Janel Was Here

On Forcible Music Lessons


I wrote this in 2005, in response to a homeschooling discussion list on which some mothers were comparing ways to make their kids practice their violin.  One mother said "If she chose violin, and asked for lessons, be prepared to stop lessons and take away the violin if she will not be a good steward with the investment she asked you to make on your behalf. If the decision is, you need to practice 15 minutes a day, and she consistently refuses, or she refuses to do what the violin instructor says, you calmly follow through with the consequence of that action."

I have a strong opinion about this topic because of how much my own life was affected by it. I'm absolutely against any forcible music lessons.

I define "forcible" as using any technique at Mother's disposal, including gentle reminders, nagging, making deals, threats, or anything else that has the desired effect of making the artist practice one minute longer than the artist naturally feels the need to.

Telling the artist you're going to take his instrument away if he doesn't practice is a threat. How would you feel if your husband told you he was going to take your sewing machine away because you weren't using it regularly enough?

Everybody is born with a talent from God. My mother always said so.

My talent was piano. It showed before I could walk. They'd set my high chair in front of the piano and I would pick out notes, one at a time, playing the keys slowly and listening to the sounds. They tell me that the piano kept little baby me happy for hours.

I never remember wanting piano lessons or asking for them. It was my destiny, so naturally I must have lessons. Wasting a God-given talent is a sin, right?

I remember my first lesson. It was great fun, as a novelty. Another thing I liked as a child was codes and ciphers, and this was like that, only on the piano The idea of writing notes in a book in a pattern that represented music was a fun idea.

It got not-fun really fast. The playing went away, replaced by work. I had to play these same songs and finger exercises for 35 minutes every day, and then do a page in my workbook. I was relegated to the living room for that, while Mother would listen from the kitchen, and occasionally I'd hear the classic, "I don't hear anything!"


My teachers weren't bad people, they were just your standard, unimaginative church ladies giving lessons on the side to make some extra money. But the lessons were stressful for me no matter how kind the church lady tried to be. I didn't like being watched while playing. I was already angry with myself if I was anything less than perfect, and didn't appreciate my imperfection being pointed out. And that whole posture routine! Sit up, back straight! Fingers curved! Look at the music, don't look at the keyboard! It was hard to not look at the keyboard, but eventually they got that through my head, and I even got a little pride from mastering that "skill". I hated finger exercises, but gradually learned to do them with zero mental attention. Luckily it's easy to play Hanon and daydream at the same time. I hated having to memorize pieces whether I had initially loved them or not.

I complained about my lessons and tried to talk my mother into letting me quit. No luck. If I pushed it, I'd get that caring little heart-to-heart about how God gives us all a special talent and how it's our duty to use it, and a SHAME to neglect it.

I asked if I could switch to flute. When I was taking piano lessons, the flute seemed as magical as the piano used to. I guess I innocently thought I might be given a flute and then left alone--?

But, Mom ran that idea by the piano teacher who said (surprise, surprise) that what I was learning in piano was a basic groundwork that would serve me well all my life, and would transfer easily to flute later on. So I must keep taking piano lessons.

Life circumstances intervened when I was twelve. The folks moved to the wild woods where there was no piano teacher. I ran away from the piano in relief and didn't touch it at all for a year or two.

Gradually I was drawn back to it. Piano is my natural talent, after all! I pulled out my old books and tried to play, and it came easier than I expected. I was surprised I could still do it, and I was better at it than I remembered.

Once free from coercion, I played for hours every day. Being a little older then, I was amazed by how easy it was. Sightreading was really easy, so I'd just pick up a piano book and play my way through it. I was good enough to impress people. My mother told me and everybody else within earshot, all about my golden future as a rich and famous concert pianist. After hearing it enough times I accepted it, and assumed that's what I'd be when I grew up.

At that point the keyboard was a stranger to me. I could sightread music like I could sightread English, which was fun just like reading a novel. But I felt so trapped, playing others' music others' way, and of course falling short of perfection. I would beat myself up for my lack of perfection. I knew I didn't sound like the recordings. Even if I got every single note right, the musicality wasn't there. The inspiration was lacking. I felt like a robot, a drone. I didn't really understand music. I couldn't strike out on my own.

In my late teens piano lessons became possible again, and off I went. I had better teachers now, who tried to wring out some expression from me. I got assigned practice again, and hated it again, but I tried and tried, because in the back of my mind I was still somehow believing that piano was my destiny in life. Being a rich and famous concert pianist sounded cool, all except for the "playing piano in public" part.

