In taking on a dozen piano students from a teacher on maternity leave, I’ve wandered onto unfamiliar territory since January, trying to balance the the framework of structured learning, as presented by the Royal Conservatory of Music curriculum, with the fact that I have to connect with 12 very different minds, personalities and skill sets.
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I gave a 5-year-old his third lesson yesterday, which we ended by playing a duet. He already knows how to navigate the keyboard and is doing quite nicely in reading in both bass and treble clefs.
I also have a Grade 9er who can’t tell a D from and F and who, I have no idea how, passed her Grade 7 RCM exam last year.
In the seemingly infinite spectrum between these two sits a 9-year-old who arrives more-or-less prepared, and plays her classical pieces with the sort of distate I would show if I were picking up someone else’s dog shit. Her face is blank, her legs twitch incessantly, she won’t look at me when I try to explain things to her.
I felt so frustrated yesterday that I was on the verge of losing my temper. Instead, I took a deep breath and asked her if there’s some other kind of music she would like to play on the piano.
“I play it all the time,” she replied. “Every day.”
I asked her to play a favourite song for me, and she launched into a piano-pop number from someone I’d never heard of (unsurprisingly). She played with enthusiasm for at least 2 minutes, showing a facility on the keyboard that’s totally absent when playing classical music.
I also noticed that her legs stopped twitching.
When I enthusiastically thanked her for sharing her music with me, I got a huge smile in return — the first once since we met in January.
This is but one episode from a growing list that leaves me wondering about one-on-one music lessons in childhood. How many children leave with a lifelong love and yearning for making their own music versus the number who walk away, never to touch their instruments again?
If a piano or a violin comes to represent toil, duty and obligation, I suspect its status as a potential source of inspiration, self-expression and invention diminishes in proportion.
A 45-minute-a-week lesson in a small studio, centred around the requirements of a syllabus, strikes me as an inadequate response to that conundrum.
Yes, the vast majority of our great and beloved classical (and jazz, and pop) artists have come from precisely this pedagociallty tried, tested and true background. But what about the thousands who have walked away, never to return?
I would love to learn much more about this.
I encourage you to email me your responses, whatever they may be, to suchacritic (at) gmail
In the meantime, here are the fabulously funny Igudesman and Joo with their now-classic “Piano Lesson” sketch: