Silent Night, Horrible Night

This is an article taken from a December issue of a large city newspaper years ago. I hope that this will correct any misconceptions about learning the piano and highlight to you the importance of practice, parental involvement, having a good teacher and a good piano to practice on, and the importance of taking your piano learning seriously.

Silent Night, Horrible Night
by Richard Chronister
My mother, who has celebrated 78 birthday and 77 Christmases, has received, in her lifetime, hundreds of presents. She says that, for sheer surprise value, none has topped the one I gave her for Christmas when I was 8.
It all started when my third-grade teacher asked how many children would be interested in taking private piano lessons. I raised my hand. We didn’t have a piano, but that didn’t discourage me. I was a compulsive hand raiser.
Sure enough, it all worked out. Arrangements were made for me to practice in the music room at school on my lunch hour, and my mother said she could manage the 50 cents a week for lessons.
That’s how I met my teacher. She was about 80, the perfect age for a piano teacher – too old to teach class, but not quite old enough to retire. Her energy was minimal, but she tried to remedy that by taking a nap every few minutes. Also, I think she was deaf.
During the next few months, I did learn:
1) The location of middle C, give or take a key or two.
2) That “in the spaces you will find face(s).”
3) That “on the line(s) every good boy does fine.”
Every day I went to the music room after lunch and locked the door. From time to time, my friends would knock softly and I would let them in. We spent the hour whispering and laughing and took turns hitting keys on the piano.
I moved ahead in my music book in spite of the fact that I could not play any of the songs. Most of the time, my teacher dozed through my lessons. I usually had to wake her when my half-hour was over so I could give her the 50-cent piece I carried to school each Wednesday.
We could have gone on this way forever – if it had not been for the recital! My teacher told me early in December that there would be a little recital for the motherrs on December 19. In honor of the season, I was to play “Silent Night.”
“Silent Night” was a song I loved, but even by ignoring the notes and trying to follow the numbers, I couldn’t play anything that faintly resembled it. I tried to tell my teacher of the predicament, but she patted my head and mumbled something about practice making perfect. i wanted to cry.
When I carried home my mother’s invitation to the recital, I tried to tell her how bad things were, but she was busy making divinity and she didn’t have time to talk – or even to listen.
I tried to tell my father. I said I was going to be in a recital… and that’s as far as I got. I couldn’t tell him the rest. He said, “That’s nice, honey,” or something like that. There was no one else to tell.
And then it came to me! I would pray for a miracle. I prayed morning and night and sometimes noon. I prayed that either I would learn to play “Silent Night” or that I would die. All to no avail.
The day of the recital came, as such days must. When it was my turn, I walked out on stage in my new red dress, curtsied to the assembled mothers, adjusted my Shirley Temple hair-bow, and sat down at the piano. I touched a key here and there. Occasionally, I touched two keys at one time. No tune emerged.
I was careful not to look at my mother. I did glace at my teacher. She was smiling in her sleep. Aftter whatI considered a decent length of time, I rose from the piano bench, walked to the center of the stage, curtsied to the group, and walked off. The audience seem dazed, but a few of them applauded.
We rode home in silence. Some of the neighbors’ children were riding with us. I went straight to my room to await developments. I was a wicked little girl, I knew.
After a while my mother came in and sat on the edge of my bed. “I don’t have much time,” she said. “There are only so many days until Christmas, and I think the baby is getting the chicken pox. I’ll get right to the point.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
“I don’t believe you were cut out to be a musician,” she said. “We will discontinue your music lessons.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
She stood up and walked toward the door. Then she turned and looked at me intently.
“You were very brave today,” she said, “but it was too late.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
She came back and held me while I cried.
______________________________________________________________________________
Who Failed?
To learn to read and play any instrument acceptably at the elementary or even the intermediate level does not depend on talent. It depends on a teacher who knows how to teach and a parent who knows how to support that teacher and child. This newspaper article has a few words that I changed to protect the guilty. The words I changed indicated that this teacher had a university education, so we cannot lay this failure at the feet of the little old lady who can play a little and is perpetrating fraud on unsuspecting parents. No, this teacher had been through our college system, probably, and a one-or-two semester course in piano pedagogy, and is, nevertheless, perpetrating fraud on unsuspecting parents. This article is a shopping list of what is causing failure in music education today.

“We didn’t have a piano”
You might suppose we could assume that every piano teacher knows that a child must have a piano to practice on, that this piano should be in the child’s home, preferable away from the living room and the television. Assumptions aside, surely having no piano was partly to blame for this child’s failure; and the teacher must share the blame, since the teacher accepted the child without a piano.

“Arrangements were made to practice in the music room at school on my lunch hour”
Music lessons given and practice done at odd times and in odd places have been an enemy of the piano teacher since time began, I suppose. Avoiding this may be close to impossible, but this child’s failure is certainly partly due to this barrier to efficient work.

“Fifty cents a week for lessons.”
Of course, the lessons were not worth 50 cents! But if that mother had been paying what thirty minutes of good teaching is worth – and what a professional teacher charges for thirty minutes of time – that parent would probably have seen to it that something was received for payment made. Fees charges for lessons are indicative of the self-image and proficiency of a piano teacher. And in this article, this teacher has definitely delivered what was worth of 50 cents of a lesson!

“Too old to teach in class, but not quite old enough to retire.”
It is unfortunate that piano teaching is regarded by some as not really a profession, especially if you already have a college degree. It is just something done on the side while you are waiting to do something else – while studying in college, to get married, to go to graduate school, or to die.

