Just a Piano Teacher

24 Jul

photo (12)Over the past twenty-five years, when someone asked me what I did for living, I would say, I’m just a piano teacher. It’s been a fact of my life that every weekday afternoon and most Saturday mornings, young children between the ages of five and eighteen (and the occasional adult) show up at my house with a stack of music (sometimes practiced, sometimes not) and proceed to sit down at my Steinway concert grand piano and play for thirty to sixty minutes at a time. They listen (or sometimes don’t) while I correct them, praise them, and encourage them to become better pianists and musicians.

I’ve always thought of myself as just a piano teacher because I seem to say the same things at every single lesson: Sit up tall with your feet flat on the floor; curve your fingers, relax your shoulders, play softer; play louder; play faster; play slower; count out loud; pay attention to the fingering; make your staccatos crisper, your legato smoother; LISTEN to your tone quality; pay attention to the dynamic markings; shape the phrase like a vocalist would sing a melody; and for God sake, please stop banging on the keys—you’re hurting my ears! Most importantly: Practice, practice, practice, and then, PRACTICE MORE!

I’ve always thought of myself as just a piano teacher when I tell my students how important it is to be consistent—that good practice habits will spill over into their everyday lives; that studies show that learning a musical instrument will make them smarter; that doing weekly music theory homework will allow them to understand the complexity of music; that performing in recitals will teach them how to be confident in front of an audience, and that above all—to be able to sit down at a piano, pull out some music and play for the sheer pleasure of it is one of the greatest gifts they can carry through their lives.

I can say with all honesty that my career as just a piano teacher has been rewarding as well as fulfilling, but lately I’ve been thinking that perhaps my job is so much more than that.

The truth is, I’m more than just a piano teacher when my interactions with my students don’t involve music at all—like when their eyes light up when I tell them how much I like their new red tennis shoes or how cute their new haircut is, or that I notice they’re missing a tooth and I’m as excited about it as they are.

I’m more than just a piano teacher when I listen to my students talk about how much they loved reading the Harry Potter or Hunger Games books (as I did) or how cool the new Disney/PIXAR movie was, or how the most recent video game they just got for their birthday is totally sick. I’m more than just a piano teacher when I allow them to chatter on about it for a moment before I gently redirect them back to the lesson.

I’m more than just a piano teacher when a student walks into the lesson looking upset and tells me that so-and-so was mean to them at school and now they feel like they don’t have any friends. I’m more than just a piano teacher when I tell them that I know exactly how they feel—and that the same thing happened to me in junior high, but it got better when I started high school. I’m more than just a piano teacher when I hand them a tissue to wipe their eyes, give them a hug and tell them it’s going to be all right, I promise.

I’m more than just a piano teacher when they reveal to me that they have a crush on someone; or about who asked them to the dance; or how they got (or didn’t get) that big part in the school play; or how much homework there is in their AP World History class; or how they’re terrified of blowing the SAT. I’m more than just a piano teacher when they run into my studio giddy with joy because they just passed their driver’s test and actually drove to their piano lesson by themselves for the first time.

I’m more than just a piano teacher when they let me in on where they’ve applied to college and what do I think about that particular university? I’m more than just a piano teacher when they come to their final lesson to say goodbye and I always cry (and sometimes they do, too) because our time together has come to an end.

Yes, I’ve loved being just a piano teacher, but it’s the more than parts that have made my job such a joy.

My job has allowed me the privilege of spending consecutive years with a student, getting to know who they are while never giving up hope that they will mature into a gifted musician. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t—it doesn’t really matter.  The important part is that I’m there when they perform in recitals and festivals and I get to watch their parents beam with pride after they’ve had a successful performance and know that I had something to do with that. I get to tell the story about how I never give up on any student—EVER—and how for years I would dread the lesson of one particular boy because he just wouldn’t practice; how one day a light went on in his head and before I knew it, that boy was playing Bach Preludes and Schubert Impromptus with the musical maturity of a concert pianist.

Little brother Cyder reading during Merckx Dascomb's piano lesson.  Photo credit: Tatiana Johnson

Little brother Cyder reading during Merckx Dascomb’s piano lesson.
Photo credit: Tatiana Johnson

By being just a piano teacher, I have been able to earn an income by sharing my love of music with children; more importantly, through the process of teaching them over the years, I’ve had the privilege of becoming their friend.  By being just a piano teacher I have been given the gift of loving them as if they were one of my own children.

So I guess the next time someone asks me what I do for a living, I’ll say the same thing I always say: I’m just a piano teacher, but this time, I’ll understand what that really means.

fingers on keyboard


32 Responses to “Just a Piano Teacher”

  1. Melanie Jacobson July 24, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    Can you see my tears welling? Lura and I are so lucky to have you in our lives. You’re an AMAZING teacher, who indeed teaches the whole child. Thank you for sharing your humor and magic as a teacher, writer, and compassionate human being.

