"Did Somebody Say Fresno?!", MTAC, music, music teachers association of california, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin, Oberlin Conservatory, piano, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano society, Piano Street, piano student, piano studio, piano teacher, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, pianorama, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, playing piano, publishers marketplace, publishersmarketplace, publishersmarketplace.com, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press, wordpress.com

I could write a book titled PIANODRAMA

First I thought about Pianorama, which would be a catchy title describing a marathon of student performances sponsored by a local Music Teachers Association. In fact years ago we had one of these in Fresno, where I used to teach.

But for all intents and purposes, Pianodrama comes closer to the truth about the life of a piano teacher through thick and thin. It reads like a soap opera script.

Let’s for a moment dive down into the dark regions of piano teaching:

Roll it, take 1:

Set up scene:

Student comes to lesson needing to wash his hands. He spends 15 minutes each week in the upstairs bathroom. That’s after he’s come to class, 15 minutes late.

The Big Question: How much invaluable time is left for instruction? About a quarter hour? Sounds better than “15 minutes.”

In a matter of weeks, he disappears from two consecutive lessons without a sign of himself. (Add 90 minutes less instruction to the bathroom breaks) No word from parents.

Is this a full-fledged disappearing act? Magic tricks? A David Copperfield impersonation? Maybe the student appeared as the Ghost of Christmas past?

I was starting to lose my mind.

Update: Parents inform teacher that student will take a furlough from lessons for 7 months with no fixed date of return. (Pupil has already exceeded that sum total of time in the bathroom over three years)

Resolution of the above situation is obvious.

(“I’m a no drama mama”) A full scale opera is in the works with a colorful cast of characters.

Roll it, take 2:

A mom calls about transferring her two children to my studio from another teacher, without any reason given.

Teacher (me) does a little detective work (A drama in the making)

It turns out that the prior teacher is one whom I respect.

I call former teacher and get an earful about a circumstance that resulted in a premature farewell.

She still thinks I should consider taking one of the kids because “the daughter works hard, practices, and completes assignments.” It’s the mom who’s managed to undo a good thing. (More earth-shaking details from the horse’s mouth)

I heed the ex-teacher’s advice and set up an appointment to meet with mom and daughter.

A week goes by.

Day of reckoning, first Monday of the calendar month.

There’s no daughter in sight. A boy shows up, excuses himself to use my restroom and returns for the last five minutes of his introductory lesson. Mom is nowhere in the neighborhood.

I conclude that piano is not one of the child’s favorite activities.

Resolution of this situation is a no-brainer.

Roll it, take #3:

I find a large, cumbersome, metal lounge chair eating up the small space beside my front door. It’s been deposited by an unknown gift giver. The monstrosity is placed directly in the sun which has baked too many Fresnans to a crisp. Add in ozone, emphysema and respiratory collapse. (“Did Somebody Say Fresno?”)

In no time, I’ve collected pot holders, a Holy Bible, hand towels, a toilet bowl cleaner, two boxes of Kleenex, and numerous church invitations.

Finally, at long last, the mystery donor is revealed. She’s one of my students who’s been trying to convert me for the past year.

Do I mix religion and music lessons? The answer is obvious.

Two years before, a parent begged me to sign a petition supporting Proposition 8, banning Gay Marriage when it was a brewing matter in California. The mom had painted her SUV with stickers and banners so I felt the pressure mounting.

How should I handle this woman who thought the world was coming to an end?

While toasting a veggie burger in my microwave, I received an Answer from God:

“Don’t sign this petition or any others brought by your students,” He intoned. (Would signing up for a dozen boxes of Girl Scout Cookies be okay?)

I felt like Moses being handed the Ten Commandments.

With concerted prayer and meditation, I managed to extricate myself from a sticky situation.

Roll it, take 4:

Return of the Rack Puncher.

Did I believe in reincarnation?

The kid who punched my piano rack silly about ten years before, returned as a ghost of himself.

I couldn’t believe my eyes!

Not ten minutes into his first lesson, he blew a few notes from “Star Wars,” and slammed the desk with the impact of a sledge hammer.

Was I his next victim?

Lickety-Split! This no drama mama took decisive action.

Student was escorted out the door by his dad, a crane operator, never again to return. Amen! Thank the Lord and Let My People Go!


To summarize: Dramas are a part and parcel of a piano teacher’s life. We’re used to soap operas and episode re-runs, though for most of us, the beat rolls on from week to week without interruption.



19 thoughts on “I could write a book titled PIANODRAMA”

  1. LOL, Shirley, you are too funny! What great stories and you have such a way of relating them. Yep, politics and religion don’t really mix with piano lessons. I am reminded of Howard Zinn, the historian and political writer, who once discovered he had members of a string quartet in his class. The final day of class he had the students bring their instruments and play for the classroom. “Enough of politics,” he said — “what we needed was some music!” (And Girl Scout cookies — oh one can never have enough of those!)

    As a high school student I innocently brought my own teacher a petition to sign that had been foisted upon us as a homework assignment by our own parochial school. My teacher wisely and kindly told me she would “consider it” if I would first research the pros and cons and present her with an essay outlining same. I never did get around to it (but in your case, dealing with a parent, I think you’re very wise to steer far clear!)


  2. Whew! What a relief. I thought I was walking on water with this one.. Or thin ice, I mean. Oops. What we think is funny, might go up like a lead balloon.

    Yup piano teaching and religion don’t mix.

    Thanks for your great stories.. I think you have more breathing space over there in Portland, a place with free spirits,— political and social freedom.

    What great air to breathe, places to discover..culture to partake. Lots of Fresnans are emigrating to Oregon.

