Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Musical Plot Twist

I love authenticity.  As I read Lindsey Stirling's biography recently her openness drew me in and gave me an added measure of respect for her. Her description of her grueling experience of being kicked out of violin lessons by her raging teacher who threw the music stand and ordered her to get out and never return to lessons reenacted a flashback in my mind of my own music lessons where my dreams felt dashed.

I've struggled at times with my own sense of "piano teacher imposter syndrome" and I found hope in her failure story. This is mine.

"No, No, No, you're doing it all wrong!"  Those words were seared into my mind as I sat on the piano bench my freshman year at college and I felt my piano playing prowess was plummeting  as I tried to suppress the emotions that were surging to tears within. By the time I was ten I knew that my destiny was to become a piano teacher.  Instead of having parents begging me to practice, I had siblings who were asking me to stop practicing, because my piano practice interfered with their desires to watch their favorite shows or enjoy a quiet meal. After several years of music lessons, diligent practice and speedy progress, I loved the quiet adrenaline rush on the bench when I succeeded in mastering a difficult passage in preparation for Sonatina Festivals. I even found pleasure in Hanon and Czerny. I was less fond of the anxiety of performing at recitals, but did feel a serious sense of satisfaction when I finally was selected to perform in the Honor's Recital after a few years of competitions.

But then life threw me a few curve balls.  Our family relocated to a new state when I was thirteen and decided to leave our "old clunker" piano behind with plans to purchase another one once we were settled in.  Soon after our move, my dad started having some bizarre health challenges that was finally diagnosed as a rare autoimmune disease called polymyositis.  Finances plunged and it took a few years before we were able to get a new "clunker piano," a gutted old upright player piano thanks to the generosity of my grandma. It was seriously out of tune but it allowed me an unique view of the piano action by sliding open the doors, and I was thrilled to resume lessons with a generous neighbor who taught me for free, and later bartered services.  My perfectionistic tendencies at the piano bench also helped me out with my scholastic goals of getting a 4.0 and full academic scholarship to BYU, because I knew the cost of tuition would be out of my reach.

I eagerly perused the course catalog and signed up for my first semester of music Major courses eagerly awaiting all of the exciting things I was about to learn.  I've always had a passion for knowledge and even as a child was delighted when I had to borrow the neighbor's encyclopedia for a report because that meant I could browse all the other topics in the book starting with that letter. A few days before classes I attended my Music Major tryouts with trepidation.  I auditioned on the violin to play in the orchestra, but my main passion has always been piano.  Unfortunately performing has never been my cup of tea, and after I stumbled in a few spots through Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu and was a bit stunned that the judges only wanted me to play snippets of my Mozart piece,  I could sense that this experience was becoming more of a nightmare than the fantasy I had dreamed of for so many years.  

When I went to check the audition results posted on the door, and my name was not there the sinking pit in my stomach was accompanied by an internal frenzy of thoughts for the future.  Without being accepted as a music major, I had to drop the majority of my classes since "only Majors are allowed."  Although I could have reapplied the following year, the more I researched and discussed my plans for becoming a private piano teacher, the descriptions of performance heavy courses in the Performance/Pedagogy emphasis with jury after jury didn't fit my dream and Music Education in the public school was not the path I wanted to pursue.  So I chose to major in Family Science with a Child Development emphasis and minor in Music while taking private piano lessons throughout college.  

The class pickings are pretty slim when you register within one week of school starting so along with my first opportunity to take college level private piano lessons, I was also enrolled in Preparation for Marriage as a first semester Freshman because it was one of the few classes that had openings at a decent hour and also "counted" towards my graduation. This made for some pretty awkward moments when I had to recruit a significant other to complete a few of the assignments with. 

My private piano lessons weren't the pleasure I was accustomed to either.  One of the same stern faced judges who had declared me "unfit" for the program was assigned as my first private piano lesson instructor.  Perhaps her negative approach was meant to "weed out the weaklings" quickly, or she may have just been having a bad year after the recent loss of her spouse, but after one grueling semester with my teacher who was likely a very amazing performer, I could tell that her teaching style was definitely not a good fit for me.  Some people may thrive on caustic criticism, but I am definitely not one of them!

I was relieved to find that my second semester of lessons was a stark contrast to my first because I summoned the courage to request a different teacher.  My energetic young teacher was pursuing her master's degree, and in addition to giving me helpful constructive criticism at lessons was willing to feed my eager thirst for knowledge by suggesting music teaching textbooks and alternative methods different than my early training that exposed me to new ideas.  I never felt threatened by her criticism because she safely sandwiched negative feedback with sincere praise and she even pointed out some tension points that my 3 previous teachers had not detected, or at least never mentioned.  I was awed by her graduate recitals and this experience taught me that some performers can also be amazing teachers.

For me, failure fueled the fire of persistently seeking after the piano pedagogy training that college had not fully afforded me. When I first began teaching lessons, I stumbled on Martha Beth Lewis's Piano Pedagogy Page and it was as addictive as a good novel for me.  Although her page lacks the fancy layout and images of more modern blogs, the wealth of knowledge and practical tips drew me in day after day and inspired new excitement and ideas that have shaped my teaching approach.  Since then I've attended every local music teacher workshop possible amidst raising six children, browsed thousands of piano teaching blog articles and tried to melt away pounds while riding an exercise bike, folding laundry and listening to piano podcasts (View some of my favorites here) and basked in the pleasure of taking a free college music technology course. I get my natural highs and much needed breaks by perusing piano websites or checking out movie theme/pop music books from library and unwinding from a stressful day in the peaceful sanctuary of my piano room. So although I'll probably never make mega bucks as a performer, like Lindsey my plot twist still ended in me pursuing my passion of piano teaching.

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