The public part, I didn't like, but I didn't give it any analytic thought at the time. There are some outgoing, sharing types of people who make good performers, and some just don't. I never could have become a concert pianist because of my personality! I was always introverted and stubborn. I had no showmanship, no desire at all to perform for others. I didn't want to share. There was no problem with the fingers but a major problem with the attitude. When I played alone I enjoyed the music, but as soon as there was an audience, I could think of nothing else but the tense struggle to be perfect, and I'd be consumed by self-consciousness and anxiety until I got to the end.

What's more, I thought I was a failure! This had been my obvious destiny, right? Yet it wasn't happening. I had been given a gift, but I had turned out to be unworthy of it?

Okay, I'd go be a secretary and work in an office or something. Not that I liked that idea either, but Hanon had paid off in a side benefit; when I learned how to type, it was easily 100+ words a minute!

Actually I ended up getting married and having babies. My husband bought me a piano, and I played to amuse myself.

Pretty soon I didn't have the free time any more, and something had to go.  I gave up piano. Unless you practice a couple hours a day your fingers turn to cardboard anyway. I had gotten a computer by that time, and computer projects are much more convenient for busy people because they can be saved and resumed later. A computer project isn't like a performance. It can be worked on in private, in quiet, and brought to finished completion before anybody has to see it.

I went on playing hymns just because I love them and they're very easy. But if I played at church, even that "easy" music in public would turn me into a quivering ball of stress. I felt that nervousness, the need to perform well, the anxiety because of all those eyes on me. Everybody at church gushed about how good I was, but I'd always feel ashamed and brush it off. They didn't know any better; I knew I was really no good at all.

Life went on. After ten years, I basically lost all my skill and couldn't play piano if I tried.

I had always wanted to play by ear. When I was little I wished I could play like my mother. She could only play tunes in two different keys, with simple repeated patterns, but at least what she was doing looked like FUN. She had learned to play as a teenager, when her friend spent an afternoon showing her how to do it, and she took it from there. She hadn't wanted me to learn piano that way and wouldn't teach me. She said real lessons were better.

As a middle-aged mother who couldn't play piano any more, I used to sometimes think about it when I was falling asleep. I'd dream of going to the piano and just playing the keys randomly, in freedom, to see what it would sound like, to see if I could learn to associate the keys with the sounds. The more I thought about that, the more I wanted to do it. I didn't know where to start. I was afraid to go to that alien keyboard (which I hadn't been allowed to look directly at since I was a small child) and go ahead and sound stupid, like a beginner again. I didn't know if the idea would even work out.

It was last year that I read something very interesting: "Unless you are one of those very rare people who can play completely by ear, some knowledge of music theory is necessary in order to be liberated from having to read all the notes of a piano score."

I studied some books on theory.

The hireling piano teachers had tried to shove theory at me long ago, and I had dutifully filled in the worksheets so I could get everybody off my back, but I had been too young to understand why it was important and none of it stuck.

Stanley Kubrick said, "Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker." That happened for me.

I heard someone talking about her child: "My ds7 plays his own inner music on the piano so beautifully, which is funny partly because he usually looks like a dirty pirate and partly because he's never had a lesson. But the sounds he brings out of the piano are exquisite."

I saved that quote. If her dirty little pirate can do it, maybe I, with my God-given talent, might someday do it too?

It was hard to go back and be a total beginner again, but one fine day I couldn't resist any longer. At age thirty-five, there I was, sitting in front of the piano pressing the keys slowly and listening to the sounds.

FINALLY I was back to where I'd been when I was a baby in a high chair!

Yes, I sounded stupid at first, but it didn't last that long. A few notes turned into a tune, and the left hand did something simple, and some notes sounded bad, but some others came together. I played them again, and they sounded nice. Pretty soon it was music.

Sure, it was very beginner level, but, unlike my teenage renditions of Chopin and Brahms, it was REAL. It was genuine. It had my true feelings in it. Suddenly, I wasn't faking it! I wasn't a drone! I wasn't desperately trying to live up to someone else's expectations.

I was using the piano to say what's inside me.

To do it brings such joy as I can hardly express. There actually is some music in my soul, and I'm finally sharing it. It's like learning to speak after a lifetime of being mute.

Now, why couldn't I have gone right on from the high chair to here? What went wrong between?

When I was young, I loved Barbie dolls. I played with Barbies a lot, but it wasn't every day for at least a half hour, doing the same things over and over until I got all the motions right. If I had been forced to do that with Barbie, I would have hated her.

What if I had been allowed to play with the piano like I played with my other toys? When I liked, how I liked. Maybe I could have retained my love of piano until I was sixteen years old. Maybe at age sixteen, being in love with music and wild to learn, I would have engaged a piano teacher on my own volition and at eighteen I would have been the performing sensation my mother so badly wanted me to be.

