Wednesday, October 03, 2007

My Proudest Moment.

Guess what??? Tomorrow we have our very first guest-blogger!!!! I’m SO excited. Mark Terry, whose Serpent’s Kiss was just released this summer, will come and talk about hooks, writing, and Jason Bourne. And he even sent me a really hot picture of Matt Damon.


Awhile back, Stewart posted one of his open "assignments" on his blog about education. I avoided writing it, because I could fill a whole book on my thoughts about teaching. It’s been on my mind, lately.

The number one thing I love about teaching piano is that I don’t really teach piano. To begin with, it’s a difficult instrument. And then, because you’re learning at your own pace, you’re always riding the edge of what you can do and what you have not learned to do. It’s scary stuff!

My mission in teaching? It’s to teach three things to my students: 1) To keep going, no matter what; 2) To teach excellence, to show them that they can do what they think they can’t do if only they plan their work and keep working--to take pride in working hard; 3) and to teach them how to navigate the mental skills necessary to overcome all the learning issues and fears that we all have--the mental game of excellence.

The number one thing I hate about teaching piano, is that I often have to choose between helping the child at their own pace, or minimizing the issues and avoiding teaching them a life lesson (why I teach in the first place) because piano is supposed to be "fun," and when it’s not, the parents want to quit.

I have great parents, but there are always one or two. I’d rather go at the child’s pace, not the parents’ pace. But since they pay the bill, what can you do? I hate watering things down to just producing a performance so the parents are happy. I hate NOT taking advantage of a life-lesson-teaching opportunity so that the piano remains convenient and fun and "profitable" in a parent’s eyes, so that the child doesn’t get uncomfortable and decide to quit, rather than learn the life lesson.

(Off the soapbox, Natasha!)

Anyways, I have one proudest moment when teaching, and I’m sure most people would call it one of my failures, a mark against my teaching.

See, there’s usually one thing a parent or teacher feels so strongly about that they are willing to reduce a child to tears in order to get their point across. You know, you’d smack a kid’s bottom even if you didn’t believe in that sort of thing, if it would keep your child from running into the middle of a street and getting killed. You’d probably yell and put the fear of God in them, rather than have them run into the middle of the street and get killed by a bus. I mean, geeze, you’d do anything to prevent that, am I right? Reason is not one of the top ten effective deterrents for a four year old.

Well, I have one issue just like that, and that’s keeping going. Poor things. I must ask them ten times a year what they do if they mess up (keep going), if the roof falls in (keep going), if their duet partner falls off the bench (keep going), if the piano starts rolling (keep going), if they forget every single note (make something up, but for god’s sake, keep going).

When students do duets, this becomes an even bigger issue. If one student pauses, the whole duet falls apart. The pressure mounts, because parents always blame the other child if a duet falls apart on stage.

I have to make sure they get through, because some parents can get really mad about who their child is paired with and what happens onstage. If it’s a solo performance, the parent will swoop in and declare their kid has "stage fright" and "can’t perform again," or will just quit piano altogether, rather than have them go through a bad performance again.

(Then they’ll carry the memory of that failure their whole life--I can’t let that happen!)

Funny enough, students learn far more about listening and ensemble with a less-than-prepared partner, than with a prepared partner. Besides, I think the value in performance is in our preparation. Most of my students seem to get this about me, which always surprises me since I really push them to be prepared for performances.

When duet partners are practicing for the first time, they have a tendency to think they’re ahead when things get a little off. They’ll stop and wait when they should be pushing forward faster. Or they feel like they’re off and just freeze, unsure what to do.

Nine times out of ten, they’re just a teensy bit off and they’ll get back on if they--you guessed it--just keep going.

So first comes our rational discussion on why we keep going. Then comes our gentle prodding. If one of the partners have been in the studio awhile, they will generally explain to the newer partner that we must keep going.

But if all that fails, I put on my mean hat. "Keep going!" I yell. "Don’t stop!" When they start again with the promise that no matter what, they won’t stop, they invariably get to that spot where they feel like all is going to fall apart. "But," they say as their fingers slow down, a bit afraid to completely stop by now, "I’m lost--"

"Just keep going!"

"I don’t know what to play--"

"Just keep going!"

"I forget the notes--"

Generally the other partner will step in at this point and say the child’s equivalent of "dude, you just gotta keep going." The unspoken words being "She’s just not going to shut up unless you keep going. She’ll rant for hours if she has to. Just keep going, and she’ll be normal again." This secretly cracks me up, but you know, you gotta keep up appearances. :-)

The thing is, if they stop, they’ll forget. They’ll panic, they’ll freeze, and they’ll think about panicking and then they definitely won’t remember what to play next. The whole audience will hold their breaths and worry, and the student up there can just feel the energy in the room change.

A hundred people hold their breaths in horror just looking at YOU. The feeling you get, onstage, when that happens is ... terrifying.

In the end? They burst into tears and run off the stage. To prevent all that, we have to just keep going.

Well, back to my proudest moment. Two of my boy students decided to do a competition. One was struggling with practicing on a bad piano, and the other was paralyzed by fears associated with being overwhelmed. Needless to say, they were both unprepared for a competition. Because the application is due so early, I didn’t know they’d both go through that when we committed to the competition.

But they learned it, memorized it, and it could’ve gone well, but it was more like a 20% chance rather than a 90% chance.

Sure enough, halfway through, things got rocky. They couldn’t find each other in the music, one kept slowing down, the other kept rushing forward, and ... let me tell you ... I was holding my breath the whole time in sheer panic.

