This morning, like almost every Friday morning, my first student greeted me at 7:15. He is an adult with a full time job, and is obviously at the top of his profession. He is one of those people that are sent out to clients as a consultant and trouble-shooter, and I think he is highly valued at his workplace. He comes to his lesson at 7:15 so he can work with me when his mind is fresh. He then drives another half hour to work. Pretty devoted, wouldn’t you say?
I was impressed with one of his pieces this morning. He did not attend last week, as we had one of our grand Minneapolis snowstorms, and my street was more intimidating than a gauntlet. The week before I had assigned him a new piece, and it was that piece that impressed me this morning. My student accomplished everything I heard, with no input from me! He is obviously learning things that allow him to process an unfamiliar work, and play with reasonably accurate pitch, rhythm and style.
I was totally “on alert” because he began, like many adults, explaining to me everything he thought was challenging. Adults are not acclimated to being students. This man is accomplished and highly skilled in his profession, and he thinks of himself in those terms. He is a leader, a problem-solver, and a mentor to younger colleagues. And… when he comes to me he struggles with the intricacies of playing the piano, an activity that several years ago he might have thought to be a simple process.
Like many adults my student struggles with what pianists think of as “a feel for the keyboard.” Much of this “feel” has to do with relating the musculature of the hand and the spacing of the fingers to what forms are seen on the music itself. For a couple of years we have been working on reading music as patterns…real, physical patterns. It is tempting for beginning students to react to each note as an entity, without relationship to any other notes around it. This leads to badly formed muscle memory, and inconsistency. That inconsistency is the recurring complaint of adult piano students, and it is caused by the failure to process music as patterns, and the failure to place the hands, always, in a hand position.
The thing that impressed me so much this morning is that my student was totally aware of the shapes and spacings of his chords, and award of how his hands moved from one position to the next. I hope I was effusive enough in my praise that he understands what a breakthrough this is. This is why teaching is so rewarding.
But lets talk about beauty, for a second, because we all want to play beautifully. That is certainly one of the things that draw us to the piano. The idea of controlling a beast that weighs 1000 pounds, having the physical, tactile joy of manipulating all 88 keys, and hearing beauty, at our beck and call. Who would not love that?? But the truth is, few adult beginners will ever sound as smooth as a professional. Many adults sound more like they have studied the Karate method of playing the piano… Hyah!! So, why do they bother?
It occurs to me that no one ever says that about his or her golf prowess. Imagine your neighbor giving up golf because he suddenly realizes that he will never play like Tiger Woods. Ridiculous? Of course. But somehow playing a musical instrument less than artfully will often become discouraging.
I have been thinking about this phenomenon in relationship to myself. I have a sort of hobby that I don’t often talk about. It is something that I do, something that I find joy and challenge in. But, it is a hobby that yields a product that might be thought of as amateur, at best. Since it is a musical hobby, I have a hard to being proud of any achievements I make. I invent little tunes, sometimes with words to match.
You notice I didn’t say I compose. No, I am NOT a composer. To me, a composer is… Beethoven, or Brahms! Someone to be revered, studied, and performed! Literally, they are gods to me because their music transcends what any mortal should be able to create. But they did, repeatedly, unfailingly! I am not allowed into their hallowed circle.
I am also not a songwriter, even though most of my products are songs. Cole Porter was a songwriter; the Gershwins were songwriters. My God, even Barry Manilow is a songwriter, and I confess, here and before everyone, that I like Barry Manilow’s songs. We don’t even need to mention Sondheim or even Willy Nelson. They craft songs that touch us, communicate to us, and their songs will defeat the cruelties of time and space.
The best I might be able to do would be to tell people to listen to something “I made up.” That’s the way children might express a piece that came of their doodlings at the piano. “Mom, listen to what I made up!” Yes, that expresses it fully. My creations are made up, and on the level of a musical child. This all because I am used to being thought of as a professional. When people hear me play the piano, I trust they do hear beauty, and through my playing, they are touched by those lofty composers and songwriters that deserve to be called as such.
I read something the other day by Rob Deemer of SUNY-Fredonia. He was discussing pianists and piano teachers that attempt composing. I quote below: “…most of us look at professional composers in the same way that the sports world looks at specialists such as fencers: we can understand the basic concept of the sport (once it’s explained to us every four years during the Olympics), but very few of us ever get the chance to try such an activity. Most of us don’t meet fencers at parties or in the grocery store, and while there are fencing clubs around the country, the sport does not have the popularity of golf or tennis or even chess. I suppose what I am doing is asking why composing can’t be more like golf or chess. Very few will ever hope to reach the level of true masters, but the activity itself is still seen as an enjoyable pastime.”
“I guess the question at the heart of the matter is what is more important: the act of musical creation or the final product. For those of us whose livelihoods are intertwined with the success of our creative work, then the final product is, of course, a very high priority. But one might suggest that allowing and encouraging others to partake in the act of creation–whether or not the final product is performed publicly, used as an exercise in a classroom, or simply listened to in private–is both worthwhile and important for the future of our art.”
This makes so much sense! This is why my adult students study. They have not set their bars too high. They play for the sheer joy of musical creation. Their requirements are not necessarily the absolute quality of their final products. Yes, they do seek beauty, and most will accept their progress the way it occurs, little by little. I can look at my oeuvre of songs, and I do see some that I am more proud of, than some others. Occasionally I will find something in a song that even impresses me. I struggle to get to the point that I see myself as a songwriter. This is probably why most of my songs are “novelty songs”, cute musical jokes. It’s a defense mechanism, because songs like that don’t have to be taken seriously, do they?
For now, we shall leave me with my own personal struggles with this issue. To my adult students, you all have my admiration!