Piano Can Be Fun

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When I was a little girl, I was a whiner. In truth, if you asked my husband, my family, and close friends, they would most likely say that I still am. My Puerto Rican grandmother, Isolina, who had all of an eighth-grade education and worked in New York to support her illiterate, single mother and two younger siblings, needless to say, wasn’t very tolerant of whining. Given her set of circumstances, she did remarkably well for herself throughout the course of her colorful (and I mean colorful) life of eighty- something years. We were never certain of her age, because in earlier years she would occasionally try to pass herself off as my mother’s sister. It would be pretty safe to assume there was a man involved. She told my mom that she was 16 when she had her, but my great-aunt exposed the truth and told my mom that she was actually 27. I clearly remember her buying me a book called, “Manners Can Be Fun”. I can still visualize the “Whiner” character with her oversized head, curly hair, and ski-slope nose. She was personified misery. “Iso” insisted that I learn to play the piano. She bought me a black upright and paid for me to take lessons from a woman who had never had any children.

“Katie”, my teacher, loved me and thought of me as the grandchild she never had. I loved the piano, but practicing was drudgery. My mom would set the wind-up kitchen timer for thirty minutes and I would practice while she created one of her many comforting meals in the adjacent kitchen. If I wouldn’t put forth my best effort, her voice would drone, “Do it again, Lauri.” UGH!!!!! When I could get away with it, I would stealthfully shave 5-10 minutes off to shorten the agonizing monotony. I would groan, “MO-OM, why do I have to practice piano? I just want to go outside and play with my friends.” After she had her fill of my whining, she told me that if I wanted to quit piano, I would have to tell Katie that I didn’t want to play anymore and it just might break her heart. I emphatically said, “Done.” After Katie’s and my eyes swelled with tears, I was incredibly relieved to be finished with such a tedious chore…until I was an adult.

I began taking piano lessons again when I was about 35 and LOVED it. I also took voice lessons. I continued with them until I gave birth to my daughter Grace. I relished the practice knowing that she was in my belly enjoying classical, musical sounds. After she was born, I quit playing as often for fear that it might awaken her from her naps. Instead, I played a never-ending CD of classical music in her room while she slept. To this day, she has an affinity for playing the more classical pieces. I had heard about a method of teaching/learning piano called “The Suzuki Method.” It is a way to teach the student to play by ear. She started by repetitively and continuously listening to a CD of the songs she was to soon learn. She started taking lessons from an amazing teacher when she was 3 1/2 years old. Her face lit up like a Christmas tree when she heard her teacher play those songs for the very first time. She excitedly said, “Mommy, those are the songs that are in my bedroom!” Her first recital was 4 days after her fourth birthday when she played a variation of “Twinkle, Twinkle” with only one hand. She has been playing ever since and has wowed me not only with her gift of music but also with her stage presence and courage.

Shortly after she started, I attended a Suzuki Workshop and sat in on an adults-only seminar given by a seasoned Suzuki Piano teacher. The lecture was titled “Practice Without Violence” (tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully clever). She spoke for a while and then asked the room of forty, “How many of you parents played piano as children?” The entire group raised their hands. She then asked, “How many of you had parents who allowed you to quit because they couldn’t bear hearing you complain about the practice any more?” About half of the hands hesitantly went up knowing that we were the mewling culprits. Her last question was, “How many of you are glad you quit?” Deafening silence. At that moment, I was filled with all the resolve that I will ever need to make sure that my daughter continues until she is finished with high school. What she does with it after that is her choice. If nothing else, she could feed herself by playing at weddings.;-)

When she first started playing piano, her creative teacher had a “bag of tricks” that held a collection of darling little resin figures that the really young students were able to line up on the piano when they were focused and played well. She had Winnie the Pooh and Disney characters, Smurfs, and several of the Mr. Men and Little Miss figurines (my personal favorites). She had one in particular, Mr. Bump, that she would use to make sure the students “bumps” (a.k.a knuckles) were in proper form. She also had a complementary series of small books that she would read to them to break up the lesson and hold their attention. After Grace had learned to play several of the Suzuki pieces, she would delight Grace with “The Fishing Game”. Her teacher had a telescopic magnet, “the pole”, and a variety of fish-shaped paper laminated with a paper clip inside. Each of the fish had the name of the different songs. Her teacher would scatter the fish upside down on the floor and then Grace would pick them up, one at a time, with “the pole” and have to play the specified song. To this day, it is still Gracie’s personal favorite, only now she is playing Beethoven and Mozart.

I don’t have the same toys as her wonderful teacher, but I have created my own tricks and it seems to make our practice more fun and less monotonous. I will let her pick out the book that she would like me to read between songs. Over the course of six years, we have graduated from Baby Einstein to Skippy John Jones to Harry Potter. If she plays it mediocre, she gets one page. If it is played well I’ll reward her with maybe 4 depending on what we wager. Interestingly enough, if she knows that there are four pages on the line, she will keep playing it until she gets the “perfect” and “wins” the prize. I don’t know if she has figured out that she is only benefitting herself by trying to beat me. That’s okay…it’s a win-win situation.

I remember one time she was preparing for a Festival where her performance would be judged. She was struggling with the ending and I told her, “Grace, if you play it perfectly, I will read you four pages of Harry Potter.” She said, “Mom, make it five.” I said, “Okay, but it has to be perfect.” She continued to struggle, so I decided to juice the kitty. “Okay Grace. If you play this perfectly, not only will Mom read you five pages of Harry Potter, I will do a cartwheel in that foyer right there.” She lit up like a brilliant neon sign. “You will?????” “You betcha!” It took her about five times to get it right, and when she did, it was sweet victory! After stretching and saying a silent prayer, I did the cartwheel. The landing was a little less than stellar, but the mission was accomplished. Piano, along with anything else that is often tedious, can be fun. There really is no need for whining.

Princess To Patty Cake

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