The students? They got this look on their faces. Dear God, they were not going to stop for anything. They set their jaws in pure determination, they dug deep, and they kept going through the next three hundred and sixty excruciating seconds.

At the time, I was far too panicked myself on making sure they would be mentally okay to feel anything but intense fear and worry. But when I look back, I see their faces, and I know they learned what I learned as a pianist, what they will take with them if they never touch another piano.

There’s nothing else like facing the fear that the world is going to fall apart, that you’re going to humiliate yourself, that everyone is going to think you ... I don’t know what ... that you won’t be able to make it to the next note, let alone the next six hundred notes. You’ve got no music, no crutch, just you and the piano spotlighted on a stage.

If you can face that fear and learn to just keep going, you’ll gain a little bit of character. You’ll learn that no matter what happens, no matter how bad it is, no matter how badly you think you’ll fail, everything will be okay if you just keep going. You will survive.

You have no idea how much strength I draw from that lesson. The fact that I passed a little piece of that on to two of my students? That’s my proudest moment.

So when have you felt like the world was going to fall apart, that everything was going to fall apart, like you just couldn’t keep going ... but you did?

9 bonus scribbles:

Mark Terry 10/03/2007 03:38:00 PM  

I taught piano for a while back, back, back (like, ya' know, AFTER harpsichords, but before pianofortes) and one of my older students wanted to take part in Solo & Ensemble. We got her going on a piece by Ginastera and she had that piece cold. I had her play for my teacher, I had her play for a bunch of people. THen I sat in the room during her performance and watched her totally fall apart from nerves, play the piece at about a 10th of her typical pace, make a million wrong notes...

I tried to put a brave face on that. I later learned that this type of nerves was pretty common to her (and got significantly worse in college, where performance anxiety apparently affected all areas of her life).

Now I find I'm the parent of musicians and I keep hoping they'll learn to deal with the stress of it, which is probably 90% of why we do these types of things when we're kids anyways. Of course, I started taking guitar this summer and keep thinking, "Hmm, there's no way of getting out of the spring recital because I have to set an example for my sons. So I guess I'm going to have to practice the shit out of whatever piece I get for it..."

Ello 10/03/2007 07:01:00 PM  

What a great story! You must be an awesome piano teacher! That message is so important not just for kids but for everyone. I tell this to my kids also, don't give up, keep at it. I think it must be an extremely proud moment when you realize tangibly that students have learned what is such an important life lesson. Good for you!

Erica Orloff 10/03/2007 07:22:00 PM  

Wow . . . Spy . . . great post. I have an aspiring concert violinist who plays professionally in our city, and I will NEVER forget "the" moment. It wasn't a concert moment--those she always got standing ovations at. It was a lesson moment. She was seven and being rude to her teacher. She was tired/moody/hadn't practiced correctly (and believe me when I say at 3 she begged for lessons, so this was her--and I wasn't happy about schlepping to lessons twice a week). We were five minutes into an expensive lesson. And I told my kid to pack up her violin, we were going home. She got this stricken look on her face. "I'll behave." "Nope. We're outta here. You will NOT speak to your teacher that way. She is trying to help you. Get your ass in gear." Well, sobbing, she did. And her teacher looked at me in awe, and said, "Bless you! I wish ALL my parents did that when the going got tough."
Now my kid is playing the KENNEDY CENTER'S friggin' main stage in May. Some of that is talent. Some of it is keeping going.
ANYHOO . . . as for me, I have so much of "just keep going." My illness has taken so much from me, and I just wake up, some days, open ONE eye, and think, "Pain day?" And regardless of whether the answer is yes or no, I get up, get four kids to school, and blog and then start writing. It's inner determination FAR more than talent, FAR more than faith. It's what I got from my dad. Sheer balls, frankly.

Edie 10/03/2007 07:32:00 PM  

Wow, I got so much from your story, Spy, and from Erica's comment. I think I was just born with the determined gene (or stubborn), and I keep going sometimes long after I should say "Hmm, this isn't working." I've finally learned not to cram a scene forward but to sit back and try to think of a better way to do it.

spyscribbler 10/03/2007 10:24:00 PM  

Wow, Mark! Isn't that the worst, most gut-wrenching horrible feeling? And then you mentally try to WILL the notes to her, as if, if you can concentrate hard enough, you'll be able to ESP the performance from your chair!

Good luck with the guitar performance! Hey, even if you screw up, you can show your kids how to stand back up and stand tall, you know?

spyscribbler 10/03/2007 10:26:00 PM  

Ello, I don't know about that. Teaching is weird. Pretty much every day, I feel like I've failed at something. I am relieved and pleased and thankful when those life-lesson moments come by!

spyscribbler 10/03/2007 10:32:00 PM  

Erica, that is awesome! I bet the hugest part of her success is due to you! She is so lucky.

Talent is something, but I gotta tell you. With all the students I've met, talent has been more of a detriment than a help. You can't make it without love, great practice skills, and hard work. But when you get all that with talent, it sure can take your breath away!

And she should be so proud! The Kennedy Center! That is awesome.

And I would have kissed your feet, btw.

spyscribbler 10/03/2007 10:35:00 PM  

Edie, I hate to delete, I really do. I'll even re-use sentences in a whole 'nother part of the story, just so I'm not wasting words. (It's ridiculous, I know, but when you get paid by the word ...)

I admire the both of you. I didn't come by keeping going naturally. But I'm trying to learn. :-) I'm pretty competitive, though. If someone else is working three hours a day, I'll just bone up and work more, LOL. Like you said on your blog the other day!