Thursday, July 3, 2014

The making of a pianist II - a tiger is born not made

Well, it's the end of another calendar year and we completed another recital at the end of the Spring semester.  In a nutshell, here is the list of what we have gotten so far:

1, Lesson progress: Completion of Suzuki book 1 and preparation of book 1 recital.  Completion of Fabers' book series of premier level and entering 1/3 of level 1.

2, Music note reading level: name and play all 23 notes on the entire staff in treble clef and bass clef.

2, Exam: A- for the Fall/Winter semester and B+ for the Sprint semester.

3, Competition: Superior for the Winter fest (Feb 2014) and and Excellent for the Local Area Music Teacher Association (LAMTA, March, 2014).  Students must receive Superior to be qualified for a state-level competition (I came to know this after the fact!)

4, Awards: None (she had a third place award from Ms. Alice's studio last year).

5, Current practice frequency: every other day mostly and occasionally daily, 15 - 30 min each session.

As a self-labeled tiger mother, I am proud beyond words.

Zhuzhu is not at the top level compared to her peers - we can easily find many young piano geniuses online, although I personally have not met anyone in real life demonstrating her/his innate talents on piano playing at her age.  I begin to believe now that Zhuzhu may well be one of the true music lovers based on her willingness to play the piano whenever her friends and our adult guests come to our house.  She even agreed to do a Suzuki book I recital at home for her friends when she was given a choice of not doing so, wow!

Does this mean that we are now making a pianist out of her, really?

Hell no.

But you know, other than being born a tiger, I am also a spoiling and glass is half full type of mother.  I try my best to cultivate her natural talents and to maintain an age-appropriate progression.  I am very careful so that I don't push her limit so that she does not sacrifice her childhood for the boring and repetitive piano practice.  She needs spare time to enjoy being a careless child.

Like most of the other regular 7 yr old, Zhuzhu's love for piano is not consistent.  She reminds me often that her life goal is to be a jewelry maker, regardless how well she plays the piano.  I am in fact quite impressed that she has kept this career goal ever since she entered kindergarten (prior to that, she had wanted to be a princess and then a swan lake ballet teacher and then a Chinese dance teacher).

It helps that she has inherited quite a bit of her daddy's artistic talents and has superb sense of responsibility.  Unfortunately, I have essentially no music education.  Nurturing her love for the music in my case is 1) walking her to Ms. Alice studio once per week; 2) reminding her to practice; 3) sitting in front of the piano when she starts a new piece (I cannot read music notes, but sitting there with her calms her down.)

My walking her to/from Ms. Alice's piano studio usually is the time that she tells me how much she hates piano and wishes to drop it.  Our typical conversation following a lesson goes like this:

"I am so happy that you played well today.  I think that Ms. Alice likes the progress you made last week."

"Yea, but I don't really like playing piano."

"But I really enjoy listening to your play and I wish I could play as well as you do!"

"But Ms. Alice still wants me to try this and try that.  She always wants me to be perfect.  It is not good to be perfect.  It is not that important to be perfect!"

"I agree that it is not good to ALWAYS ask for perfection.  But if she didn't tell you where you could improve, how would you know?  Don't you agree if you do what she teaches you, the music sounds better?"

"Yea, but I still like to figure things out myself.  I prefer the way I play.  Why do I have to follow her way to play?  Why she always thinks her way is the best?"

"Because she is the teacher and it is her job.  But don't worry, when your skills grow a bit more, you will have the chance to play to way you want."

"But she NEVER likes the way I play.  I should be creative and I should not have to do what she told me.  I don't like to be told what to do."

"Do you remember what Ms. Alice told you about the number of rights needed in order to correct one wrong?"


"Would you rather to play the wrong way and than work a lot longer to get it right?"

"But it's like what I do is never good enough for her!  Mommy, Ms. Alice is too strict, so strict that hurts my feelings sometimes.  Plus, she NEVER does anything herself.  She just sits there and corrects me and 'I' have to do all the work.  It's not fair!"

