Friday, December 19, 2008

Update on the Search for Jillian's Piano Teacher

We visited a potential piano teacher (for Jillian) this past Saturday. At 12 miles (about 30 minutes) away, she was the nearest teacher we could find on the Suzuki of Americas website. Sure, there are closer teachers that do not employ the Suzuki method, but I’ve talked with three different people, one former student (hi Discopalace) and two parents of Suzuki students about their experiences. These conversations have persuaded me that the extra few minutes are worth it. After trading a couple of emails and a phone call, potential piano teacher (henceforth “PPT”) agreed to meet us, and asked us to sit on a lesson she would be conducting for a little girl about Jillian’s age.

Saturday arrived, and at 8:30 AM, so did we, at PPT’s house. When we opened the front door, we stepped immediately into her medium-sized living room, dominated by a beautiful, giant rosewood Kawai RX-3. It was an absolutely gorgeous piano, alongside a small, 61 key Yamaha digital, which I later learned was for PPT’s use, to accompany students during lessons. Every wall that didn’t have a window was covered by bookcases, floor to ceiling, and every bookcase was full. Plants hung in front of the windows; Jillian says there were 18 of them, and I’ve learned not to doubt her on this sort of thing. In the rest of the room, there was seating for 6 in the form of a couch, a loveseat, a chair-and-a-half, all arranged in a C shape around the piano, along with an old organ, the kind with pedals to blow air through. All this in a room about 15’ x 20’. Crowded enough for you?

I wanted to get there early, to talk to PPT about Jillian, our expectations for a piano teacher, and logistics in terms of lesson times, dates, and practice requirements. PPT had another agenda. She’d barely shaken our hands before handing over all sorts of documents about the Suzuki method, books that are required, recital information, and that sort of thing. Before she’d totally finished her pitch, her student came in, accompanied by her father, bowed*, and began her lesson. PPT continued talking to us as the lesson began, explaining what they were working on, where her student was in the learning process, and how the little girl had progressed in her 18 months of lessons. It felt sort of uncomfortable to be the focus of attention; but neither the little girl nor her father seemed to mind. Jillian sat by me for the first 15 or 20 minutes, but eventually the ants in her pants prevailed, and she started wandering over to the piano bench to get a better view. I could tell she wanted to play, but we never got the chance. The next students (a brother / sister combo) came in before the lesson was over, and really crowded the place. We thanked the little girl and her dad for letting us watch their lesson, thanked PPT for her time, got our coats, and headed home.

* - “Bow to your sensei! Bow to your sensei!” (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference without clicking on the link.)

There are several aspects of the Suzuki method that appeal to me. The first is the requirement that parents, whether they are musicians or not, attend all lessons. The reasoning behind this is that when the child is home practicing, the parents should reinforce the points emphasized by the teacher. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. Of course I’m excited to do this, even though Jillian has sometimes refused my help in the past. But I am also excited to listen to the lessons for my own sake. Two lessons for the price of one! (Hold that thought.) But there is also the aspect of monitoring the lessons, hearing the teacher for ourselves, and watching the improvement over time. Jillian’s first piano teacher did not allow us to sit in on the lessons. And we never felt like we got good information about how things went, either from Jillian or the teacher. “She’s doing great! Keep up the good work!” The first couple of times, this was nice to hear. After hearing it every time for weeks, it became aggravating. Now we’ll get to see and hear the lessons, instructions, and progress for ourselves.

Another thing: once a month, the teacher gathers all her students for a collective lesson / recital. I could see a lot of value in this. First, there’s the whole social aspect of meeting other like-minded kids and developing long-term friendships with them. But also, hearing others play the same pieces you did, giving them their own personal but still technically correct touch… that’s gotta be instructive. Suzuki people sure seem to think so. Then there is an actual formal recital every three months. The goal here is to throw the student in front of people often enough to where performance anxiety eventually melts away. Perhaps that’s overstating it… the anxiety may never go away, but perhaps its manifestation decreases over time, with experience.

Finally, back to this two lessons for the price of one thing. The folks who came in as the lesson concluded were a mom and two children, a boy (about 10) and a girl (about 13). They are both students. She asked "Who wants to go first?" and though we left before we heard the answer, this intrigued me. Turns out she gives a small family discount for multiple students from the same family. Remember, Jillian was teaching Jason piano. In future years, Jason, Rowan, or Joseph might also all have piano lessons. If Jillian goes through the method, she can shepherd any (all?) of her younger siblings who may do likewise. After all, she'll have already played the pieces herself.

I asked Jillian what she thought of the experience. Of course, I expected her to like the piano and the teacher, who seemed very nice and supportive. I did not expect her to be excited about the public performance aspect of the Suzuki method, which she was. What’s more, in addition to the group lessons and quarterly recitals, you also periodically go in front of judges to play standard Suzuki pieces. They rate you on some sort of point system, and offer suggestions for improvement and future growth. Over time, as you accumulate points, you get some sort of Gold Cup, and then start with the next grade. Upon completion of that, you get a larger Gold Cup, and so on and so forth. Of all the things she could have been impressed with or excited about, it was this aspect that fired her up the most. Well then.

We haven’t signed up yet. There is one other teacher nearby. Although she isn’t a Suzuki teacher, friends of friends have gone to this woman for piano lessons for years, and speak in hushed, reverend tones about what a good teacher she is. We may go meet her too, and then make a decision.

One way or another, expect Jillian to start her lessons in January.

- Aw2pp, who, in a shameless ripoff of popular iconoclastic Chicago blogger Mimi Smartypants, is going to begin signing off on his posts

1 comment:

pdxknitterati said...

I did Suzuki piano with my younger son, but not my older son. They started at the same time. I don't think my older son (age 10 then) would have been a good Suzuki student, but it was perfect for my younger (5 at the time).

The only caution I would add is that it's really important that the teacher teach music reading. Ours wasn't insistent, and Kiddo really didn't learn to read well. He went through part of book 5 before stopping. He has also played sax and still plays guitar. And still doesn't read well!