The timing was perfect. Friday night's student recital was a success, my ight early the next morning was on time, and we landed uneventfully in Boston's Logan Airport. Or so I thought. While my husband guarded my suitcase, I strolled off to the ladies' room before heading to the car rental agency. Then it happened—suddenly I was tumbling over a woman's suitcase as she ripped from behind me and across my feet with her luggage. On the oor, the pain in my leg was excruciating. The journey to healing a broken leg began, and the lessons learned extend far beyond my own injury.
Ironically, my summer plans had included signing up for a class, becoming a student, something that I had yet to do. There are many ways to put ourselves in our students' place—we can learn a new language, take a cooking class, or learn to scuba dive. The possibilities are endless, but fate intervened in my case and I had this new opportunity thrust upon me.
Day one, step one—stand up
How could I stand up just one day after my accident and surgery to repair my femur? I could barely get in and out of bed on my own. No one was more surprised than I to find myself upright. It took many baby steps and coaching to get there, but I congratulated myself for my victory. But this forced me to think; do I remember to congratulate my students for the good things I notice in their performances, even the little things, rather than first critiquing their mistakes?
Day one, step one—the first piano lesson
There are so many things to remember, things that seem almost second nature to the experienced pianist. Fingers are numbered, plus there is the huge issue of discerning left hand from right hand. Up is to the right on the keyboard and down is to the left. Let's be mindful of how we sit on the bench, hold our arms, and curve our fingers. There is so much information to absorb in so little time. This is hard work. As a fully-formed musician teaching the piano, I sometimes forget what it was like for me as a beginning student. Learning to walk again without crutches has reminded me of the struggle my students must face to take their first baby steps at the piano. Baby steps are huge steps for the beginner.
Rehab—it takes two
Recovering from surgery is a journey that takes much patience and time, something that most of us understand. But what surprised me was the frustration of being a student, a virtual beginner in the rehabilitation process, as I relearned physical skills I had always taken for granted. The hardest part of my stay in rehab was asking for help doing the simplest of things. Thankfully, I had a group of wise and kind aides who kept encouraging me to ask for what I needed. Surprisingly, this concept did not come easily to me.
The studio—it takes two
Do I remember to ask my piano students if they need help in their pieces and specifically where? Once they have played for me, it is fairly obvious where the weak spots are, but is it obvious to them?
Do they remember to write their questions for me into their scores during the week between lessons? How can they help themselves between lessons, if they have not identified the problem spots? Certainly not every measure needs a bandage.
Do I encourage my students to ask questions when they don't understand something I have said? Sometimes students become impatient, when they cannot demonstrate new concepts immediately. Infusing new dynamics, fingering changes, or correcting carelessly-learned notes or rhythms can be a frustrating process. It takes patience and time, and is definitely a learned skill.
I remember the look of embarrassment on a transfer student's face when she did not understand the meaning of the term "key signature," and I recall her look of pure relief when I told her that I did not expect her to know all the right answers. She visibly relaxed when I encouraged her to ask questions so that I could do my job and teach her what she needed to learn. In my studio there are no stupid questions (with the exception of asking the teacher's age).
Between appointments, home practice
It quickly became clear to me that the more time I invested in practicing the physical therapy (PT) exercises at home, the sooner I would recover. Most real progress is achieved by the patient at home (sound familiar?), but much time also is spent in the clinic explaining the proper technique behind each movement and the rationale for choosing each exercise. The exercises are always done under supervision before taking them home. I have found that the more questions I ask at sessions (How do I do this ex- ercise? What muscles does it target?), the more engaged my therapists become. And—surprise, surprise—therapists can tell immediately when the patient has not done the assigned exercises at home. Before I can walk smoothly again, I need to do the requisite exercises to strengthen both the muscles and the mind. There are no shortcuts.
Between lessons, home practice
If I assign new practice techniques or suggest new interpretive concepts without demonstrating and/or having the student test the waters at the lesson, I set the student up for failure. And it is generally obvious at the next lesson whether or not the student has followed through between lessons with productive practice at home. This is one of the hardest concepts for young students to grasp, the idea that they share responsibility for their own progress and that there is a difference between playing and practicing.
Patient as student
In the course of my recovery, I have had several different physical therapists, all quite capable, and I am watching and listening carefully.
