Lately I’ve been reflecting on teaching music. Teaching a creative art naturally requires me to be creative. Every student is slightly different and I am constantly trying to find new ways to explain the most basic of musical concepts. For many of my students reading notes on the staff and playing them on the piano is pretty easy, for some it is a joy and whenever we play student-teacher duets they beam. Most of my voice students are natural musicians as well, understanding new songs and exercises quickly. Hearing them say how much they enjoy our lessons, seeing the informational books some make for school about playing the piano (dedicated to me!) and watching them succeed every week is fulfilling. However, for some using individual fingers, figuring out a note/reading the finger numbers and counting rhythms is as hard as phys. ed. class was for me growing up. Watching my peers gracefully play soccer or basketball and trying to emulate that physical ease was pretty impossible for me. Looking back I can see it was because I never practiced anything like that, I was never tempted to practice sports! I was far happier reading books, singing, making up songs and being in musicals.
For example: Me trying to be athletic on my wedding day. Volleyball, you are a fickle friend!
Back to my students though. For some students, piano seems so hard because they rarely practice and because they want me to guide them through every single step. At home, if they encounter a problem, they don’t have musically inclined parents who help them through it, so they often give up and wait for help from me. I’m often finding myself researching/making up techniques to make playing in the lesson engaging, more like a game or using metaphors from sports they play to help them understand why they need to do something. For example, for the 7 year old who played a lot of baseball I would ask him to tell me about learning the technique to hit the ball correctly. Then I explain to him how technique on the piano is like technique in baseball, you can’t play the keys however you like or you’ll have trouble playing a song correctly. It gave him an opportunity to teach me something (playing baseball is a nightmare for me) and made me feel like he actually connected to what I was telling him.
Teaching a choral part at a Carnegie Hall event with Westminster Choir 2 years ago? No problem. Just don’t ask me to throw something
However, I have one student who gives me all the creativity I need. Last week we started working on a song called, “Men from Mars.” It’s a simple piano song, he didn’t like the name so we changed it to “Aliens from Mars”. I’m all for martian gender equality. Then he told me that he had seen a movie about the aliens at home and that he knows them. He went on to say that if he played the song perfectly they would travel to our room and appear. I was all for it, in the past it had been difficult to motivate him to play things in the lesson for me. He is a smart 7 year old, but never practices at home; he routinely comes in and tells me “Zero, zero, zero, zero.” Which is what he wrote in his practice log. So, he played the song through once but made some mistakes, the aliens didn’t appear. That was last week. In this week’s lesson I reminded him about how the aliens might come if he played the song with no mistakes. He got very excited and proceeded to draw a map on the music of the journey the aliens had to make including many stops along the way from their planet (it’s called Planet Bob) to our music school. Every time we played the song he would get up, look out the window with pretend binoculars and then come back and draw on the map how far they had gotten. We played “Aliens from Mars” 5 times! He told me that our playing fueled their spaceship’s engine, if he made one mistake, it stopped, if he made two mistakes, it blew up and they had to go home. That only happened once. Every time he got better and better and he kept adding stops along the way for the aliens. They didn’t make it this week. But I think they might next week. I’ll let you know.