You should think of quitting the piano

I will begin this text with stating the obvious — music has substantial value in every human being life. Evolutionary speaking, sure, it’s the precursor to language, the bridge between the gestures of other primates and our own communication. But first of all, it describes emotions that have no words. Some things just cannot be communicated other than through music. Basically, it doesn’t necessarily makes you feel good — but it makes you feel something. And that’s kind of target for every one of us. Feeling joyful, powerful, peaceful, sad, scared, mad (…) — we all trade it everyday just not to feel blank and empty. In addition to that — music has a way of canceling out the white noise of all kind of thoughts that linger around in our head. And then kindly replaces it.

Having said that, it’s not a surprise that our music schools are completely full and loaded with young brains eager to learn and acquire knowledge. One could assume, parents (rightfully so) do they research and they read about all the benefits that enrolling a child to music school brings. And yes, skill acquired in learning a musical instrument transfer to study skills in general, communication skills and cognitive skills. The discipline of music study helps children to learn to work effectively, be it in school, later in college or in life in general. Therefore — kudos to all of you who decided to make an effort and put your kid through music school. But the story doesn’t end there, as many of parents think it does.

We may not talk about it, or we may pack it up in decent and polite reports — but some kids are just not up to the task. Being fully aware of how every parent is protective about his child, I still cannot ignore the obvious fact that some of them would be much better in some other activities. Regardless of all the advantages listed in paragraph above. We all know that playing an instrument is physical labor. That’s self-explanatory. But, that doesn’t even begin to describe how complex is to tackle the given challenge. I see it every day with some of my piano pupils, struggling with the most basic assignments. And I understand it completely. Yes, most of them just have that magic ability where they connect the dots easily. I mean, better or worse — they read which note is it, what clef it’s in, how long does it last, which fingering should they use, what dynamics — and their fingers move just on right place on that huge black and white palette of keys. But some of them just don’t have the same skill set. With my best efforts, I am sorry to see they get stuck at the same problems over and over and over again. We tried to manage it from every single angle, many methods, I looked for advice with senior teachers and got “well, that happens now and then, not everybody is talented” response as something that’s understandable. But, that is where I am stuck in awe, why should it be understandable?

Yes, I know, we will in fact manage to learn that piece of music. I will play it bit by bit and pupil will imitate my actions. Exam will be passed, grades will be given, and another year will come after that. And then the same story all over again. I could pass Mandarin language exam the same way. Just repeating the words someone told me to say, but at the same time having no idea about anything I’m saying and it just becomes senseless blabbering. Will I grow to like that particular language that way? I don’t think so, quite the contrary. I am sorry, but are we here to do “monkey see-monkey do” business?

It’s a simple fact, a law of probability — some kids won’t be any good in playing an instrument. And by “not good” I mean just complete waste of time. Even worse. It would be great if it was just simple waste of time. That whole process creates whole other huge spectrum of negative effects. Even now with only three years of teaching experience — I can clearly see that pupils can get annoyed by the sound of piano and even more so, they lose their sensibility when it comes to listening the music in general. The idea was to plant the love for music in them and to develop an artistic sensibility that will stay with them as they grow into mature members of society, and guess what? That sometimes just doesn’t work out. Pushing it really gets us nowhere near any solution.

And what could even be a solution?

Talking to some parents, I got the general idea that most of them don’t really wish for their kids to become a concert pianists. Instead, they just like the idea that kid is playing an instrument and getting to know classical music. If playing obviously is not an option, how about just getting general knowledge of music? If I ask myself how would I educate 10 years old imaginary kid that has absolutely no talent for traditional piano lessons — I guess there are some answers that may satisfy both kids and their parents. But first, a short story.

I have a pupil that is a dream of every teacher. Okay, he is now 15 and I am aware how that is not comparable to younger pupils, but nevertheless, the point stands. He will not be a pianist, that’s for sure, he has some other plans, and that is fine. But he is highly intelligent kid who adores music. Every lesson we have is at least fifteen minutes longer than it’s supposed to be. Why? Because we play, we talk, he gets to know pieces he never heard before because I do my best to widen his views by comparing pieces, composers, musical periods and so on. I remember one time after I mentioned Alexander Scriabin and his idea of associating colors to certain pitches, he came to me next time with his own opinions on how certain tones were colored. He passed that idea to his brother and they compared their choices of colors between each other and then with Scriabin. That is the effect I want to have on my pupils. I want them to get excited about something, to do a research, study it some more on their own, and ideally — share it with someone, as he did.

Now let me get back to that untalented 10 years old imaginary kid and my idea of some sort of solution. It’s important to distinguish the difference between listening and playing music. Those two require completely different set of skills. So why force that much playing in favor of listening? Let’s picture him/her in the classroom with maybe 20 other kids. All of them sitting in there with little two or three octave keyboards on their tables. Teacher is doing presentation with the most popular pieces. While music plays some kind of simplified sheet music is displayed on the screen. Given the fact that they do have some knowledge of music notation, and very basic knowledge of piano playing — some sort of music education can in fact be made there that actually works for them. They wouldn’t have to think about fingerings in endless etudes as they do now, they wouldn’t even have to play by both hands simultaneously. Pure benefit of familiarizing with beauty of classical music, connected with basic knowledge of musical theory so they can see what is going on — that is, in my opinion, the missing link between one part of human population that has absolutely no musical education and all the rest of us who were trained to be professional musicians. Training every kid to be professional pianist is in some (if not most) cases plain wrong and they should, truth be told, quit.