“I don’t know how to play piano. I’m not good at it.”
“What do you mean???”
“I don’t know any songs…”
This tiny little princess, with eyes big as moons, was looking up at me. Each piano lessons we had before then, she had managed to impress me with improvisations filled with a surprising sensibility and maturity for a six-year-old. Her passion for piano was enviable. Then for the first time, she was afraid of playing because she thought she wasn’t good, and that she wasn’t good because she couldn’t play “songs”. By that time, she had had six piano lessons in total.
Many years ago, I was teaching this little eight-year-old angel who was such a perfectionist, she’d start crying because she couldn’t lift her fingers to her liking (even if it was to mine). Her mom would say to me (and in front of her): “You know, I can’t wait for her to play real songs.” “Well she is playing real pieces that are at her level,” would I reply. “Yeah, but they’re not real songs…”
Let’s come back to my six-year-old princess of a student. From what I could observe, this sudden mind of shift was prompted by someone older who had criticized her playing. And I’m not talking about constructive criticisms here, but about a negative opinion stated as a fact. Since she’s an obedient little girl, she believed it. It is not likely that that person who diminished my student with their words played piano or knew anything about music. (Our music resources are very limited in our little town, few people have a music background.)
When people tell me my work is not real music and that I don’t have talent, I can take a step back and think: ok fine, this person is entitled to their opinion. But I know with my many years of experience as a human being and member of this society that it might not be true and that this individual might just not know anything on the subject matter. I don’t take it personally. A 6 year-old does not have that perspective brought on by life experiences, that filter that allows them to make the difference between an opinion or a fact. Therefore, words can be very damaging.
And by the way, I can assure you that my student knew her five-note scales perfectly, could read music, KNEW SONGS, could clap rhythms, etc… But my philosophy is to never kill the music in my music lessons. I want my students to remember that despite technical exercises, we aim to make music. I thus encourage improvisation, which doesn’t work for everyone but sometimes makes wonders. My six-year-old student was able to experiment with sounds and had naturally a much better technique while doing so than while playing scales.
Furthermore, let’s not kill the joy of an eight-year-old whom just finished the first ABC piano book by saying that she hadn’t been playing “real songs” all along. Improv, easy C-D-E-D-CCCCCC songs, they’re all part of the process of learning. It might not be everyone’s ideal of “songs” or “exercises”, it nonetheless has it’s purpose. As an adult, a role model, a big sister or brother, we can very easily shut down the potential of young students by criticizing this process harshly, and we must be careful. Plus it’s not the kid’s fault if you disagree with the teacher!
If you don’t understand what a young musician is trying to do on their instruments, try asking the question to the student. It will likely result in an answer like: “This is just thunder” while smashing down the keys. If you’re still not sure, ask the teacher. Always keep an open mind. Remember that students shouldn’t aim to please people, they should aim to try and be better than the day before. If they succeed at that, congratulate them.