Thursday, November 6, 2014

Magic at the piano

My little piano student is now 6 years old, and I have been teaching her for almost two years.  In the beginning it was hard to get her to practice independently (and a lot to expect from a four and a half year old), so I developed a simple "token" system for her where she earned small pieces of paper from her parents every time she practiced, and at each lesson I would bring a "store" where she could exchange her tokens for small trinkets of different "prices".

This system increased her independent practice dramatically, especially as the months went on.  Occasionally she would still "forget" to practice or only practice once that week (an hour before I got there), but in general the system worked and even became self-managed (e.g. she would practice and her mother would tell her to give herself the tokens or sometimes they would just calculate how much she'd practiced and add it up at the end of the week).

She has progressed steadily through everything I have taught her, and from day one I always emphasized how impressed I was with how hard she was working, and gave her very specific feedback (e.g. "you played those notes in that passage so beautifully and smoothly because of how hard you worked at playing them over and over even when you were bored with them!)

A couple of lessons ago I decided to try something new.  I took a concept that my choral conductor uses with her choirs all the time (the five levels of music-making) and adapted the idea for my piano student so it suited her current stage of development.  We talked about the "levels" together (for example, the lower levels are about basic things like playing the right notes/right rhythms, playing "fluently", etc.).

Then I told her about Level Five.

"Level five is when the song sounds like magic," I told her.  She looked at me with full attention and listened quietly, but I could tell her curiosity was piqued.  "Remember when I showed you that video of a lady playing Bach on the piano and you thought it was funny that she moved her head back and forth a lot with her eyes closed?  Well that's what happens when people feel magic in the music.  It's like their whole body wants to dance but she can't get up and dance because she has to play piano! So sometimes our heads move, or our shoulders, or we have a special smile, or a look in our eyes.  Everybody has their own special way.  We just have to find what it is."

"What's my way??" she wanted to know.  "I'm not sure," I told her, "but I remember when I saw you at your ballet show.  You danced so fluently and you were so happy - a special kind of happy because you knew all the dance moves just perfectly.  You had a very special kind of smile that I've never seen you have at any other time.  So maybe it's the same for piano. We'll have to wait and see what it is."

"You can only get a song to level five if you practice really, really hard," I told her.  "Even when it's boring, even when you have to play the same notes a million times because they're too hard to learn right away.  Then when you play all the right notes and all the right rhythms and you make sure you play all the fortes and pianos in the right places, and you play fluently, and you feel the magic of the music inside your heart, you will get to level five."

I played a short piece for her after that, and she watched me very carefully and then said "I think I know what your way is!  It's your eyes" she said excitedly.

The following week, she was very excited to play her song for me.  She played it beautifully, and had all the right notes, right rhythms, and it was fluent and obviously well practiced (17 times that week, according to mom). She still seemed a little hesitant with it in general, though, but I didn't want to squash her obvious excitement at having put in so much hard work, so I told her all the different things she had done well and how she had met all the levels - even a tiny bit of level five. 

But she said "No, I didn't. I want to play it again."  Surprised, I said sure.  She then said she wanted to do it without the book.  "You memorized it?" I asked, doubly surprised.  She has always been very aversive to memorizing in the past.  "I want to try," she said.  She looked over the measures once more, turned her book over, and played the piece again.

It's only a simple beginners piano piece, but that child play the song again in a way that made me tear up.  I couldn't say anything for a second, I just hugged her.  "That's the best I've ever heard you play!" I told her. Truthfully. "You had a special smile when you were playing," I told her.  "I could tell that you were really feeling how beautiful the music was. And I could hear it in your notes."

She smiled at me from ear to ear.  "Can I play it again?" she asked excitedly.  "Of course!" I said. And she did, just as beautifully as before.  From memory.

I've heard from her mother that this week she is practicing her new song multiple times a day and has even forgotten about giving herself tokens.  This is the ultimate goal... practicing for the sake of the music itself.

She may only be 6, but I love explaining "adult" concepts to children.  I love it when I see in their eyes the realization that the universe is so much more complex, mysterious, and beautiful than they realized.

She moves and impresses me sometimes.  I'm not sure how I managed to ingrain in this small child's mind that "hard work", "boring repeating the notes a million times" and practicing even when she "doesn't feel like it" or "doesn't like the song" are actually the only ways to turn music into magic.  That it doesn't come easy and isn't always fun in the beginning, but that if she works hard enough, then fun and the beauty will come.

I don't know why she believes me.

Maybe it's the look in my eyes.