Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Help Me Help You

Teachers are saints. I'll say it again. Teachers are saints.

There was a time in my life, a short beat in time, an eighth note in the Sonata of Life, a mere "Ha" in Handel's oratorio, a sole da da da daaaa in Ludwig Van's Fifth, when I thought perhaps I would like to be a piano teacher. I liked music; other people liked music. I knew how to play piano; other people didn't know how to play piano. Hey! How 'bout I teach 'em! It was around this time that I also thought Clay Aiken was straight.

So I became a music major. I took theory classes, increased my repertoire, researched children's series of music, practiced consistently each week, and even cut my fingernails short (gasp!). Ok, they were already short from climbing. Anyway, I was going to inspire millions of young ones. I would form armies of virtuosos. The next Bach or Beethoven would make excellent progress under my tutelage. (Name that movie, except not you, Erin. You'll get it too quickly.)

Then I met my students.

My first two students were sisters, ages 8 and 10. The 8-year-old usually behaved and was at least mildly interested in the instrument, but sometimes she was mad at the world and there was just nothing anyone could do about it. I remember her sulking through the door one rainy day and throwing her books down on the counter. "This should be fun," though I. We got through fifteen minutes of regular lesson plans, but I kept losing her attention. "Ok, something else then," thought I. We switched to an ear training exercise to get away from the books for awhile. I played two different chords for her and asked her if she could hear the difference. Her response? She crossed her arms, squinted her eyes, looked at me sideways and sneered, "Of course I can hear, I HAVE EARS." The lesson ended there.

Her sister didn't care about piano and didn't want to be there. That's always fun. Parenthetically, I encourage parents to keep their kids out of piano lessons until the children actually want to learn. Lessons are good for teaching discipline, for gaining a basic understanding of music, and for supplying a creative outlet, but in my experience, if the kids don't want to learn then they simply will not learn. Even if they practice daily and always do their lessons, they'll never make the same kind of progress as a child who wants to be there. Sure, children need to know that sometimes they have to do what they don't want to do because it's good for them, but they get that message every day from school and chores. Piano lessons are valuable and worth a year of investment, but children can often learn the same life lessons from other, less expensive activities.

Like I was saying, her sister didn't care about piano and didn't want to be there. She didn't like to listen either, so in between songs I always had the worst time keeping her hands off the keys. We'd be talking about a section of music and she'd be plunking random keys. As any teacher knows, that simply will not do. I eventually had her place her hands in her lap whenever she finished a song. She would play the last note, and then I'd say, "Ok, hands in lap. Now, in this section here we crescendo to..." That's how our lessons went, and mostly, it worked. But one day, she finished her song and I said, "Ok, hands in lap." She turned to me grinning, as my mom would call it, a shitty grin, scooted the bench back, placed her feet on the keys and pounded away. The lesson ended there.

But nothing, nothing, NOTHING compared to the twins. Twins seem to be my lot in life. (Erin, are you going crazy?) It's difficult for me to describe the twins. We didn't have single, unique incidents; it was more just a culture of crazy. I only had the twins together in two lessons, and thank heaven for that. A fellow pedagogue and hallmate, Amy, then took one of the sisters and I took the other. After lessons, Amy and I usually hugged each other, consoled each other, and swapped horror stories on the way back to the dorm. Did you ever read that other Wilson Rawls book, Summer of the Monkeys? That's what I thought of when I taught the twins. It was like corraling escaped circus monkeys in a large wood.

My twin, who we'll call "K," had a hearing deficiency, as in, if she didn't want to listen to you then she wouldn't hear you. I'd ask her a question or give her an instruction, and she'd hop up from the piano bench to draw pictures on the blackboard. That, as we've said before, will not do. She also cried in just about every lesson. I can understand crying at a poor lesson. You practice all week and perform beautifully at home, but then you bomb at the lesson. It happens all the time, and it always feels horrible. But that's not what happened with K. She would finish her song, and I'd gush, "Wow, K! That sounded great. You've really shown some improvement," or something like that, especially because we piano teachers have learned always to say the good stuff first. Then she'd cry. She'd bury her face in her arms and just cry on the keys. The first time it happened I felt horrible. I thought, "Oh my gosh, what'd I do? How can I help?" Then it happened again the next lesson. Then it happened for the next 8 or 10 lessons. I talked to her parents about it, but they didn't seem too concerned and they didn't have any pointers for me. Great. It got to the point where she'd be sitting there sobbing, and then that scene from Jerry Maguire would play over and over in my head. "Help me help you. Help me help you! HELP ME HELP YOU, K!"

I had to videotape one of our lessons for the pedagogy class I was taking. Yeah, that went over real well. On that particular lesson, she chose to hop up from the bench without warning, crab walk across the room, and then do kind of a gorilla walk back to the bench. The real trouble with recording that lesson is that I couldn't beat her on camera without worrying about CPS and those troublesome authorities. (I kid. I kid.)

After the twins I seriously questioned my teaching abilities. Am I just that bad? Am I completely incapable of managing my studio?

Two years later, Audra and I had become best friends and housemates. She was teaching art lessons in an after school program, and after a few weeks of teaching she started telling me about these twin girls in her class that she didn't know how to handle. "They're never on task. They're always running around the room, and they cry at every lesson!" I smiled. I gave Audra a hug. I explained things.

Ahh, company. You work wonders for misery.

I had three wonderful students after the sisters and twins. The three restored my faith in children, in music, and, in some degree, myself. I learned a lot during my stint as a teacher. Most importantly perhaps, I learned that the greatest flaw in the educational system is that you can't beat your students.

Teachers are saints, and that's exactly why I'm not one of them.


Natalie said...

Your stories are why our kids attend a school that still practices corporal punishment. You'd be shocked at how mcuh learning can take place in a classroom that doesn't student management issues.

So...what time should I bring Kaylene over for her first lesson? She's been after me for a year to start lessons...I've been waiting to make sure that urge to take lessons sticks.

Also, I had been given the advice to not start a kid in lessons until they can read. Do you think that's a good gauge for when they are ready?

Elizabeth Glass-Turner said...

I can't believe you never used, "there are starving artists' children in Seattle who don't get to learn their scales, so sit still and eat your whole plateful and be grateful."

audra.marie said...


i just convulsed, slightly.

thankfully, i also, have had my faith restored in children. god bless mira, joey, julia, david, and all the other kindergartners in mrs. o'brien and mrs. beier's classes!