Thursday, August 9, 2012

How My Piano Teacher Made Me A Better Author

"If it was two hundred years ago, I would snatch you bald-headed," my piano teacher told me lovingly. I hadn't practiced all week and she was referring to pulling my long hair as a punishment. "I'd have a ruler and slap you on the wrist."

Sounds like something that only a crazy piano teacher would say, right? She wasn't joking, yet my mother and I both agreed that she was the best piano teacher I ever had.

Why? Because she saw through me. She figured out that I used patterns and listened to my teachers playing songs and then imitated them later. I was music illiterate. I couldn't read one note, yet none of my other teachers had picked up on it because I was good at faking it.

She on the other hand made me do flash cards each week, where I recited the correct notes until I learned them all. I grumbled the entire time. She also made me practice and do wrist movements. I wasn't used to any of these things.

Worst of all, when I was fourteen years old, after a year of slacking off on practicing, she kicked me out. I cried hysterically the entire time she told me that she didn't feel comfortable taking my parents' money unless I actually put the effort into becoming a good piano player.

The next year, she gave me a second chance. My last chance, as she put it.

I made sure to practice regularly.

I used to compose music. Long before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a composer. I imagined Beethoven and Mozart. Sometimes I compared myself to them because I also had started composing music when I was a small child. I would play my songs for friends and family. They'd say,"You've been practicing that song for awhile?" I'd go,"No, I wrote it!" Their mouths would drop open and they'd gasp. "You're kidding me!"

It was therapy to me. I could feel the music. Just writing about the songs flowing magically from my hands makes me long to go back to that time when I played piano regularly. I had bad days at school, I was rejected by my crush, I had fights with my parents, so on and so forth, but it would all go away the second I touched the keys.

I played the music for my piano teacher. She told me,"That was horrendous."

I gasped. Everyone else thought I was amazing!

"Sure, it's pretty," my teacher said. "But it's also cliche. You use chords and patterns that are very common in music. A truly creative piece would be more original."

She played songs by the great composers and showed me how they lulled you into thinking they were falling into a pattern and then surprised you. They played unexpected notes, got loud or quiet in dramatic places. Their music said more than mine did.

All my songs sounded the same. I always wrote in 4/4 time. I was boring.

I was so hurt. This music was my heart, my soul! I had poured all my feelings into it! Everyone else was impressed, why couldn't she be?

I went home and tried to apply her advice to my music, even though I knew she was wrong.  The results were exciting and stupendous.

She said to me the next week: "You know, I've never had a piano student who was as good at composing music as you are. It's why I'm hard on you. You're the only one who could be great."

I was floored. The teacher who told me my compositions were horrible and talked about pulling my hair until I was bald was actually complimenting me? It was enough for me to work even harder to get more of her approval.

And it taught me so much.

Once I started writing, I wasn't surprised by how much practice it took. You have to work on it every day, just like playing piano or you'll never be good at it. People think musicians get to a point where they can just sit down and play masterpieces with little thought or practice. The more effortless it sounds, the harder they worked on the piece. Same with writing. If you get lost in a story, you know that author worked their butt off to perfect it.

I also knew that those who applauded me didn't mean as much to me as those who criticized. We all need to be applauded every once in awhile. If we're not, then we'll get discouraged, but too much praise and we never improve. My piano teacher taught me that it was the harsh critiques that I should listen to the most closely. They would transform something I may have written that was okay into something great.

I miss my piano teachers sometimes. In every other area of my life, she was someone I could talk to and someone who I deeply looked up to. We lost contact and I'm pretty sure she tired of me and the things I put her through, but it doesn't change the fact that what she did started a ripple in my life that's changed and touched everything I've done. I will forever be thankful to my piano teacher and the slaps on the wrist she gave me.

5 comments:

Kay Kauffman said...

I LOVED this post! I played the flute growing up and had band instructors who pushed me the way that your piano teacher pushed you, but until I read your post, I didn't really think about how it related to writing, unless, of course, I was trying to write music. My compositions were terrible, at least in my opinion - I'm pretty sure that everyone who said otherwise was just trying to be polite and encouraging.

I had a math teacher, however, who I thought of immediately upon reading about your piano teacher. She read some of my early attempts at writing a novel when I was in high school and told me what no one ever had - that parts of them were bad. She was tactful about it, though, which I appreciated, and I still hear her voice in my head when I write, even though it's been probably a decade since I've seen her. She really made me think about what my characters were thinking, what their motivations were, and as a result, I think sometimes I'm overthinking things, but I think my writing has improved overall for her advice. I remember thinking my freshman year that I couldn't believe anyone would name her their favorite teacher because she was so harsh that year, but by the time I graduated, I understood why people liked her so - she pushed you to become better, whether it was at algebra or trigonometry or novel-writing. I miss her.

Jolina Petersheim said...

Beautiful piece! My best music teacher was also my hardest. He was the one who made me cry and who said that I wasn't practicing (which I wasn't). I eventually left him behind for an easier teacher who did not push me to the same extent, and I often wonder if I would have actually accomplished the instrument if I had remained with him.

SC Author said...

This is a great, great story. I love your anecdotes :) They are very well written! Critiques are by far more useful than praise, even though praise feels so, so good. Critiques are what matter in the end of the day. I love the feeling of sucking the poison out of my MS -- critiques help in that.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

eva nurlela putri said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. no problem no life, no matter did not learn, so enjoy it :)

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