May 17th, 2007
One morning, six year-old Lauren came to her lesson. "What's new?" I asked as way of greeting. "What are you doing to get ready for St. Patrick's Day?" she responded. I thought for a moment; clearly "nothing" was not the answer she was looking for. "What should I be doing?" I asked. "Well, you could be making cards." Good point, I found myself agreeing. I could be making cards.
The next day Simon arrived for his lesson. "What's new?' I asked. "Well, I'm working on an experiment." "What kind of experiment?" "I'm experimenting to see how many superstitions are actually true." "OK. What superstition are you testing today?" "I want to see if it is bad luck when a black cat crosses in front of you." "Oh. How's it going?" "Well, there seems to be a shortage of black cats."
Ben is a difficult, creative, challenging kid. Most days I like him. Sometimes I don't. He has a string of bad lessons, and then suddenly, with no warning, a string of good ones. After an especially difficult lesson this spring, the next week he arrives with his halo intact. We have a wonderful lesson. As his mother is picking him up, he asks, "Amy, would you say I was argumentative today?" I have the feeling there was money riding on my answer.
When he is not being argumentative, difficult or otherwise making me want to pull out my hair, Ben is busy creating a language for an imaginary country that he has also dreamed up, located somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. He brings me songs he has written in the scale of the "Wiasan's" culture, complete with text in the Wiasan language, which he then translates. Many of the songs seem to be about dancing and celebrations. I commented on this, to which Ben told me that the Wiasans don't like to talk about death.
Another day, Simon questioned my requirement that all students use hand sanitizer before they touch the piano. He said, "You know this makes germs stronger. I'm opposed." Well, technically I'm opposed too. It seems awfully chemical and unnatural, but what other good choice do I have? After all, a piano teacher's piano is a germ delivery device. "OK," I replied, "I don't like it either, if you come up with something better I'm listening."
The next day I called his mother about an upcoming recital. Anne said, "Amy, Simon came home and worked all afternoon. He has a bottle of solution for you to use."
The solution arrived in a discarded water bottle, with a label that read "Non-toxic, chemical free cleaning solution. For pianos, organs, keyboards, computers and other things. Not harmful if swallowed." The ingredients were listed as: lemon juice, water, balsamic vinegar, honey, and sugar. The instructions from Simon were as follows:
Dampen paper towel with the solution and slowly wipe area with bacteria on it. Dispose of the paper towel afterwards. Wipe keys afterwards.
Supposedly, the bacteria and germs sitting on my piano would be so attracted to this sugar/honey/lemon juice solution that they would jump from the keys to the dampened paper towel, thus solving my problem forever.
Although I am not sure this is a solution for the germ problem in my studio, this kid will someday cure cancer. I am convinced.
Anna is four. Her older sister Sarah began piano lessons with me two years, during which the entire year Anna would repeatedly say to me, "When I am four, I get to have piano lessons and a new car seat." (How these two things were related was beyond me.) Against my better judgment, Anna began piano lessons the day before her fourth birthday. She is a charming child, who very quickly could learn little songs I taught her by rote, but otherwise showed no real ambition to learn to read notes, or do five-finger scales, or actually anything that would lead to real piano progress. One day after about four months of what I call "pre-lesson lessons," her mother commented that Anna could beat everyone in the family at the card game "Memory." Hmm. I thought to myself, Anna is good at games. Could I convince her that learning piano was a game to be conquered? At the same point Anna must have thought to herself, well, this is fun, but I'm not really doing anything. Maybe I should try to look at my music books. The next week it was as if all our pre-lesson activities finally gelled: Anna was reading patterns, she could correctly identify note-flashcards, she was going to the piano without argument and spending long stretches of time trying to figure out pieces from her books. She still sucks her thumb. Her fingers are so tiny they can only reach a fifth. She climbs onto the piano bench in the most unladylike way imaginable, but three months shy of her fifth birthday Anna is racing ahead. She is practicing on her own: figuring out her assignments with very little assistance from her non-musician mother. She has caught up to the level any beginner of any age would be after nine months. And she's four. Four. The other day her mother told me, "I'm so glad we started Anna. She is a much happier kid since she has piano."
In anticipation of my weekly question, "What's new?" it seems that many students are preparing answers in advance. Simon was ready and waiting to tell me about his project to cultivate Antarctica (He isn't interested in living there full-time, just in using it as a second home.), and last week Lauren volunteered, before the words were out of my mouth, "What's new is that I have a new sweater on today. It's not pink like my normal clothes. It's green." She also commented in her six year-old sweet, innocent way, that I was being a bit "flakey" on the memory of her recital piece because I haven't been practicing. (I am playing the duet part with her and keep forgetting in my spare time to memorize it. I hardly need to be told that this does not set a good example of preparedness for my students.)
We are in the waning days of the spring semester. I am exhausted after weeks of recitals, competitions, performance classes and other extra events. The students are exhausted for every activity in their lives is having a celebratory event to mark the end of the season. We are all in desperate need of a break. I have one more week of teaching, a writing deadline to meet, and a recording project with a flutist to wrap up before Matt and I get on a plane for London for a much-anticipated two-week vacation. In the meantime, Simon reports that the cultivation of Antarctica is nearly completed; Anna has moved into another phase of music lessons in which she replies to any and all of my suggestions, "Ok. I will do that at home"; Ben received a 1+ on his competition pieces and now has assumed a new identity: I am a pianist. Relief, on all levels, is in sight.