Long to leave, longer to return: lessons for music teachers from a survivor

Hugh Laurie, the piano, and “Swanee River”

A typical quote: “Back in the far-off distant past, when I was struggling through these piano lessons, which I didn’t enjoy, the only song in the book that we were working from that I thought even vaguely resembled [a] blues song was ‘Swanee River,’ ” Laurie says. “It kept me going. It was the oasis on the horizon, and we crawled across the desert of these awful French lullabies and polkas that you have to learn to get there. And when we arrived, my piano teacher, she turned the page and she looked at it and went [imitating teacher], ‘A negro spiritual, slightly syncopated. No, I think we’ll leave that.’ We skipped it. And that was the moment that I knew that classical music was not for me, so this has always been with me, this song, for that reason.”

How To Kill A Musical Lesson Career Without Intending To

Like I said, it took me longer, since I enjoyed manipulating the device for its own sake, and I did and do continue to love classical music. I was also less fractious with the adult authority figures around me than Laurie was, as a hated A-student who had only the adults on my side when my childhood peers were fairly uniformly against me. Getting on the good side of the grownups was my only hope of safety, and even that was dicey as many of them resented a frighteningly smart kid who went beyond what they could handle or teach.

But at any rate, I stuck with it for longer. I needed the brick in the head to realize that I simply couldn’t keep going with it, and not because the lessons would have had me learn classical music, but because of what they would have shut out. I had to get up to the point where the manacles were closing in on me and were a split-second away from locking down before I realized I didn’t want this. Happily, the experience never soured my love of classical music, since that came from home and not from the lessons. That Vivaldi recorder concerto isn’t beloved by me because a teacher forced it to be, but because it was beloved by my father, whom I take after, and because it brings to mind memories of him driving me to high school near where he worked, where we would drive along the interstate in companionable silence listening to this beautiful music together. No rock-disdaining piano teacher is going to erase that sort of love.

But using Laurie’s experience with “Swanee River” and my own different but related experience with Billy Joel’s “My Life” as an example, music teachers have no idea in hell the amount of damage they can do by disdaining other music that their students show interest in. Love-of-classical isn’t the problem. It’s disdain-for-anything-else that repulses people. In Laurie’s case, the damage was immediate, and he essentially opted out the minute it happened. In my case, it took longer for it to sink in for me just what had happened and how damaging it was for my teacher to react with pursed lips and clearly dampened enthusiasm to that song, written by a person who has all but been adopted by classical pianists as one of the tribe anyway.

The disdain didn’t stick for me; I still continued to love rock as well. Billy Joel, ELO, Journey … all of that stuff. I never learned to disdain it, and to this day, I have an immediate knee-jerk response against anything that smacks of “if you love X then you must hate Y.” And that attitude isn’t just found on one side of that pointless, unnatural fence. I’ve sat next to people in classical and opera audiences who will start talking to me about music, feel pleased that I am relatively well-informed, and chummily finish up with, “Not like that rock stuff! Oh, I hate that, don’t you?” And they look back at me, assuming that of course since I know so much about the history of opera that I must hate rock too, and we can have a stuffy little bonding moment over how icky it is. I’ve also had experiences in popular music settings where people hear the name “Rachmaninoff” and just shut off. If they’re self-consciously political, they may defend their prejudice as a disdain for Dead, White Male music. Both examples are likely to get the same bird flipped in their faces, since they really are doing the same thing.

So as someone who had real, emotional reasons to love both classical and popular music, I was pretty well inoculated against thinking that either form “was not for me.” Instead, what I did learn was that there was music I played, and music I loved, and that they had nothing to do with one another. Piano was about getting it right, not about artistry, musical transcendence, love, expression, or any of that sort of thing. The enjoyment of “getting it right” and of the simple mechanical act of using my hands was enough to keep me going for a long time, but not forever.

In what my memory files away as a related incident, I also recall her looking at me at some point — I can’t recall when — and saying, “When you sit down at this piano, I am in charge.” I don’t know how old I was when she said that — 14 or 15, maybe?

