"I have a student who..."
The next time you are sitting with a group of teachers, count the number of times someone says, "I have a student who..." When I am on the road giving workshops and teachers approach me at the break, these words begin the phrase I hear most often. The speaker usually goes on to describe some problem with a student that he or she has so far been unable to solve. The hope is that I will have some insight.
My typical response is to ask these teachers more questions and to listen intently as they search inside themselves. Most of the time these teachers, on their own, come to an answer, or at least a fresh approach, during the time they are talking to me. While my questions, and, I hope, some of my teaching wisdom often guide them to new insights, I find most teachers already know what to do and simply need someone to support their choices.
Of course, this way of answering a teacher's worries can backfire. When I reassured one obviously intelligent, gifted teacher that the way she was handling her problem student sounded inspired (it did), she looked annoyed and said, "Why did I come to your workshop if you don't have any ideas better than mine?"
As I sit here with the wind of a Midwest blizzard howling in through frosted windows, wrapped in several sweaters, downing antibiotics designed to conquer last week's attack of the flu, I come to you with the same phrase: "I have a student who..." Only this time I want to continue the sentence by describing two students who taught me and inspired me. These are "students who...had ideas better than mine."
I knew the day would come. For three happy years I taught a young man named Michael. Teaching Michael felt easy. Being around Michael's younger brother, Ross, who was still too young for lessons, felt difficult. Despite parents with outstanding skills, Ross ran around the room during recitals and during lessons, talked out loud at inappropriate times, and always had to be ushered out. His unusually rigid muscles, strained, high-pitched voice, and seemingly uncontrollable energy signaled trouble. When Ross turned six, his parents announced that he wanted to begin piano lessons. I was wary, but Ross seemed excited and eager, and so we began.
The going was as rough as I feared it would be. Ross was highly intelligent. He learned to read music with amazing speed, but he had great difficulty getting his tightly-wired muscles to respond to his wishes. It took several weeks for him to master the simplest of pieces. While Ross was a likeable fellow, who did have the ability to concentrate on the task at hand, as the weeks wore on I began to dread his lessons. No student before him had so depleted my arsenal of ideas for overcoming technical obstacles.
One afternoon Ross spent nearly twenty minutes trying to play a sixteen-measure, primer-level piece. We clapped, tapped, sang, danced, analyzed, and wrote out the more difficult aspects of the music. We even took two breaks for drinks of water—more for me than for him, I admit. Finally, I had no more ideas. None. My patience exhausted, I simply stood beside Ross in silence, realizing I was close to tears.
Fortunately, I had the wisdom to physically step back and look at Ross. To my amazement he appeared unfazed by this failure. His face wore no mark of the strain I was feeling. His fingers were still poised over the piano. After a few more moments of silence, he turned to me, and in an eager voice, full of trust, said, "Well, those ideas didn't work. What should we try now?"
In that moment I realized that this impossibly slow, frustrating, start-and-stop way of learning, which had exhausted my patience and brought me to a mental full stop, was normal for him. I stood there in awe of his perseverance, his good nature. I realized I knew far less than he did about meeting difficulty head on, about trying again and again, about facing the fact that, despite all effort, you just couldn't master a skill.
I found myself saying, "Ross, what do you do at school when you are having difficulty learning something?" He thought for a moment, and then a few more, and finally replied, "Well, I usually stand up and shake out my arms and legs." After more reflection, he went on, "My teacher doesn't like it when I do that, though. She tells me to sit down." Smiling shyly, he added, "If I could, I would also sing whatever I wanted."
This surprising revelation made sense to me. While we had been engaging in large-muscle movement and singing in an attempt to learn the piece, it all required the structure of certain rhythms and pitches. Ross intuitively knew he needed to relax his rigid muscles in a free way.
"Well," I said "we're not in a classroom where your movements would bother anyone. Let's try your idea." Ross gave me a huge smile, stood up, and shook himself out in a little dance. He ran around the room a bit, singing an unmetered, stray-pitched song at the same time. We delighted in its raucous energy. Then he sat down and we began again to master those pesky sixteen measures.
Did Ross's idea make it easier for him to learn the piece? Absolutely. In the next ten minutes, he was playing the music with more fluidity and better rhythmic precision. Did his idea solve all his problems and make learning easy? No. Ross continued to struggle. A big change did occur, though. Ross and I both looked forward to his lessons. When one or the other of us reached the end of our rope, Ross would do one of his little dances. We would laugh and enjoy the moment and begin again.
After two years Ross stopped piano lessons. Despite hard work, he had only reached the beginning of Level II. Soccer seemed a better fit for his need to "shake out" his arms and legs.
As I lay in bed the last few days, sniffling, coughing, and feeling generally wretched, down on myself because I felt whiny about the flu when I have several friends valiantly enduring far more life-threatening illnesses, I thought of Ross—of his determination, stamina, and patience.
I also thought of my student Stephen, who studied with me in the late 70s. I remembered Stephen's first recital, a formal event that was to take place in the daunting atmosphere of Northwestern's Lutkin Hall. Stephen, then seven years old, couldn't have been more excited about performing his Bach Minuet. We rehearsed the basics of recital etiquette—how to walk onto the stage, ways to adjust the bench, the best way to bow both before and after the performance.
The afternoon of the recital Stephen arrived wearing a navy-blue suit, white shirt, red tie and new white running shoes. His eyes sparkled with anticipation as he joined his fellow performers in the front-row seats. Each child before him took a turn trudging up the six steps to the stage, walking across its wide expanse, and playing his or her piece. When Stephen's turn arrived, he bolted from his seat, ran to the middle of the auditorium, and, forgoing the help of the steps, crawled up on the stage landing on his hands and knees immediately in front of the nine-foot Steinway. He got up, dusted himself off, and proceeded to play his minuet perfectly—despite an ankle-breaking tempo. When he bowed, the audience burst into laughter and loud applause. Stephen jumped off the stage and returned to his seat.
On this winter morning, nearly forty years later, the memory of Stephen's eagerness to perform, of his joyful jump from the stage into the arms of audience applause helped reignite my energy. So, thinking of both Ross and Stephen, I threw off the covers, shook out my tired muscles, hummed a few bars of Bach's minuet and sat down at the computer to write this article.
"I give thanks to my two students who..."