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
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.