She must have felt incredibly lucky — she had this gifted kid who appeared happy to meekly play anything she wanted me to. Now, with 20/20 hindsight, I ask myself how long she thought this state of affairs could possibly last, why she as an experienced older woman, didn’t realize that this was an unsustainable situation. How long was I going to be content to sit there and obediently play whatever she chose to put in front of me? How long was I going to be content with just “getting it right” instead of actually enjoying the sound that came out of that piano for its own sake? How long did she think she would be “in charge?” Sure enough, I turned 18 and was gone. Only with the hindsight afforded by my entry into middle age did this make sense even to me. To her, she must have been utterly flummoxed as to how this overachieving Gifted Child could just walk away from lessons without a single glance back, and after starting in on the music (that she had managed to brainwash me into believing) that I loved. And I still don’t recall her badly — she was calm, never yelled, focused, and very good at getting technique into me. Between the two of us, we got me to a point where I could walk away for 18 years, come back, and still be at a decent level for an amateur. Although to be fair, a lot of that is probably due to my brain, which has been medically certified as Somewhat Peculiar. (Yes, that’s a medical definition.)

What was there was not bad — it’s what was missing that was the problem.

I still remember going away to college after stopping lessons, and I still recall the way I felt when I realized that OMFG they probably have Scott Joplin’s sheet music in the library! I ran there — ran. I saved a pocketful of quarters for weeks (and probably skimped on doing laundry for perhaps longer than my compatriots would have preferred) and still can visualize pulling that Schirmer album out of the shelf and photocopying the whole thing. I have the Schirmer album now, but I still have those photocopies. That was the first time that I felt real joy at the noise that came out of the piano — and it didn’t happen until after I had stopped lessons. It never occurred to me that I could play what I liked, that there was an intersection between music I played and music I loved, or should be.

I didn’t hate lessons at all. I just felt nothing for the music itself. I had no control over what I played and no connection to it. It was more handcraft than art, which was enough for many years. Eventually though, it wasn’t.

So Where Do You Go From Here?

If you are a music teacher, you probably have one of those gifted kids who seem like your dream student — the smart one who can pick it up quickly and seems content to coincidentally play your favorite music all the time. Maybe that kid is 16 or so, maybe younger or older by a couple years. You probably think of them as the perfect student.

And that kid might be one that walks away on you, and leaves you wondering what the hell happened. They seemed so happy! They seemed so easy to manage and tractable!

What I’m trying to do here is tell you about that kid from a few decades in the future. I’m trying to show you where the shoals are, shoals that neither you nor that gifted student of yours know exist, so that you can steer around them.

Music teachers must not disdain any form of music. Sure, you hate certain stuff; so do I. But shut up about it during the lesson. Classical should make up the bulk of what’s learned, just because of its variety, technical depth, unbelievable beauty, and the sheer size of the pedagogical universe. There’s 400 years of the stuff, more if you look at early music. But maybe an 85% classical/15% popular balance would do it.

And you must teach composition and improv, along with working things out by ear. The big problem with that is that most music teachers can’t do it. In my universe, that would disqualify you from teaching, but we don’t live in the tiny empire I rule in my imagination. We live in this world. Nevertheless, if you can’t teach those subjects, find a supplemental teacher who can.

You may not even be able to ask your student, “What do you listen to at home?” A little kid might answer that honestly, but by the time they are in their early teens, they are firmly in the frame of mind where they are anxious to give the adults the Right Answer, especially that gifted kid. By that point, they have gotten very good at telling you what they think you want to hear. Their entire life revolves around giving adults the right answer, and that is precisely what they will do. You can’t expect them to answer that question with middle-aged honesty, no matter how you ask it. They will answer those questions when asked by their peers and friends. You are neither, no matter how cool or nonthreatening you envision yourself to be. You are an adult authority figure who has the power to judge their performance.

Don’t waste your time asking that question, although if the kid volunteers the information, take it seriously and don’t turn it aside. Focus on teaching composition, improv, and by-ear playing along with how to write down a melody that has been sounded out by ear or that the student comes up with. You’re not there to either embrace or disdain anyone’s favorite music, really; that’s not about teaching. That’s about having your student validate you as cool or cultured (which isn’t their job) or it’s about you trying to turn that student into a mini-me (which isn’t your job). You’re there to give them the tools they need to go wherever they determine they may want to go, and they probably don’t quite know yet. Whether you or they like the same form of music doesn’t matter, and you won’t get an honest answer on it anyhow. Don’t get distracted by that. Give them the tools they need to build what they want to build, when they decide they want to start building. That’s what you’re there for.