Things We Learn

My eleven year old student looked at me without blinking. I was not sure I heard correctly. “He was what?” I said, and she repeated it again, shifting in her bright colored sneakers.

“He was one of those real fine dudes, you know?”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t know. What do you mean?”

“He sang like, you know, that classic music. Opera stuff.”

I paused. “He was an opera singer?”

“Yeah, that’s it!” she said. “Those people that do that. And musicians too, not just singers.”

“A classical musician,” I replied drily, “You’re serious? And that is, ‘a real fine dude’?” I was unable to prevent the corners of my mouth from lifting.

Even she smiled, realizing the phrase might be a little silly. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m dead cereal,” she finished, using one of her usual quirky phrases I’d gotten so used to.

“That is going to be the term I will use from now on,” I insisted. “I’m sure my opera friends will love it. I’m calling all of them that.” The lesson dissolved into laughter again before I got us back on track.

I guess that makes me a real fine dudette. One that never pictured her evenings would be spent at a music studio; who in her senior year at conservatory swore up and down to her major professor that she would never, ever teach music.

I guess I was wrong.

In 2011, I was weaseled into applying for a teaching job at a local music studio. I told the friend that convinced me it was all a sham – I was a performance major, not an educator, and I wasn’t even sure I would like it. I would be a great teacher, he insisted, just do it.

They asked me what I played or did. I told them harp, piano, and voice. So I became a teacher of all three. A year and a half later, I’m still here, with students I’ve had from the beginning. The historic building is small and cramped, made for smaller people in centuries gone by, and there are only six practice rooms to teach in. They are supposedly sound proof, or so we tell the students, because if they knew that their parents in the waiting room could hear them singing or playing beginning scales on their violin, they would clam up all together.

Week after week I come in, nod to the parents, maybe have a conversation or two in the front room or in the office with the other musicians. Then, the real learning begins. And usually, it’s not even the students doing the most learning.

Pearls of life wisdom from small lips. Things I never imagined hearing from unusual sources.

“There was a boy that liked me, and he stands at recess and watches me play soccer sometimes,” my seven-year old student told me solemnly, her hands folded in her lap before the piano. “Boys are too much trouble though. I have to focus on my work.”

“You’re very wise for seven,” I told her.

“So people tell me,” she said, before turning back to her music.

There are hard, grueling times. I’ve learned that bribery is sometimes necessary.

“Just play those last two bars again.”

“Uuuuuuugh!”

“Please?”

“Nooooooooooooooooah!”

“I don’t see an ark in here, so there’s no Noah. Play the phrase.”

“Can I have that jolly rancher I see in your purse?”

Long silence.

“Fine. Just play the bars.”

It’s not just in the studio that I hear these things. I have private students too, some homeschooled, with their own opinions and desires.

“I like Vivaldi,” one of my students told me when she was 6. “His music is lively.”

“It is,” I said. “Have you heard of Bach?”

She nodded her head.

“Do you know he spent a lot of time trying to sound like Vivaldi; he liked his sound so much?”

She didn’t know that. A year later, we listened to a Bach piece for part of her homework.

“You know,” she said, sighing over the piano keys, “I don’t know why he tried to sound like Vivaldi. Really, he was good too.”

I learn things not from music. If I ever needed to know the latest kid slang, I just ask my students.

“That was totally salty,” one of my young teens said to me one day when I spilled water on myself in the lesson room.

“What?” I said, laughing. “What does that mean?”

“You’ve never heard that??!” she replied, her voice hovering somewhere between disdain and surprise.

“No,” I told her.

“It means stupid. Like you would say: oh my god, he was totally salty. Or if someone does something dumb, like that, you say: man, you were salty.”

I shook my head. “Is that what the kids are saying nowadays?”

“Yes, that’s what we’re saying nowadays.” She replied, the ever present attitude making me laugh even harder.

Then there’s my autistic student, who can’t really grasp proper technique yet, but spends his lesson testing sounds and keys and pedals and pitch bends. He smiles and laughs and listens and runs his finger along the crevices between the keys – up and down the keyboard – creating the softest clicking that’s almost become like weekly therapy for me. Not only that, but the child has improvised better avant-garde music than some composers I’ve paid to listen to. And he’s only six.

The world is a funny place; making people who thought they would never be teachers go up onstage to accompany their students at the annual recital. And every bump, every hiccup, every bad lesson where my students are tired and give me grief that makes me want to tear my hair out – it’s all part of the learning process that’s life. I love every second of it, and I think I wouldn’t be as sane (or insane) without my students.

I hope you other “real fine dudes” out there find some semblance of familiarity in this. I leave you with the last bit of life wisdom from a particularly precocious young student; something that has stuck with me long after it was said:

“You know… if a sumo wrestler tried to do ballet… they would fall down on the very first spin!”

The things we learn when we teach…

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