If I Were A Carpenter

If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway?  Would you have my baby?

So!  Here it is, almost spring once again.  Spring is when I’m supposed to be able to regain my sanity.  The snow should be gone, of course… even in Minneapolis.  Spring is when I can say that the recitals, contests, festivals and exams for my students are finished, and winding down.  Spring is when we can begin planning our summer outings, music and art festivals, camping trips and vacations.  Spring is when I can think and write a little bit.

My mind usually gets totally engaged in small topics in the spring.  I tend to think deep thoughts about small things I see and hear.  I’ve always believed this is my mind experiencing the same joy as a black Lab puppy being released into the fenced-in backyard, released to run as fast as possible in ever widening circles.  No reason other than the pure freedom of the act.

“What,” you might ask, “noble thinker, has provoked your most recent Deep Thought?”  Glad you asked!  This is where it gets interesting:  Not really any one thing.  I like to add random items together to make a puzzle, which I then have to solve.  I list below the random items:


  •       Yet another person asked my wife, the tax accountant, if she were very busy presently, due to Tax Season.
  •       I was asked about my availability to teach a student that began study with a teacher without the qualifications of a professional piano teacher.
  •      In a movie I was watching, someone asked a professional musician where he was “trained.”
  •      Speaking to me, someone said, “Oh, so you just teach in your home?”
  •      I heard the song, If I Were a Carpenter.

I suppose it is pretty difficult to really understand the intricacies of another person’s job.  We tend to see things like we see icebergs, so we should just trust that there is always more to a person’s life than we can fathom.  It doesn’t happen that way, though.  More than most people, I know that a tax accountant is not just simply a tax accountant, and taxes are not just taxes.

The people that ask Marian about how busy she is are probably trying to make small talk, maybe show that they empathize with her “busy time.”  They understand taxes mainly through their own filing of income taxes.  They know that somewhere around April 15 their taxes are due, so they assume that maybe she will be extra busy.  Many even wonder what she does the other 11.5 months of the year.  I know that my wife doesn’t file 1040 tax forms for anyone but our own.  She works at a large corporation that has Global, International, Federal and State income tax, as well as sales and property tax in all 50 states.  The company has a tax department larger than any public accounting firm she has ever worked in.  Each area has their own specialists because the volume of work, and the knowledge that each area requires, is so vast that no one person could know all.  Nobody at the company has anything to do with your individual taxes.  And they are all busy, all of the time.

But the tax department at Ecolab is invisible to us.  We see the H & R Block outlets, and the mom & pop accounting shops in small buildings along every street.  Taxes Filed Here.  Many of our individual taxes are so simple that almost anyone that can read directions could complete the forms.  Most of us do not require a CPA to help us, and of course we don’t want to pay the extra fees.  That is unless something happens.  We have several friends that have turned 70 and were shocked by some unexpected taxes that occurred from a required withdrawal from pensions, IRAs and 401k accounts.

Piano teachers are much like accountants, in that all are not the same.  The people that do your 1040s are not always highly qualified.  If you have a simple tax situation you could pay anyone to do those taxes.  If you want, you could hang out a shingle and advertise and charge to do taxes for someone else.  As long as you claim to be certified you will be OK.  Or until you screw up!  You could also hang out a shingle to teach piano.  There is no license requirement.  My mother loves to tell a story that a slightly wacko lady that she knew years ago wanted to set up a piano teaching studio.  They would be partners.  The lady would do the teaching, and my mother would provide the music, using my own piano books.  Legally they could have done it.  They probably would have gotten some students, too!  Not everyone that can play the piano should be teaching.  Not even everyone that has studied music should teach piano.  Knowing music and knowing how to play does not really qualify you.  But there are no laws, and no minimum requirements.  Directing a school music program, or choir does not qualify you any more than the ability to fill out a 1040 qualifies you to do complex tax filings.

