Music’s Lessons

Today I taught two music lessons.

At first glance, that’s not a particularly unique statement…there are many music teachers in varying sizes, shapes, capabilities and experience. However, when one takes into account that I’ve never really enjoyed teaching music, that statement carries a wee bit more significance. I learned how to teach…took all the classes and met all the requirements to graduate…only to discover in the last two semesters that whenever I met with a student or entered a classroom, my stomach was in knots. I couldn’t wait for the lesson time to end. So, after three years of obligated torture, I quit teaching…much to my stomach’s relief.

Once I established my new career, I kept my musical past to myself. I didn’t want to get pulled into doing something I’d left just because it was familiar. I wanted to establish myself in new ways and finally be satisfied and successful in my new and much-loved career. I did fairly well until one day, someone asked me point-blank if I played an instrument. Not one who lies easily, I answered truthfully…which was followed by the inevitable question: Do you teach? I reluctantly agreed to teach a few select students. Still, I kept running into the same issues…ultimately firing two students due to a mismatch of expectations.  Horrified, I discovered that once again, I dreaded lesson time.

Then one day, a co-worker asked me if I would teach her child. I took a deep breath and told her that I needed to consider the request for a bit. That bit turned into several weeks. I really didn’t want to teach her child. Aside from my aversion to teaching, this child was challenging…some might say he’s unteachable due to his attitude. Additionally, because his parents are so very athletic…to the exclusion of all else…the fact that they’d even considered music lessons at all surprised me. The combination of all these factors had me itching in all the most unpleasant ways. 

I finally agreed to give it a trial run of six weeks.

Those were some of the most hair-wrenching, stomach-clenching six weeks of my life. Everything I asked this child to do was met with a force field of intense resistance. At times I wondered if there even existed a path through this wall of “no.” After each lesson I collapsed on my sofa, exhausted. There had to be a better way.

Finally, at the end of one particularly torturous lesson, the student informed me that, rather than weekly lessons, he would contact me when he was ready for the next lesson. Affronted by such a statement, I first panicked as I had come to depend on that income. Then I was furious that such an undisciplined stubborn pipsqueak of a kid had taken control away from me. I almost ended our music relationship right there. 

I’m so glad I didn’t. 

Today, almost two years later, I can honestly say that I am immeasurably grateful for the lessons this student has brought to me. This difficult person has definitely been one of my greatest teachers. Letting go was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Not only did I let go of my perceptions of how lessons should be, I also released years and years of pedagogy…both experienced as a student and taught in the classroom. My entire approach and attitude toward teaching has changed. I let my student guide the teaching and for the first time in my life, lessons are a discovery of fun.

The result for him has been incredible. He took ownership and responsibility for his progress with gusto. He pushes himself harder than I could (which is usually quite a bit), but more importantly, he enjoys it…something I really questioned at the beginning. He is truly transformed…from someone paralyzed to try anything new for fear of making a mistake and looking stupid, to one who voluntarily selects the hardest song in the book because it looks fun. He now willingly chooses to work on that one piece, 20 minutes each day for three weeks…just to master it. He’s also composing and asks incredible theory questions. He’s nine. 

I sat there today, looking at him in amazement…a big grin of satisfaction on his face. He knew he’d done something great, and he didn’t need me to tell him that. So, we just celebrated together and talked about all the things he’s learning about himself as he works through his musical challenges. When his time was up, he stood up and proudly and confidently told his dad he had a great lesson. His little brother, worshiping his big brother, now excitedly prepares for his own lesson.

Thank you, kiddo, for teaching me how to discover joy in letting go…for showing me how to be the “Guide on the Side”…for continually inspiring me to be a better teacher for you…for experiencing the passion and adventure of learning and teaching.

I am grateful for you.

Image: Music Manuscript, 16th century. Paint on vellum, 23 13/16 x 15 15/16 in. (60.5 x 40.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Howard L. Larsen in memory of his sister, Agnes Larsen Griffiths, 57.22.

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