Thursday, May 5, 2016

I’ll Have What She’s Having

A few months ago, the parent of a former student asked if I could see her daughter (who was now a college freshman) over the summer. “She really misses you,” said the mom. “She’s had a bad experience with her piano teacher at school. Her teacher won’t allow her to put any expression into the music until she has mastered all the notes.”

Being a person interested in world peace, I restrained myself from driving several hours, hunting down that professor and choking her. I had worked so hard with this beautiful young girl, who came to me when she was maybe 15, to help her learn how to interpret and feel and express herself. It was wonderful watching her evolve from the passive (“tell me what to do”) to someone who brought her own ideas to the piano bench.

When “Kaitlin” stopped by for her first summer lesson, she played a Chopin Waltz she had been working on at school. There are a few rules I impose on myself as a teacher: 1) Never interrupt a student’s first performance at the lesson, and 2) Always say something positive after the performance. So after listening, I held back from mentioning that I felt she played the piece as if she could care less about it. And instead, asked her what she would like to improve on. She said she wanted to understand how to interpret the very beginning.

So now was the time to remember Rule #3: Avoid answering questions – allow the students to find the answers themselves. I held back from sharing what I was thinking and asked her, if the music was in a movie, what would be happening in the scene? What do you picture?

“A bright yellow kitchen, like from back in the 50’s.”

This was not at all the answer I would have given. The beginning is full of angst and loneliness and is in a minor key. Again, I held back and kept probing. At what point does the scene change? When is it different from bright yellow?

She didn’t really know. So we moved on to the next section. I asked her to play the melody, and asked her to describe the mood.

“Very bright and happy and sparkling.”

Is this different than the first theme? Which one is the brightest, Theme 1 or Theme 2? She said, “Theme 2.”

I offered, “Would you consider saving the bright kitchen for Theme 2 and come up with another picture for the Theme 1?”

That, as they say, struck a chord with her. And then an idea came to me that was so exciting it gave me chills. This time, I couldn’t hold myself back. “What if the beginning is a memory of the bright yellow kitchen, a memory of how lively and happy things used to be in that room?”

I think one reason this excited me so much is that the idea came out of our collaboration. At first, I didn’t see a bright yellow kitchen at all. But Kaitlin did, so I listened to her and worked with her to understand what she meant. When the “memory of the kitchen” idea hit me, it gave me chills because it made me realize she was right. The beginning has this interesting mix of sadness and brightness which I hadn’t noticed, and both need to be brought out in order to fully interpret the piece.

From there, Kaitlin was much more able to make choices about interpretation. Should I use pedal, she asked? I said something like, “Keep seeing the scene. Do you see it as misty and dreamy? If so, see if the pedal helps. Keep adjusting until you get what you want.” She found that light pedaling on beat 1 and fluttering throughout the measure was helping her achieve the appropriate sound.

Perhaps my rule #4 as a teacher is: Remind yourself to keep discovering. I had to allow myself to not know all the answers. I had to wait for the student to find things on her own. I’ve learned to be ok with that, especially after experiencing the rewards that patience can bring.

The middle-school-aged student that followed Kaitlin arrived early, so she watched the last 10 minutes of the lesson. When it was her turn, Annie said, “I want to play what she’s playing.” I look forward to hearing how both girls interpret the piece in their own way.

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