Like so many of life’s lessons, the one taught to me by the little marihuana plant didn’t come to fruition until later. About three years later.
When my marriage ended, I returned to Montreal and my little condo. Shaken by the upheaval of losing the life I had lived so comfortably for over twenty years and wondering what my next steps in rebuilding my future should be, I tentatively began checking out employment opportunities in the Sunday papers.
While it was obvious to everyone that with three degrees in music, including one from the prestigious Juilliard School, I should quite naturally consider teaching, I didn’t quite see it that way. I was trained to be a concert pianist, for heavens sake. Not to shepherd sniffling little kids through their scales and primers. No way!
However, winter was fast approaching and I had forgotten the severity of those Canadian winters. As the temperature inexorably dropped below the freezing point, I repeatedly marvelled at why anyone ever bothered to look for the “New World” and why they didn’t turn right around when they found it and sail back to wherever they came from. Which had to be more temperate than Montreal in December.
The thought of walking a mile through the snow drifts to the train station, waiting on the windswept open platform for it to arrive and then enduring the hour’s ride into the city to work in a office somewhere in one of those huge skyscrapers, eventually made the prospect of teaching a few students in my nice warm living room a lot more palatable.
So I posted my teacher’s ad around the community and put a small notice in the monthly newletter. I quickly found myself with a dozen students and lessons began.
Inevitably a teacher has her favorites. And it surprised me how quickly those biases were formed, no matter how balanced I tried to be. Favoring the children who are brighter, more polite and more appealing. The ones who come on time, don’t forget their books at home, obey instructions and don’t wipe their noses on the backs of their hands. For some reason, runny noses were my Waterloo. I simply found it impossible to ignore the thought that they were smearing snot on my piano keyboard and were probably going to give me a cold a couple of days after their lesson.
Katy started out at a disadvantage. She was a nose wiper. A small, mousy child with pinkish watery eyes and a doleful expression on her thin little face. She spoke in a monotone and approached the piano as if it was a close relative of the dentist’s chair. She would slump down on the bench, her head jutting forward over her shoulders as she glared balefully at the keys. I often wished her Mother hadn’t seen my music lesson ad, that somehow I could have been spared Katy. But there she was and I had to teach her something.
One day as she struggled through the first three scales, I got up to pull the patio curtains open to let in some late afternoon light and warmth. When I turned around, for a moment I saw Katy’s little sagging body on the piano bench, her feet encased in ugly gym shoes and her sparse brown hair hanging limply around her shoulders. A crumpled navy ribbon was tied in an ungainly knot somewhere where a ponytail should have been and there was a hole in the arm seam of her sweater.
Suddenly my heart contracted and I realized Katy reminded me of something. Something weak and fragile and somehow, dear to me. As I sat down beside her again and picked up my pencil, I realized what it was. The little discarded marihuana plant. That was it!
Katy was somehow discarded. I didn’t know anything about her home life. Music lessons didn’t include conversation in the allotted half hour. And my duty was to teach music and not get involved in the students’ lives outside my studio. But somehow the word “discarded” seemed to discribe this little girl perfectly. I felt my heart contract again.
When she finished the scales, instead of moving on with the first piece, I had her play the simple C scale one more time. ” Play it slowly, dear. See if you can make it perfect …” I said, fully confident that she could play this simplest scale reasonably well if she played it slow enough. “Take your time Katy … you can do it …”
Predictably she managed it with only one small error, which I deliberately chose to ignore. I reached behind the music stand where I kept very large gold notary seals for very special perfomances. Children only got one of those for spectacularly good work and so far, I had awarded them very sparingly. Three or four in as many months.
Now I carefully peeled one of the seals off its backing and pasted it into Katy’s exercise book. “There now … that was a very fine scale. You made each note sound just like a pearl …” I said with more imagination than accuracy. I put the exercise book up on the stand next to her primer. The seal looked enormous on the page and Katy tentatively extended a finger and touched it. A tiny smile curved around her lips and she gave an odd little shiver of her shoulders.
Now let’s try “Slumber Boat” I said as I opened her primer. Katy wiped her nose on the back of her hand and began. I reminded myself to buy a pretty box of tissues, the kind with lotion and perfume on them, for next week. I was already working on “grow techniques”, taking in each small detail and mentally ticking them off as I watched her. I would nurture this little abandoned seedling until it grew as beautifully as the one I’d raised and given back to Herman as a lush and magnificent plant.
