Piano Lessons for Life

Piano teaching has been a part of my life since birth (my mother resumed her at-home piano teaching when I was three weeks old) and a part of my professional existence since I was 14 and started giving lessons myself.

Teaching at such a young age provided many lessons to me beyond the usual teenage job learning curve: I had to create invoices, prepare materials, plan learning sequences, discuss the progress of students with their parents, coordinate timetabling, engage in professional development, and so forth. This learning curve was much facilitated by teaching under the watchful eye of a mentor-mother, but even so, these are considerable responsibilities for someone who won’t be allowed to vote for another 4 years.

The most challenging aspect of teaching as a 14 year old was, without doubt, talking with the parents. Fortunately my early students practised well enough, and everyone paid their fees on time, so two of the biggest piano teacher communication challenges weren’t on my early agenda.

What did interest me considerably at this stage, however, were the rationales parents gave for having their children take piano lessons. None of the parents had the least expectation that their children would grow up to be concert pianists (unsurprisingly, seeing as they were trusting their children’s pianistic education to a novice), but they all believed that learning a musical instrument would impart lessons for life. The most usual lesson anticipated by parents was the lesson of self-discipline.

Students who learned to practice each day on the piano would, it was assumed, then transfer this lesson of discipline to any other endeavour in which they might choose to engage throughout the rest of their lives. Of course, parents who truly value self-discipline have been instilling this virtue into their children from the day they are born, and piano lessons are merely another means of engaging medium- to long-term goal setting and accomplishment skills.

During the 80s and the 90s this theme was a parental constant: piano lessons were important as much as anything for the discipline they imparted to children who came within their thrall.

But in the past ten years there has been a massive shift in parental thinking as regards the life lessons that piano lessons can give. These days parents will be more concerned with children learning to think creatively, and with children having a skill they can engage in with others. This trend reflects research showing how making music engages the whole brain as well as a changing societal perception as to the attributes that will contribute to a happy life.

What hasn’t changed is the deep-down conviction that piano lessons are not just for music, they are for life.

My own “piano lessons are for life” epiphany occurred, curiously enough, in an undergraduate harmony class. I was a 16 year old first-year student, and my harmony class was to be the final year that Dr Douglas Mews was to be giving it. Douglas Mews was a well-known name in New Zealand education, having written the definitive classroom textbook on harmony, and I knew my classes would be memorable if for no other reason than they were the last classes Dr Mews would give.

What I did not anticipate was the extent to which these harmony classes were about how to live life well.

My favourite life lesson from Dr Mews was this: if you come across something or someone once you should make no especial effort to remember it – maybe it’s a completely random occurrence that you and this new thing/person have met; if, however, you come across something or someone a second time you should immediately make every effort to make its/her/his acquaintance thoroughly – these meetings are no accident and you will surely meet a third, fourth and fifth time.

This principle is excellent for mastering harmonic language in music, and just as superb for managing one’s interpersonal experiences. In short, it’s a lesson for life, well-taught by Dr Mews in my first year harmony class, immediately ringing true in terms of its musical application, and proving itself over and over as I have applied it in everyday circumstances.

After this particular harmony class I found myself changing the way I approached the piano lessons I was giving. Much of the time a lesson might be concerned with minutiae of piano performance, finding a way to tuck a thumb comfortably beneath the hand, exploring how finger shape alters tone, mastering a chord progression or understanding a new notation. But each and every piano lesson was also about life. Voicing is not just about creating a beautiful sound, it’s about appreciating how conversations work by paying attention to one voice at a time; form is not just about how a composer has structured the work, it’s about how we can make sense of our experiences; scales are not just tedious exercises to be prepared for examinations, they are palettes of possibility, demonstrating the power that limitations can unleash as well as the tedium that repression can enforce.

A student once said to me “You don’t just compose music, you compose everything!” after seeing the meal I had prepared for my family that night. That too, is a lesson to be taken away from the piano: life is not for following instructions, but rather principles.

Related to this idea: the page is the start, not the end – you cannot predict what people will do with your music, and they cannot predict what you will do with theirs, but either way it’s all just stuff someone’s made up to make sense of the world they live in, to make themselves feel better about the world and themselves, a way of dealing with their disappointments, fears, exhilarations and satisfactions.

Remembering this lesson gives piano students a template for dealing in a positive fashion with the gossip, rumour and outright lies that litter teenage and adult relationships.

To be continued….


7 thoughts on “Piano Lessons for Life

  1. Lovely post Elissa. Could you please tell me a bit more about Dr Mews? A search of the internet doesn’t provide any info… Can you please write a blog post that talks about him a bit more and his influences on you and some of the more memorable lessons?

  2. Thanks for your post, Elissa. Seeing music as an expression of life and something that teaches us about life is something I’ve been growing in my understanding of too. I really like the phrase Anna Goldsworthy’s teacher used in Piano Lessons when she said she teaches music and “life digested”. Life is digested in the music, we digest it and it nourishes us and then we have something to say from our own digested experience of life that we can also communicate to others through music. Digestion is also a process that takes time and can’t be hurried (without unpleasant consequences, anyway!). It’s also beyond our conscious control. For me this has been important – doing what I can consiously to allow/facilitate learning/digestion, but then being patient to see what will emerge, allowing the process to take its time.

  3. Elissa, your posts are inspirational! I have just started teaching piano this year, and it really tested my confidence and self esteem – I am 18, and I couldn’t possibly imagine doing it at 14! I have been sinking my teeth into your blog over the last few hours, and was wondering which books you would recommend for starting out with teaching – I am also considering doing a performance and pedagogy or music education course at uni, and would love to know what you would recommend for beginner teachers from your experience!

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