On Teaching

I don’t often get to talk about my teaching, even though it is arguably the most important thing I do. People usually ask what shows I’m playing next, and how the album recording is coming along, but they don’t really ask me how my 15-year old student is doing on her new composition, or if my 9-year old has learned how to play minor scales yet. I guess teaching piano isn’t as glamorous as getting dressed up and rocking out onstage. But glitz isn’t everything. I think teaching a really inspiring piano lesson to just one student can be as impactful as performing for a big crowd.

When I was 19, I volunteered for a community music school in Montréal to teach free music lessons to kids in underserved boroughs outside of the city. I was fresh out of teaching piano for most of my teen years at Summer Sonatina Piano Camp, plus a couple years of private teaching out of my parents’ house in Vermont, and I was so excited to meet all of my new students. It turned out that we didn’t have enough keyboards for more than one weekly private piano lesson. So I had a single student. Their name (changed here for privacy) was Sam.

The first thing I remember about Sam was their shoulders, which they held slightly slumped forward at all times, as if trying to shrink away from something. From the way they observed me, and the little remarks they made, I could tell they were strong and intelligent, and as soon as we started lessons that intuition was confirmed. We set up our little 76-key keyboard in an empty classroom in their middle school, right in front of the chalkboard by the door. The classroom was messy, and totally ill-suited for a piano lesson, but we jumped right in anyway.

Sam had no musical experience, except for playing around on a little keyboard they had at their house. I showed them how to place their hands on the keyboard, how to keep their fingers strong while they played, and where middle C was. They absorbed everything so quickly, and so completely. I had honestly never taught a student before who could master concepts that fast. It was incredibly fun for me, and Sam was eager to play whatever pieces I brought in for them. We learned chords, scales, arpeggios, and were playing stuff hands together way sooner than I thought someone could. I think one of the last pieces I assigned was Sonatina in C by Clementi, which I usually don’t assign until I’ve been working with a student for at least a couple of years.

I remember one day, we had just sat down at the keyboard, and Sam noticed my earrings. “Why are you wearing mismatched earrings?” they asked me. I felt my earrings, trying to remember which ones I put on that morning, and they were indeed mismatching. It was something I did a lot back then, in defiance of expectations mostly, and partly simply to show people that I was a badass. I smiled. I said, “I’m wearing them because we can do whatever the hell we want. Who says earrings have to match? It’s a silly rule.” They gaped at me, then laughed. I know that message stuck with them.

I know because as the semester progressed, they started sitting down at the piano as if they belonged there. And not just a belonging at the piano. A belonging in the space they inhabited. In the world. Their shoulders weren’t slumped anymore – they sat upright, ready, alert, believing in themselves. In the beginning, they would call themselves stupid or lazy in almost every lesson. And every time, I would tell them that they were smart, hardworking, and capable. Because it was fucking true.

The music was just an avenue for me to help them find confidence in themselves. It was proof that they could excel at something. It was proof that the school system that put them in the “stupid people math classes,” as Sam would call them, was just plain wrong. They slowly realized that they had the power to do whatever the hell they want.

That’s why piano lessons are so fucking awesome.

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4 thoughts on “On Teaching”

    1. Thanks! I think it really is all about that one student that you can influence for the better. The small positive changes in the world/flow of humanity.

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  1. Teaching is so rewarding when you’re good at it. You have a gift. I wish you were my piano teacher when I was a kid. I might have stuck with it. Now I have mastered another kind of keyboard. It doesn’t make the same beautiful sound as yours, though. You are such an inspiration, Siena even to someone in their 50’s. 🙂 Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Debby. This is such a beautiful response to my story. I want to feel this about myself more often. I hope that I can find more young students! Recently, it’s been challenging to grow my studio. I think people are confused and sad and muddled from Covid. Thank you for reading. ❤️🌈

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