When I was in the third grade I thought it would be really cool to play the piano. My mother played and I loved listening to her. I wanted to be able to make beautiful music just like her. I started messing around on our upright console piano, and I found some of my mother’s old piano books in the bench. I thought it would be fun to try, but I quickly realized that I was going to need some help from mom. I asked her if she would teach me.
My mom was excited that I wanted to learn. Her mother had given her lessons every day after school. Now it would be her turn to teach her daughter. She went and bought me an easier book, John Thompson’s Teaching Little Fingers to Play.
That same year, I noticed that my parents wore glasses. I wondered what it would be like to wear glasses. I told my mom that I thought I might need glasses myself. She had my eyes checked, and the optometrist said that I barely needed them. I was slightly nearsighted. We could go ahead and get them, they would help me see a little more clearly. I was excited, I was getting glasses!
A week or so later my new glasses arrived, and we went to pick them up. The frames had a pinkish tone to them. They were as cute as glasses for kids in the 80’s could be. I couldn’t believe the incredible detail in the world on the way home. There were leaves on the trees! It was like I was seeing everything sharper and more in focus. Glasses were awesome!
The next day at school, I sported my new glasses. It took exactly five minutes to be called “four eyes” by another student. This became a regular thing, being called “four eyes,” and being treated by the other kids like there was something wrong with me. I now had an obvious weakness. I wore glasses. I started resenting my glasses, and in time they became a real drag. Have you ever tried to swim with glasses? Come into a warm room after being out in the cold?
With glasses on, I loved to read books, and watch television laying down on my side. As I read one Nancy Drew book after another, or watched Charlie’s Angels episodes, I developed one eye that was significantly worse than the other. Glasses were no longer a possible option for me, they became a permanent fixture on my face. A love hate relationship grew with my glasses that I have to this day. What started out as exciting had become a problem. I was now stuck with glasses for the rest of my life.
I can picture my third grade self, sitting at the piano in my glasses. Mom and I had exactly three lessons together, before we had our first practice standoff.
Mom taught me the piano lesson, and then proceeded to go to the kitchen to make dinner within ear shot of the piano. My task was to keep practicing what she had just taught me. As I played the very simple piece, I felt I had it down. I was ready for her to take me to the next song. But, her musical ear said otherwise.
“Your timing is off,” she said. “No, it isn’t,” I argued, begging her to let me go on in the book. We briefly went back and forth. Then she gave me an ultimatum. Either I could play the song again and count it correctly, or she wasn’t going to teach me. Not today, or at all. if I wasn’t going to play it the way she was asking me to, the lessons were over.
So, that is how we ended up never having piano lessons together again. Three lessons and we were through. After that, I had to teach myself. My mother was an exhausted working mom with five kids, one who had special needs. She had more than enough to take care of already. She didn’t have time to teach piano lessons to a stubborn middle child prone to arguing.
I was now on my own at the piano, which I really did love. I really did want to learn it. I just didn’t want to practice effectively. I really wasn’t being honest with myself about what was wrong with my playing, and I didn’t want to stay on that same boring song fixing it.
My childish thinking was out of focus. Truthfully, I was just as nearsighted at the piano as I was without my glasses. From my close perspective, I thought that I was playing it right. I convinced myself that it was so. But from the farther distance of the kitchen, my mother being an experienced pianist, knew that the song was fuzzy. The rhythm was wrong, and the melody wasn’t clear at all. To me, it sounded good enough.
This is often how it is with our students. They are nearsighted. At first they thought it would be really cool to play the piano. The first couple weeks it’s really easy, and they are playing pieces! They like the piano, it’s fun. But after a couple weeks, the kids realize that most of their friends aren’t learning the piano. They don’t have to practice every day. Furthermore, it turns out that piano can be hard at times. Then the teacher who had seemed so nice, didn’t pass them off on a piece that week. They are going to have to practice those same boring songs for another week to get their sticker. That was disappointing. They had felt that they were good enough to pass.
Now they start thinking, maybe they don’t want to play piano after all. Its becoming a real drag. Other kids in the neighborhood are going out to play after school, but here they are chained to this piano bench. Mom and dad said they can’t quit, since they are paying for it. They have a problem, it seems that they are now stuck with the piano for the rest of their life. Like those glasses, a love hate relationship has begun.
As to my own story, I wish I could tell you that things got easier for me after mom stopped teaching me. I’d like to say that she immediately went out and hired a teacher for me. That this teacher helped me get through that temporary impatience, and I spent my childhood loving my consistent growth at the piano. Or even better, I apologized to my dear mother and we started working together again. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. The next few years I struggled alone at the piano.
Mom and I both gave up too quickly. She didn’t have time, really. I can hardly blame her. It was a big task to take on in the first place. I was childish and stubborn.
The bigger life lesson I learned in all of that is that we can’t give up on our students too quickly when they are being nearsighted. We also have to help our parents when they become too busy to deal with a stubborn child. Parents are tired and overworked. They don’t want to struggle with practicing. They don’t want to argue with their kids about the piano. Without proper care, they will quit.
I didn’t have a scheduled practice time with a piano teacher until seventh grade. When I finally did, my practice habits were abominable. I would try to sightread my lessons when I didn’t practice. Of course my teacher knew. I greatly admired her beautiful playing, and I loved taking lessons from her. But, she had to undo many years of poor practice habits.
Being nearsighted, can be a real stumbling block for our students. Even under our proper guidance they can be impatient and lose focus on what they need to improve. Often, they really can’t see or hear what they are doing wrong. We have to lovingly keep on them. As teachers we must keep our focus ourselves, and guard against our own impatience. We must encourage our parents, and not get discouraged when our students are being nearsighted. We can help them see more clearly what they need to do to practice more effectively and consistently. We must give them a broader vision.