Da Capo al Fine

Ten years ago this fall, I got a call from an acquaintance who was in college, planning to take a semester abroad. She had been moonlighting as a piano teacher to pay the bills and had about two dozen students who needed a teacher to cover her six-month absence. Was I interested?

Let's see. I had zero experience and was already holding down another part-time job. I had not studied piano myself in years. I was newly engaged with a huge wedding to plan. And I needed to finish my senior thesis and take comprehensive exams in order to graduate in the spring.

So of course, I said, "Sure!"

I didn't know the first thing about teaching, but found that it came quite naturally. Later, after some classroom experience, I realized that piano lessons had been the best possible introduction to the profession: one student at a time, in an activity they had chosen, with a parent close by to provide backup discipline. There were problems, of course, most of them administrative: parents forgot about lessons, didn't enforce practice and neglected to pay me, while students contributed orneriness and fatigue at exactly the wrong times. But these were rare compared to the hours spent learning and having fun with an instrument that seems designed to bring people together.

Over the years, I'd made many changes to the way my studio operated. Almost immediately, I transitioned into the Suzuki method, which I found infinitely simpler and more effective, though it made the process of parent education even more important. Then, when I took the classroom job, I moved my studio to my own house, which cut down on my travel time and my student load: those who were willing to come to me proved far more dedicated, so this was a good move. Along the way I educated myself whenever I could, squeezing in summer classes around vacations and seeking out mentors who could help me troubleshoot difficult situations.

Since taking that classroom job, though, my career has moved steadily in that direction. Last year, while I was finishing my graduate degree, I watched my poor piano studio dwindle down to almost nothing under a teacher who was fully present in the lessons, but fully absent before and afterward. Amazingly, they thrived, and for the first time ever I began and ended the year with all the same students (I really attribute this to our group lessons, which are now a permanent fixture.)

But I was right on the edge of being unable to handle them. So last spring, when the school offered me a full-time position along with a new class in another department, I knew it was time to say goodbye to this chapter in my life.

One by one, I broke the news to my families. Some were shocked, some sad, and one intuitive mother actually finished my sentence for me. We talked about moving on: a couple are going to transfer to my mom's studio, and at least one is ready to try a different instrument (so freeing, to see this as a success and not a failure!) Rob immediately began selling off the couches we'd kept for years as seating for students and their families; we're finding we like the extra space. I'm realizing I could attend Tuesday night Vespers for the first time in almost a decade. It's ending. It's good.

Here's the thing about endings, though: they always lead you to a new beginning of sorts. I'm hoping I will have time, now that grad school is behind me, to pick up my own books again. I look at the program from my senior recital and I wonder where the girl is who could play all those amazing pieces, who was confident in her ability to read and listen and express -- and how I could find her again. Maybe it's time I began looking.

I've always loved the musical term DC al Fine, which means, literally: go back to the beginning until you reach the end. Good advice for a Minuet. Good advice for life.