My first PT still sticks out in my mind. A very young, knowledgeable, and super energetic young man, he had much to offer and I had much to learn. In his eagerness to give me all that he had to offer, he talked non- stop. As nice as he was, I left every session with a headache. Yes, he motivated me, but he also wore me out and agitated me.
I always make it a point to be sympathetic. But I also feel a responsibility to redirect their focus . . .
Patient as teacher
Do I allow for thoughtful silence in my lessons?
Do I allow my students to take time to digest new ideas instead of diving into the keyboard without thinking?
Have I encouraged my students to think creatively about the impact of silences (rests) within their pieces?
Quiet thought can be a powerful tool in music making.
Driven to distraction
My next two therapists were in the process of transferring to new jobs, and there was much chatter during my sessions about their personal lives. While they worked with me, I felt somewhat on guard, wondering if their lack of focus might cause them to unintentionally inflict injury with an unusually aggressive stretch. I found myself unable to completely relax. I was literally in their hands. Lack of trust can be a powerful thing.
Driving distraction out of the studio
We become close with our students over time. My life experiences make me the teacher I am, but I do not need to inflict my personal life on my students. Each lesson time is sacred and it is ultimately all about the student.
Those of us who are performers as well as teachers consider our own practice time sacred and non-negotiable. I am one of those teachers. How surprising it was to me that it was a long time before I had any interest in practicing after my accident. My beautiful piano, aside from the few lessons I taught in the interim, sat in my studio, soundless. It was just a piece of furniture. Truly, it was a full six weeks after surgery until I had enough focus and motivation to practice. Going through the physical motions, feeling musically anaesthetized was not enough for me. I had to be ready to truly concentrate and fully engage in the process.
I think sometimes our students face similar issues. Most of our students come to lessons after a full day of school, yet we expect them to be consistently focused and energized at their lessons.
Some students have challenging situations at home, some students enter the studio having had a miserable day at school, and sometimes students just don't feel well when they come to their lessons. I am glad that my students feel comfortable confiding in me at these times, and I always make it a point to be sympathetic. But I also feel a responsibility to redirect their focus, enticing them into the magical world of making music. Many students will admit that they feel better after a lesson. For other students, it may take a few lessons before they can immerse themselves fully in the process. For some students, piano need not be a required activity.
The home and beyond
With a broken leg, it is one thing to maneuver within one's home environment and quite another to venture out into the real world. Luckily, I had friends who invited me to dinner right after I arrived home and a spouse who accompanied me on all of my first journeys—to the supermarket, to the mall, and to the theater. In time I found that my fear of navigating new territory was more real than the actual difficulty of negotiating each new obstacle. Now I can do many of those same things on my own.
The studio and beyond
As musicians, a fear of failure can generate the negative chatter in our heads that ultimately derails a performance, whether in the studio or on the concert stage.
How many times has a parent come to my studio door to alert me that a student is anxious about not having practiced? There may be valid reasons (or not), but the responsibility becomes mine to forge a positive attitude at the lesson. A lesson that models productive practicing is better than having a student skip a lesson. Missing a lesson only compounds the problem.
Whatever motivating messages and effective practice techniques I can inject into each lesson carries right through to the concert stage. Positive thinking goes hand in hand with constructive practicing. Having a "can do" attitude facilitates good outcomes.
Making dreams come true
After my injury I had a recurring fantasy of being at a revival meeting, tossing my crutches aside, declaring "I'm cured!" Well, three months later, after much hard work, I have tossed aside my crutches and, though still regaining my strength, am on the path to wellness.
Making dreams come true in the studio
When students sign up for piano lessons, haven't their fantasies of playing beautiful music drawn them to our studio? It takes a long time and much maturity to realize that music mastery is a slow process and to understand how much hard work and patience it takes to achieve our dreams. It is my job to make the process interesting, engaging, and ful lling for my students.
As I have taken this uninvited journey, many people have said to me that things happen for a reason. Although I do not embrace that philosophy literally, I do believe that when bad things happen we have the power—maybe a primal urge—to redirect our responses to point us in a positive direction. I also believe that everything we do as teachers, in and out of the studio, models behavior for our students. As coming back from my broken leg has shown me, it is much more than that weekly hour in the studio that influences our students and allows us to help make their dreams come true.