As piano teachers, we spend great amounts of time… giving. We meet so many different personalities, so many minds, during our workweek that we almost feel as if our “gears” were being stripped. I have longed for the Vulcan Mind-Meld that Mr. Spock used so effectively in the Star Trek series. Lacking that, I try as best I am able, to find where each student is, meet her there, and take her to the place she longs to be. It’s fascinating, invigorating and exhausting work. My colleagues and I attend workshops, recital, concerts and more extended conferences for our transfusion of “new blood”. I am a confessed convention junky.
The MTNA Conference is one that I always anticipate. It comes at the end of March every year. Besides giving my mind and soul a refreshing, I look forward to one or two moments of transcendence…a workshop that gives me something totally new to chew on, or expresses old truths in new ways. I am never disappointed, and sometimes I stumble into a session that underlines why I even bother to get up each morning. And of course, the end of the Conference means the real beginning of spring for me.
I find that I am very protective of my time in general, and more so when I’m at MTNA. I face the choices of several workshops for each hour with anguish, because often I would like to attend more than one. Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with it, but it is never easy. I like to find sessions that are different, possibly tangential to piano teaching and piano playing. This year, with trepidation, I chose a session that seemed intriguing. Its topic was Performance Medicine, a relatively new field related to the well-developed Sports Medicine field. They promised a new collaborative endeavor that would bring Performance Medicine, the treatment for musicians with small muscle and joint injuries, to the level of it’s older and smarter cousin.
I knew this session had the possibility of disappointment. It could be laden with medical lingo, filled with concepts of physiology and anatomy that were beyond my comprehension. I knew I couldn’t WASTE an hour, but it beckoned to me. I got there early. Carrying my weird, flat muffin (it looked like someone stepped on it) and my ubiquitous coffee, I approached the door. There was a girl pacing in the hallway; she seemed to move in a slightly jerky, unbalanced manner, but she had such an engaging smile! She asked me where I got my coffee, and I told her. But something in that meeting lingered; I didn’t know what it was. I knew it was not a sexual attraction, but a sensual attraction, something mysterious she projected. I soon forgot about her, and watched the huge group of presenters setting up their multi-media.
The session proceeded on schedule, and it was very interesting. There seems to be not only a promise of something happening with Music Medicine, but an extremely vibrant group of experts in many fields that are collaborating to make it a reality. Just when I was settling in, the group leader said it was maybe time for a little musical interlude. I was pleasantly surprised to see “the girl” introduced as an opera singer with experience in roles throughout Europe. She moved, almost imperceptibly in her strange gait, across the stage, and proceeded to deliver a wonderful aria. She was greatly gifted, and one of the best singers I have heard in a long time. Still, it seemed strange that she was appearing in this particular session.
The group leader addressed that very question when the aria was done; he told us that within the last year she was the recipient of a bilateral lung transplant! I don’t know if you have ever heard a collective gasp before, but it is very dramatic. This singer had the breath control of Pavarotti, with no signs that she had ever had any related problems. It seemed that this might be the worst thing that an opera singer could be faced with. She had undergone a successful operation, and a year of rehabilitative therapy with several members of the panel presenting the Performance Medicine workshop. That got our attention. These professionals not only were determined to make Performance Medicine as advanced and prevalent as Sports Medicine, they were capable of a rehabilitative miracle.
With the information given through the workshop, I was certain that I had chosen well. So many musicians have been incapacitated with overuse syndromes of one kind or another. At least two major professional concert pianists have had career ending problems with their hands; tendonitis and carpal tunnel problems are minor compared to dystonia and other debilitating skeletal and muscular problems. The world of medicine has seemed to ignore these maladies, while professional and collegiate sports personnel have some of the best restorative and rehabilitative treatments known.
It wasn’t until the end of this session that I fell in love with the session itself, and the little opera singer. She rose to say a few words to us, knowing that we were 90% piano teachers, and 10% vocalists. As she struggled to keep herself composed, she described her yearlong therapy. When she began trying to sing after her bilateral transplant, she couldn’t get a sound out. Years of study in private and in college, and years of professional experience in operatic roles seemed to be worthless. She worked with her therapists, tried to remember the many vocal lessons she had completed, and nothing seemed to work. She wanted to give up.
She said she wanted the piano teachers assembled before her to know that they had her supreme gratitude for a life saved. “I was a terrible piano student”, she said. “I loved my piano teacher, and she also was my first voice teacher.” She went on, “I never worked as hard as she did. But I want you to know that during my therapy, when it was too hard, and I wanted to give up, it was my piano teacher and the things she really taught me, that saved me.”
“What I learned after all those years is what all of you teach now, to young students like me. Self discipline, the spirit to never give up until it is finished, the mental calluses that allow a person to repeat and repeat and repeat. Voice lessons did not get my voice back, but what my piano teacher gave me did, and I don’t have her to thank anymore, but I have all of you. Please accept my heart-felt thanks for what you do everyday, even when it seems to you like you are getting nowhere with that particular little boy or girl. When you wonder why you still teacher into your 70’s, and when you feel the pain of every student that quits lessons, remember that you never know how much you changed someone.”
Let me tell you that the sounds of collective sobbing are much more musical than a collective gasp. I now feel good about going back to my students. I’m refocused on what I might accomplish. And I won’t forget the singer with the engaging smile and the need for a little morning caffeine.