Reflections on Learning Music: Facing Challenges and Celebrating Triumphs by Juliet Aucreman

Learning to play an instrument mirrors life's challenges and triumphs.

The more I teach, the more I realize that learning to play the piano relates more to problem solving, perseverance, and a belief in yourself than to finger gymnastics. No matter a person's natural ability, learning an instrument teaches students to dissect and address complex problems, often at ages before such skills are stretched at school.

A student sits at my Steinways' bench, stumped. She's hit a musical bumpy ride, a tangle of tricks meant to teach her something. She seethes with frustration. In her tense body, I witness her whole week, a plethora of homework, quizzes, tests, soccer games and topsy-turvy friendships. These three measures are just a smoldering twig in her firestorm. Yet, like the fallen match, they get all the blame.

"This section is impossible!" she kvetches.

Yet there she sits, staring, expectant. Shall I fix her problem quickly? I can teach her the section by rote, without making her struggle. If I do, I cast away an opportunity for her to delve deep, to test her limits, to learn, and to come around proud.

"So what have you done so far?" I ask, imagining (wishing?) that she's tried playing hands alone, clapping out the rhythm, and all the other tricks we talk about ad nauseum.

"I just stopped once I got to that part," she says. "Did you learn the rest of the piece?" I ask. "No," she answers. "I didn't get any further."

I giggle.

"When you go to Disneyland and you get to a ride that's broken, do you just turn around and head home?" I ask. My student laughs. "Of course not! I go find another ride!" "You do?" I ask, trying to sound incredulous. "But that's not what you did with this piece!" She howls with laughter.

"You CAN do this," I say. "Every problem is just a bunch of micro-problems."

Together, we pull the section apart. Soon we're counting aloud and clapping. Then with our right hands, we tap one rhythm, and with our left hands, another. When that method flops, we substitute word counting for number counting, chanting two-syllable words once per beat, to divide it in half for fast notes. Slowly, the impossible section rolls together. The student watches her fingers in disbelief.

"And the moral to this story is…" I say.

My student looks down. She hates getting shown up. Finally she admits, "Every problem can be broken down into smaller problems."

I could leave it at that. She doesn't have to know that nearly every day, I'm getting my own comeuppance.

I say, "When I'm learning a new piece and it gets hard, I have to take it apart, too." She looks at me, surprised. I say, "I think to myself, why must I learn EVERYTHING the hard way?" She nods. "But you know what? Over and over, not just at the piano, but in my day-to-day life, I ask myself that. Why must I learn EVERYTHING the hard way? But you know what?"

She shrugs. I lean in.

"You WANT to learn things the hard way. In piano and in life, that's the only way you truly learn."