It’s that time of year again. The end of semester is nigh and recitals loom on the horizon, promising either joy or dread (or both). No matter how well prepared your students are, as the teacher, you still worry. Because you know the experience can go one of two ways: good or bad. So you prepare. You fix mistakes, tell them to count (for the 93rd time), practice with the metronome, practice skipping ahead to avoid getting stuck in memory slips, and pray (a lot).
It’s quite easy to get caught up in the end-of-semester stress, the fretting, the last-lesson panic attacks, the fear of letting the student (or the parents) down, and even–let’s admit it–the fear of how they’ll make you look. Pride can sneak up on you silently and latch itself inside if you don’t keep constant guard. But is the recital the only “end result” we teachers should be striving for? Yes, the experience of performing and the skill set it develops is important. Absolutely. Yet, I’m not so sure that a teacher’s success is based solely on the quality of the student’s performance. That is merely one factor, one small part of the whole picture, but a part that’s quick to blind you to the real joy of teaching.
Recently, there have been moments where I wondered if I was doing anything worthwhile, or making any difference in my students’ lives. I longed to do more for them, to ignite their interest and passion for music, but it felt like a fool’s errand. Then, just last week, God sent me an unexpected, but much needed reminder of this very idea. It came on the very last lesson of the semester, and it was just the encouragement I needed to keep going. I was teaching a little boy, one of my private students whom I’ve taught for about two years now.
I won’t lie–his lessons were a struggle at first. Not because he’s a bad kid. He’s actually very sweet and easy to get along with–just extremely energetic. And, due to the gap in his piano instruction (I was his second teacher after a long break), he forgot some things. This meant that we had to do a lot of review at first. Plus, we had to put a lot of effort into learning to count and keep the correct tempo. For the longest time, it felt like nothing was getting through to him. Added to all that was his lack of practicing. It wasn’t that he lacked interest in piano–just the practicing part. But I began to worry he would lose interest again if he didn’t start progressing. I wondered if I was doing anything right, if I was actually helping him.
It was at the first lesson of this past semester that I noticed a drastic change–maybe because he skipped summer lessons and came back recharged and excited about piano again? Or perhaps because I hadn’t seen him in a while the change was more stark in contrast. I don’t know. But I’m fairly certain he hit some sort of growth spurt over the summer, maturity-wise. He was suddenly calmer, more focused, requiring less physical activity and reminders to return to the task at hand. For the first time since I met him, he could play through an entire assignment–with all the practice directions–without losing focus or needing a “wiggle break.” I also started to notice an improvement in his rhythm, although there’s always room for more. But at least the progress is there, and visible at last.
The major change, however, started around a month ago. He suddenly started practicing on his own, because he wanted to! And he was practicing every single day. Not just to get his assignments over with, either. He actually enjoyed playing the songs. So much so that, at one lesson, his first words to me were, “Mrs. Stephanie, I know I already passed ‘Ode to Joy,’ but I love playing it so much that I’ve been practicing it for fun. I even have it memorized now! Can I please play it for you first? Please?”
This was the first time he had taken that sort of initiative, and he was clearly proud of his achievement and desperate to show me. So of course I let him play it for me. It turned out that he did in fact know the whole piece from memory…and it was all correct, including rhythm. I was bursting with pride and excitement by the end of the song, and I told him as much. Around the same time, we also started working on a recital piece. He was eager to learn it–something I still wasn’t used to. I assigned him the first few lines, and by the next lesson he told me he learned the assigned lines, but wanted to know the rest so badly that he finished the whole thing.
I was shocked. Sure, there were a couple mistakes that I quickly fixed, but overall he had learned the piece really well. I was thrilled that he even put in the extra effort on his own to begin with. There was a time when he couldn’t have learned a song that quickly (mostly because he used to only look at them at the lesson). Now, we had plenty of time to work on dynamics and phrasing, and I even let him memorize it–which he was hesitant about at first, until I took away his music as an experiment and he played the whole thing from memory on his first try. Funny how that happens.
Gradually, I was seeing my efforts start to pay off. He was not only improving at his actual piano skills, but he was more focused, more interested, more self-motivated, and able to do more on his own because of those years of struggling through the basics. However, it was at his final lesson that the biggest encouragement of all came.
We happened to finish a little early that day (an accomplishment that used to be nigh impossible), and since it was the last lesson before the break, I decided to have a little fun with him. I taught him a simple five-finger blues position, then we proceeded to improvise a duet together, using the twelve-bar blues pattern. He adored it! When we finished the duet, I asked him if he wanted to do it again. That’s when he said something that really surprised me.
“Actually, can I try writing my own song instead?”
Of course you can! Are you kidding me?!
I’m a huge proponent of exercising the imagination and encouraging creativity, so when this little boy confided to me his desire to try composing, I didn’t hesitate. He pulled out an old composition notebook someone gave him, filled with page after page of blank staff paper, just waiting to be put to use. The possibilities were endless.
He decided to use the brand new blues position I just taught him. After writing down a couple measures, he tried it out on the piano, and I could see his eyes light up with excitement. He turned to me with wide eyes and, looking for approval, he asked, “How does that sound?”
“THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!!” I exclaimed with all the enthusiasm in my being.
The lesson ended all too soon, and we were both sad to stop. I encouraged him to keep writing over the break, because I absolutely want to hear the final product when we meet again. I even promised to help come up with a “duet” part to accompany his masterpiece.
What a glorious day. It’s moments like this that I live for as a teacher. They give me strength and reassurance to persevere. It’s the student that suddenly “gets” a concept they’ve been struggling with, or the student who suddenly shares my passion for music, or even the student who simply says, “Thank you for being my teacher, Mrs. Stephanie.”
Yes, we want our students to play well. We want them to read notes correctly, count correctly, play proper dynamics and phrasing. But that’s not why we teach. That’s what we teach–the necessary skills that lead to a better, fuller enjoyment of music. The real reason we’re here pursuing this job that is far from the easiest or highest-paying is simple: we have a passion, a love, and appreciation for the beauty and wonder of music–and we want to share it with others.
If none of my students become famous musicians, if none of them ever play in professional settings, if none of them become music majors or teachers–that’s okay. Not all of my students will even feel the same joy I do for music, I know. But that won’t stop them from reaping the benefits of musical training and education. And there will be those students whose passion for music will ignite–and when that happens, when the good moments come, they far outshine the bad.
As long as I am able to impart some love and enjoyment of music, I will continue to teach. Because it’s moments like this that stick with me the most, when I see my own joy reflected in the face of a child and feel that I have actually made a difference, when I remember I’m passing on the beauty of music to the next generation. As long as I have opened the door for them, I have succeeded, no matter how far down the path beyond they choose to travel.
And that, my friends, is why I teach music.
Thank you, Lord, for those little moments of encouragement that make teaching worthwhile!