Dear Piano Student,
There are mornings when the alarm goes off at 5:45 that I wonder what on earth I’m doing with my life. Why would any person think it wise to open her house at 6:30 to a tousle-headed second grader wearing pajama pants and a yawn? What unsuspecting college student, spending four hours a day in a practice room learning to play gossamer threads of Ravel, imagines that one day she’ll say, “Let’s check that half note! Remember, half notes get how many counts?” over and over and then over yet again? What budding teacher plans on teaching one (or three) of those students who start each lesson with “It was a really busy week. My mom said I couldn’t practice last night and I had a baseball game the night before and I was busy on the weekend so I don’t really have anything to play for you today”?
When I took that first student for $5 a lesson more than twenty years ago, I couldn’t imagine the events I’d experience. There was the boy who spread out facedown on the floor of the piano lab, refusing to enter the studio for his lesson. (Solution: Play his lesson technique and pieces for him, so he can at least hear his music.) And the boy who threw a toy at me when I asked him to repeat a phrase again, this time counting out loud. (Solution: Have him sit outside on the porch for ten minutes while you teach his brother.) Or the boy who was bitten by a mouse in my kitchen (don’t ask.) (Solution: Pay for rabies shots and the doctor’s visit.)
There was the time I forgot to make sure a mom knew I wasn’t traveling to their community for lessons that week, who dropped off her son at my teaching location and left him there. In the snow. For 30 minutes. (Solution: Make them cookies and write a letter of apology. And give them a free lesson.) And the time that a girl left the recital crying because I gave her a C in theory on her piano report card, resulting in a super-angry mother and a dropout. (Solution: Cry a lot and write another letter of apology.) And the time that I had to leave a lesson momentarily because my daughter’s babysitter had failed to keep her from swinging on the drapes until my monkey daughter had finally pulled the curtain rod out of the wall. (Solution: Fire the babysitter.) And the time(s) my lesson notes were scribbled over with “I HATE PIANO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” in dark block letters. (Solution: Smile and say, “You might hate it sometimes, but I’m super glad you’re here. And look how much improvement you’re making!” in your best upbeat voice.)
Yes, dear piano student, my teaching career has been filled with unexpected moments. And some of them have made me question my decision to be a private independent music teacher. After all, there is no retirement plan, no employer-sponsored health care. There are no co-workers to visit at the water cooler (I don’t even know if that’s a real thing. Do people visit at water coolers? I haven’t worked in an office since 1991.) There is the tricky parent-teacher-student triangle, and the necessity of being marketer, bookkeeper, and PR person all in one.
Ah, but I told only one kind of story. Here is the other side of the coin.
There are students who love to work on details, who send texts about their love of their repertoire. There have been notes from former students, expressing their love for music. There have been so many pictures drawn by darling six year olds. There have been field trips to recitals that have sparked students’ interest in new composers. There have been students recording CDs as gifts to their parents. There are Facebook messages and wedding invitations and Christmas cards.
There was the student (amazingly, it is the same student as the-boy-who-laid-on-the-floor) who I would see at Violin Federation after he had graduated from high school, accompanying his little brother.
There is the thirteen-year-old boy who tries to sleep during lab and who made it clear earlier this year how much he wants to take piano (not at all) whose lesson plan I switched up recently to include playing more songs by ear and learning pop songs. His mother just sent me this text: “FYI – he said he ‘actually didn’t mind playing the piano with the fun songs.’ I almost fell off my chair. Maybe we will get somewhere. Also both boys played prelude and postlude music at their brother’s baptism. They were so great and he even insisted he play even though he was sick. It was a moment!!!”
There was the group class yesterday, when, after teaching about primary triads and talking about their importance in music from many periods, I played the chorus of One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful,’ prompting one slightly-checked-out eight year old to yell with a huge grin, “You have to teach me that!”
There was the student who was always on the edge of quitting, who didn’t like to polish, who hated to memorize, who practiced less than the bare minimum required every single week. She miraculously continued playing throughout her high school years. Last year she played for both her grandmother’s funeral and then tragically, her father’s funeral. Her mother called me after and talked about how it made her feel to listen to her son and daughter work out how to play Let it Be on guitar and piano. I knew how she felt: I had felt it while I listened to her during the service.
I feel it now, too. The bitter moments make the sweet ones that more sweet. And those sweet ones? They make me feel like writing this letter of affection to you and to all of my students from my past, present, and future. You make it all worthwhile. (Well, most of it…)
Do you have any moments to share? Experiences that make it worthwhile? Or experiences that make you feel like throwing in the towel? Can you beat the mouse bite story?