"I see, you don't like Ms. Alice sits there."

"Sometimes I just don't understand her.  No matter how hard I try, I just cannot get it right.  It even hurts my hands!"

"I know.  Let me give your hands a magic kiss."

Of course, there are other times the conversation is quite heated:

"I don't like Ms. Alice and I hate playing piano.  Why did you sign me up for piano lesson."

 "Oh, you are just having a bad day, let's not talk about piano right now."

"But I still don't like piano lessons and I won't go to Ms. Alice's class next week or any other weeks after that of the whole semester!"

After few times of repeating more or less the same thing that she still could not shut up, I would say the following with a stern tone,

"Listen, Zhuzhu, you are a big girl now and I respect your decisions generally, if those decisions made calmly and reasonably.  Since you are mad, you may not make any permanent decision now.  If you truly mean to quit piano after you calm down, I'll not force you.  But then you need to understand that will be your decision, not mine.  You are responsible for all the decisions that you make and all the consequences coming from those decisions.  I want you to promise me once you have made the decision of quitting piano, you have to stick to it.  Please don't come back to ask me to drive you to another piano lesson ever again."

This works from time to time, but not all the time.

One day, even when Zhuzhu saw steams coming out of my head, she would not drop the idea of quitting piano.  So I told her to go away with a pen and a piece of paper to write down her decision, the arguments supporting this decision, and its consequences.

Here is what I discovered hours later*:

* She did not give this little note to me right after she finished and was embarrassed when she saw me reading it hours later that night.  So the note indicated that she, instead of recording the decision, expressed her strong feelings.  If you are someone like me, you must also be impressed by her capability of expressing her feelings with words and drawings.  It's such a powerful way to dissipate strong energy!

To be absolutely fair to Zhuzhu, it isn't always her fault if she gets upset with playing the piano.  Her teacher Ms. Alice, in my opinion, emphasizes more hard work than innate interest or at least she comes across as someone who believes more "commitment to practicing" than talents.  She said even talented students need to practice outside her classes to build a strong foundation in piano techniques and grow musical understanding.  When she meets parents like I who don't intend to making a professional pianist out of our kids, she would emphasize that "piano education cultivates discipline, confidence, personal integrity, and perseverance, which carries over to many aspects of a child's life regardless of career directions." - quote from her website.

Well, I had not known that she was dead serious about her teaching philosophy and would strictly adhere to her policy until one day at which I'd learnt my lesson in a hard way: sometime during the first semester, I informed that Ms. Alice that I would need to take Zhuzhu to a birthday party a little bit before the end of her studio classes.  I'd not intended to ask her permission, I was being polite and respectful to let her know.  Yet what surprised me was her strong reaction, "Studio classes are designed for students to come together so that they can observe and learn from each others.  It's important and MANDATORY.  Students are usually quite motivated following such studio lessons.  It would defeat the purpose if students are free to come and go."

Guess what I did?  I waited as long as Zhuzhu could possibly stand, which was almost at the end of it, and then wrote an apology letter to all the parents/students afterwards to promise not to repeat the same "mistake".

Naturally, the progression of Zhuzhu's piano skills, just like her love for music, is inconsistent.  She actually had very tough time in the past year.