Well, I don't know: I'm really not the performing type, I'm not just not. Mom always got a huge kick out of having me play in public. She basked in the admiration and compliments of others. She would have been surprised and disappointed if she had known that I didn't enjoy a single word of those compliments because I thought people were just saying what they had to say to be polite. Mom's a performer. She taught the children's choir at church. She organized special music. She's a people person, a go-getter. The famous pianists that you read about are all showoffs. I used to assume that my personality was wrong for my gift. It must not have been the right gift for me, or it had been bungled somehow.

Does God give us gifts? Are we each born with at least one? And does God make mistakes? Does he match up talents with personalities that aren't suitable for them?

Well, here's another thought. What if my gift had been not for performing, but for composition? Composers sit alone and play music and write it on paper and then give it to the pianists. I hear tunes in my head, and whistle them a while, think about their variations and what would go well with them, and make up a harmony. I just hear the whole thing. I go to the piano and work it out, and write it all down. It takes ten minutes and it's an act of pure creativity that feels wonderful. When it's over, I sit there holding the finished product and feel warm and satisfied.

When I was young, I used to make up songs sometimes, but very rarely, because the stress of memorizing and practicing and performing took up all my piano-energy, and after being forced to practice, I only wanted to run away from the piano first chance I got. I have a few artifacts still in childish handwriting of songs that I made up.

So, what if the gift I was given was something to help me come out of my shell? I don't easily connect to other people. What if God gave me music as a form of expression that would have helped me share part of myself with others?

I rather think it is. But God doesn't make mistakes and the gift is still there. I haven't missed it because youth isn't all there is. Maybe I can open that gift when I am a old woman. Maybe I'll teach my grandchildren. Maybe I'll write original music and young people can perform it.

The other day I went to the piano and played dissonance on purpose, with my eyes on the keyboard, one foot up on the bench, a slouch that would have made all my teachers scream, and my fingers perfectly flat. It sounded horrible, but it was what I had to say, how I had to say it. I was speaking the truth in love, and learned something. Once the rebellion was out of my system I made up a pleasant little ditty. I liked it, so I played it again. My daughter came running out of her bedroom and said, "What was that? What's that song? That was so cool! Do it again! Can you show me how to do that?" Well, of course I can; it was just C major plus some staccato, basically. I went away and did housework, and listened to my daughter playing my song over and over.

The daughter's thing is singing. Last year she joined the Sweet Adelines. They gave her some music to practice, and she brought it home and didn't practice. I asked her if she was aware that she needed to learn those songs by next week, and she told me she was. I didn't hear any practicing. I was just on the brink of urging her to practice, "I don't hear anything!" Until I remembered the consequences. If I don't make her practice, she might fail at Sweet Adelines. If she fails, that's not the end of the world and not my problem. But if I make her practice this week, I'll have to make her practice next week, and the week after that. So I shut up about it.

The morning we were supposed to go to the next Sweet Adeline meeting she panicked and freaked out because she didn't know any of the songs! She practiced for several hours straight and then sang in the car all the way there. The next week she practiced in a more timely fashion, and the week after that. She ended up succeeding at Sweet Adelines and had a couple public performances in spangles, and enjoyed herself immensely. She quit because she didn't really fit in with the older ladies and barbershop music wasn't turning her on, which are healthy reasons to quit.

She wants to sing, and I'm sure she'll find a groove to sing in. She's a born showoff. If there's an audience, my daughter is performing for it, in one way or another. If she can get them to laugh at her, she's high as a kite. She'll be as goofy or dramatic as the occasion requires. Right now she wants to learn some nostalgic solos and go perform for the old folks in the nursing home, who are lonely and need to be entertained. She's picked some music out and wants me to accompany her... but that idea makes me freeze solid with anxiety.

Here's another question about these natural talents. There's a saying, "Follow the love, and the money will come," meaning that you should do what you enjoy in life because enthusiasm will get you farther than drudgery. So, if we are given a natural talent, and it's developed by force to become a source of misery instead of joy, is it any good to us? Wouldn't it be better not to have a talent, but to end up doing something that we may be mediocre at yet still enjoy doing?

I know my Mom did what she thought was right. She was trying to provide for my future. She was trying to follow what she thought was God's will. Unfortunately she thought that one has to "raise" children by pressing hard fingerprints into them all the time, or else they'll remain shapeless lumps of clay forever.

And I'm afraid her pride was involved. She was very proud of me. Having a child who can play Beethoven for your friends means you've ARRIVED, right?

Well, here is my opinion: If a mother thinks that learning music is important, worth worrying about, making deals about, manipulating a schedule to make time for, then I think she ought to use that ONE single 70-year lifespan that is HERS, and by all means, learn music with it.