31 July 2011

I've come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I make a rather bad piano teacher to my children. I have an abundance of patience when teaching other people's children, but when it comes to my own, I seem to transfer the same sort of perfectionism I expect from myself to them--which really isn't very fair when one is dealing with a six-year-old, but who ever let logic get in the way of impatience? This Chinese Tiger Mom has gotten a lot of criticism for her hair-raising methods of childrearing, but I couldn't help seeing a bit of myself (just a little bit) in her description.
Here's a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7...and working on a piano piece called "The Little White Donkey" by the French composer Jacques Ibert.
Lulu couldn't do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.

"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.

"You can't make me."

"Oh yes, I can."

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.
I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.
No, I don't come close to that level of psychotic behavior. I'm too lazy, for one, and I don't want my children growing up detesting what should bring them joy. But neither do I sit with a sweet smile plastered on my face and dole out undeserved compliments. Children are often able to give much more than we expect, and we insult them when we dumb down expectations.

An example: I remember (back when I was Protestant) attending a Church get-together, and watching a performance of little children singing Christian songs. All the adults were enthralled and clapped wildly at the end. Personally, I thought it was an ungodly mess: out of tune, out of sync, distracted, restless. It wasn't the children's fault, of course, but their teacher's, who was evidently so satisfied with their level of skill she thought them ready to display it in public. Contrast that with my experience at Mass in a French cathedral some years later: a group of children of the same age, dressed in white choir robes with red velvet capes, singing Latin hymns with clarity and beauty and concentration. French children aren't any more innately intelligent than American kids. But the French--particularly Catholics--have a long history with choeur d'enfants, and it's not uncommon for them to enroll their children in such programs as part of their early training. Taking part isn't thought to be too difficult or out-of-reach for children that age, and children naturally rise to the task.

But where was I?

Once upon a time I studied classical piano under a concert pianist, back in my undergraduate days. I remember we spent an entire semester, among other things, playing Chopin's Harp Étude very slowly. If you know the piece, it's intricate and supposed to be played so fast that the thousand notes sound like, well, a harp. When I started the term, I thought I'd mastered the piece. Sure, I stumbled over a few notes here and there, but playing the piece at lightning speed made the notes run together, and I could hide my imperfections that way. And my previous teachers seemed satisfied with that.

Not so my new instructor, a kind little Hebrew man who happened to be a perfectionist. "Fast fingers," he said, "but not enough control." So he made me slow it down to a snail's pace and ensure Every. Single. Note was accurate--an excruciating task for someone as slack and impatient as I was.

If I made a single error--a single error--he made me start the entire piece over again. I hated it. People who've never studied music seriously don't understand the tedium involved. When Evgeny Kissin or Vladimir Ashkenazy sit down and give a gorgeous performance, the audience can be sure there are hours of frustration and monotony behind it. I remember reading an anecdote once of an opera singer who, after giving an electrifying performance, was approached by a woman who gushed, "I would give anything to sing like you!" The singer graciously thanked her, but thought to herself, "You have no idea what you're talking about--you wouldn't give yourself to practicing hours every day, for years on end, often fatigued, frustrated, angry..."

One develops a love-hate relationship with one's instrument--and as the semester wore on, the latter began to win out. I'm happy to say on the very last day of term, I was able to play the entire piece through without a single mistake--a feat I haven't been able to replicate since. But when my prof pressed me to continue with my studies the next term, I declined. An unfortunate decision, now that I look back on it, but there it is. And now it's been so many years since I've studied piano that my fingers are pitifully out of shape and will hardly do what I tell them. That won't keep me from trying to pass on this gift to my children, though (for that really is what music is, in spite of all its difficulty--a gift). We've been fortunate enough to find a wonderful piano teacher who specializes in the Russian Method, yet does so with the sort of exquisite gentleness and patience I lack--and my six-year-old is blossoming under her tutelage. She'll be trying out for the World Piano Competition next year. I don't particularly care whether or not she gains a place; what matters is that she tackles it with zeal and perseverance, with all the ability I know she has.