Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Piano Lessons

This is the time of year when I often find myself at social events at which I don't know many people, so I sometimes come up with what I think of as "cocktail party survey questions." For instance, instead of asking about vocations, "What do you do?" I'll ask about hobbies, "What do you do for fun?" My most edifying holiday season was when I asked, "Is there anything your parents forced you to do that you still do today?"

Admittedly, the circumstances didn't permit deep thinking, but everyone took a second to reflect before answering, "No," which then lead to conversations about things we hated doing as kids like eating brussel sprouts, going to church, or playing tennis. We all remembered a point at which we vowed "never again" as we moved out into the world on our own, if not before. The only thing that came up on the "Yes" side, and more than once, was piano lessons.

I grew up in a household with a piano. Mom played and for a brief time my brother and I took lessons from a neighbor, but little of it stuck and we really hated practicing so much that, I'm sure, my parents just figured it wasn't a battle worth fighting. Certainly, we would sometimes just bang around on the keys, but it never turned into a passion for making music. A version of this story was repeated in my own daughter's life when she, as a kindergartener asked for piano lessons. We purchased a keyboard for the purpose, but by the time we'd paid it off she had hit a wall about practicing and I, following in my own mother's footstep, wasn't going to nag, so we gave it all up. (To my daughter's credit, she's since taught herself to play the guitar and ukulele, and has now managed to get her hands on a mandolin, which I hear her playing almost every night.) 

This keyboard has made its way to the school where I pull it from the storage room 2-3 times a year. We treat it like any other toy, putting it down there on the floor where the kids can bang away on it. The only control I place on it is to put a piece of duct tape over the volume control. This isn't music instruction, of course, but rather mere exposure through play, an opportunity for kids to experiment with high notes and low notes, black keys and white keys, to experience how different tones make them feel or think. 

"This is a haunted house."

"Teacher Tom, do you hear the butterfly?"

"These are monster footsteps."

"We're playing a story."

Most kids these days are accustomed to figuring out electronic devices, and this keyboard does have all manner of buttons that create effects or make the keys sound like they are other instruments like a guitar, organ, or even a voice choir. And it is interesting to note that once the newness has worn off, there are always a couple kids who return to it again and again, experimenting all alone like my daughter now does when she gets her hands on a new stringed instrument.

It's pretty clear to me that forcing kids to do things they really don't want to do is not the best plan for getting them to do those things in the future. That said, there is a fine line between force and persuasion that we try to walk as adults in the lives of young children. My daughter, for instance, would not today be a self-described "Shakespeare freak" had we not cajoled her, right up to the point of force, to take a two-week "Camp Bill" summer camp when she was 8-years-old. It turned out she loved it and never went back. It's about exposure to new things, I suppose. Soccer didn't stick, but Shakespeare did. I guess it's a little like insisting that a child at least try a bite of everything on their plate before declaring they hate it.

"Force" is a strong word, one that has unsavory connotations for me. As a parent and as a teacher, I recoil from it instinctively. Who am I to force anyone to do anything? That said there are those piano playing cocktail party guests . . .

The world is not as black and white as the piano keys might suggest.

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1 comment:

Cap said...

I'm surprised you didn't get answers like brushing teeth and taking naps! These days, I'm jealous of my preschooler's (forced) sleep schedule.