    • Allegro non tanto July 24, 2013 at 11:24 am #

      Thank you for being so supportive, Melanie! I hope you know how much Lura (and you) mean to me!

  2. Bonnie Gerstenfeld July 24, 2013 at 11:50 am #

    Yup 🙂

  3. Linda Rosen July 24, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    I wish I had a piano teacher like you when I was young. Maybe then I wouldn’t have run down the block, to escape, when lesson time approached. Maybe then I wouldn’t have quit. Please, erase the word “just” from your bio. We’re never “just” anything, as you now realize. You are a piano teacher!!! And I wish I could play.

    • Allegro non tanto July 24, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

      I wish you could play, too! By the way, it’s never too late…

  4. Sharlae July 24, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Well said, Jessica! You are an AMAZING piano teacher!

  5. Elisabeth Kinsey July 24, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    You are more than a piano teacher. This is written like a poem! You are also a writer. 🙂

  6. injaynesworld July 24, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    I’m with Linda Rosen: Cut the word “just” from that sentence. You are a piano teacher — among many other wonderful gifts of yourself that you share with the world. 🙂

    • Allegro non tanto July 24, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

      Thank you, Jayne! It’s gone from my vocabulary as of right now.

  7. Linda Menesez July 24, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    This is such a beautiful post, Jessica! Your students were very lucky to have you in their lives. What wonderful gifts you gave them with your skill, caring, attention, and love. They were blessed!


    • Allegro non tanto July 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

      Actually, I’m the one who’s blessed! I couldn’t ask for a better profession.

  8. Tatiana Johnson July 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    Jessica, you’re just amazing and offer unconditional love to all your students. It’s such a privilege to see how you have motivated and mentored my son, in life and in his music.

    • Allegro non tanto July 24, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

      It’s easy to love your son, Tatiana. It’s kids like Merckx who keep me going.

  9. Tracey July 24, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    I agree with Linda and Jayne. Cut out the “just”. We (women) tend to downplay our talents and abilities. I think it’s amazing that you are a piano teacher, and you sound like an awesome one, too.

  10. Jeyna Grace July 24, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    You are more than a piano teacher because you can influence young lives 🙂

  11. debatterman July 25, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    Self-perception is such a tricky thing. One word — ‘just’ — changes the whole picture. And reading (actually hearing) the way you describe your lessons, etc., brought me right back to my days as a piano student. I never talked to my piano teacher (a man) about the things your students felt comfortable sharing with you — and I can’t help believe that, whether or not they practiced (enough), there was something about a special piano teacher that kept them coming back.

    • Allegro non tanto July 25, 2013 at 11:52 am #

      I think many of them would probably like to quit (especially the teenagers), but I like to think they hang around because they would miss me too much!

  12. Becky Green Aaronson July 25, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    This is “just” fabulous! Your students are so lucky to be the recipient of the gift you share, and we (your readers) are so lucky to be the recipients of the gift of your writing.

    • Allegro non tanto July 25, 2013 at 11:52 am #

      Thanks, dear friend! And were your ears burning yesterday? Namita and I were singing YOUR praises!

  13. Britton Swingler July 30, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    I think you are “just” wonderful! I wish you lived nearby so that you could be my children’s teacher, and also mine. I was one of those students who did not practice enough and eventually (after 2.5 years) quit taking. Of course I wish I had continued, but I also know that if I carve out some time (perhaps when the kids start taking this year), I can finally begin to practice what I started forty years ago.

    I love to read you…such warmth and wisdom and love. You are the music…

    • Allegro non tanto July 30, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

      Britton, your words are music to my ears. You are such a lovely person and it was so wonderful to spend time with you yesterday. I’m so pleased about where your life has gone–what a great story you told us. Now you just need to write it all down…xxoo

  14. Rossandra White July 31, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    Yeah, this brought tears to my eyes. There I was imagining you as my teacher, helping me establish a foundation of support and love beyond the lessons, something I never had from my teachers (or my mom). Jessica, your writing is so warm and connected and so much more than the words. Were you in that conversation where I was saying that there are some writers where you want to scrape the words off the page and look underneath to see how they managed to elicit so much feeling from a sentence, a paragraph? Hurry up with that book.

    • Allegro non tanto July 31, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

      You just made my day. Actually you just made my YEAR with such lovely sentiments! I’m working on Chapter 11 right now. In fact, in the last week I’ve written two chapters! I’m dying to read your book. Can’t wait. When it comes out, we’ll have to have some sort of celebration! XXOO

  15. happykidshappymom August 9, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

    Jessica — this is so beautiful! Your students have been beyond lucky to have you as a teacher. As soon as you started talking about the red tennis shoes, or driving themselves to your lessons — I got all emotional. It’s so true! A caring teacher makes all the difference in the world. So glad you have turned “just” to “more.” And though I appreciate your reasons for continuing to say “just,” I’d leave that word out, if I were you. You are a piano teacher. That alone inspires thoughts of patience and care. It’s something to be so very proud of. So glad I’m back to blogging and read this post! 🙂

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