March 13, 2011

Piano Students, Part 2: The Adolescents

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Robert didn’t want to take piano lessons.   His brother had been with me for three years and it took Robert a month to decide the mystique was off.  Two years and eleven months to go.  The boys’ mother had decreed that her sons would each have three years of piano lessons as part of their education.  Alan had survived; now it was Robert’s turn.

I don’t normally agree to teach anyone on the steam of a parent’s desire, but I knew the family and I said I would give it a try.  I told Robert as much.

“What can we do to make this fun for both of us?”

“I’ll let you know.”

I bribed him with maraschino cherry ice cubes.  In fact, I joined Costco just to keep that boy in maraschino cherry ice cubes.  During the warm weather months, we started every lesson with one.  Or four.

We got past beginner material, spent several months on the overtures to the Barber of Seville and William Tell—not my choice, mind you.  I think he knew them from cartoons or video games.

Then he told me he wanted to play “Brain Damage.”

“Come again?”

“Haven’t you heard of “Brain Damage?”

This was an opening I wouldn’t exploit in a young person.   “No. What is it?”

“It’s Pink Floyd.”


“Let’s go over to your neighbor’s and borrow a CD so you can hear it.”

“How do you know my neighbor has the CD?”

“Your neighbor has thousands of CDs.  He has to have it.  Everyone has it but you.”

Robert was correct on all counts.  I borrowed “Dark Side of the Moon,” listened to the song, found the music and Robert learned it.  It was his crowning achievement.

Being the younger of the two brothers, he wore his mother down until she sprung him from piano lessons if he promised to do a year of bagpipes instead.   I believe he managed nine months.  After he passed the three year mark for music lessons, he popped in to visit me and finish off the maraschino cherry ice cubes.

Elizabeth introduced me to another song I didn’t know.  It was circa 1998.  I stopped paying attention to popular music when I left high school in 1972.  I found Elizabeth a book of popular songs arranged for level four piano.

“Oh, look, the Y.M.C.A. song!  I want to play that.” Elizabeth said.

“Oh, ok.  What’s that?”

“You don’t know the Y.M.C.A. song?”

“But.  .  . but.  .  . do you know how popular it is?”

“Obviously not.”

“But you have to know it.  Aren’t you like an old hippie?”

“Who told you that?”

“I’m gonna tell my mom to call you and tell you how popular that song is.  They sing it at football games and do the motions.”

Well, there was the problem.  I don’t do sports either.  On a tour of upstate New York, I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame museum shop in Cooperstown and bought ten postcards which I sent to ten of my students telling them I had seen the Baseball Hall of Fame museum shop.

Max was one of those students.  He had no end of patience with me.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said one summer day.  “We got caught in the game traffic.”

“Oh, is there a football game today?”

Max smiled kindly. Piteously, really.  “Yeah,” he said. “Only it’s baseball.”

I’m like my mother who called every kind of stemware a wine glass and every kind of alcohol wine.  Football, baseball, soccer, it’s all the same thing to me: a conspiracy to prevent any new generations from learning music.

Here comes my all-time favorite story.  It’s re-told in my friend Sandi Meggert’s book called Creating Humor in the Workplace:

Christian, 14, came one day when I was tired and had a headache.  We were ten minutes into a lesson that wasn’t going very well when he asked,

“Are you mad at me?”

“Oh, no,” I said.  “I’m just tired and a little out of it today.”

Behind the concerned expression, his eyes were grinning, “Is it that time of month?” he inquired.

It took me ten seconds to think how to respond.

“No,” I finally said.  “But thanks for asking.”


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