Friday, November 5, 2010

Piano Lessons

N. began piano lessons in September.  As I mentioned here, this was one of our goals for this academic year, and by "our" I mean, Tim's and mine.  N. was resistant, as he is about all suggestions for formal instruction by people other than Tim or me, whether it's swim lessons, language class, art class, summer camp, or school itself, all of which we have in the past suggested and he has rejected.  We've always honored that resistance, even though sometimes I think it is based at least in part simply on discomfort with the unknown or unfamiliar.  Some people think you should push kids to do things that they say they don't want to do because once they get past that initial discomfort, they discover they really enjoy the activity.  I think there is plenty of time to learn this lesson later in life.  I'm not going to force my son to go to summer camp if he says he doesn't want to, even if I suspect he might actually enjoy it; it's not an important enough activity to warrant disregarding his wishes.

But music lessons did seem important enough to us that we decided to override N.'s resistance.  As an amateur musician myself, I know that learning to read music at a young age is very valuable.  N. really loves music and he plays the piano a lot, making up songs, working at them so he could play them again and again consistently.  He clearly had a strong interest in the piano and as much as I love that he made his own music, I know that piano instruction, if done well, would give him the tools for a much deeper satisfaction in his playing, a greater range of expression and understanding of what he was creating.  When we mentioned lessons, he said, "But I already know how to play the piano!"  This goes to the heart of my very mixed feelings about autodidacticism.  As much as I value passion- and interest-led learning, I believe that a person simply can't teach himself everything.  I explained to N. my belief that he would ultimately be able to do a lot more on the piano if he took lessons and learned more about music.

I found a piano teacher through friends' recommendations and when I explained my concern that lessons  build on and not counteract N.'s love of music, she seemed to understand, and promised a focus on fun.  I silently reserved the option to cancel if N. wasn't enjoying the experience after a couple lessons.  After all, we had tried one piano lesson before, when N. was 4, with a teacher who turned out to be a totalitarian; before that lesson was over we knew the teacher was not the right one for us!

The morning of his first lesson this fall, N. again said he didn't want to take lessons, but when I came home from work in the evening, he reported that he loved the lesson!  He liked the teacher, Lori, and he told me all about what they did in the lesson.  She eased into practicing, asking him only to practice 10 minutes a day that first week.  I was relieved and pleased and excited for N.

Then later that first week, one night at bedtime, N. started crying and said that Lori was making him forget all his own songs.  I felt so sad!  I think what he meant was that what he was learning was making him think about the piano in a different way, and he could feel the conflict between that and his earlier mode of interacting with the piano.  Or, that now when he plays the piano, he has to practice for his lesson rather than playing his own stuff.  This broke my heart because it was exactly what I had worried about, that lessons would deprive him of his direct Wordsworthian encounter with creativity, even though I ultimately believe this Romantic vision of creativity is limited and limiting.  So, I suggested to N. that he set aside some time every day to play his songs so he can be sure to keep them fresh in his memory.  And I assured him that Lori wasn't trying to make him forget his songs, that she wanted him to keep playing them.  This seemed to comfort him, and he liked the solution of setting distinct times for practicing the lesson and for playing any way he wants.

Now about six weeks have passed and N. has never again said anything negative about the lessons.  He continues to enjoy them and has been learning at an amazing pace.  I've been really impressed with the books the teacher is using; their method seems really to click with N.  He learned songs right away, rather than only focusing on fundamentals, so there is an immediate sense of accomplishment and pleasure.  In October, he had a whole lesson book with funny little Halloween songs to learn.  When we've had guests over, whether his friends or ours, he has voluntarily played some of his lesson songs for them (we do not ask him to do this, wanting to avoid pushing him to perform) and taken great pride in doing so.  And he still plays the special songs he made up.

There have been occasional moments when Tim and N. have wrangled over practicing, but for the most part they've successfully incorporated it into their daily routine.  As a homeschooler, N. can practice early in the day when he is freshest; Tim has noticed that his practicing goes much less well the few times they've had to do it late in the afternoon.  Since so much of N.'s learning is very unstructured, the structure of practicing provides an interesting contrast to the rest of his sprawling, cumulative, additive learning, and I think this contrast itself is a good experience for him.  Finally, beyond the musical knowledge he is gaining, N.'s familiarity with fractions, counting, and reading are all being reinforced through learning to read musical notation.

So far, then, all three of us feel good about N.'s piano lessons.  Since so much of our approach to homeschool is based on non-coercion, I felt somewhat conflicted about beginning the lessons in the face of his expressed resistance.  And he did express some sorrow as he transitioned from one mode of engaging with the piano to another; it was painful to have caused that sorrow.  Yet I believe the pleasure he is taking in his rapidly increasing musical fluency vindicates our action.


Mom and Kiddo said...

This is so interesting, esp. in the contrast between Norris' piano education and the rest of his learning. I took piano as a kid and although I enjoyed it, my mother could not refrain from correcting me while I practiced. I found this so intrusive I simply gave up. No doubt that will not be happening at your home!

Jessica said...

It's interesting you should post this today. In our household, guitar rules. Benjamin has loved guitar since he was quite young--first, he rocked the Dad-o-Caster (a homemade guitar Michael made out of a square box, some rubber bands...well, you know the deal). Then, my parents bought him a ukulele and finally, he received a First Act acoustic guitar.

He's had no formal training and I have seen his interest and his 'tinkering' improve over time. We've been wondering if we should look into formal lessons but we fear lessons will stifle his desire.

John Holt dismisses the term "practice" in connection with an instrument and explains children should simply, "play."

I sort of agree. Yet, I think he'd obviously gain something from having some real knowledge of how to read music, where to place his fingers, etc.

Another issue is his ambidexterity. Is that the word? He uses both right & left hands (depending on the situation). When playing guitar he plays left-handed. Michael is concerned that a teacher will force him to switch hands--again, stifling him. :(

Fanny Harville said...

Jessica -- it's a tough call. I think there's no rush to start guitar lessons, since it is an instrument that many people teach themselves, or study formally at an older age, quite successfully. You might ask Ben if he wants to take lessons, and if so, look for a teacher who appreciates your approach. I do think the teacher makes all the difference between a happy experience of music lessons and a terrible one.

As for the left-handed playing, you can restring the guitar for left-handed playing (so the strings are not "upside down"), but also one of my absolute favorite musicians, Elizabeth Cotten, played her guitar left-handed (without restringing), creating her signature sound.

I'll have to reread Holt on music practice/play...

Fanny Harville said...

Mom & Kiddo -- I wouldn't say there's *no* intrusive parental correcting going on, but we try to keep it in check and keep the experience positive to avoid turning N. off from playing as you describe you did!

Bona Fide Mama said...

i think this is so interesting. my in laws have a piano and i think next year i'll be hiring a teacher to come and work with both children since we still won't be free to just come and go into public. this has given me a lot of insight :)