I had a church pastor that used to lace his sermons with stories. They were wonderful because he told them to US, as personal revelations. Not from notes prepared ahead of time, but from memory, from experience with other people. Personal stories about real people are compelling. I believe that’s because we worry that we might be alone in our experiences, and that no one could possibly understand. Personal stories place us comfortably in society with other strugglers.
I find the telling of stories to be indispensable to my teaching. If I can make a point by way of a story, I find I have the complete attention of my student, immediately, when I say the words, “I have a story to tell you…” Of course, the stories have to have a point, and they can’t be overly long. Even my pastor would, at the conclusion of his stories, say, “Now, what am I trying to say?” He made his point, with the story as his vehicle. So, let me tell you a story…
I just had a lesson with one of my middle school girls; she performed Midnight Escapade by Melody Bober for me at the end of her lesson. I listened with great interest as she came to the final cadence; such mastery! She released the keys and placed her hands in her lap, the way I have showed her; I sat there silently, with my head down just a little. She was unprepared for that. “What’s wrong, Rory?” “I’m just a little sad”, I said. “You know this is a Contest piece, don’t you. Even though you said you didn’t want to do any competitive events this year, I assigned a Contest piece, just to see how you’d do. Now, when I know that you would have done so well, I’m just sad.”
She looked very surprised, but immediately began to explain that performing just made her too nervous to enter the MMTA Contest, or the NFMC Festival. I suspected that her real concern was that she wouldn’t be ready, considering the amount of preparation she intended to invest, and that a lack of preparation would, indeed make her nervous. When I told her that she would actually be ready two months before the event, she didn’t know how to react. I sensed that she was thinking hard about this idea, so I told her a story.
“Vladimir Horowitz was, until he died, the absolute KING of pianists. I once went to a concert of his; he was 10 minutes late coming onto stage. When the lights dimmed, at 4:10 on a Sunday afternoon, it still took a full minute for Horowitz to come on stage. Before that moment, I had never, and have never since heard that kind of silence. A packed auditorium, the “hero” of the day that late, and there was no sound! The audience held him in that kind of reverence.”
At that moment, I had 100% of my student’s attention. A middle school girl, ready to go to school to see her friends, and get on with her day; and yet, she moved not a muscle. “You may be interested to know,” I said, “that Vladimir Horowitz was world famous, and quite rich from playing piano concerts. Then he abruptly ‘retired’ from performing. He said he had paralyzing stage fright.”
She was stunned. We discussed his long absence, his return to the stage, and the coping mechanisms that he invented for himself. She was interested, but I hadn’t ‘zinged’ her yet. I knew that often stories have a greater impact if we tell the stories on ourselves. Our students don’t always think of us a “normal” people, who were once students, and wrestled ourselves with practicing and performing.
“I also have had to combat stage fright”, I told her. I’m sure you’ve seen the computer emoticon that represents astonishment… with the wide open mouth and big eyes. That is exactly what her mouth and eyes looked like. At first I thought maybe she was astonished that I, her teacher, ever had stage fright. On second thought, I decided that she was simply astonished that I had ever had to perform in recitals, contests and festivals. So, I told her another story.
“I had the good fortune, for several summers, to attend a special Piano Institute at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The Institute met there every summer, with a master teacher named Dorothy Taubman. Mrs. Taubman had taught many concert pianists, and was known for her abilities to help a pianist’s technique. The second summer I attended, along with about 300 professional pianists from all over the world, I was selected to play in a public “master class” with Mrs. Taubman. I would have to play for her, in front of all those people. That was possibly the SCARIEST audience I could have imagined; everyone in the concert hall would be an accomplished performer, and I was worried if I would be good enough. After the performance, I would have a mini-lesson, right in front of those pianists.”
My girl was intrigued. What did I do? HOW did I do? I told her that I decided to do my job. I practiced with focus. I told her the thing that helped the most was what one of my teachers told me: “Practice like you’re performing, and perform like you’re practicing”. At that moment, I knew I had her; nothing was decided right then about what she would do with her Contest piece; but I know we’ll have a chance to discuss this properly over the next weeks. Once again, a story made real communication possible.