Skulls Full of Mush…


You really have to love Netflix and some of the other streaming video sites that abound today.  Not only can you catch up on movies you might have missed, but they also have whole seasons of TV programs from the days when “reality TV” meant the news.

I recently introduced my wife to the movie and then the first season of the TV series, The Paper Chase.  The show was set in an Eastern-elite law school that was undoubtedly a thinly veiled Harvard Law School.  John Houseman starred as Professor Kingsfield, the Professor of Contract Law.  Kingsfield famously taught by the Socratic method, where he posed questions and the students answered.

I was so taken by Kingsfield and his demeanor that I undertook to teach a Form & Analysis course purely by the Socratic method.  The preparation was immense, as I had to structure an entire term in the form of prepared questions that would steer the students through the basics of musical form, and prepare them to dissect works as small as Baroque binary dances and large as Brahms Symphonies.

Since I was not Professor Kingsfield, I prepared a massive “script” of questions each week.  The key was teaching the students how they had to prepare for class.  No lectures!  No explanations other than the excellent materials that I chose to support my adventure.  Students were given class participation grades every day.  They only received points when they answered correctly and complely.  If they answered no questions, they received no points.  It didn’t take long to train each student to read the material, work their exercises, and volunteer vociferously to answer my questions.

My job was to have the students, themselves, explain and demonstrate musical form.  The explanations had to meet my criteria:  succinct, clear and pertinent.  By the use of many pieces of music, I could insure that each form would become clear to the entire class by way of varied, detailed and creative analysis.  This project not only worked well, but I taught it in the same format several times.  I loved teaching this way.

So, what did I gain?  I think it is all summed up in Kingsfield’s famous quote:  “You come in here with a skull full of mush and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.”  The fictional Kingsfield supposedly had the most brilliant college students in the country.  How could he compare his brilliant student’s minds to mush?  Was he crazy?

I think he saw the potential in all of his students.  They had raw potential, but were too undisciplined to become the lawyers he saw in them.  He taught them HOW to think, rather than what to think.  That phrase still gives me the chills.  This is what we teachers strive for.

So, how does this impact my life as a piano teacher?  Glad you asked!  I will try to explain by telling you about three students that I have known and taught.  The first is Daniel.

When Daniel graduated from college with his engineering degree he was hired by Honeywell, presented with a very nice salary, and sent him wherever Honeywell needed him.  Daniel was brilliant.  He designed switches and controls… think of the controls in a modern thermostat, similar to what you might have on your furnace thermostat.  But Daniel designed controls for the aerospace industry, in which Honeywell is a mainstay.

Daniel had great difficulty in learning to play the piano.  He was so detail oriented that he tended to try to process each note, each finger, each rhythmic duration, as a unit.  I worked very hard trying to get Daniel to decipher patterns, to understand the spatial relationship between notes, and how that impacted his hand.  I worked with Daniel on the topography and geography of the keyboard.  We made great progress, but Daniel struggled with musical notation and piano playing because he approached it so much like a design project.  I was never able to train that brilliant mind in the way a musician needs to think.

The second student is Stan.  Stan is now a full professor of bio-medical engineering.  He acquired his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in five years.  I remember Stan informing me that he worked at the piano faithfully for 30 minutes every day.  He apologized about the brevity.  But Stan learned to accomplish as much in his 30 minutes as many piano majors did in hours.  I helped him to understand how practice was much like isolating and solving an engineering problem.  Stan was able to back up, see the broader demands of his music and approach his work not only in a strict engineering sense, but also in a creative manner that allowed him to win a competition to play with an orchestra and perform in a Master Class for the great John Browning.

Here we see two engineering students, both brilliant.  One succeeded at the piano and one struggled.  I could even say that both came to me with relative minds of mush.  Thinking like a pianist took a little extra effort.

The last student is Stefan.  I hired Stefan every summer to mow my lawn, and sometimes to water our gardens when we were gone. I thought of Stefan this past weekend as I was mowing my parents’ yard.  When I lived at home their yard was a simple, unadorned lawn.  It didn’t take long to mow then… or I never took very long with it.  How changed it is now, with birdbaths, feeders, little islands of plants and gardens.  The yard is a geometric splash of interesting and beautiful things.  And it is a challenge to mow.  So many angles, and so many details.  One has to think about how to approach the lawn efficiently and carefully.

I remember distinctly a comment Stefan made to me one summer after I had created little planting areas, with stone borders, around many of our trees.  We built a little garden path with limestone, put in several gardens, an arboreal arch, bird feeders, etc.  I asked Stefan how it was to mow the yard after all the additions.  He said, “it’s a little tricky, and it takes while, but I guess that’s the price you pay to have a cool yard!”  Stefan, who now has a fantastic job at Facebook and previously at Google, designing software for them, learned through practicing the piano how to be a detail-oriented person… how to be a creative problem solver.  Like wading through the technical and musical demands of the most intricate piano piece, Stefan learned to negotiate the lawn, with all its impediments, and to do a marvelous job.  Now, he does the same for tech companies!

None of these students really had minds of mush; but I do know that the work that we all did together has impacted their lives in many ways.  Becoming skilled pianists and consummate musicians changed them.  It helped them to see how a mind can be disciplined and used to its brilliant capacity.  Let’s just say, “You’re Welcome, Honeywell.  You’re welcome, Google.”  When they left me they were thinking like musicians.


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