Sunday, May 06, 2012

Twinkle Twinkle to Debussy in one post

You may be wondering about Oliver's first piano lesson last week. Well, I was there and I'm still wondering about it.

I hired a friend -- someone Oliver knows a little; a musician who plays the piano but doesn't necessarily know how to teach it. I chose Greg because over the years I've watched him interact with children and he is blessed with a natural reserve of patience and creativity. I talked to him beforehand about what we've been learning about how Oliver learns and I counted on his ability to think outside the box.

The lesson itself was pretty unremarkable. Oliver was very anxious. He did not want to sit at the piano with Greg. In fact, he did not want to sit at the piano at all. But he did agree to stay in the room and listen. And he did agree to let Greg come back next week. In the meantime, he was asked to practice Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The notes are marked on the keys and he has the corresponding numbers marked on a sheet of paper.

But what is most interesting is what happened two days after the lesson. I asked Oliver to sit down at the piano with me one day to practice. He did not want to do it. Undaunted, I put the song aside and just asked him to make some sounds on the piano with me. He did not want to do it. I mean he really didn't want to do it. The more I pressed the more he objected.

So I launched into a little pep talk about practicing. It is important to know that a person can get better at something over time, I told him. And I reminded him about how he fell down a lot when he first learned to ride his bike but that now he is such a great rider. I think I went on and on a bit. At one point, Oliver took the pen and wrote: "I want to play well." And that just added more fuel to the pep talk -- you know: every great musician started out as a beginner, blah, blah, blah, that sort of thing.

Then, Oliver took the pen again and wrote: "I know what would help."

"What, Oliver? Please: Tell me!!"

To which he replied: "I must have a tape recording of Debussy."

At this point can I just stop and tell you how amazing that sentence is on so many levels? I must have a tape recording of Debussy. I don't know which part I love more. The "must have" part melts my heart. And tape recording? Where did he get that? Debussy? Why must it be Debussy? I think I've repeated that sentence in all its glory to myself about a thousand times since Thursday.

I must have a tape recording of Debussy.

I think it is the most beautiful sentence I've ever heard.

After that I spent a few minutes clarifying the request and within a half hour the kid had nine mp3 tracks downloaded onto the iPad. But as I was getting it all ready the questions just kept coming and despite my agreement to ask Oliver fewer questions, I couldn't help myself.

Me: Oliver, how will listening to these songs help you learn to play the piano?
Oliver: I can listen and hear the notes.
Me: But how will you know where to put your hands on the keys to make those notes?
Oliver (giggling as if that is the funniest thing he ever heard):  "I'm really smart!"

Um, OK. I honestly just don't know what to think. The kid wants to play Debussy and I suddenly have no doubt that he is somehow figuring out how to do it in the same stealth way that he figured out how to read and do math. But I'll tell you that I don't have the slightest idea about what I can do to help him along the way and it is killing me! Do I just stand back and let him do his thing? Is there something more I could be doing? Somehow I don't think figuring out the notes to Twinkle Twinkle is what he needs.

Any musicians out there in the peanut gallery? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. This is just stunning. Amazing. As I read, I thought to myself, I bet he already knows how to play it... I don't know what to advise, except maybe let him have a little space, a little time to try it his way? Make sure he knows you are there if he needs anything, but maybe let him try to puzzle it out. I have this weird feeling he's nearly there already.

  2. I hate reading music and did it for years. I had more fun with 6 months of playing in a band doing covers and learning the songs by ear.