“Her energy was minimal. At times she dozed off. I think she was deaf”
It is important that a student’s image of his/her piano teacher is a positive (and perferably an inspiring) one. Unfortunately, in this case, the piano teacher do not represent music. It only represents a piano teacher’s music, which is a breed unto itself, not to be heard anywhere else in the child’s real world.

“I learned the location of middle C; ‘in the spaces you will find face’; and so on.”
Finding middle C, spelling “face,” maligning “every good boy,” and cutting up pies into quarter notes are cliches of the piano teaching profession. Also included is wasting time over unneccary and unfruitful exercises. Much of piano teaching is still in the dark ages. This was proven a few years ago when one of the major publishers came out with a brand new, but unchanged, edition of the W.S.B. Mathews course which first appeared in the 19th century. This is not a reflection on the publisher. He would not have re-issued it if there had been no demand. The failure of piano students has something to do with the teaching material the teacher chooses to use.

“I moved ahead in my music book in spite of the fact that I could not play any of the songs.”
Unfortunately there are many teachers who teach by just teaching ‘songs’ and ‘moving ahead’ even when the student could not play the song well or could not even play it, blaming lack of practice as a reason that they are struggling with the piece, when the fact is that they have failed to give the student a solid foundation to cope with pieces that get more and more difficult. Similarly there are students who simply assumes that they can learn the instrument by just ‘attending’ the lesson and ‘practicing’ during the lesson, only to forget everything completely by the next lesson and make the teacher go through exactly the same thing all over again the next lesson, and the next lesson.

“…to give her the 50-cent piece I carried to school each Wednesday.”
Piano lesson are training in a physical skill. A physical skill is developed by slowly acquired tiny habits which acculmulate and finally burst into seemingly natural activity. Only a course of study carefully planned to make this apparent miracle happen will finally result in success for most students. Carrying the lsson fee to lessons each week means the teacher is selling lessons like loaves of bread. There is no long-term plan or goal. The piano teacher who says,”This is what we will accomplish this term, and this is the cost of the term,’ is saying to the parent, “I know what I am doing.” This inspires confidence in the teacher; it commits the parents; it prepares the child for the teacher’s attitude toward lessons. Part of the failure of this child must be attributed to the fact that there was no plan for accomplishment and no commitment on anybody’s part to anything.

“We could have gone on this way forever if it had not been for the recital.”
Remember, this was written by someone looking back. At the time, the child probably thought it had gone on forever already. And, sometimes, it does go on forever. A recital, however, can be a major atriculation which causes awareness of reality, as it did in this case. One could think of making a case for poor teaching by saying that teachers put too much emphasis on recital preparation , spending too much time preparing students to play flawlessly on recitals. But is that really the case? Piano recitals are, fairly regularly, deadly things – deadly for the child, the parents – but never, it seems, deadly enough for the teacher. Too often, we explain poor recital performances by our unshakable belief that only the talented can be assured of successfully rendering “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Over the Fence Is Out,” or “Oscar the Octopus.” No, we cannot blame the failure to read on rote-prepared and beautiful recital performances. But we can explain some of the public’s attitude toward piano teachers by looking closely at the principal showcase of piano teachers, the recital.

“I ignored the notes and followed the finger numbers.”
There is surely no need to comment on that.

“The teacher patted my head and mumbled something about practice making perfect.”
It is the teacher’s job to teach the student how to find his way out of any predicament in which he finds himself. But here there are two problems. First, the teacher must be able to recognize the exact nature of the predicament; and second, the teacher must know the way out.

“I tried to tell my mother; I tried to tell my father.”
Once, one of my piano classes included the daughter of a colleague on the music faculty. At the usual parent meeting a few weeks after the lessons began, he listened to what I had to say, mainly about what I planned to do with the students, how I planned to do it, and what I expected in home practice. He raised his hand suddenly and said, “Do you mean Jeannie is supposed to practice at home?” I was new at that college, and he told me he thought I had brought an amazing new method which required no home practice. That experience is living proof that we can never assume anything so far as parents are concerned. The failure of the child in our story had as much to do with the parents’ failure of the child in our story had as it had to do with the teacher. However, it is the teacher’s responsibility to communicate clearly to the parents their part in successful piano study, and to accept nothing less.

“And then it came to me; I would pray for a miracle.”
With many piano students, that is about their only hope if teachers persist in believing that failures can be explained by such nonsense as, “Well, Johnny just doesn’t have natural rhythm,” or “Some students can sight read and some can’t,” or “If Johnny only had an ear for music.” It seems that we blame both our failures and our successes on supernatural causes. One of the first things we have to do is to take the magic and the mystery out of music study – not out of music. Music is a glorious language, which everyone can read and speak if only we will learn how to create an environment in which the learning can take place naturally.
Developing bravery is not a goal of music study.
The child in this story went home from the recital in dejection and was told that lesson would be discontinued because she struck out. She wasn’t cut out to be a musician. As though being a musician were the only valid goal for learning music. But then a really true statement was made by the mother. Unfortunately, as it often the case with true statements, it was said for the wrong reason. The mother said, “You were very brave today.” How true! But then she ruined it. She added, “But it was too late.”
Yes, it was too late.
I am not sure what she meant, but I know what it means to me. It was too late for that mother. It was too late for that teacher. It was too late for either or both of them to undo the monumental harm done to that 8-year old child who easily could have had the same ability – and the same talent – as 90% of college piano majors when they were 8 years old. It was too late for that child to find the pleasure that musical literacy brings to all those lucky enough to get through those early years in spite of their teachers and parents. Too late for that child to fully explore one of her native tongues.

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