A Boy, A Teacher, and Piano Lessons in the Larger Sense
When five-and-a-half-year-old Yoni entered my life, I was experiencing my first flush of success teaching Music as a Second Language® to children. My approach to the piano was based on the way we learn to speak.

As it turned out, teaching Yoni would be a pivotal experience for me. Though he ultimately helped to bring my understanding to a deeper level, this special kid, for a long time, called into question many of my hopes and beliefs about the piano, about education, and about myself.

To tell the story, I need to set the stage with some personal history.

By 1983, my plan to abandon all thoughts of a musical career, and to achieve wealth and happiness as a businessman, was beginning to reveal its fatal flaw. Yes, I was doing quite well as an outside salesman in the office supply and printing industry. The problem was, I couldn't stop making music.

What’s more, I was enthralled by the process of teaching myself to play the piano by ear, and to improvise. These were skills that had eluded me despite all my earlier training. Now, as I astonished myself by gradually transforming the impossible into the routine, I found myself playing with a new freedom and ease.

One thing led to another. To gain more practice time, I found myself ending my sales day earlier and earlier. Gradually, I proved to be such a good salesman that I actually sold myself on the idea that certain days of the week weren't really workdays at all.

As a pianist, I began to feel growing confidence in those vital intuitive areas which I had feared might be forever closed to me. Before I knew it, fantasies of a musical career began popping up once again.

And once again I was excited by the idea of teaching. To be honest, during two previous stints as a piano teacher, my dreams had outclassed my accomplishments. Now I felt that I had something genuine to offer: the curriculum I had devised for myself, which had finally enabled me to feel at home at the piano.

Since my sales work left me plenty of time, I took on a few students. As a born-again music teacher, I vowed that everything would be different now. Dissatisfied with my own training, I wanted to develop an entirely new approach. I studied the writings of Shinichi Suzuki, and was inspired by his play-first-read-music-later approach for the very young. Through the 1980's, however, I worked with adults only. If I were going to experiment on live human beings, it seemed only right that they be able to quit at any time, or even walk out in the middle of a lesson. Sadly, in such matters, children must often defer to the whims of their parents.

For several years, the quality of my teaching was erratic. I often committed myself to marvelous theories which proved useless in actual practice. But gradually, I found procedures that worked well with the students who came my way. As a piano teacher in the early 1970's, I had experienced the frustration of knowing that I was passing along my own shortcomings. Now, a decade later, I was helping my students to build the kind of musical foundation I wished I had had.

But my teaching was changing in other ways, too. My students were not, for the most part, professionals. Music was a way of making their lives more enjoyable, and no one knew better than I that it was possible to be a highly skilled musician and an equally unhappy person. For most of my life, I could impress virtually anyone who heard me play. My inner experience, on the other hand, particularly in social situations, often ranged from anxiety to terror.

As a teacher, I could never again be satisfied with acknowledging only one aspect of my students' lives. The lessons of wholeness and balance I had learned through my years of therapy, and my more recent spiritual understandings as well, would now play a part in my work. No longer was I impressed by musical brilliance achieved at the expense of personal sanity. Now, I would either contribute to the overall well-being of my students, or I simply wouldn't teach at all.

And gradually, I began to sense that I could, in fact, be more than just an instructor to those who entered my studio. I could be an advocate and a friend.

By 1992 I knew that it was time to put my sales career to rest. I decided to teach full time, and after carefully weighing the matter, began to advertise myself as a teacher of all ages. I was thrilled to be teaching children again, and quickly learned to make the necessary adjustments for my younger students. By the time I met Yoni six months later, I had good reason to believe that my new approach would work just as well with kids as it did with adults.

Yoni (rhymes with Tony) is a fraternal triplet—he has two sisters. I liked him immediately. He was (and is) exuberant, imaginative, witty, passionate about music, and applies himself wholeheartedly to whatever he finds exciting. In those days, I found kids his age to be a challenge. They wanted above all to have fun, and I was still fairly inexperienced at the fine art of reconciling learning and play.

And Yoni was, without a doubt, playful.

Nevertheless, we got off to a great start. Even as he practiced his first three-note piece, I was impressed by Yoni's capable young fingers, and by the precision of his playing.

Our lessons took on a routine. We began by working on whatever little composition we had chosen for his current project. This might be either a piano solo, or an accompaniment to back up his own singing. Though my ideas and goals were changing rapidly, like most piano teachers I still considered the mastery of repertoire as the defining aspect of our work together.

Yoni would learn these pieces largely by imitating me, and by understanding the chords they used.

After that, we played "copycat." This was a game in which I played brief snippets of melody which he had to find by ear, and then play in other keys.

Then we improvised. I played an endlessly repeating, rhythmic chord progression on the lower half of the piano, as he improvised in the higher registers.

Towards the end of the lesson, Yoni's mother, Susan, would return to pick him up, and Yoni would proudly play for her whatever portion he had added to his current piece. While this was a pleasure for the two of them, it was also, to be honest, a chance for me to show Susan what I had accomplished as a teacher.

