I was interested in a documentary about musicians who had been considered child prodigies. They talked about their musical development, but also the experience of growing up in a way that was so different and yet so similar to any other person their age. One of the young men talked about a piano teacher who he credits not only with helping him become a good musician, but far more importantly, a good person.
It is an eclectic group that make up the list of piano teachers I had over the course of several years. Each one taught me something different, but one stands out for a lesson that had little to do with the piano.
Almost all of my teachers had us fill out charts to keep track of the minutes we were supposed to practice each day. If the total reached or exceeded the goals set, we’d be given stars or stickers or some other acknowledgement in our books.
The thing is, we put the numbers in the books ourselves. Their accuracy or veracity were not questioned, but taken at face value. If we said we practiced 30 minutes on Thursday, we were given credit for 30 minutes on Thursday.
One teacher ranked her students on a list she kept pinned to a bulletin board next to her piano. Every few months whoever was at the top of the list received a prize. I’m sure she intended the running list to serve as an incentive to students, but in the three years I studied with her it seemed the prizes rotated amongst the same three or four students.
As part of our lesson’s homework, she would assign a composer and have us do write-ups about their life and music. It was an important part of our musical education, however those write-ups were always worth a lot of points and it skewed the practice rankings. Not everyone did them, but since I loved reading and writing, these assignments were good places for me to rack up points and it put me near the top of lists when in fact I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to other aspects of my lesson.
In the end of course, it didn’t matter much. A piano teacher can always tell if work isn’t happening outside of lessons. The practice charts might be filled with all kinds of numbers, but it doesn’t take long for a teacher to figure it out. It’s like telling the dental hygienist you floss. Or the doctor that you exercise every day. Saying so doesn’t make it so.
That’s why I have great fondness for a teacher who felt there were life lessons to be learned alongside the Bach and Beethoven we were studying. There were no practice charts to fill out, just a conversation at the start of each lesson. Before we played a single scale she asked us about our week. She wanted to know about homework, sports and other activities that might have come up, and then she’d ask, “For this week, did you spend enough time on your lesson?”
It wasn’t about excuses or guilt; boasting or justifying. She didn’t ask us if we had enough time, but rather did we spend enough time. In a gentle way she was getting us to look at our week and answer honestly about the work we had put in. She wanted to help us understand that the effort had a direct impact on the outcome, that some weeks would be better than others and to not pretend our practicing was something that it wasn’t.
It was all about accountability. Our own. Using the tool of a piano lesson she was developing in her students a willingness to accept responsibility for our actions and simply be answerable to ourselves for the results we experienced.
How many areas of our life do we try and kid ourselves and others into believing one thing, when we know full well the truth tells a different story? It makes about as much sense as trying to convince a hygienist, doctor or teacher of a reality that simply does not exist. When we stop trying to fake the perception because we think it’s what others want to hear, we will have far more time to devote to actually turning it into the reality we want it to be. That’s my outlook.