In some twenty years of teaching piano, I encountered only two students who refused to learn to read the notes. The first one was a precociously pretty teenager with perfectly manicured nails which she clicked on the keys like castanets. She simpered and smiled winningly every time I told her she should trim her nails. And when I reminded her that she must practice her flash cards and say the notes aloud as she played them, she shrugged her shoulders and ignored me.
I disliked this child and struggled with myself to remain neutral. But after one season, I informed her doting mother that I was cutting down on my classes and could no longer give her daughter lessons. The mother had a hissy-fit as I predicted. And I was relieved that I’d refrained from telling her the truth …which was that her daughter was obnoxious and totally devoid of any interest in music whatsoever.
The second student was Rudy, who had immigrated to the USA from Egypt only a few years before he enrolled in my class. He was about nine when he began lessons. And he was the most charming and polite little gentleman you could imagine. He arrived on time, knew exactly where to locate his lesson plan and sat very erect and poised at the piano.
But alas, that’s where the positives ended. He absolutely refused to follow my two basic routines necessary to learn the notes. Practicing the flash cards and then saying each note aloud as he played it. True, he’d dutifully go through the flash card routine with me, stumbling along as he mixed up the bass and treble clefs and introduced notes which simply didn’t appear on the cards at all. And when I prompted him to say the notes as he played the simple pieces in his beginner’s book, he whispered them dutifully for a few seconds and then quickly murmured his way into silence.
When I corrected him, he would turn and give me his sweet smile and say “Sorry Miss, I’ll try this time.” And he was sincere. He would try. For a few minutes. I didn’t know what to do. He claimed he loved music lessons and his father insisted that Rudy was enjoying learning the piano very much. His father was every bit as charming as his son.
So Rudy remained in my classes for almost three years.
Towards the end of the third year, Rudy arrived one day with a Xeroxed copy of a piece of music which wasn’t in his regular practice book. When I saw that he had an extra copy of some sheet music, my heart did a little delighted leap. One of my greatest joys is when student is so interested in something they’ve heard, that they want to play it themselves. For me its a hint that someday when the music lessons are over, that student will enjoy music enough to have it in their lives.
I leaned forward eagerly to see what it was.
“Miss …. I’ve been asked to play for the school concert. To play the National ANTHEM …. ” Rudy’s eyes were glowing with excitement as he put the sheet on the music rack. “America the Beautiful”, he clarified.
I looked at the music and my heart sank. It was way too difficult for Rudy. There were a lot of chords and the fingering was awkward as it often is in music not originally written for the piano. But I couldn’t dim that sparkle in his eyes. I just couldn’t. So I asked him how many weeks we had for him to learn it before the concert.
“Two ….” Rudy replied with his enthusiasm still burning brightly.
“Two WEEKS?” This was clearly a problem. And there had to be a way for me to solve it for this boy. I began by telling him he’d have to practice like he’d never done before …. at least an HOUR a day. Rudy nodded.
“And we’ll have an hour lesson on Monday too …. ” Rudy acquiesced, nodding vigorously several times to make sure I knew he was ready and willing to do anything.
So I tackled the music. I removed several of the chords and abbreviated others. I marked the melody prominently with a red pencil. And I worked out the easiest fingering I could muster up, with as many natural and easy progressions as possible. Breaking my rules about not writing in too many notes, I wrote them all in with a flourish. No time for protocol. We had to get the job done…
We stumbled through it twice as my next student waited patiently. Then I sent Rudy home with more warnings about how much he was going to have to practice. At least an hour a day, or he’d definitely not be able to play in the concert.
A week later, Rudy confidently bounded into his lesson and jumped onto the piano bench. He spread out the music and launched himself into “America the Beautiful”.
It was a catastrophe. He started three times. Then he missed a bar and went back to locate it. Several sharps were missing and the melody somewhat warped by the resulting wrong notes. I chewed my tongue and silently prayed for an answer. There was no way Rudy could play this at the concert. No way.
Then I saw a slim possibility. “Rudy, does the whole school sing along when the anthem is played?”
“‘Oh yes …. when we have assembly, we all sing together”.
I grabbed at the lifeline. I sat down at the piano and told him there were one thing he must absolutely remember… that he was accompanying the assembly and that no matter what happened he mustn’t stop or miss a beat. “You can’t do this …” I said as I played a few bars and then stopped and slapped my forehead. I made a show of finding my place in the music and continuing. ” If you stop and hit your head or try to find the missing notes, everyone will know you’re lost. You absolutely can’t do this. If you miss a note you have to go on! You HAVE to …” I stressed.
“But Miss, what do I do if I miss a note or something,” Rudy persisted.
“You do this,” I said. I began to sing “America the Beautiful” and to deliberately hit a few wrong notes in perfect time with the words. Then the humor of the situation hit me and jokingly I whacked out horrific chords and wild notes, playing them firmly as I brayed out the words to the anthem. “Come on Rudy, sing with me, ” I ordered. And he did. We howled the words louder and louder as I played a cacophony of dissonant chords, none of which has ever appeared in the music before. It was horrendous …. but it was in perfect time. And we were both laughing.
” You see Rudy, people will be so busy singing that they’ll never notice if you make a few little mistakes. So just go on. Just keep going and you’ll be fine. Do the best you can and don’t miss the beat. Whatever happens don’t stop. You are accompanying the assembly.
Rudy brightened up. I wished him good luck and told him he’d do fine as I showed him out the door. “Don’t worry about a few wrong notes … just keep going,” I called out after him.
A week later, with some trepidation I opened the door to let Rudy in for his lesson. But the big satisfied grin on his face told me everything had gone well.
“Oh Miss, it was just fine. I did exactly what you said and didn’t miss a note and everybody sang and ….” he blurted out. Since I was a little sceptical about “not missing a note”, I asked him to show me how he’d played.
Rudy sat down confidently and embarked on “America the Beautiful” with gusto. He waved his hands around and pounded out the chords as he sang. But they definitely weren’t the chords written on the sheet music. He was randomly hitting anything and everything his hands dropped onto. In perfect time. For a moment I thought he was joking, that he was just imitating my prank demonstration.
But he wasn’t. He smiled at me and said solemnly …. ‘It was an excellent idea. No one knew when I made a mistake …”
♥ Note to teachers: Be careful with your prank demos. Kids take their teacher very seriously.