We are not supposed to have favorite students. But one of my not favorite favorites is Max. Max shows an eerie resemblance to Chris Traeger, the character Rob Lowe portrays on Parks and Recreation, albeit in sixth grade form. Like Chris, Max is always enthusiastic. Every piece is literally his favorite one ever. Once he announced to me that the day he played in a piano festival was the BEST day of the whole year.

No one had ever said this to me before about a piano festival.

Will is another of my sixth graders. He has always been wiggly. While other students sit in place on the piano bench when asked to tap rhythms, he has always preferred “tapping” rhythms while walking on his hands across the living room floor. This makes the other kids giggle when he demonstrates this skill in performance class. Last month I had the students do worksheets for the first few minutes of class, worksheets being something we do maybe once or twice a year, tops. After a few minutes, Will threw down his pencil and announced, “This is the most boring thing we have EVER done in performance class.”

“Some teachers make their students do worksheets every week,” I told him.

“I would die,” he said.

Just when I think Will would rather do anything but play the piano he surprises me. The first lesson after the summer break he turned to me and said, “Amy, I really missed you.”

Andy makes up the final leg of my trio of sixth-grade boys. (And would they EVER like to play a piano trio. “We could play together, Miss Amy! All of us. For the recital.” Uh, sure.) Andy comes from a very musical family. He is a talented kid with strong opinions. Sometimes he and I have different opinions.

Yesterday he came into his lesson. “Let’s do ‘Donkey Caprice’ right now,” he said. “I want to get it over with.” “What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “It has NO POINT,” Andy said.

This amused me. “What do you mean? Does all music need a point?” I asked. “Yes. Good music has a point. Like ‘Boogie Bounce’ teaches you to play boogie. But ‘Donkey Caprice’ has NO POINT. It is just ‘hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw.’”

I tried not to laugh. “OK. Let’s do it and get it over with.” In spite of the fact that the piece had NO POINT, Andy played it quite well. Afterwards, I asked him if he wanted to keep the piece of sheet music for his home collection or put it back in my sheet music library so he wouldn’t ever have to look at it again.

“I’ll keep it,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, surprised by his answer.

“Because I don’t want any other kid to have to play it.”

Talk about taking one for the team.

Later I wondered if Andy didn’t have a point worth thinking about. The reality is that no other instrument has the sheer quantity of pedagogical literature and (lucky us!!) more is being written and published for the piano every day. So much of this music is good and I am thankful for it. Current pedagogical material has raised the level of teaching to a height unimagined in my childhood days of playing nothing but pieces from the trusty red John Thompson student books (“In a Wigwam” was sure a good one though. God bless those days of politically incorrect song titles.). Kids today are so accustomed to great inspiring repertoire they can afford to have opinions about little tunes like “Donkey Caprice.” (By the way, I didn’t think it was really that bad.)

But I wonder if the overwhelming quantity of pedagogical material might lull us into laziness, and we think that we can stop being discerning about the repertoire we teach. Teaching one “Donkey Caprice” after another, we fail to recognize that they all sound eerily the same. But the kids are on to this problem, quick to recognize when pieces in their method books are similar or almost identical. (“‘Boogie Blues’ sounds exactly like ‘Friday Night Blues’!” they tell me when they hit these two elementary numbers in their early method books. “Why do we have to play both?” Good question.) Does the publishing world suffer from ADD? Has it become so mindless that it no longer notices when it is churning out nearly identical music under different titles? Does the world really need one more Toccata or Rhapsody or Tarantella aimed at the early intermediate student? I’m being buried alive under all the hee-haws. Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw.

We are lucky, we pianists, for this wealth of good repertoire is not necessarily true of all instruments equally. I have played recitals with colleagues and friends, colleagues who were excellent musicians, but who chose programs that had, to my eyes at least, a definite lack of musical merit. Sometimes it seemed that the main goal in selecting this obscure repertoire was because this music wasn’t commonly played. Practicing this strange music, I would find myself wondering if there wasn’t a legitimate reason this literature was unknown: it wasn’t that good. Or in Andy’s words, it had no point.

Sometimes quantity is the point. I don’t apologize for the occasional lack of genius in my sight-reading library. I just want students to read through lots and lots of music on the theory that it makes them better musicians. I don’t question my system of having early elementary students race through tons of simple, pointless ditties, as long as I make a point of supplementing it with better pieces. In that case the quantity of music contributes to the quality of musical skills. I don’t even apologize for Andy’s assignment of “Donkey Caprice.” It was an easy, one-week sort of piece. I didn’t ask him to memorize it or perform it in a recital or performance class. But disclaimers aside, I know I could do better about carefully choosing music that I am asking students to live with longer than one week. I am picky about recital music, sure, but when choosing other repertoire I too often take the easy route and assign the next piece in the book regardless of its merit. I wish that publishers valued quality over quantity and only published new music that added something worthwhile to our profession, but until then, like it or not, it’s my job to sort the wheat from the chaff.

My trio of sixth-grade boys gives me a lot to think about. They like piano (and even, God love them, me) more than I think. They have opinions worth listening to. They will dance across the floor on their hands if I let them. And if necessary, hee-haws notwithstanding, they will take one for all of us.