Getting off the Scaffold

When Kirstyn started lessons with me, in the summer of 2005, shortly before her 11th birthday, a couple of things were immediately obvious:  she loved playing the piano, she had progressed very quickly to early intermediate material with her previous teachers, and I was impressed by her desire and determination to learn and practice and study and learn some more.  Her mother’s biggest complaint?  “I can’t get her away from the piano!” 

Also obvious was that there were holes in her knowledge.  Like most piano students who come to me from other teachers, she didn’t really know how to practice.  Her knowledge of music theory and history was rudimentary at best.  Her sight-playing and sense of rhythm were lacking.  Although she loved playing fast pieces, she didn’t really have the technical skills to do so without straining which in turn affects the sound.  But she loved to play and was determined to learn and improve.

We talked about all of this – she was well aware that her previous instruction had been somewhat random, and also that further progress would sooner rather than later stall unless we filled in the holes and therefore created a solid and reliable foundation upon which we would be able to build – I wanted the sky to be the limit.  I explained that we would choose material which would address the issues that needed remedial work but which would – hopefully – also be interesting and challenging.  A heavy dose of Burgmüller Op. 100 and Level 7 of the Celebration Series, Robert Vandall’s Preludes, etc., all of which she liked a lot, seemed appropriate.  We used the Music Progressions curriculum to get her theoretical knowledge and functional skills up to snuff.  We had a plan.

And so we went to work.  One of the highlights was when she fell in love with the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, and, with my permission and support, quickly learned and memorized the piece.  She would have liked to play it much more passionately, faster, louder, but understood (intellectually at least) that this was a piece that needed restraint, with the dynamic level never above mp.  The expression had to come from her touch, not from increasing the tempo.  She performed it a few times, and I think she really grew.   

Last Fall, we started work on a Haydn Concerto (in F, rather obscure, but rewarding to teach and learn) which she performed at the Annual Piano Concerto Competition in February. 

And then a couple of things happened, and I am only now putting the pieces together.  In September, Kirstyn turned thirteen.  And even though she was making good progress with the concerto – mastering a few lines of tricky scale patterns she thought she’d never get -, her progress in Level 7 (yes, still the same book) was stalling.  It was apparent, or should have been, that she had lost interest in that kind of music.  After weeks of “practice”, she still hadn’t mastered Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G minor.  I would occasionally ask her what kinds of pieces she was looking forward to learning, and among her favorites was always the Maple Leaf Rag – which I told her was too difficult just yet; remember, we were trying to build a solid foundation from the bottom up, still filling in the holes, and that meant finishing – mastering! – Level 7, so we could go on to Level 8. 

In teenage (?) defiance of her teacher’s words, without telling me, she taught herself to play the Maple Leaf Rag.  With the help of another of my students, she learned to play much of the music for The Phantom of the Opera – by ear, with Jamey coaching her.  When I saw them, for the first time, rock away, their version of The Phantom for two pianos – I was shocked.  There was so much unrestrained joy and passion in their playing, I’ve got it on video, Kirstyn’s smile is just heart-breakingly beautiful and – most shockingly – her “technique” which had been such a big issue with her other pieces, seemed to flow almost naturally.

It’s not like Kirstyn suddenly and magically had filled in the holes; her technique, though improved, was still not entirely reliable, and there’s still room for improvement in other areas.  But I knew we had to change course.  So we did.  I have done this only once before, many years ago, and, as it turned out later, it worked, so I am confident (I think …) that it’ll work again:  out of sheer desperation, we are completely abandoning current literature, the stuff she still hasn’t finished.  In complete defiance of rational leveling of repertoire, we are jumping ahead to Copland’s Cat and the Mouse (a Level 10 piece), with the goal to use this so incredibly much more difficult piece to learn everything she needs to know. 

Cat and the Mouse is actually not that difficult as a first “difficult” piece:  none of the particular difficulties (and there are many) lasts more than a few lines of music; while the technical challenges are many and varied, there’s no endurance required for any kind of technical challenge.  There is great variety, it’s mentally challenging but, once you understand what’s going on, it actually makes sense.   What I like about it, especially for Kirstyn, is that it addresses so many different challenges, technical, musical; and it introduces new aspects, new terminology, pianistic challenges we haven’t had before.

I made sure both Kirstyn and her mother understand that this is highly unusual, untraditional – how can you attempt multiplication if you haven’t thoroughly mastered addition yet?  Aren’t we supposed to go step-by-step, one thing at a time, mastering each step before attempting the next, scaffolding, building on previous mastery?

Well, we tried, but she didn’t play along.

So, Cat and the Mouse it is.