    It’s one of the top three choices..



    1. Keep those anecdotes coming, I love them. Even we non-teachers can relate (well my grandson is my one pupil but he is a big boy for his age and has a habit of rocking my piano bench back and forth — it will probably be ME sitting on the bench when the legs finally collapse from all the abuse. Maybe you’ve encountered that one before and have a remedy . . . )

      I adore living in Portland (have you seen the TV show Portlandia? It’s a parody but with a great deal of hilarious truth).


  3. Hi Lisa, Thanks for reminding me about the rockers. That’s worth another blog and a half.

    One habit universal to childhood ( the kids in 7 to 10 year old range) is the flailing legs, feet, you name it. Hard to calm these body parts down.. They have a life of their own. Try playing, feet shuffling— not marking beats. Some of these kids could make it to the circus, the coordination is so amazing.

    Oops there goes my next blog.

    No I haven’t seen Portlandia but will hunt it down. I imagine it’s on Cable that would eliminate my access. I just have the basic cable, because here in Fresno, you can’t watch anything without it.

    Did you see the mini series FRESNO back in the 80’s.. Carol Burnett starring. A satire on Dynasty. My daughter, Aviva took a snatch from the footage in her Did Anyone Say Fresno compilation.

    The whole miniseries was a blast. I never laughed so hard. Naturally raisins replaced OIL.

    Thanks again for sharing.. Shirley


  4. Glad to hear that my grandson is just being a normal kid. I’ll have to try your suggestion.

    Haven’t seen Carol Burnett’s “Fresno” and will have to see what I can find online — I don’t know how I missed that because she’s always been a big favorite. As a youngster I watched her comedy show every Saturday night.


  5. Hilarious Shirley! thanks for sharing – I am reminded by your stories – and excellent way of telling them – to take things lightly and not get upset as we all have the same stuff to deal with! Re the “rockers” I have a footstool – adjustable shelf – solid on 3 sides which defeats MOST of the rockers – by the time their feet are flat on the ground they have undone the habit. I couldnt teach with out this prop.xsusan


  6. Thank you for sharing your “drama stories”….I just had a darling, beautiful blonde little first grader this week bat her gorgeous, big-as-saucer, blue eyes at me and explain with the most mournful look why she didn’t have time to practice this week…”You see, Mrs. McNeal, there was no way at all to practice this week….(eye batting)….I get up and go to school at 7 am and don’t get back until 3:30 and then after doing my homework and all the chores that my mom gives me (bat, bat), I am just so tired that I cannot practice. It’s just impossible!!” (bat, bat)…When I told her mom, she just laughed and said……”THAT GIRL IS A DRAMA QUEEN”….Thank goodness, her mom sees it too.


    1. I loved that story that should be archived, or left to posterity in a time capsule. I had an adolescent student, who was a well-developed and rehearsed drama queen. She whimpered before a gush of real tears poured down her cheeks. It had to do with homework and everything else on her plate. Needless to say, she quit, which is so common among teens. Parents should realize that for piano lessons to be meaningful, a student must have time for quality practicing each day… skimming the surface and not being involved is a waste of time and money.


      1. I have them sign a studio policy that includes the commitment to practicing a minimum of 5 out of 7 days per week. If this is consistently violated, we ‘take some time off’….(ahem).


  7. You’re being dead serious by this “contractual” relationship. Wonder how many students go to Confession if they violate the spirit of your well-spelled out policy. The hereafter is another story.

    I provided a legal set of requirements, ex post facto, for a student, (son of two lawyers) who was on the verge of destroying my musical property. Once drafted and signed, the student left along with parents. He’s the one, whose sister arm wrestled with dad, while the pedal was being plundered. (“A Piano Teacher’s Worst Nightmare!”)


  8. You know, Shirley, I imagine all of my students have violated the spirit of this studio policy….even the best of them. But we do communicate about it often and keep moving forward. There are several out of my 18 students who are very dedicated and growing more proficient very quickly. Then the rest of them are enjoying learning at the pace that they are comfortable. I have had a very small turnover in these past couple of years, so something good is happening, I think.

    Yes I saw that post about the worst nightmare…Yikes, that is scary….Those are the ones when you first interview them…the parents usually say something along the lines, “Yes, my child is very active”.


  9. “Worst Nightmare” was an atypical extreme, fortunately.. lucky the kid didn’t fracture arms or ribs on descent from SUV top…I’m no longer at that studio which was more accessible than current one in the HILLS. I teach 85% adult students.. and except for the current snafu with one, I’m very happy with a small but steady and committed group. As I grow older, I enjoy the mature set…just a preference.

    Thanks again for sharing.
    As for home teaching, I’ll post a pertinent anecdote at Facebook.


  10. Oh definitely…an atypical extreme. I am so thankful for your blog. It is a wonderful education for me!! My background is nowhere even near yours. I have B.S. in choral education k-12 with a major in voice. But I also studied piano from a small child through college years. After college, I got married, had a huge family of nine children, home-schooled, taught privately voice and piano, and then several years of private and public school. During the day/school hours, I am now accompanying 6 choirs at a very nice Middle School in a rather affluent area south of Indianapolis, and teaching the piano (and one voice) students in the evenings after school.

    Your blog is a huge help to me! Thanks so much for doing this!!


  11. Thanks for your kind feedback about my blogs. You’re a nicely engaged teacher with a full plate. I like the choral dimension as well that enlarges your musical perspective. Indianapolis is lucky to have you. Incidentally, I did choral accompanying in a Central Valley HS for a few years…valuable experience, and one had to be a quick learner.. esp. for Christmas programs and the pure volume of scores.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.