The Power of a Choice

One of the hardest things to do as a teacher is to walk the finest of lines between allowing the student an active part in his education and controlling the experience enough to teach the material you need to teach.  There's much less freedom in classroom teaching, where it's absolutely necessary that your rules apply to 100% of your students 100% of the time (kids have Injustice Radar that rivals a bat's.)  When there's just one student at the piano, however, I sometimes allow a student to make a choice, even though it would be much easier and safer for me to choose for him.

I have an extremely talented student who's a transplant from another studio, and usually if they've come to me, it's because their former expernence was bad enough to drive them away.  This poor girl, already a very sensitive perfectionist, had been studying with an extremely rigid teacher who berated her (in broken English) for any and all mistakes.  As a result, when Amanda came to me, she literally would not play a piece if there was the slightest of possibilities she might miss a note.  It's taken me a year to win her confidence enough that she'll make a mistake in front of me without tears ensuing.  So when I saw her at the recital hall for her first performance, I wasn't surprised to see her in near-hysterics, absolutely certain she couldn't play in front of "all those people."

Her parents were at their wits' end, alternately offering bribes and high praise for her musicianship.  I very calmly found a practice room, shut the four of us inside, and said to Amanda, "Relax.  You don't have to play if you don't want to."  Her mouth fell open, as did her parents' (and I could tell this was not their idea of the Right Thing to Say.)

I continued, "I know you can do it.  I've heard you play this piece dozens of times, and perfectly.  Your tone quality and rhythm are excellent.  It would be a treat for everyone here if you played for them.  But no one will be angry with you if you don't.  Why don't you go over it a few times in here, where no one can hear you, and see how you feel?"  I smiled, gave her a pat on the shoulder (hugs make teenage girls cry more, which was not the goal here) and left.  Twenty minutes later, she performed flawlessly.  She just needed to know she had an out.

Yesterday, I had a similar experience with a young man about Amanda's age, also a transplant, but from an extremely dynamic and compassionate teacher who just felt he would do better in the Suzuki method than with her more traditional style.  He's a freshman at a huge high school, and I can't imagine his life is very pleasant.  (If  you know anyone who loved his freshman year of high school, I'd love to interview him sometime.)  He struggles with a great deal of insecurity and emotional turmoil, which I generally try to combat with lighthearted humor and sincere encouragement.  Usually, I'm pretty successful at this, but yesterday he was in a foul mood after struggling mightily with a sightreading piece.  His ear is significantly better than his reading, as is the case with most beginners, and he finds it an onerous chore to work with only his vision as a guide.  He moaned and groaned so many times that finally I said, very soberly:

"Gavin, I'm sorry if I've upset you.  I want you to enjoy piano lessons.  What's the matter?"

"I HATE sightreading!" he said, angrily.  (Boy, am I reaping what I've sown.  My mother can testify as to the number of times I screamed those very words in her presence.)  "I don't see why I have to do it!"

Out of options.  "You don't.  If you don't want to learn how to read music, we won't."  I shut the book.  He just stared, openmouthed.  "So," I continued, "What would you like to work on today?"

We went through some of his Suzuki pieces, and within minutes he was smiling, laughing, and visibly relaxed.  I hope I'll be able to convince him, some other time, that reading music is a valuable and necessary skill.  But even if I don't -- even if he goes the rest of his life without reading another note -- I still taught him something that day.  And he didn't quit; at least, not this week.  So really, the victory was mine.