Even though this isn’t quite on topic for this blog, I’d like to write about an experience I recently had with a piano student. I had prepared a set of exercises I categorized as “Mental Warm-Ups” for a specific student to prepare her for a quiz on related material. I had designed the questions to lead her mind along lines that would help her organize her thinking for the quiz. I knew this student’s approach to problem-solving was often more creative than straight-line logic. But I also wanted to expedite the time given to this activity in the lesson that day. So I set up the questions as “puzzles.” The first set presented several sequences; she was to complete each series. The second was a collection of whimsical mnemonic devices; she was to match each saying with the info-set to which they referred.
What I neglected to take into account was 1) this was an unexpected activity, and she perceived it as a pop-quiz, even though I had said it wouldn’t be graded, and she didn’t even have to finish it; I just wanted to see what was familiar to her; and 2) I hadn’t assessed her emotional state before I introduced the activity. It turned out she had had an extremely exhausting day, out in the sun, had suffered an injury that while minor was painful enough she had taken some Tylenol – yet it was wearing off, and because she had made great progress with her repertoire she was disappointed to start with theory.
I had given her the activity to do during her brother’s lesson. Before I knew it, she was in tears. She hadn’t been able to finish the activity before her lesson. She exclaimed in tears “but I’m not ready!” Oh, my heart broke! This is a girl who is so generally conscientious and responsible yet seemingly “laid-back”, generous towards others, usually cheerful, and typically very prepared. I apologized heartily for having surprised her with the activity, reminded her it need not be finished, would not be graded, and in fact we could simply set it aside for another day. She replied (through her tears) “I feel like I should know all this, but I don’t!” I assured her “Well, I think too you really do know all this, but maybe you just don’t know it today while you feel tired or stressed. That’s really okay; we can come back to this some other day!” I looked at her mom who quickly explained the exhausting day her daughter had already experienced before arriving, and assured me I should not take her tears personally!
I didn’t even look at her theory paper. I set it aside and we focused on selecting repertoire for her recital. She quickly recovered her composure and we had a productive lesson. She was so restored, at the end of her lesson I dared to ask her if she would feel comfortable taking the theory test (for which the “Mental Warm-ups” were meant to prepare her), but do so orally, rather than on paper. (I knew it would go much faster that way.) She brightened up at that idea, so we talked through the test, and although she initially gave the en-harmonic name for two tones, and I prompted her to correct them, she clearly thoroughly understood all the objectives of the test. Upon finishing, I said “You aced it!” She apologized “I feel like I didn’t really do it all on my own.” “Well, even with those two prompts, I’d say you did at least 99.9% on your own; I’d call that an A!” She laughed and seemed satisfied with her achievement.
Because she did so well with the test, I asked her if she minded if I looked at her theory paper or to leave it for next week, or I could even throw it away without ever looking at it. She said we could look at it and seemed completely content to do so. It turned out she had answered all the “puzzles” except for one! Wow. I was really surprised, given how distressed she was previously. Everything she had answered was correct. She simply had not been able to figure out one of the whimsical sayings. Even though it was a matching activity and the correct answer was left by default, she felt thrown by the fact that she didn’t positively know it for herself.
I’m pretty sure the tearful crisis really was “just” the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” However, I believe it was important for me to see (and reckon with the fact) that my student deeply valued finishing her work, and how important it is to her to feel prepared. I sometimes tell my students “I not only want you to know what you know; I want you to know that you know what you know!” Meaning: my goal for my students is to work to the point where they not only can play their music well, but to play it confidently and with self-established/affirmed poise. However, I don’t always work through their theory activities with the same thoroughness. I was terribly remiss in not recognizing my most conscientious students would apply all their learning to all their endeavors! I need to help empower them to do that successfully.
My student was smiling and laughing, and even thanking me for a good lesson by the time she left. I heartily thanked her for making that possible! I am so blessed to have such kind teachers in the guise of my students!