Yoni was learning and he was having a great time. Everything was proceeding according to plan.

One day he ran into my studio yelling, "I want to play Beethoven!" As it turned out, he had just heard a performance of Fur Elise at school. Knowing that this piece would be too difficult, I made an arrangement of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" instead, and over the next few months Yoni learned it well. The skill and enthusiasm with which he played "Ode to Joy" were further signs to me that I was capable of succeeding with children. All of us—Yoni, Susan, and I—were excited.

And that's when it all began to unravel.

For many weeks, Yoni had been begging me to teach him "Fur Elise". (The spell cast by this two-hundred-year-old piece over my students, young and old, is remarkable.) Encouraged by our recent success, once again I put my hand to arranging, and once again we embarked on a new adventure with Beethoven. And, we got off to a good start. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the atmosphere at our lessons began to change.

I began noticing that more and more, I found myself entreating Yoni to focus his attention on the music. In a way, it seemed appropriate—I had taught enough six-year-olds to know that the urge to play and joke is pretty hard to resist when you're that age, so I was accustomed to redirecting kids to (what I considered to be) the matter at hand.

But I began to wonder. Whereas initially, Yoni's contagious enthusiasm had been the engine that propelled us, now it often seemed my own relentless determination was all that kept us struggling through measure after painful measure. After a few months of working on "Fur Elise," it was becoming apparent that our lessons were no longer much fun: not for Yoni, and not for me.

I was confused. He was making some progress on the piece (even if very slowly), and he did want this piece more than anything. Had it really been much different as we worked on "Ode to Joy"? I was no longer sure.

One week Yoni sat down at the piano and said to me very sadly, "My Fur Elise has problems." I decided that it was time to put Herr Beethoven on hold, and asked Yoni how he felt about learning something else instead. He seemed relieved. I never doubted for a moment that his appetite for learning new repertoire would return when we found the right composition—a piece more in line with his abilities.

Somehow, we never found that piece.

Over the next few months, we worked on a series of new, never-to-be-completed projects. With each one, I expected to see the old gusto of the "Ode to Joy" days return; with each one I was disappointed. To my eyes, Yoni was simply not the same boy who had excited me with his joy for learning and his appetite for overcoming challenges. He still seemed glad to see me each week, but (I hate to admit) I was less and less thrilled to see him. He had become the symbol for something I preferred not to think about: the doubts I was having about my work with children, especially the younger ones.

My adult students, fortunately, were doing well. But I began thinking of all the kids I had worked with in recent months, and in my discouragement could see only those who had quit, and those whose initial enthusiasm had greatly diminished. If Yoni had been the only disappointment, I could have rationalized away our difficulties. But a trend was clearly emerging, and I was beginning to ask myself some serious questions.

Was I being overly idealistic in my expectations? Was it unrealistic to insist that, if approached in the right way, learning to play the piano could actually be fun for kids? Maybe the sad drudgery we were beginning to experience was unavoidable once the initial thrill wore off, and the real task of mastering a difficult instrument began.

Worse yet, somewhere deep inside me lurked the nagging suspicion that there might actually be something unhealthy about learning to play the piano. While this might seem a strange notion, especially coming from a piano teacher, such thoughts were not new to me. After all, two things about my own childhood stood out: precocious musical ability and seemingly endless sadness. Is it so strange that I would begin to wonder whether the two might be linked?

Even now, when I think of piano lessons, the image that often comes to mind is that of a child sitting at a piece of sophisticated machinery, being asked to master complex skills in isolation.

Fortunately, by the time I met Yoni I had come to understand that rather than being the problem, the piano had been my life preserver—a way of feeling good about myself while growing up in a difficult environment. But that was just it. Yoni didn't need a life preserver. He was a happy kid in a loving and attentive family. Without the desperate need to be seen and heard that I often felt as a child, maybe there was little motivation for a kid like Yoni to undertake the difficult challenges I set before him week after week, when he could be playing Nintendo instead, or watching TV with his sisters.

But perhaps the real problem had nothing to with the piano at all. Maybe it was just me. Had a difficult childhood left a hole in my character that would always prevent me from being able to offer something of real value to the world? Although making the shift from a career in sales to a life increasingly devoted to service had done wonders for my self-esteem, there was still a voice inside that said: "You have failed to show the world that you are the great pianist and composer you always wanted to be. Who's kidding who? The very phrase 'piano teacher' is synonymous with a life of compromise and resignation. How can someone who has never achieved excellence in his own right, bring out the best in others?"

Now you might wonder if I really believe these things, if I take seriously the doubts and self-doubts that give rise to these questions. Intellectually? No. Emotionally? Only on my worst days, and less and less as the years go by. But whether or not my fears were based in reality, during this stage of my work with Yoni, they were certainly triggered.

