Thursday, July 26, 2012

Music, Joy, and Discipline

A friend recently lent us Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, a compelling nonfiction narrative about the author's re-engagement with the piano through his friendship with a piano refurbisher in Paris.  Tim and I both read it; we learned a lot about the history of the piano and we appreciated Carhart's account of his relationship with the piano from childhood through adulthood.  Carhart loves the piano but has never wanted to play for other people.  He rightly points out that many methods of teaching piano to children cannot accommodate this; playing in public is a yearly ritual most young piano students have to endure, despite the fact that it may ruin their love for the instrument.

We've been so fortunate to have found a piano teacher for N. who is both rigorous and challenging but is always focused at the same time on helping her students find joy in music.  Her students' spring recital was a truly happy event; many of her newer students who might have been intimidated by playing in a recital simply played a duet with the teacher.  N. thoroughly enjoys playing for others, and I'm grateful that his teacher has cultivated this so effectively. She also offers N. a wide variety of music to explore, so that he plays classical as well as jazz and blues-style pieces.  She was wonderfully patient as he went through a Joplin phase this winter playing pieces he loved that were technically above his ability; another teacher might have said that playing these pieces before he was ready was bad for his technique.  Like most great teachers (of all kinds of subjects), she is both demanding and attuned to her students' perspectives on their encounters with the material they are learning.

Thad Carhart didn't get to experience this kind of teaching until he was an adult:
"One of the revelations of taking up the piano again as an adult was to find that, other than in musical matters, my teacher was my peer."
N.'s piano teacher is successful because, while her young students aren't exactly her peers as the adult Carhart is his teacher's peer, she recognizes that her students are real people.  There is no illusion in Carhart's lessons that he'll become a great pianist; similarly N.'s teacher seems to focus primarily on the present moment for her students, helping them make real music right away (while still developing their skills) rather than focusing excessively on foundational exercises and scales that are supposed to pay off in the future, as one of Carhart's childhood teachers did.  Furthermore, after a thorough disenchantment, N.'s teacher had taken a ten-year break from teaching or even playing the piano; through teaching students to express joy in music now, she has rediscovered it herself.  Though her students are too young to understand how she is growing from teaching them, I believe that this mutuality nonetheless gives their lessons a productive electricity.  Her lessons are live events; she isn't merely going through the motions by rote.

Carhart's rediscovery of the piano as an adult is joyful because it is freely chosen:
"Gone were the empty, childish excuses for not having practiced; gone, too, the sheepish reliance on others to make me work.  The fundamental rule was simple enough to grasp without ever being articulated: if you practice, you get better.  It was as simple -- and as demanding -- as that.  It was an unexpectedly pleasant form of self-discipline: this travail wasn't for my parents or for the teacher or for the year-end recital.  This was for me."
We want foster this sense of ownership ("This was for me") in N. but we also want him to practice every day.  Most of the time when our days unfold according to their usual pattern, these two goals are mutually reinforced.  Tim or I sit with N. at the piano to help him practice productively and he takes immense pleasure in improving through practice.  Occasionally, of course, the goals of ownership and daily practice are at odds, and we have to cajole a reluctant child to the instrument.  On such days we hope we are helping him develop "grit," the discipline to wrestle with something challenging every day on his own when he is older.   

Recently I asked N., "Do you like the way we make piano practice part of your daily routine or would you like to be in charge of it?"  He said, "I like the routine because then I do my practice and learn my pieces." He contrasted this with a friend who takes lessons but doesn't practice as regularly and is frustrated by his slower progress.  "Sometimes on Saturdays I want to play outside with [a friend] first but when I practice first then I have fun playing outside because I know I have already done piano." 
N. and his wonderful piano teacher

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