October 7, 2010

Please Don’t Grovel

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A few posts ago, I wrote Whining Helps.  I now want to announce that Groveling Doesn’t.

Genevieve came in the other night, apologizing for the second week in a row that she hadn’t practiced and would it be all right if we did sight reading again this week?  The week before she had read through some Satie, discovered she liked the Gnossiennes and wanted to learn more.  I consider it a wildly successful lesson when a student discovers something that piques her interest.

I have known Genevieve since she was three when she came to lessons with her older sister.  At three, she terrified me: she was intense.  She had a more sophisticated bullshit meter than any therapist.  She was worse than a cat whose withering stare sees through the scraps we precariously drape over our human frailty.  She was three.

Now she is a tall, gorgeous high school student who both plays the piano and sings with a voice of unearthly beauty that is as awe inspiring in its own way as her penetrating child’s gaze once was.  So it is a little odd to find her worried about what I think.  She doesn’t realize what a privilege it is for me to work with her.

Some students try to hide the fact that they haven’t looked at their music since their last lesson.  They fumble through something so badly that I can’t tell if the piece is too challenging or if they are having a bad hand day or what.

“So did you play this piece this week?”

“Well we’ve been pretty busy with the new—”

“Whoa!  All I want to know is if this music is too hard or if you spent your time composing a symphony. This is your life, you know. You can spend your week any way you choose.”

I can understand why this might be news to a kid, but adults are just as bad.  Hell, I am just as bad.  It can take effort to go to my voice lesson and not make excuses.  But it brings up a critical question:  who are we learning for?  Ok, not the most elegant of sentences but I believe that the confusion hovering around the answer is what is wrong with our entire education system.

Some classical vocal and piano pieces are so beautiful they will break your heart.  I love it when that music appeals my students.  But when they walk in the door, it’s not about me and what I love.  It’s not about what I think they should learn.  It’s about what musical potion will draw them to the piano because the music has gotten under their skin, giving them a reason to learn.

The British have a great expression: “Begin as you mean to go along.”  As a teacher, I want to help my students build a house they want to live in.  So I find music they like, and I try to stay with their minds even as I introduce them to notes, counts, scales, and chords.   I want their experience with me to re-assure them that their desires are important and their idiosyncratic ways of learning have power.  I want them to learn for their lives, not mine.

Music is not something anyone ever finishes.  We are used to “learning” being a matter of a teacher or lecturer feeding us information.  We get it in a lump, memorize it and then think we’ve learned something.  I am a great believer in letting a student discover what she can without any direction.  Out of a mass of experience comes the curiosity and the questions that point to a trail-head.  When it’s too late to turn back, when passion is hot, and curiosity is sizzling, a student learns there is no trail.  She gets to build it herself and she can structure it to go anywhere.  How she proceeds connects her on a deep level to what it mean to be herself.  That, to me, is Learning.

I believe this is why the Cheyenne say, “Our first teacher is our own heart.”

So please, don’t grovel.

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