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Taking Piano Lessons: Skimming the surface or getting deeply involved?

I often think about a prevailing atmosphere of depersonalization these days fostered by cell phones, text messaging, being on the periphery of things, touching bases, not really getting deeply connected to any one subject. Social networking, video games, compulsive school testing, and a dearth of hands-on learning experiences keep many children at bay, floating from one activity to another without any significant depth of involvement. They are easily distracted.

When a piano student, for example, has the “right” piece that ignites an initial surge of enthusiasm, it can quickly die on the vine because patient learning and baby steps are part of a necessary follow through process that leads to mastery. For many pupils in the 8 to 14-year old age range, being methodical, taking time to parcel out the voices of a composition, study their interaction, and apply good fingering/rhythm, are not familiar learning strategies. User Ids and passwords are better retained.

Light “exposure” to many pieces is preferred to a singular, long-term commitment. In the background, a choir of parents chant, everything has to be fun, and “fun” = doing the best you can with the least effort. They believe “exposure” to piano and other after school activities are the essential ingredients of a “well-rounded” child.

Social ostracism is attached to the Math whiz who’s buried himself in the books or to the musical prodigy who’s stigmatized for having given up what is construed as a “normal” life.

But maybe what is normal is only “skimming the surface,” not experiencing the total depth of joy that learning has to offer.

Recently, I read about an educator who suggested that children as young as six enrolled in Kindergarten or even preschool would benefit from studying one subject like the “bees” over a period of years, and in the process, they would become “experts.”

News of this educational innovation came and went as quickly as the turnover of Intermediate level pupils, yet the idea could have been explored side-by-side with the latest Verizon technology and a zillion applications.

I have a vivid memory of giving lessons to two piano students at their home when I was a traveling teacher. Each week their mother would set an egg-timer on the oak top of a spinet to spare each daughter an overtime lesson. The kids, riveted to the passage of crystals down a narrow tube, couldn’t focus for long on their assigned pieces. They welcomed intruding cell phone calls from friends, and any knock at the door that produced an opportunity to end our session earlier than planned. That included Fido’s window-scratching appeal for dog biscuits.

Contrast this lesson backdrop to one dating back to the 1980′s, when I was hired to teach the children of a Rabbi. Naomi and Anne Ehrenpreis, just 5 and 7 at the time, attended the Ramaz School in Manhattan and were my very first piano students after Oberlin graduation. Mom had given me the green light to be as creative as I wanted, capitalizing on the playground as music teacher.

The kids took baby steps, wrote poetry and scanned their creations as a prelude to composing music that fit their words, and when they finally played their pieces, they realized the “process” of learning was as exciting and stimulating as the end result. Mom validated these epiphanies and followed up with probing questions for each child about their creations. It was a Socratic dialog that promoted deep-level thinking and processing.

By a stroke of good fortune, these children were surrounded by some intellectual heavyweights, including their grandfather, Lipman Bers, a celebrated mathematician who authored a well-known Calculus textbook. I don’t recall the presence of a TV in the house, and cell phones hadn’t yet arrived alongside computer social networks. Life seemed a lot simpler in those days, as fundamental as my mother’s first consult with Mrs. Elston, Director of the quaint music school that sat atop a hill off Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx.

The officious looking woman who wore a tight bun and glasses dangling from a beaded chain, lectured the two of us on the value of a “progressive musical education.” As intense as John Dewey presenting his treatise on learning, she imparted a shared philosophy based on a child’s interacting with the curriculum and receiving guidance from the teacher who became a “partner in the learning process, nudging students to independently discover meaning within a subject area.” Realizing the full potential of each and every child was central to the educational paradigm. It left no room for skating on the periphery.

I remember a phone call I received from a mom in the 1990s complaining that her daughter was “practicing too much.” It threw me for a loop since I’d expected a positive response to this student’s musical “engagement.” I must admit that I had very little to offer in the way of sympathy, and before long the child was taken out of piano, because mother thought it had stolen too much from her life. This was well before The “Mozart effect” had become the latest craze.

As I fast forward the clock to the 21st century, I often wonder about the nature of piano students who are wide-eyed about learning, take on challenging pieces, follow through with required practicing, and make steady progress.

They have the following in common:

1) A sense of discipline and organization
2) An appreciation of hard work in pursuit of a goal
3) A realization that mastery of subject matter (as applies to school and music lessons) doesn’t come overnight
4) A respect for the learning environment and the teacher
5) Supportive parents who encourage all of the above and have a keen interest in their child’s progress

As teachers we can’t operate in our own self-nourishing universe. We need the alliance of parents and students to make piano lessons work. Above all, we should be ambassadors of in-depth music learning and its relevance to life. As a start, communicating directly with parents, apart from e-mailing and instant messaging them can transform lessons from a stop-off point between tap dancing and soccer, to a center stage growth process where each and every student’s full potential is realized.

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An example of a piano lesson that tapped a child’s creative well of energy and inspired learning well below the surface.

Fritz of El Cerrito, composed a piece and shared details of his endeavor.