mother, looking back over her life, remembering, reminiscing, somewhat removed already but still very much here. When I ended I was in tears.

I was afraid that performing the Aria which had now become so very personal, private in a way, would get to me emotionally and I’d end up in tears on stage. But as I kept playing and practicing over the next two days, playing mostly, practicing to perform, my mother who had been so very present started to fade into the background. The memory of her was still there, and I will probably never hear or play the Aria again without thinking of her, but I was able to play without tearing up.

 

Photograph in the local newspaper, The Mercury.

Receiving a short email from Bob Edwards after the performance, saying he thought I played the Aria beautifully – that was emotional. As was having several of my students come up to me after the performance – one even brought flowers. And Mark. Many many hugs, and Thank You’s, and smiles, and relieved laughter.

Video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/mLmjuPOoTeE 

Johann Sebastian Bach. After almost three hundred years, he still gets to people.

Thank God.

Tigers, Helicopters, Elephants

As a piano teacher I meet all kinds of students, families, parents.

Fortunately, I have mostly a lot of simply normal parents in the studio: parents who are supportive, who are realistic when it comes to their children’s potential – they want the best for their children and? but? realize that it takes quite a bit of hard work to realize that potential. They know that lessons can’t always be fun; they are understanding when I have a less-than-glorious day, they keep me updated on what’s going on in their children’s lives because they know that it may affect the children at the lesson, they share with me their parenting challenges and triumphs, etc.

Every once in a while though, a different kind of mom waltzes into the studio: I call her “the delusional mom”. This kind if mother is exuberantly and loudly cheerful, so much so that it seems like there is no cheer left for her child who comes across as somewhere between completely bland and just very quiet, withdrawn. These children do not thrive in my studio, they kind of put up with the fact that they have to be here, but there is no enthusiasm, no desire to learn or improve, regardless of how enthusiastic (or not) *I* am. They don’t argue with me and my requests but are quietly defiant, passive-aggressive. There’s hardly any communication from the child to me; my questions or suggestions are answered with as few mono-syllabic words as they can get away with. Everything – body language, lack of desire to communicate, lack of effort at the piano – everything screams avoidance and “I am here because mom makes me.”

And that’s where the “delusional” comes in: mom is in complete denial that her child is not enjoying the lessons – it is truly stunning. Mom gushes how wonderful everything is, how much her child likes the lessons, all while the child slumps, or rolls their eyes, or otherwise, without words, says, “You’re kidding, right?!”

During the lessons she’ll give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to her child for even the most dreadfully half-hearted attempt at playing a song, and she’ll exclaim, “You are doing sooo GREAT!”

I’ll be the first to praise a student for trying – anything. I praise profusely for giving it your best effort, even if the result is not perfect (yet), maybe especially when the result is not perfect yet. But I am also very specific with what I ask a student to do: for instance, focus on fluency (ignore everything else), or find a tempo slow enough where you can play every note correctly (but ignore dynamics, fluency, beautiful tone, etc.) – and then I praise the student for trying to focus on that one thing at the expense of everything else. When they complain that they didn’t play everything correctly, I say, “Of course not, but that wasn’t the goal, was it. You focused on dynamics, and your dynamics were beautiful. Play it again, and this time see if you can keep the dynamics as beautiful, AND keep a steady tempo!” – or whatever else is on the list.

Maybe I am the delusional one because I *thought* I had educated the parents on how I teach and how we work at the lesson. These moms seem perfectly content – and act over the moon – when their child kind of plays most of the right notes for the fourth lesson in a row, without any regard for details – details we’ve been working on for the last three lessons. They don’t listen when we work on healthy technique, or fluency, or dynamics, or anything else that would elevate the child’s playing above the bare minimum of kind of trying to hit the right notes.

Maybe these moms think that they *have* to be overly and outspokenly enthusiastic, loudly cheering, to lift the child out of their unenthusiastic hole. Except it doesn’t work. The children do NOT become more enthusiastic, involved, motivated, over time.

I guess one of the things that bother me so much about the delusional mom is how low she sets the bar. If I were the child, I’d feel insulted when mom gushingly praises me for shit. I just can’t believe that anyone – and these are educated women – would think that their child is capable of so little. ?

I wish I knew how to deal with this kind of family. When I mention the child’s lack of enthusiasm and motivation to the mom, her jaw drops, “What do you mean? She LOVES her lessons!!” I can point out what I mean but mom will immediately make some sort of excuse, and laughingly explain away why the child “always” slumps or acts disinterested or doesn’t talk much or whatever.

I wonder how these children do in a regular classroom setting.