I have often wondered where the reference to “training” came from when speaking of activities that people engage in.  Training, to me, seems like something that we do for animals when we take time with them.  People train their pets to live comfortably with them in their homes.  Some do further training to enter their pets in shows.  We can train dogs and horses to race.  But most activities that people engage in are “learned” activities.  I think the semantics are important.  Learned activities take a higher level of thinking skills.  They cannot be trained.  I especially am sensitive to the idea that a concert pianist is “trained.”  So, call me thin-skinned.

As a professional piano teacher I realize that learning to play the piano is not one thing, simple or otherwise.  I like to break down the higher level thinking skills this way:

1)     Reading music, with its complexity of eye movement, coded symbols for physical movement and timing, and a mental “streaming” is a set of skills that would confound most computers.

2)     The discipline of daily practice involves the diagnosis of problems, and the discernment of how to solve those problems.  It also involves training the mind to have a mature attention span, a self-critical attitude about success and failure, and self-discipline to continue to a satisfactory end.

3)     The interpretation of the musical intent of a score involves higher level coding that regulates the speed within a set pulse, and regulates the level of sound from the softest to the most powerful.

4)     Memorization involves setting and maintaining multiple cues, signals and imagery that allow an unbroken recitation of complex physical, mental and emotional acts.

5)     Performance skills allow a musician to coordinate both conscious and subconscious minds, focus through multiple distractions and react with control to unforeseen missteps during any given performance.

The skills listed above are not things that can be trained.  For many people they are not even skills that can be learned.  To become proficient at all five of these a person must develop a remarkable mindset, and develop their brains to a level they might never really understand.  I like to tell my students that they are artists, scientists and athletes, all rolled into one.  I believe that.  My students are not trained.  They are taught to become independent thinkers and musicians.

I am presently enjoying a second career.  My first career was as a university teacher.  My main duties were to teach applied piano to undergraduate and graduate students.  They had steep requirements to get their degrees.  They participated in competitions, played often in both informal and formal recitals, played with ensembles and soloed with orchestras, as did I.  As a university teacher I performed often, was asked to make presentations at conferences and adjudicate competitions.  I was eagerly asked to serve in offices of the state music teachers association, and serve as a faculty mentor to male music students at ten different universities, under the auspices of a national music fraternity.  All of this recognition came to me, before I had earned it, as a result of my position on a university faculty.  Although I think I grew into this position and recognition, I know that the scenario would have been different had I been an independent piano teacher in the same place at the same time.

When I retired from university teaching, I became that independent teacher.  My studio in Minneapolis has grown, and I have enjoyed many very talented and hard working students.  Some of my students are of average ability, and I love them too.  They work hard for me, and I love to see the progress they make.  They may never become gifted performers, but they may learn enough to be able to express themselves and play for the rest of their lives.  It does pain me a little when I hear someone say, “Oh, so you just teach in your home?”  I doubt if any real malice is intended, but under the surface there is this idea that your place in the profession of music teaching is somehow diminished.  The Department of Labor would even go so far as to categorize we independent music teachers as engaging in a “cottage industry.”  Oh, well!


The final thought came as I heard, If I Were a Carpenter.  I always liked this song, especially as sung by Bobby Darrin.  I think the lyrics are fairly poignant.  Somehow the lady, we presume wellborn and upper class, may not be able to love the carpenter.  We are presented here with a challenge.  Are we simply going to accept the idea that a carpenter, skilled labor, is somehow a lesser-respected person that say, a university “trained” professional?  Is the difference inherent?  Is there a moral or intellectual difference here?  We are challenged to decide.  How many of us are willing to pre-judge by chosen profession?  I good friend of mine was the pastor of a United Church of Christ church.  He had a Masters degree in Theology.  He had a vibrant congregation, and I was his music director.  When I accepted my university position in Louisiana, I later found out that he had resigned from the pastorate and had become a carpenter.  Did he lose his professional prestige at that point?  Did he notice that people accepted him in a different way after his change of life?  We might ponder this.  Now that it is April, we might have the freedom to think on this, and other of life’s persistent questions.


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