Ever since last summer vacation, Zhuzhu's piano play skills had taken a down turn.  She advanced from premier to level 1 in Faber book, but she kept the old habits of learning those new pieces right prior to her lesson time.  As the music pieces get longer, it would require more practice to grow muscle memory.  Her "practice prior to lesson time" had been easily detected by her sluggish progress.  So, Her teacher was quite disappointed.  Coincidently, Ms. Alice was not happy about some of her other students at that time.  So one day, when we arrived her studio, she somehow started to talk about the fact that she had been debating whether she should tell few of her students to either quit piano lessons or look for other more suitable teachers.  Since she has been frustrated with those "unmotivated" students who clearly came to her lessons only for making their parents happy.  "Some of them even told me that piano grades did not matter because it is not part of the regular curriculum"... She went on and on to relay the importance and value of teaching and learning piano to me.  Knowing that she has always been quite careful in maximizing the benefits of each of her lessons, I kept my mouth shut.  After about 10 minutes or so, she finally turned to Zhuzhu to ask her to play Allegretto 2 from Suzuki book I, a song that Zhuzhu needed to prepare for the LAMTA competition.  This piece requires a technique called staccato, which is the very first repertoire that Suzuki book 1 teaches and Zhuzhu had never truly mastered it.  But after a whole month of repeating the same song, Zhuzhu was really tired of it.  When the teacher repeatedly stopped her in the middle of the song to ask her to repeat/correct staccato notes, she simply played worse at each repeat.  At the end of the lesson, Zhuzhu behaved like a zombie mechanically doing whatever she was asked to do, without even trying to get it right.

At that point, I was quite concerned about the teacher's method of teaching.  I believed that her strictness had gotten too far and it could hurt Zhuzhu's self-esteem.

Then I offered my opinion, "Is it possible that Zhuzhu simply needs more time to grow the ability compared to other students?"  The experienced teacher looked at me, with her utter sincerity and said, "Mia had been such a wonderful student the first year and I truly am not willing to lower my expectations of her.  We have spent quite some time to relearn some of the techniques that we had already learnt last year.  If we continue on doing this, I won't be able to move on teaching her any music."  I felt quite guilty and sorry but could not come up with any words.  After few seconds of silence, she told Zhzuzhu, "Mia, since you have worked on this for quite a while now, I would move on to learn next song.  However, I want you to promise me that you will continue to practice this song at home by yourself.  Okay?"

Zhuzhu nodded her head obediently with obvious relief.  However, my feeling (or ego?) was hurt profoundly.

Following that came with more bad news: one of Zhuzhu's friends and her brother quitted taking piano lessons from Ms. Alice.  Those 2 students had only transferred to Ms. Alice one semester ago!

Suddenly, those sentences like "Ms. Alice is too strict."  "I don't like her.", "I wish that I could switch to a less strict teacher!" and "She hurts my feelings sometimes." became louder and clearer...

... So I started to look around for alternatives.

You guessed it, before I could act, Zhuzhu had miraculously regained her comfortableness with Ms. Alice.

I must say that it is such a luck that Zhuzhu's mood rarely is in sync with mine keeping her still having the same piano teacher.  Or maybe from the bottom of her heart, Zhuzhu knows that her teacher is one of the best.  Ms. Alice does have superb sensitivity to her students' efforts.

So I once again had put the idea of "switching teacher" on hold.

And I hope that I won't have to revisit this decision ever again.

At the time I was working on this post, Ms. Alice sent this article to all her students and their parents.

What did you get from reading it?  Here is the list of things that I learned from the article:

1.  Praises and criticisms need to be specific and concrete on skills, techniques, abilities, talents, time spend on practices, efforts as those can motivate students and help them to build self-esteem.  

2.  Do not give any personal praises/criticisms as they are subjective.  

3.  Do not compare one person to another as it hurts self-esteem. 

Also praises and criticisms from different people weight differently: 

10 from teachers (!!!)
5 from parents.
2.5 from friends - this can be tricky tho, sometimes can be 10 as well!  
1 from someone barely known 

Zhuzhu has showed tremendous grace to accept her "B+" on her piano final exam and "Excellent" on her LAMTA competition.  Such second tier grades have not stopped her clapping hands to congratulate her peers for their receiving mini-scholarships and awards at the recital stage.  They also have not stopped her going to piano lessons this summer willingly.

Most importantly, she has not asked me to stop sending her to piano lessons for even once ever since the recital!

She clearly is stronger than I give the credits for.    

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