Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The perfect piano teacher

It was a day I had been waiting for what felt like an eternity. Six. I had to be six years old before I could begin. Six was the magic number. First grade. I had to be able to read well. That was the rule. I sat cross legged on the living room floor with bright blue early 80s carpet that summer watching my brother Eric play. When he would finish, I went to it, shiny, big and black with ivory, and pounded away until someone would yell at me to stop because it was annoying them.

My excitement was palpable. We pulled up to her driveway in August of 1982. Her neighborhood had cozy houses with huge, beautiful trees. As I entered, the entire house smelled of cookies. There she was in her trademark sweatpants and bare feet.

“Hello, Sharna. You look just like your dad. I’ve known your mom since we were young girls. Are you ready to begin?”

Hers was different from ours. More modest, but more approachable. Worn but still perfect. A candy bowel sat atop the wood.

“Ok, Sharna, now take your right thumb, no the other thumb, put it here, no here. Good! That is the letter ‘C.’”

Week after week when I was so small that my legs dangled from the bench, I would come to Mrs. Peters’ house and play the piano.

“You played very well this week,” she said to me when I had learned my first song.

“Thank you,” I said. “I can also sing and dance.”

She would laugh this amazing laugh. A laugh filled with hoarseness and vigor. A laugh from her belly. An uninhibited, unapologetic laugh.

I elicited the same laugh a year later right before my brother’s bar mitzvah.

“What are you doing this weekend, Sharna?”

“It’s my brother’s bar mitzvah,” I said. “Are you coming, I’ll be wearing my hair like Princess Leah from Star Wars?”

“No, Sharna, I wasn’t invited,” she said.

I paused and assured her, “Oh Mrs. Peters. Your invitation probably just got lost in the mail.”

She told those two stories to everyone she knew. They were her favorite stories for years.

Every week I would come and play the piano.

“Did you practice?” she would ask.

“Yes,” I would tell as a half truth. I did practice, once maybe twice that week.

She didn’t care if I practiced. She didn’t care that I lied even though she knew every week by how poorly or well I played. We spent a half an hour filled with laughter, music, next week’s “homework,” and that coveted candy. When she would go answer the phone I would pet her dog (I forgot the name!) and shoo away Oscar the mean cat.

The truth is, if Mrs. Peters wanted to, she could have fired me as a student. Most music teachers definitely would have. I barely practiced, I lied about it (eventually she stopped asking), and I wasn’t particularly talented. It’s not like my parents were paying her tons of money to teach me. Maybe $10? Less?

But Mrs. Peters loved me. She just did. I felt that love every time I entered her house. I felt it every time she played the “left hand” and I played the “right hand.” I felt it when she waived good bye from her front door when I walked to my mom’s car. I felt it when occasionally I would play well and she would clap. I felt it when she bought me special Chanukah music (because all she had in her stock pile was Christmas music).

Week after week I would take lessons, almost every week until I was 18. Even when I came home from college I would take lessons. By the time I was in high school, I could play Mozart, Bach and Beethoven-as they rolled in their graves. But as it became clear (when I was 8) that I would not become a concert pianist, Mrs. Peters introduced me to popular music to hold my interest (which we played after the classical music).

Playing piano brought me great joy, even though I wasn’t great at it. When I was upset about something, when I was nervous, I would play on my parents’ piano, and pounded away until someone would yell at me to stop because it was annoying them. When I went to college my freshman year, I played on the baby grand in Foster Harper. When I lived in Israel after college, I played piano in the dining hall at the kibbutz. At the high school I worked at, I would play in the student lounge.

Again, let me be clear. I am not good at piano, but I can play piano. I miss notes, I change rhythms, I have no ear and I can’t memorize a piece to save my life. However, the hours of joy that my limited skill has brought to me are innumerable. I hate playing in front of people outside of my family. It is hard for me to play in front of close friends. My hands shake terribly and I feel sick and insecure.

But that neurosis is not because of Mrs. Peters. She somehow overcame my low self esteem to give me this incredible gift of music. As a kid with Mrs. Peters I wasn’t insecure, I wasn’t fat, as a middle schooler I wasn’t unpopular or ugly, and as a high schooler I wasn’t boyfriendless wearing the wrong clothes. With her it was always about the love of the sound of the music. Put a piece of sheet music in front of me, and I will make it come to life. I will play it. My hands will hit the white keys hard, the passion of the notes enveloping my fore arms. My foot, hitting the pedal, amplifies the notes so that they are probably louder than the composer intended. And if I’m really feeling comfortable, I will sing along, and if I’m there long enough, even harmonize.

When friends (who aren’t pianists or musicians) hear me play for the first time that are incredulous. “I didn’t know you played.” I offer full disclosure that I don’t really.

But the truth is, I do. I can play for hours. I play Natalie Merchant, Fiona Apple, Mozart, Ben Folds, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, show tunes, Rent, Phil Collins, Disney Music. I’ve played a couple of times in public. I played in a band for one performance with as a keyboardist on my stomach because someone forgot the stand. I played at my youth advisor’s wedding. I played in contests (always earning second in a competition against myself).

Had Mrs. Peters given up on me, had she “fired” me, my fingers would have been silenced. Instead she gave me an incredible, irreplaceable gift: the gift of music.

As a teacher applying to jobs, you are asked to write these hideous educational philosophy statements. I always struggled with that. Teaching is such an innate skill for me, that even after a master’s in education, it seemed to be an impossible task.

Because to be completely honest, sometimes as an educator, I embrace mediocrity. I don’t see the point in telling a kid that she has to be perfect, when perfection isn’t a realistic goal. My standards are high. I still give readings to the equivalent of Mozart. But some kids aren’t going to get there, and making them feel like shit about it serves no useful purpose. And the only times in my life where I quit something was when the coach or teacher used perfection as the standard of success.

I understand that this can’t work in every aspect of life. But really, how many of us are ever actually perfect at anything? And how many of us have stopped doing what we love because we weren’t good enough?

I want the writer who can’t spell to write. I want the dancer who is clumsy to dance. I want the soccer player who can’t run fast to play. I want the actor who isn’t Broadway bound to act.

And I’ll tell you, the times when I sacrificed my joy of something to meet the standards of someone else’s definition of perfection, I lost a part of my soul and only regained it once I reclaimed whatever it was that brought me happiness.

I wonder if anyone ever counted how many children Mrs. Peters taught to play the piano before she died on Sunday. I wonder if anyone knows how many people are out there to whom she gave the gift of music. I wonder how many people remember the different candies for every season that they received after a lesson. I wonder how many people can still hear her laugh in their ears and in their hearts and most importantly at their fingertips.

View Mrs. Peters Obituary

My educational philosophy


dirk said...

My two piano teachers were old battle axes and it became somewhat grueling, leading to my early retirement. I might have been better off with a less traditional teacher like Mrs. P.

Rachel Karp said...

I wish I could express this to the seven-year-old I babysit who only practices when I force her.

We've had the conversation about how, as a teacher, you affected my life, and it still holds true.

Olga and Sergey Shafran said...

I play like you play, it seems. :) My music teacher almost killed any desire to play in me, but fortunately, my mom restored it.
If you don't mind, I'm going to send a link to this entry to my mom who is also a piano teacher.

Keep writing!

sharna said...

Rachel, thank you. Olga, I saw the piano in your apartment and wondered.... :) I'm glad you still play.