Two weeks ago, my student Addison entered my studio and declared, “I wrote a song for Paris!”
A little puzzled by what he meant, I probed further and learned that he improvised a piece on the piano based on his feelings about the terrorist attacks in Paris and posted it on his YouTube channel. It was Addison’s way of processing the tragedy, paying tribute to the victims, communicating his sorrow and as I thought about it more, this was Addison’s way to give what he could: he wanted to play it forward.
Addison regularly improvises at the keys, he’s an advancing pianist and hopes to major in music, perhaps in composition. His ability to paint his emotions at the piano is natural and intuitive. Our lessons are filled with dreaming up new ideas and expanding upon old ones. Other students in my studio are inclined to create like Addison, but some need a great deal of encouragement and guidance to play beyond the page and to communicate through their music. This got me thinking. I came up with some questions that may resonate with you as well.
- Do I get so caught up in helping young pianists find Middle C that I forget to explore the joy of making music at the keys?
- Do I spend too much time perfecting a piece and not enough time encouraging students on how to share their music?
- Do I get wrapped up in the printed score and miss out on challenging students to improvise and write their own compositions?
- Am I training students to play to please a judge or to touch the hearts of family, friends and even strangers?
- Are musical imaginations being held back by the page, my agenda, studio activities, lack of time, policies, tech-savvy gadgets and the almighty dollar?
- Am I teaching a method or a human being?
- Could it be that because of what I choose to neglect in my curriculum causes some students to avoid practice, back out of recitals and drop piano lessons?
- Could this be why the music profession and teaching music is often not given the respect we believe it should hold?
The questions may be a tad heavy, but it is easy to get lost in the daily grind of lessons, scheduling, invoicing, practicing or lack thereof! In the hubbub of doing what we do are we losing perspective on what we should do: spreading the joy of making music through our teaching and playing.
Our profession–perhaps obsession for some–is based on a universal language. Music freely crosses borders and has the power to unite, restore, heal and even transform the human soul. More than ever before, it’s important to carry with us and share with others what speaks when words can’t: music.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “pay it forward?” Wikipedia defines it as “responding to a person’s kindness to oneself by being kind to someone else.” Apparently it happens quite often in the Starbucks drive-through when the person at the window pays for the next customer in line.
With one letter, the phrase pay it forward can morph into play it forward. Perhaps it would be good for all of us (teachers, students, professionals, etc.) to step back and rekindle the passion that first brought us to music. Next, it would be good to thank those who support our endeavors (big or small) and respond with kindness and–like Addison–share our thoughts and feelings through the eloquent “words” of music.
Do you have to own exceptional skills and a YouTube channel in order to play it forward? Not at all. Here are some ideas to play it forward:
- Ask students to write a note of gratitude to parents for giving them the gift of music lessons.
- Allow students to choose their repertoire (within your wise guidelines) to give them ownership in their direction and progress.
- Be open to teaching various genres to suit the preferences of students.
- Schedule student performances (and your own!) for others in a recital hall, a care facility, coffee house, shopping mall or living room.
- Encourage students to approach any performance opportunity as a time to share their gift with others.
- Make time for students to play beyond the page and find their own musical voice. It can be as easy as improvising a duet on black keys, creating an arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” or more complex like writing a composition.
- Ditto the above ideas for yourself as teachers and performers.
- Even if you are paid for a gig the minute you begin playing music from your heart, you are playing it forward and giving a gift of renewal and hope.
How will you and your students play it forward in 2016?