“What’s He Like Today?”

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I can distinctly remember the awe that I felt when I first realized that my grad school piano teacher was practicing at 11:00 pm.  I learned, after inquiries, that he worked from 6:00 to midnight frequently, after teaching all afternoon.  He was a consummate artist that had set about recording all of Alexander Scriabin’s piano works, including the mystical “Prometheus:  Poem of Fire”.  I was proud to attend a historical performance, with my teacher at the piano.  This is the first and only realization of Scriabin’s fantastic conception.  See http://www.lowellcross.com/artmusic/prometheus/

My memories of, and respect for, this man, as well as my undergraduate teachers, pose an impossible model for me.  There was to be no easy answer, no short cut, and no prescription for my becoming an effective piano teacher.  Like most of the things I have learned to do, I had to make it up as I went along; I couldn’t be James Avery.

I have never known exactly how my students view me; I have had glimpses over the years.  I remember two students passing… one just finishing a lesson, the other waiting at the door, ready to begin.  “What kind of mood is he in today?”  That was a shock.  Mood?  Do I have a mood that affects a lesson?  Does this mean that sometimes I’m grouchy at my students?  I didn’t think so; I’ve never quite found out.  I’ve usually had good relationships with students, and I think they’ve always felt comfortable in my studio.  I don’t remember wondering if James Avery or John Holstad were in good or bad moods.

Recently I’ve been working very hard with an 11 year-old boy; he has inherent talent, an obvious love of the piano, and a developing prowess for performance.  He has had the luxury of having his mom as a practice partner since he began lessons.  She has been his discipline, and now it is time for him to take the lead.  The problem is, he is having a hard time doing that.  I work during his lessons to focus him on what needs to be done on each piece, in a broad sense; he seems to understand the scope of the work that needs to be accomplished.  I ask him to become more aggressive in his approach to conquering his music, rather than waiting for “further instructions”.  All the while, I feel I have to remind him of his abilities, his accomplishments, and the fact that I recognize all the good things he has done.  How do we teach initiative, self-reliance, or the strong desire to achieve?  I told him yesterday that I get tired when I feel that I am pushing him up hill.

Then I had a brilliant idea.  “Stick around for a minute at the end of your lesson today; ask the next student what I’m like during his lessons.”  “Well,” he said; “you’re probably just like you are with me.”  I told him that I was a totally DIFFERENT teacher with each student.  His face showed surprise, or maybe confusion.  When he probed the next “victim” for Wednesday, he got quite an earful!  “Rory gets quite agitated sometimes; he will sometimes yell out, ‘YES!’ or more often, ‘No, No, No!  You’re killing me’!  I’ve seen him jump up in the air, pace around the piano bench, get down on his knees and BEG me to do it again… but with my brain engaged this time!”

“Really??” said the younger student.  I thought maybe he was confused, and my “brilliant idea” was falling flat.  Then the older student saved the whole thing; “He only does that when he thinks you’re getting better, and he only does that when he thinks you’re capable of more.”  Oh, yeah!  How did he know my whole teaching philosophy?  I’m much more calm with those students that try hard, but just aren’t ready to achieve.  But, when they are moving, changing, evolving, becoming… I become, shall we say, vociferous!?

Lest you begin to think I am that “warm and fuzzy” piano teacher, I have to share my Memory of the Year.  I allow one major reminiscence each year to myself; I would rather focus on what’s coming, but this has become a tradition in my own mind; so, here goes…

I am remembering Sophie (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent), a married graduate student.  She had studied at a different university for her undergraduate degree; Sophie never missed a chance to tell me how much she adored her undergraduate teacher, how well they got along, and how much progress she had made studying with him.  In my mind, I conjured up this amazing god-like pedagogue, somehow thrust into the bowels of a Louisiana university… a teacher with whom I could never compare.  OK, so I’ll just do my best!  I have always required my graduate students to work from memory in each lesson.  I do not think I need to Master of Music candidates reading piano repertoire for me.  At first, Sophie seemed to come well prepared, even if the quantity of work seemed to be less than I expected.  She was fairly flexible during lessons, and was able to try new things, although she LOVED to argue a point.  {Psst, Sophie!  I LIKE that, so you’re not bothering me.} Within 3 months, after becoming fairly comfortable in our relationship, Sophie started to make excuses about her lack of memory work.  I let it slide a time or two, but soon I tired of hearing “husband excuses”.  So… I called her into my studio for a “sit-down”.

“Sophie, we’re going to try another kind of schedule for your lessons.  From now on, I will make your assignment, you will follow through, memorize your music, and when that has been accomplished, you call me, and we’ll schedule a lesson for you.”  Well, I tell you, Sophie had not used up all of her ‘surprise” at that point in her life.  I think she was almost relieved that she could control the situation.  “But wait, I’m not done”, I told her.  “Every day, twice a day, you will call me here in my studio.  In the morning, you will tell me what your practice goals are for today.  By 4:30, you will call again, and tell me what you’ve accomplished.  If you have specific problems or questions on your music, you can make an appointment at any time.”  I told her that I didn’t want to lose track, even for a day, of how she was doing.  If I were an artist, I could have painted a portrait of shock that day.

It worked!  Months later we went back to regular lessons; Sophie won the Concerto Contest, and played Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto with the University-Civic Symphony that year, and her graduate recital made me proud.  She became an independent piano teacher, first in northern Arkansas, and later in Florida.  I haven’t heard from her for a long time, and I’m sure that she doesn’t remember me as warm & fuzzy.  But, I think I did my job well with her.

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