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What Are We Really Teaching?

Last summer, my first piano student in LA—a student I'd taught since she was nine years old—left for college. Knowing that she wouldn't pursue music in college, I couldn't stop wondering in those final lessons what she'd gotten from our time together. When our students leave music, what do they take with them?


So much of music isn't actually about getting everything right. I'd rather have my students learn to tell a story with their playing. I want them to learn to prepare themselves as well as they can for a successful performance, but also to keep going in the face of whatever may go wrong within that performance. I want to develop resilient, confident performers, as much as that skill can be taught.


I tell my students so often that some things are beyond our control, but we can always choose to try our best. I remind them that if they know they practiced well but they still make a mistake, it's okay. I tell them this jokingly, though it's not a joke at all: Even if you make a horrible mistake, your family and your friends will still love you.


Trying is a choice, and in music, it might be the one that matters most. We can certainly do less than try. We can back away from hard work. We can turn away from pieces that will push us to the edge of our ability. We can choose to do only what's simple or what comes easily to us.


But I want my students to make mistakes, and I want them to take risks. Our lessons are the perfect safe space in which to mess up. On some level, I'm actually hoping my students make lots of mistakes, so we can correct them and make new, different mistakes. Eventually, we move past thinking about music in terms of right or wrong notes and instead focus on using those notes to tell a story.


Sight-reading is a skill we develop by taking on new challenges. It isn't just recognizing patterns; it's about approaching the unknown with a certain fearlessness, striding boldly into the unknown. Confident sight-reading actually has a lot in common with performing something you've practiced for months; both are about embracing your mistakes and choosing to continue anyway. Both force you to listen to an internal metronome ticking inside of you—or follow a conductor—and keep going, no matter what goes wrong or right around you.


When we play a new piece, we aim to set ourselves up for success before we even start. We identify key signatures, modulations, and tempo shifts. We scan our music for everything that looks challenging, and we give ourselves a minute to prepare for that challenge. We take the whole piece at a slower speed, so we have a greater chance of getting it right.


When my students are sight-reading or playing challenging music they haven't practiced enough, so many of them speed up exactly when they should be slowing down. I used to do this, too. I don't know what leads us to do exactly the opposite of what we should. I don't know if it's frustration or panic that makes our heart beat faster, speeds up our internal metronome, or triggers some fight-or-flight reaction—as if by going faster, we could steamroll right over all that we don't know or muscle through it and be done with it sooner.


But we can learn to overcome our worst instincts. We can learn to proceed slowly and rationally, even when we're feeling confused and frustrated. As a music teacher, this might be the most valuable lesson we can impart to our students: You can take nearly everything you know about sight-reading and performing, apply it to the rest of your life, and be a happier, calmer, and saner person as a result.


It's only in teaching piano that I've realized the extent to which my own music lessons changed how I approach difficult situations in the rest of my life. In my best moments, I scan ahead for the most challenging aspect of whatever I'm about to take on. If I'm doing something for the first time, I remind myself that mistakes are okay, even welcome, and that I don't have to go fast when I don't know what I'm doing. I acknowledge that all I have to do, and all I can do, is prepare as much as I can, show up, and try. 


Do I want my students to play beautifully? Yes. Do I want them to remember to curve their fingers, relax their wrists, and sit up straight? Of course. I want them to make excellent choices in practice and performance.

Eventually, though, many of my students will stop taking music lessons. They may even stop making music altogether. But if they've learned to say yes to positive challenges that allow them to grow, to take new experiences as slowly as they need to, and to view their choices, their abilities, and their own minds with patience and kindness, I'll have done my job as their music teacher.

.  .  .  .  .

Originally published in ACDA’s Cantate Magazine, Vol 31, No. 1, Fall 2018.

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