September 25th, 2006
In the end, the break-up came too suddenly.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, I had been complaining and worrying over these same students for months. Ellie and Susie were two little sisters, ages eight and ten, who had been studying with me for two years. In that time, they had never, not once, come to their lessons prepared and practiced.
There were a million reasons for this. Or so I reasoned. They were the kind of students who had an activity every day of the week (and multiple activities on the weekends). Their parents, a doctor and a lawyer, worked full-time and the girls attended a demanding private school. I could scream and yell and stand on my head about practicing, but given these circumstances, what could I actually expect from two over-committed small children?
The real problem was not the girls' schedules, or the family's choice of activities; it was me. I knew what I was getting into when accepting these girls as students, and still I–being the head cheerleader of the idea of "music for everyone"–convinced myself I could make it work.
For a while I did. Certainly they learned things during their tenure with me. They learned basic notes and rhythms (although they couldn't play anything beyond the simplest tunes, because after all, without practice, real progress in playing can't be made.). They learned all their five-finger positions in every major and minor key. They learned basic chords. We listened to music and picked art pictures out of books to match each piece. We made color-coded diagrams of dynamics and improvised on simple patterns.
But finally, after months and months of making no progress forward in terms of actually learning to play the piano, I grew tired. I grew tired of being expensive babysitting. I grew tired of coddling their moods and tiptoeing around the issue of practicing. I grew tired of having to invent a constructive piano lesson every week. Above all, I grew tired of feeling that the only real lesson I was teaching them was that it was OK to come to piano lessons unprepared.
In the end, my heart-to-heart conversation with their mother resulted in them stopping piano lessons. "Fine, we'll just quit," she said when I presented, as kindly as possible, the problems. "I'm sorry we wasted your time."
I got off the phone and cried. After two years of sweat and tears on my part, I felt like she had thrown my efforts in my face. I hadn't spent the last two years "wasting time." They would never be pianists, but surely the hours I had spent were not for nothing.
I believe that we in the arts owe it to the future of our art to spread the good news. We should strive to teach the Ellies and Susies of the world; in doing so, we may light a few fires among unsuspecting souls. My decision to drive this situation to a breaking point came about after much thought and inner wrestling. I had tried my best, but clearly after two years, I couldn't change their schedules or make them practice. While they might have been comfortable with the situation, I wasn't. My teaching schedule was full and over-flowing, and these girls required a lot of emotional energy that ultimately took away from my efforts with other more prepared students. Without my initiation, they might have continued to take piano indefinitely; I, however, was ready to move on.
In our last conversation, their mother commented that I was simply making a "business decision." It is true that I make business decisions. It is a business decision when I raise my rates, or decide not to offer make-up lessons. It is a business decision when I choose a new site for a recital venue or set payments on a semester schedule. Business decisions carry no emotional baggage. I replayed our final conversation in my mind for weeks, agonizing over every word. I could have, should have, wish I would have… If only she knew how much I struggled with this. While I know it was right to bring this unworkable situation to a close, easy or unemotional it was not.
I wanted it to end well. I wanted to be able to tie a colorful bow on the experience of piano lessons for the two girls. Instead, it was awkward and painful, and I never saw the girls again. I am afraid I have become what I have always dreaded: a teacher who forced a student to quit.
A business decision? Hardly.
September 13th, 2006
Every morning the cats explore the house as if it is all new: sniffing each corner, checking behind the furniture, jumping up and looking out of every window. I wish for this kind of enthusiasm for every day. Instead, too often I wake up blurry and foggy, with no curiosity about what the day ahead might hold. If anything I approach the day with a general lack of enthusiasm; I am now teaching 8am lessons Monday through Thursday mornings, and while the kids are fresher I am, in a word, not. In fact, with too many late night rehearsals and concerts, my life can quickly seem like an endless cycle of work.
Clearly, whether I like it or not, I am back from vacation. After two weeks of playing, painting, traveling, practicing, and a trip to Lubbock on the day the new airline "no liquids" regulations took place, I am back to reality. The breather time was wonderful. I celebrated another birthday with a dozen friends, an ice cream cake, and champagne. We made a short holiday out of a day in Santa Fe with friends and a magical performance of the opera "Cinderella". From there we spent a weekend in Colorado, which included 24 hours in Pagosa Springs (where I did nothing but sit in hot sulfur-smelling springs, eat and sleep), and several days in Durango, where we spent a Sunday morning white water rafting. (Before you are too impressed by the rafting bit, you ought to know there was a three year-old on our raft–hardly the "extreme" level of outdoor adventure traveling.) I painted nine doors and learned an upcoming recital program. I even managed with uncharacteristic good humor to survive the day of security checks and no liquids on my flight to Lubbock. (I also flew the day after the big "shoe-bomber" incident, which makes me think if you want to know the next big airline incident, check Amy's flight schedule.) On the way home from Lubbock I somehow smuggled my Chapstick through security. It was an accident. Honest. Although don't tell anyone as "they" will probably come arrest me in the night. While the threat of such terrorist acts is no laughing matter, I did find it rather much that we were going to such extremes to protect the Lubbock to Albuquerque flight. After all, if these people are smart enough to make a bomb from toothpaste and bottled water, they are smart enough to avoid Lubbock entirely.
And so, adventures behind us, our fall schedule began several weeks ago with the arrival of Simon at 8am Monday morning. I dreaded being back, partly because it is more fun to play than to work, but mostly because the psychological, emotional, and physical energy required in starting things is enormous. Matt is starting things as well these days, and I know from years of experience this could mean that he will be moody and withdrawn for weeks to come.
But, in spite of my dread, it wasn't so bad. In fact, it surprised me with how easy it was to fall back into a routine again. With only two weeks off between my summer and my fall schedule, the students had no real holes in their progress–we simply picked up where we left off two weeks ago. Not for the first time, I realized that one privilege I have is that I am part of what is constant in their lives. I was their piano teacher as they grew through the last grade, as they went out and had summer adventures of vacations and camps, and as they began school again this fall. I was not the thing in their lives that was new, which made my job, in many respects, quite easy and comfortable. Change is stressful for everyone, but piano wasn't the element of change, which means we could check in with one another about our last few weeks, the kids could greet the cats and tell me about their new teachers, and then we could get down to business at the piano. It was, all in all, a relief.
In spite of the lack of histrionics, there is something about beginning a new term, and especially about beginning the fall season, that does feel fresh and exciting. This is the time of year when everything is new: new pencils, new notebooks, new school clothes. Although I can't muster much enthusiasm about mornings, it isn't hard to feel the rush of endorphins about the arrival of autumn. These days even the weather is cooperating, giving this sun-drenched state days of clouds, cooler temperatures and plenty of afternoon showers. New Mexico is greener than I have ever seen it–from my airplane window last week the color below was shocking from a state that usually limits its landscape palette to shades of brown. I must be influenced by so much green, painting all the trim inside the house a Granny Smith apple color. Weeding has take on a new dimension after so much rain, and last week the mayor announced that there would be fines for people who don't clean up their yards. This sounds to me like Mayor Giuliani's approach to crime in NYC: let's go after the panhandlers. But, obediently, I have been weeding. Just this weekend I found myself thinking with longing of the soon-to-come day when the painting inside will be done and the yard work finished for the season. Imagine what I could do with those hours! In the meantime, my days are filled with weeding, painting, practicing, rehearsing, and teaching. Things are starting up.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com