My first experience with the piano wasn’t through my fingers. It was through my toes.
When I was a baby, my parents decided that it would be a good idea for them to pick me up and hold me as my feet danced across the keys.
As I grew older, I grew out of playing with my feet and began using my fingers. My sister was my first teacher. She had previously stopped learning piano at Level 8 but decided that she had enough musical knowledge to pass onto me. I was probably five or six years old at the time.
It wasn’t easy teaching me though.
I fidgeted around a lot. I was impatient. I threw tantrums when I didn’t understand a concept or when my sister felt too ‘teacher-y’ to me. I hated practicing: I hated doing the same things over and over again and I detested the saying of ‘practice makes perfect’ because it felt like no matter how much I practiced, perfection would still be out of my reach.
So she stopped teaching me. And I stopped learning music. I didn’t have any desire to pick up any sort of music instrument.
Soon after, my mother began looking for music teachers and eventually we found a young woman who taught piano and music theory. We had to go to a different neighbourhood to that teacher’s house for lessons. The house was always quiet. And the most memorable thing wasn’t really the music: it was the stickers.
The lessons were short-lived. The teacher was pregnant and we didn’t think she would be able to manage taking care of her newborn and teaching simultaneously so we changed teachers again.
My second and final teacher was in a nearby neighbourhood and we were recommended by a family friend. Unfortunately, she wasn’t taking students at the time but my mother managed to convince her to take me in (I’m not sure how she did it; no matter how many times I asked, she never told me).
There was never a quiet moment in this house. The teacher had two children and there were always people moving about. But I didn’t mind. The teacher was engaging and always liked talking to her students about things that weren’t music related but nonetheless managed to make me feel closer to her.
However, I still didn’t like piano. I was a bit older now and I knew the importance of practicing but I still didn’t practice as much as I should have. A recommended hour of practice turned into half an hour with frequent ‘breaks’ in between that lasted at least five minutes.
I went to competitions and festivals. I did exams. Everything felt mechanical to me and I went through it without much care or thought. There were times that I wondered why I didn’t quit if I didn’t like playing the piano, but I shrugged the thought off with a “Well, I’ve gotten this far. It seems a waste to stop now.”
Then, after I passed Level 10, which is when most piano students stopped learning, my piano teacher asked if I wanted to continue with piano.
I gave a noncommittal sound. It didn’t matter to me.
But it was at that point, when I was doing Associate of the Royal Conservatory (ARCT) Performer’s Diploma that things began to change. The pieces were longer and I would have to memorize 20+ pages for my exam. The one-hour practices would not be enough anymore. I would have to invest at least two and a half hours of my time every day and even then, I would probably only be able to practice two songs. If I was lucky.
It was getting more challenging for me to practice. I was in high school—I had grades to think about, volunteer work, university applications. Things kept piling up. And I started wondering what I would be able to do with an ARCT Performer’s Diploma. A concert pianist? That seemed highly unlikely. I was not even close to the level of talent displayed by the students who won first place in festivals.
What would completing this level get me? Another thing to add to my resume? Something to boast about at dinner parties?
I didn’t know what do with my life. I didn’t know what future I was going to have. And it frightened me that despite spending all of these years learning a musical instrument, I still didn’t have much of a passion for the piano.
One day, my piano teacher asked me to help her teach some students with their technical exercises. Their exam was coming up and they still hadn’t quite mastered it. I was pretty good with scales (especially having spent this much time playing them over and over again), so I agreed. I sat beside them and instructed them on ways to play it correctly and had them practice it a few times before moving on to the next one. I gave them tips on memorizing the fingering so it would be easier for them to practice it at home.
The next week, my teacher thanked me and said she was surprised at how much they improved. Then she asked me to help again.
I just stood there, a little shocked. I hadn’t realized that the students would take me seriously since I was only a few years older than them. And I certainly was surprised at how much better they sounded even though they only spent an hour with me.
But what was more unexpected was how happy I felt hearing that.
So I said yes.
For the first few months, I helped my piano teacher’s students. Then, she asked me to teach a new student as a piano teacher.
Image Source: Takelessons
“But… I don’t know how.” I said. “Besides, I’m not a real teacher.”
“You have plenty of experience.” she said. “That’s enough.”
Helping students and teaching students weren’t the same thing so I studied up on how to read notes. I made flash cards. I made a cardboard sheet so that it could fit on the keyboard with the letter names written on it.
It wasn’t easy. I hadn’t realized how difficult it was to teach the basics of music to someone when it feels like second nature to me. There were times that I doubted my abilities as a sort-of-piano-teacher.
But when my student won her first competition and she showed me her results with a huge smile, it was worth it.
Years later, in 2017, this first student is still learning with me and is preparing for her Level 6 exam. I have more students now and I teach them piano and music theory. I have my ARCT Teacher’s Diploma which gives me a license to officially teach piano.
Although I didn’t like piano in the first place, my passion grew. Music didn’t feel like a chore to me anymore. I play and listen to it for pleasure now. It makes me feel happy.
I didn’t know what I was going to do with piano in the beginning. I didn’t even think about becoming a teacher or considered music as a potential career choice. But watching kids grow musically and as individuals opened something inside of me. It made me realize the significant impact teachers have on their students and their development. It made me feel good to see kids improve and to know that I had some measure of influence on their change.
So, thank you. Thank you to all three of my piano teachers and all five of my theory teachers—for putting up with me and for supporting me. You’ve taught me something much more valuable than how to read and play music: you helped me grow as a musician, as a person and as a teacher.