Sometimes I do wonder just what piano teachers are trying to accomplish. Most don’t imagine their students as performing artists. Yet, we work to make sure that our students play with artistry, ever increasing their skills. We have our students learn to perform for live audiences, something that their parents and their peers might not consider important. We sometimes submit their playing to review by judges who don’t know them, and don’t love them the way that we do. The most common value we hear from parents is “I only want her to have fun; I want her to be able to play for her own enjoyment.”
How does that stated value coincide with what we do as teachers? After all, to play for your own enjoyment, you wouldn’t necessarily need public performance experiences. For your own enjoyment, why would you need music theory, judges and contests? One mother, a dear friend and supporter of New Horizons Music Studio for 14 years, told me, “I don’t want him to be a concert artist. I want him to play better than I ever did.”
The boy she was making this life decision for was an exceptional intellect. His family has told me many times that I “saved him”. From what? Presumably, from underachievement! At 7 years of age, he was already bored with school, and unfocused in his approach to just about anything he took on. Nothing was a challenge, and his response was to ignore assignments, and let his mind wander.
He and I had an instant rapport, and I believe I was the first teacher that held his little nose to a grindstone. What this boy found was that there was virtually no end to what was demanded of him in the exploration of a musical score. Every accomplishment in his music reading skills left him with unfinished business in the creating of sounds that could tweak his imagination. Every expressive piece, executed with maturity and finesse, left him stunned at the amount of technical prowess he still needed to reach THE GOAL.
And always, he had me telling him how much he had achieved, and, if he only would spend just a little more time, he would be amazed at what he had accomplished. This little boy would eventually go on to math and engineering. He was so advanced that he began taking math classes at the “U” when he was a freshman in high school. When he took the SAT 2 exam in math, he was only mildly amazed at the fact that he “maxed it”.
What did piano study have to do with this? That’s probably a question that will never have a definitive answer. Subjectively, he, his parents, and I all know that the study of piano, which he loved simply because it was his first real challenge, know that he turned a corner with his first piano lesson. He remained amazed at the whole process for his public school career.
But enough of this idea that music study is good mainly in how it affects the other, more real things in a person’s life. The “Mozart Effect”, as some refer to it. Or the worn-thin argument that we should leave the arts in education because of the positive effects on the more important studies of math and reading. If I had believed that music study was, in some way, secondary to other academic areas, I might have become an electrical engineer. I do think that the study of music is one path to integrating the mind, the thought processes, into one superior, functioning whole. There are many paths to this place, where critical thinking, analytical thinking, become part of a person’s whole.
The study of music, with all of the performing and practicing, is one path to discovering the height of our humanity. I have never heard that said of the study of math. Higher math might lead to a cure for cancer, or a solution to the sustainable energy needs of this world, but it won’t put anyone in touch with his or her humanity.
So, is that it? What piano teachers are trying to accomplish is to put their students in touch with their humanity? I suppose that is a real part. I don’t think that is the whole thing, though. I’m just not sure. I know I have a deep feeling that music is important, all by itself. Without trying to measure the benefits and effects it might have outside itself. I have no evidence. I’ve never needed evidence. But then, I’m probably weird; because I’ve never thought that education’s task was job training, or a vehicle to the upper middle class. I’ve somehow managed, all these years, to cling to the notion that the purpose of an education was to become educated.