Growing up, I REALLY wanted to play the piano. We had an old piano that was painted white, but actually only had one coat so it didn’t quite look white, but instead looked like a white-washed fence. It had gold feet and was one of those old upright pianos that were as tall as you are when you are standing. It must’ve been around our family for quite some time because it had some very distinctive markings on the keys. My mom knew enough piano to teach me the note names, and I memorized that bass E was the one that stuck, middle C had a chipped corner, and treble D had no ivory at all.
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My parents bragged that I was so good I didn't need to practice
I played around on that piano so much that my parents finally took me to a friend of theirs who taught piano. She was always laughing and cheerful, and she had not one, but TWO pianos in her basement, so she would often play duets with me. I loved going to lessons, but I quickly learned that at that time, I didn’t need to practice between lessons. My talent and the knowledge my mom gave me at the start was enough for me to be able to sight read the pieces at my lesson without trouble and usually perfectly. My parents were impressed and bragged about how I was so good that I didn’t need to practice. My teacher didn’t know what to do with me. She just kept turning the page, encouraging me to practice, and then the next week, after not opening the book even once, I’d find the song with today’s date written in pencil in the corner and play it. While this makes me sound like a prodigy, it was more likely because my teacher liked the social time with my mom during my lessons and it was fun for her just to keep going page after page and watch my success without a whole lot of effort on her part.
The bad habit of non-practice was established
Unfortunately, what this did for me was establish the bad habit of non-practice. I grew bored with lessons, and the chit-chat of the women, and wanted to quit. My parents tried to find other teachers around town, but those teachers didn’t have two pianos to play duets, or they were unreliable – rescheduling lessons all the time, or became frustrated because I didn’t practice in-between lessons and when the songs became more difficult so that it was necessary to practice, I wouldn’t proceed very far and therefore stayed on the same song week after week after week and it became grueling.
How about guitar?
In junior high, I wanted to quit and try the guitar. My parents found someone who jumped right into teaching me how to perform – showing me where to place my fingers for each chord change, and how to finger pick and strum. Because I had rhythm and could sing, I soon was able to sound pretty good on the guitar and teamed up with another of his students, who was also my friend, and we performed a duet around town for a couple of years. It was fun for me because I got good really fast, and music is so much more fun when you’re good at it! We also had lots of encouragement because we were singing/playing popular music and just had a ball.
Then one day, I went to my guitar teacher’s house, and it was empty. Looks like he left in a hurry and there was the end of my guitar lessons. I tried another teacher who wanted to teach me how to read notes on the guitar but going back that far after having been performing concerts was too painful and I quit. My friend went on to other things as well and that was that.
Back to Piano, but it was no longer a joy
I was in high school now and thought I’d try the piano again, after all, it was my first love. My best friend was an excellent pianist and took lessons from Miss Edmondson, the sweetest old lady you’d ever want to meet. I thought I’d give it a try and I really enjoyed talking with her. But soon, she became quietly frustrated with me because I couldn’t always practice as much as she hoped I would. But I was very active in high school activities and soon playing the piano was no longer a joy, but a burden, and my life was too busy for that. So, I quit again.
I had one more teacher in college, that was perhaps the meanest teacher I’ve ever seen. If he would’ve had a ruler, he would have rapped me across the knuckles on numerous occasions. It was torture and I often had stomach aches before and during my lessons. Performing made me sick to my stomach – there was so much pressure and properness. And this was even when I DID practice – he just thought encouragement wouldn’t push me musically.
While I was teaching junior high school in Los Angeles, I started teaching my own piano lessons to one of my junior high students – her name was Kristin, and we had the best time. I got out my Piano Pedagogy textbook from college, went to buy the same method books I grew up on, and my journey of teaching began. I taught individual lessons for many years from my home, made good friends with those students, and made some money. But I noticed the cycle that I grew up with was still the same. I didn’t know any better and neither did my students. Some would stay for longer than others, some practiced, and some didn’t, some paid on time and others did not. I struggled with trying to keep them motivated.
My husband plays guitar, and we were in a band together – and actually did some touring in the early years. I was singing with the group, but I never felt comfortable playing keyboards, even as a secondary part, because I was so completely classically trained, I didn’t know what to do with a chord or how to make it sound like music. Here I was in my upper twenties, having played piano since I was 5, and I couldn’t play anything without it being written out. Not even Happy Birthday.
This deficit in my life was frustrating, so when I found the Dick Grove School of Music an hour away from our home, my husband and I both jumped at the chance to learn jazz. It was here that I saw the wide gap between people who learned to read music but never developed their ears to be able to play popular music or improvise (eye people) and the people who never learned to read but could improvise and play popular music (ear people). The two camps came together at this amazing school and each learned the other’s skills.
Piano became a joy for us
We moved to Iowa and had two beautiful children who of course, had no choice but to learn piano from a very young age. I am fortunate to have been able to teach them myself, and it was on them that I experimented with ways to motivate, methods of accountability, setting and achieving musical goals, and instilling joy in performing. I was determined to teach them both how to read music and how to have a developed ear right from the beginning while it was still new and not such a struggle to backpedal. The piano was just something we did in our family – it wasn’t ever an option because there are so many, many benefits to it. It was a joy for us.
When my husband lost his job, things changed for us. We went through a 3-year period of living by faith, trying to dream about what comes next, and pretty much feeling lost. It was a rough time. A friend connected me to her piano teacher who taught group piano and thought maybe I should apply. I was skeptical but also desperate, so I did and got the job. Here began my journey of learning how to teach group lessons. And wow, did I love it! My ideas started to flow. With a group of children, you HAVE to have a plan, you HAVE to keep them moving and occupied, and you HAVE to know what you’re doing! We had super fun performances with the intention of NOT being scary, and in a group, students make friends and learn to play in front of others all the time, so fear is a non-factor.
Our students LOVE music
Fast forward to opening our own group piano studio and here we are! Looking over my past experiences, I can now see what motivated me to do what we do. No more boring, scary, unplanned lessons. Students will become GOOD if not GREAT on their instrument because, after all, that’s when it becomes fun! Students will be able to have a clue what to do with chords and reading music BOTH. And most of all, our students will LOVE music, and know that THEY are loved along the way.