Help Me Help You

A few years ago, my mom was cleaning out old file folders and found something she wrote for me when I was young.  I was having difficulty with piano, probably saying I wanted to quit (I made a lot of noise about this for a lot of years, and it's to my parents' credit that they ignored me.)

It was a questionnaire, something designed to allow me to share my feelings about playing the piano.  Five questions: what I thought of my teacher, practicing and performing, and my likes and dislikes about learning to play.  Each had a handful of possible answers and an opportunity to fill in my own.  Judging by my penmanship, the 7-digit phone number scrawled on the back and the fact that she wrote it out by hand, I'd put it at about 1988.  I was eight years old, playing Bach minuets but struggling to learn to sightread the most basic melodies.  It was a difficult time, perhaps the only difficult time in my musical career, and without her brilliant pedagogical logic I might not have made it through.  I don't remember the experience at all, but that's probably a testament to the resolution we reached.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, I guess.  Last week I did a very similar exercise with my Journalism students, who were in a pretty bad place after last semester.  They claimed they were furious at the administration for killing some of their pieces; I arranged a meeting so they could communicate, at which point they told the administration they were furious at me for assigning too much homework.  Clearly, we had misunderstood each other.

So, last week, we started over.  I asked them what they liked and disliked about the class, what they would change about it if they could, and what they wanted to do for the rest of the year.  It was not nearly as well-thought-out as my mom's questionnaire; I just asked a question, gave them five minutes to brainstorm, and then asked for volunteers to start the discussion.  I tried to be fair and unbiased (although when one girl protested that we should do more sports articles, because "everyone loves to read about sports," I had to take a couple of deep breaths.)

The result: a lot of great ideas.  One suggested a food issue where we review local restaurants, share recipes and interview nutritionists.  One wants to write only about sports, but another only about international news.  One was adamant about including games, like Sudoku and word searches.  All liked the format of the paper and at least some of the articles they'd written thus far.  After some profitable discussion about interviews, I increased their deadline from five days to seven, which made all the difference in the world; they agreed it was fair and even seemed excited about starting their new assignment.

It seemed almost too easy to heal the hurts of a semester in a day, but by actively seeking and relying on their opinions, maybe I reassuried them that they count, that I valued them fellow human beings.  The surprising thing is that when you ask for input and are serious about accepting it, you will find that students' standards aren't much lower than yours.  Sometimes they're even higher (many students had specific suggestions about grading, implying they wanted their classmates to share their ideas about proper quality.)  In short, after a bad start to the week, things are looking up.

Just for fun, below is the whole piano questionnaire, with my answers in bold.  I made a few changes to the original and I think I may send it out to my piano parents -- it could be one of them is dealing with a child every bit as headstrong and difficult as me!

This is what I think about my teacher (Miss Kathy):

She likes me.
She makes the lesson fun.
She gives me too much to do.
She makes me rush along too fast with Bastian [Bastien, a sight reading book I hated.]
She doesn’t give me enough; it is too easy and boring.
She doesn’t really care about me.
Other comments:

This is what I think about practicing:

I want Mom to stay with me when I practice so she can help if I need it.
I want Mom to let me practice by myself.
I want Mom to help when I say so, and I feel angry when she can’t come.
I want Mom’s help sometimes, when there's a new piece.
I have too much to practice.
I should practice 30 minutes a day.
My favorite time of day to practice is afternoon
My least favorite time of day to practice is morning
Other things about practicing that I want to tell you: I don't like Music Tree, Bastien [got it that time!], Theory

This is what I think about playing for other people:

I like to perform, but it’s too much work to get a piece ready.
I wish pieces didn’t have to be perfect for me to perform them.
I don’t like to play for groups. (If you circled this, please also answer the following questions.)
I feel nervous before I play.
I make mistakes, and that makes me feel badly.
It makes me feel worse when my friends talk about feeling nervous.
It is easier to play
For large groups
For small groups
in a big auditorium church
in my own house at a play party
for Miss Kathy at a lesson
I feel nervous before I play in front of people, but great afterwards if I do a good job.
I feel unhappy afterwards even if I played well.

What are the things you dislike about learning to play the piano?

Difficulty -- work is too hard.
Practice time -- too long?  interferes with other activities?
Going to lessons -- time
Mom’s help
Learning to read the notes doesn't come easily
Not enough fun things in learning (like games, contests, rewards)
I will never be great (as a pianist.)

What are the things you like about learning to play the piano?

I like the sound when I play something beautiful.
I like finishing a piece – I feel I accomplished something.
I like starting a new piece – it’s fun, like getting something new as a gift.
Other people think I play well, and that makes me feel good about myself.
I like sharing a talent with my family and friends who also play.
When I try to do my best, I think it brings glory to God. [Apparently was NOT interested in THAT.]
I enjoy thinking about how much I have progressed in 3 years. [Okay, I must have been a year off; I was 9. Not bad for two decades ago!]