Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Teaching My Own

     Teaching has become as natural as swimming for me. Now I have to explain that I swim seasonally, with great anticipation, and with some anxiety. I have to convince myself that my appearance is acceptable and get over the "what will people think" syndrome. Once that is under control I just jump right in and glide through the water, knowing that I was meant to be there and pulling in all the sensory information I can. Teaching is exactly like that. I love diving into the depths of what I teach, but more satisfying is watching the faces of my students, looking for signs of curiosity, engagement, and delight. Thrashing through waves of "what should they know" has come to the stillness of "what will they be".

     My own children have been the tadpoles for developing my own teaching style. Oh, I went to college and learned the theory but that did not make me a good teacher. Sitting tall on my own piano bench with The Fidgeter, The Swooner, and The Sponge, was the real forge of my teaching ability. The Fidgeter went on to dance lessons, the Swooner to the I-Pod, and The Sponge learned all I had to offer and culled knowledge from several other teachers.
    Can a parent be a good piano teacher? Well, I thought the word parent and teacher were synonyms. If you have children, you must teach. But often a parent and child collide with differing agendas. These collisions can make parents feel inadequate as teachers. Professional teachers have break-downs in communication, as well. Here is what I learned from teaching my own.
     From The Sponge I learned to be consistent, to listen to his heart, and to make him learn his notes. Being consistent was a difficult challenge. Habits were hard to make in my day to day living. In other words, I rarely did the same things day after day. My first hurdle was finding a regular time for him to practice. I saw the power of holding time aside for piano every day. In that hour of the day nothing else was as important. The second hurdle was teaching him on a consistent day and treating him as a paid piano student with a scheduled lesson time. This young boy, The Sponge, was very quiet and mostly compliant. That sounds ideal, doesn't it? Actually, because he was not as vocal as my other children I found I had to pay more attention to his non-verbal signals. Learning to see into his heart became possible as I asked more open-ended questions and listened patiently. He had a very willing ear and wonderful short-term memory. Reading notes was too tedious so he memorized everything which served him well until he wanted to learn Beethoven. By this time we hired a piano teacher who gave him an ultimatum; learn to read notes or don't come back. I felt I had failed him. He told me he was quitting on the ride home in the car. She had wounded his pride and I felt remorse for not being more dogmatic about drilling with those flash cards. The harshness of her tactics did the trick. He proceeded to practice note-reading via computer with a vengeance. After two weeks his musical life took a new path. The code was broken and so he started sight-reading everything in his grasp. When he quickly proved that he did not need reminding to play I faced the challenge of biting my tongue and not telling him to stop practicing. There came the point when silence was more than golden; after hours of teaching it was essential. We cleaned out a shed for The Sponge and put in a second piano. He became a wonderful pianist and a willing father.
Now on Mondays I pack up my I-Pad, my stickers, some small candies for bribes, and colored pencils and go off to teach my grandchildren. I have three students in one family. It takes about three hours because they like me to stay for lunch. I am applying the same lessons I learned with my own child. Teach them on the same consistent day, listen to their different needs, and drill those notes. I am more of a novelty as a grandmother because I don't hound them all day long but it would be easy to get relaxed about the routine. I find that I must be stern about following through with practice goals and I challenge myself to do the unexpected to keep them interested. An appearing puppet now and then makes lessons playful and full of promise. I see good follow-through on their parent’s part and I know piano lessons are valued in their home. In the future I'm sure I won't be saying, "Gee, I wish I had not spent so much time teaching my own".
       Jumping right in and gliding through the challenges of being a mother and a teacher has made me a better instructor. I do care about what all my students should know, but I have a lot invested into what my children and grandchildren should be. I hope music is a pathway to expression for them and I hope music teaches them to have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that are open to beauty.

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