The only music teacher a kid will ever have

I’m on the verge of teaching beginning piano. Some folks have asked me if I do that, and I’m ready to say yes. Here’s what happened.

I had a conversation with an upright bass player who supplemented his playing career by teaching piano to young beginners. Now, I have heard accomplished pianists say that they would never dare to teach piano even though they’d been playing for decades, because there was too high a risk for teaching it wrong and with poor technique. But this bassist was unperturbed. He said something about his experience that struck me: “You might be the only music teacher that kid ever has.”

Wow.

I had never thought about teaching music that way before. But it was true. When I was very young, my mother had me get piano lessons because she wanted me to have a firm grounding in music, even if nothing came of it. In elementary school, we had no regular music classes. Once in a blue moon we would have one, but by the time we got to it, I had already learned about scales and chords and stuff because I had been taking piano for some time.

Kids would be lucky if they even got half the instruction that I got in school. There’s no need for me to rant here about how school administrators and politicians throw music and art out of the K-12 curriculum with every budget cut. But as much as musicians and artists grieve over the loss of music in the schools, only some will take on the private teacher’s mantle to make up for what the kids lose. Others run the opposite direction, saying that teaching is only for those with just the right credentials and experience, someone whose heart is really in it to serve students in a responsible way. They say, just because you play good doesn’t mean you can teach it just as well.

That’s a perfectly sound argument, one that I have made many times. Then I heard this story…

When Gandhi was doing his activist thing in India, a woman came to him asking for help. Her young son was addicted to sugar and she wanted to hire Gandhi to teach him how to get off his addiction and eat healthier. He told the woman he’d be happy to do it, but she had to come back in a week before they got started. The woman was puzzled, but she obliged. She waited a week, then came back to him. Now would he help her son? Sure! They got right down to it, and Gandhi told her son exactly what do to.

Now, the woman became indignant and said, why didn’t you tell me all this last week? Gandhi said, because a week ago, I was addicted to sugar, and so I had to figure it out for myself before I shared it with you.

What did my bassist friend have to know to teach beginning piano? How to play beginning piano, and how to communicate with a beginning pianist. That’s it. He doesn’t have to be Horowitz. No parent looking around for simple piano instruction for their son or daughter is going to be looking for a Julliard professor. (If they are, then I’d like to know how they think their child is the newest incarnation of Mozart.) Nor is any adult student looking to enrich their lives with basic piano skills going to hire a Julliard professor just to get them started.

Such a teacher might not have the patience for them anyway.

“But you can’t just hang up your shingle and call yourself a teacher!” everyone says. Well, that’s why Gandhi waited a week, and taught himself how to get off sugar before extending the knowledge to someone else. Was it irresponsible of him to do it that way? Should he have become a licensed nutritionist before he decided to help just one child?

He was probably the only teacher that child was ever going to get.

Once you learn a skill, and learn how to communicate that skill, you can teach that skill. Teachers often scream “you can’t do that” for several reasons:

  1. They are jealously competitive with each other.
  2. They feel righteous and indignant about all the credentials they’ve received and don’t want to see a person with fewer do better than them, because that’s not how they expected it to happen when they were still in school.
  3. They worship their own method, or their own teacher, to the exclusion of everything else, and they think they have nothing new to learn themselves.
  4. They may still cling to the “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” argument, so a person who teaches must be someone who can’t “do” music at all.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been busted on all of these points myself.

We put teachers on a pedestal on the one hand, but tear them down on the other, because of our own insecure egos running the show. On the surface, we say that teaching is too important to be left to the incompetent, and we think we’re honoring teachers by saying this, but we’re not. Underneath, our ego is saying, “therefore only someone like me should be doing it,” or, “therefore that idiot over there shouldn’t be doing it.” Or, “Look at me; at least I have some sense to stay out of the way, unlike that guy.”

There’s some version of “I’m too smart to teach” going on, and that’s ego. That’s ugly. The way you honor the teaching profession is to teach, not to run away from teaching.

What if you were the only music teacher that a kid will ever have?

I never questioned the competency or credentials of the woman who first taught me piano out of her home when I was a fussy child. She had the patience of an oak tree, even when my parents didn’t. She gave me something that no one else did, without which I wouldn’t have lasted in high school choir and gone on to become the musician I am now. Her gift lasted me a lifetime, and that’s all I need to know. If I had to do it all over again, I’d go knock on her door like before, only this time I’d show the kind of patience for myself that she had for me.

But instead of going back in time, I think I’ll go forward and offer beginning piano lessons at SoundSorceress Studio. I’ll pay it forward on my teacher’s behalf, because I might be the only music teacher some kid ever has.

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