For many years, I regarded my adult piano lessons as showtime. Of course my teacher and I worked through the material, but I saw the lesson primarily as a chance to perform work I had accomplished the week before. Recently, after an uncomfortable lesson with my new teacher, I discovered a radically different perspective: the lesson as turbocharged piano practice.
My revelation began with a Scriabin Etude, Opus 2, No. 1. I found the music enchantingly sad, but the second page had so many double flats and flatted grace notes that my eyes were bulging out. So I procrastinated.
At my lesson, I told my teacher, Mark, that I hadn’t found the time to get to the second page. A week later, I gave him a variation on the same excuse. This turned out to be one moment in adult piano lessons when variations were not welcome.
Mark cleared his throat. “We’re going to learn this now. Let’s start right here.” He pointed to the first of the two offending measures.
I tried to parry for time. I pointed to a teeny-tiny grace note that had a flat sign in front of it. “Is this a C flat?”
“Yes, it is,” he said. “Let’s begin.”
While I lumbered through the music, I peered at the score and scratched my head, but Mark waited patiently. A couple of minutes seemed to elapse while I fitted my left hand across an unlikely chord that was vintage Scriabin: E flat, G, and D flat. Mark did not seem to care how long I took to strike the next chord, as long as it was correct. “You have to remember you are downloading the music to your brain,” he said.
By the time I finished the two measures, 15 minutes had gone by. I was covered in a palimpsest of sweat. Deep inside, I worried that once Mark discovered how slowly I learned music, he no longer would want to teach me. My logical side knew why I teetered with insecurity. During my adolescence, neither of my parents had supported my piano practice and I stopped studying at age 16, not to reclaim the piano for 25 years. Perhaps in a sense I feared I losing the piano again.
When I posted my experience about practicing during my lesson to my Facebook piano page, I expected commiseration. Something along the lines of what a friend might have said to me in front of my high school locker, “Oh, my GAWD, I would have been so embarrassed.” Even the more updated, “I know, RIGHT?” usually uttered in a tone of understanding mirth, would have been welcomed.
First off came a diplomatic comment from Harriet Kaplan, a professional cellist who now is studying the piano with Matthew Harre. “Sometimes it’s better to practice it first with your teacher so you don’t spend a week or more practicing it wrong!” she counseled. Well, that was fine for Harriet to be so mature, I thought. Her credentials would give anyone confidence.
Trevor Perry, an advanced beginner student, weighed in. “I’ve been learning how to play Eine kleine Nachtmusik for well over a month. And if my piano teacher isn’t happy he makes me learn it there and then.” Trevor’s sangfroid must be unusual, especially for a newer student, I told myself. Most likely, he and Harriet were in the minority.
“I agree,” wrote Robin Sloane Seibert. I sighed but read on. “I actually like playing the music with my teacher. I feel as if she is holding my hand so I can avoid making mistakes later on.” Robin, a Contributing Editor at GRAND PIANO PASSION™, was one of those people who embraced learning—she was also studying piano music theory—so perhaps that made her more open to exposing her deficiencies to her teacher.
By the time I read Carol Dales’s comment, I was out of excuses. “Yep, that’s what my teacher does too. If I’ve been avoiding something or just plain show her I can’t play it properly, we practice together (with me counting aloud—yikes!) It feels humiliating at first and I can’t say I enjoy it, BUT… it works. My husband’s guitar teacher does it too.”
That little addition of the guitar teacher emulating all those piano teachers who insisted on piano practice during the lesson caused the final post in my defenses to crumble. I wanted to arrange the outcome of my piano lesson, for praise, and in a sense, permission to play. Despite my passion for classical piano music, I still was not sure whether I deserved to be studying the piano.
I am a pianist, I told myself. I take piano lessons, and an important part of lessons is practicing with my teacher.