“I got you a piano student!” my mom enthusiastically announced to me one night at dinner. I was shocked, terrified, curious all at the same time. What did I know about teaching piano? Sure I had taken lessons for several years and could read music, but that didn’t mean I could teach it. At the age of 16, I was beginning to look in to colleges, majors, and future plans. Right then I was considering pursuing American Sign Language (ASL) or piano since those were my two passions and main hobbies. My mom encouraged me to just try something out. Start interpreting or teaching to see if I liked it. Since I was already interpreting some at church, it was time to start teaching. My mom got talking to a mom of a little girl who wanted piano lessons, so the progression was natural…to her. I was scared out of my mind! I didn’t know how to teach, I just knew it was a big responsibility. My mom reassured me that I could just pick up a beginning piano book, read the instructions page by page and teach the little girl from it. When she put it that way it didn’t sound so daunting.
I asked my piano teacher what book she used with beginners and then promptly picked up a copy of the traditional method for my new little student. At the first lesson I couldn’t tell who was more nervous, the 8 year old perfectionist attempting something that she was likely to not get perfectly, or the 16 year old teacher responsible for the foundation of musical training for this little one. Somehow there we were ready for a piano lesson on my old upright in the family room, so off we went. I looked through some of the old books that she brought from home and was confused by all of the funny looking notes (pre-staff) and the pages of explanation. Where was the real music and why were there only quarter notes? I just figured we would pick a cute book, skip that boring stuff and get to the music. My poor little student was so overwhelmed, confused, and distracted. As I fumbled along reading instructions from the page and attempting to get those little fingers to follow the instructions, Mom was making cookies in the kitchen 20 feet away, Dad was coming home from work, a little fly had blown in and was tormenting my young student, and I was babbling on about letters on something called a staff. No wonder the little thing’s favorite part was getting a homemade treat from my mom and going home!
Talking to many adults who have had at least some experience with piano lessons, I realized that most of them say their experience was similar to my first student’s. Confusing, overwhelming, boring, frustrating, and scary. Their teacher was mean and the music was not what they wanted to play. After lessons their hands and brain hurt and they were always trying to figure out how they could get out of practicing at home so they could go play. Is that what piano lessons are supposed to be like? Did I want to invest my life into something that people hated, and become a hand-slapping metronome-using bun-wearing old lady? Absolutely not! Maybe interpreting ASL was more my thing… or maybe there was a better way to teach and I just had to learn how. Why did I love the piano? How come practice time felt like play time to me? Perhaps it was my teacher who helped me feel successful and accomplished. Perhaps I could be a teacher like that. Perhaps there was more to piano lessons than turning method book pages.
After teaching my little student for about a year I saw that she was making progress, reading music, and even occasionally enjoying it. Turing pages and drilling scales can help students learn to play the piano. I didn’t just want to teach kids how to play the piano though, I wanted them to love it and make beautiful music. There had to be something more than that, and I had to find out!