What Works learning as a partnership
Every time I hear a youngster banging out "Chopsticks" on the piano, I think of poor Mr. Flanek and my five trying weeks under his tutelage.
Thirty-one years ago, when I was eight, my parents signed me up for after-school piano lessons. Mr. Flanek was the school music teacher, and for $2 a week, he tried and tried to instruct me.
After a month of lessons, I could play... nothing. A cat walking on a keyboard could have made better music.
When I arrived for my fifth lesson, Mr. Flanek waved me away from the piano and had me sit in a chair. "Here," he said, handing me a battered violin that had scratches dating back to the Harding Administration. "I think you'll do better with this." I didn't. Imagine the sound of cats being tortured and you'll understand what I did with that instrument.
At the supper table that night, my parents dismissed the violin idea and Mr. Flanek. We already had a fully functional blond Baldwin upright in our living room, and our middle-class budget didn't allow for spur-of-the-moment violin purchases. "We'll wait a couple of years and try again with piano lessons," they decided.
Two years later, when I was 10, my parents made arrangements with Mr. Burke. He'd drive to the house every Wednesday and give a half hour of piano instruction for $5. As he came at more than double the cost of Mr. Flanek, my parents expected more results. What they got was more noise.
I can still see Mr. Burke's vacant stare as I tried to play songs with titles like "Up the Little Staircase" and "Middle-C Minuet." It was the stare that people wear when they're rethinking major career decisions.
In fairness to Mr. Burke, he tried. And when I didn't make progress, he tried harder. He had me using his favorite starter book. He heaped on the praise on those rare occasions when I made actual music. And he finished each lesson by making me promise that I would practice for 15 minutes each day. This is when I learned that you could secretly nullify a promise by crossing two body parts.
Mr. Burke and I played mind games with each other for about three months. My parents noticed, and they gently suggested that I might want to hold off on lessons for a year or two. I nodded with the gravest expression possible. Inside, I was jumping for joy. No more lessons!
For the next year, I walked past our Baldwin at least 20 times a day without playing a single note. I had more important things in mind, like go-carts, Wiffle Ball, and playing in dirt. Then it happened-one day I stopped at the piano and hit a few keys. The next day I pulled out the bench, sat down, and hit a few more. The day after that I retrieved my starter book and struggled through a few songs.
At dinner that week, I told my parents I wanted to take lessons--but not with Mr. Burke. So my mother called Music Manor, a five-minute drive from our house, and told them about my musical history. The manager promised her I was teachable and signed me up with Mr. Fred Recko.
I arrived for my first lesson with memories of Flanek and Burke, figuring I'd have another do-as-you're-told instructor. And just when I was ready for Mr. Recko to unveil his favorite starter book, he surprised me. "Let's pick out something together," he said, leading me to racks of piano books and sheet music. We went through about 10 books before I saw the one for me: a beginner collection that included the theme song to M*A*S*H, which in my adolescent mind was the coolest song and the coolest TV show. I couldn't get home fast enough to try out my new songbook.
In one small act after another, Mr. Recko let me make choices. Many teachers require their students to count out loud. I had good timing, but for the life of me, I couldn't count aloud and play at the same time. "Don't sweat it," he told me. "Count to yourself."
Some teachers make their students learn several songs by heart. Mr. Recko tried this with me, but after some serious effort on my part, I was getting nowhere. He could have persisted. Eventually, I probably would've made it through a memorized song. But Mr. Recko bagged the assignment and started teaching me chords--one of the first steps to playing without printed music.
Before long I was doing justice to that beautiful Baldwin. I was playing for the fun of it, and many of my "practice" sessions lasted two hours. The time just flew by.
Two years into our lessons, I arrived at Music Manor one day to find Mr. Recko looking way too serious. He sat me down and told me he was leaving the piano-teaching business for a better-paying job as a UPS driver. "Wait!" I thought to myself. "I'm supposed to quit you!" It was one tough goodbye, but Mr. Recko left me with an incredible gift: a love for the piano and an ability to make pretty good music.
Three months ago, I relived all these memories when my six-year-old daughter asked for piano lessons. She liked hearing me play and saw how much fun I was having, and she wanted to make her own music. I called around and chatted with several instructors, but all of them seemed stuck on a single teaching method--not good for a spirited six-year-old.
After a disappointing home visit with one of the teachers, Melanie turned to me and said, "Dad, you can teach me!"
My breath stopped. "I can what?"
Melanie gave me a look of pure joy and full confidence. What could I say? "That's a great idea!"
The next day we were at Stanton's Sheet Music, leafing through the beginner books for young children. "Hey, look at this!" Melanie said excitedly, pointing to a music book covered with pictures of winged pianos flying through the sky. "Can I get this one?"
I thought back to Mr. Recko and that book with the M*A*S*H theme song. It came through in that moment that my best teachers and coaches--at home, in school, in the workplace--have given me choices and let me be a partner in the learning process.