Before Katy left, I untied the tangled ribbon from her hair and gathered the fine strands from around her shoulders into a neat ponytail. As I reinstated the ribbon, I tried to smooth it out a bit and make a reasonably even bow. ‘There now … you’re lucky to have nice long hair … you can wear a ponytail ,” I told her as I led her out. “Looks pretty,” I called after her. She turned her head for a second and I thought I saw a little smile.
Katy was going to be my pet project. If I could do it with that little plant, I knew I could do it with Katy too.
When Katy arrived the following week, I was prepared. Sitting on top of the piano were two lengths of new navy ribbon and a miniature french patisserie in a little glossy ballotin. Plus I had bought a fancy tissue box and filled it with those expensive super-soft tissues which ostensibly contained a mysterious “lotion” advertised to keep noses comfortable. Or some such nonsense.
I decided to keep the pink notebook with a fancy foil flower on the cover for the following week. Mustn’t over-water or use too much fertilizer all at once, I remember Herman warning. I transcribed these horticultural instructions into more suitable techniques for nurturing a piano student.
Katy arrived in a jumble of sweaters and unbuttoned boots, her music bag dangling from one shoulder and her nose faintly red and runny. But she’d tied her hair back quite neatly and there seemed to be a ghost of a smile on her lips. She plunked herself down on the piano bench and began to make little sniffing noises. I promptly grabbed the tissue box and pulled one up for her.
“Here you are Katie … these are special tissues with a nice smell which are really good for allegies”.
Katie tentatively reached for one and buried her nose in it.
” Take a deep breath so you can smell the nice smell and then blow really really hard so you can scare the allergy right out of your nose …” I instructed.
Katy blew obediently.
“There now …. those allergies are flying right out the door ,” I said as I pulled my chair next to the piano bench. ” So we can start with scales. Make them nice like you did last week …. like pearls.”
Katy began slowly …. and as I pointed out the wrong fingers and bumpy rhythm, I made sure to praise her when she made a correction. ” That’s right, Katy …. now you’re cooking. See how nice it sounds when you remember the F sharp.”
Katy looked over at me and beamed. She played the F sharp again as if savoring it.
I beamed right back …. as I realized that I was learning along with Katy. I had just stumbled across a basic secret to teaching … one which was almost guaranteed to make a student eager to please the teacher and to learn at the same time.
It is praise.
But it has to be constructive praise. And it’s easy. Instead of pointing out the errors as negatives, the teacher twists them around into positives. Guiding the student to locate the error himself and then offering praise when it’s found is the key.
“Oh you are smart, you found three of those missing F sharps. There are two more. Can you find them?” And when they’re found and played, praise is offered. By this simple technique, a student is made to feel clever for finding the errors, rather than an abysmal failure for making them in the first place.
That shift in feelings is essential. Praise nurtures a student exactly like Herman’s carefully balanced fertilizers nurtured my little marihuana plant. And an encouraging smile from a teacher is like the warmth of the sun shining on a seedling. The plants thrive and so do the students.
Katy thrived. In a few short weeks she had mastered all the scales and had finished the red Leila Fletcher primer and was half-way through the second grade green book. She started to arrive so early, I had to remind her that her lesson began at 4 o’clock and that Timmy got nervous when she sat there waiting for his lesson to end. And her enthusiasm for the perfumed tissues ensured that her nose was blown and cleared before she even put a finger on the piano keys.
Even her demeanor changed. She began to smile, a sweet shy little curve of her lips which only slowly made its way up into her eyes. She started to arrive with her hair smoothed down and tied firmly into a neat ponytail with one of the various ribbons I gave her over the weeks. Some for a good lesson and some because I thought she needed encouragement. Her exercise book was replete with gold stars and sprinklings of “Wow!” and “Nice Work! and ” Good Girl!” And she bounded onto the piano stool with obvious enthusiasm as she promptly leaned over to take a tissue from the little box.
Katy studied with me for a bit more than three years before the family moved West. She sobbed as she told me they were moving and I struggled with a very large lump in my throat. I gave her the complete Mozart sonatas and a copy of “Amadeus” as we said good-bye.
I don’t know what happened to Katy. But I do know she grew in confidence and blossomed in the three years she studied with me. She would probably never touch a shiny Steinway grand in a concert hall. She could only play the easiest Minuets and Sonatinas. But playing them would give her great joy. I knew she’d always associate Mozart and Beethoven with amazing beauty, that her heart would dance when she heard the familiar melodies and she would love music for the rest of her life.
And that is enough. It’s enough