After several months of trying to get him back on track learning new repertoire once again, I finally decided it was time for both of us to get off the train. After too many lessons in which I found myself torn between Yoni's reluctance or inability and my own expectations, I decided that there would be no more compromises. From now on, Yoni—and Yoni alone—would lead the way. Either we would make sense of what we were doing using his instincts to guide us, or Yoni would simply quit (as many others had). If he quit, I would lick my wounds and somehow continue my work, but with a less exalted notion of the applicability and rewards of my teaching.

On reaching that decision, I felt both relieved and apprehensive. I already considered myself to be a radical, of sorts, in my work as a teacher. After all, I was the heretic (in many circles) who suggested that learning to read music was a secondary skill, not a place to start. I really had no idea what might happen if I relaxed even further and said to a six-year-old, "Hey—what would you like to do today?" But I knew that I never again wanted to be a horse trainer with Yoni or any other student. My own history had made me exquisitely sensitive to any situation in which a teacher or parent might be less than respectful of, or attentive to, a child's genuine feelings, needs, and desires.

With that in mind, I was now prepared in my work with Yoni to abandon the two educational cornerstones that piano teachers have traditionally held most dear—music reading, and now, even repertoire itself. But in truth, I had little or no idea what shape our lessons might take, or even if there was any point in continuing at all. I only knew that the answers to those questions must be left up to Yoni.

The next step was to talk to Susan, and I wasn't particularly looking forward to that. Though we liked each other and had always seemed to share the desire that Yoni be allowed to develop in his own way, I suspected that my new strategy—or lack of one, really—would be the ultimate test of Susan's willingness to put aside her own expectations and to trust that Yoni and I would somehow continue to justify the ninety minute round trip they made every Tuesday afternoon. In my mind, my "let's-just-see-what-happens" approach was a difficult sell: I had never tried it before and could offer no assurance that it would pay off in any way. In effect, I was asking her if she'd like to pay me to try this interesting experiment I had in mind.

To my amazement and to Susan's enormous credit, she agreed without hesitation. At the very least, I was expecting her to hedge or to suggest some conditions or limits, but there was nothing of the kind. She said, in effect, "Yoni loves coming here. I trust that that's important." I was touched, and will forever be grateful to her for her faith in her son and in me.

I began to make plans for our next lesson. (All right—I wasn't perfect yet: I was still making the plans. But at least I saw them as very tentative.)

My first thought was to spend more time improvising. After all, we don't learn to speak by memorizing sentences—we improvise them. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe Yoni's reluctance to learn new pieces was a natural response to a premature emphasis on polished performance rather than relaxed experimentation.

Though we had improvised before, we began doing it differently now. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had been using improvisation as a technique. It was something we had been doing at the end of each lesson largely because I felt it was good for him. Now we just did it. And we did it for as long as he wanted. I discovered, to my delight, that when we treated improvising as the main item on our agenda, it often blossomed into something quite lovely. It was even more enjoyable for me. I began to truly express myself during our improvising, rather than thinking of myself as being there solely to serve his needs. (I suspect that my more genuine involvement ended up serving both of us equally.)

But we couldn't spend the entire forty-five minutes improvising. So we began doing something that was most definitely not on any lesson plan. One day Yoni picked up a small, soft, leather-covered ball he saw on my shelf. He began playing with it, and before we knew it we were in a heated competition with ourselves to see how many times we could throw it back and forth without dropping it. Yoni loved this game, and I saw it as an enjoyable change of pace, as well as a healthy way to channel the irrepressible energy of a six-year-old. It became a regular part of our routine for many months. Playing catch didn't fit any of the standard definitions of piano teaching that I knew, but I was determined to let our "curriculum" be Yoni's creation—not mine.

Though far from confident about the value of what we were doing, I was beginning to think that we might be headed in a healthy direction. And what choice did I have? I certainly didn't want to return to the tension and heaviness of the "Fur Elise" days. As our sessions began to lighten up, I wrote in my journal: "Could it be that Yoni is teaching me how to work with little ones?" But it was still a question—the answer far from certain.

And then Yoni and I became songwriters.

I no longer remember who suggested it—so many of the things we've done together have been his idea—but one day we decided to write some music. I asked Yoni what he'd like to write about, and he said, after a moment's thought, "pickles." Before you could say "delicatessen," he had dictated these lyrics to me:

    The pickle's so crunchy and yummy
    It's unhappy to be in the jar.
    It wants to be in your tummy
    So why don't you have one right now?

I then suggested that he try singing the words of the first line. "Sing it?" he said. "How do I do that?"

I told him to sing the first notes that came into his head, and to my surprise, he blurted out a melody that went perfectly with his lyric. I began playing an oom-pah-pah accompaniment, he sang a little more, and before we knew it, we had completed our first joint opus—"The Pickle Song".

Writing songs together was a turning point in our relationship. If there once had been a time when I felt guilty about channeling his energies in ways that seemed appropriate only to me, I could now rest easy on that account. For Yoni was virtually exploding with excitement as he did what he seemed to enjoy doing more than anything in the world—writing and performing songs like "The Sea Animals' Birthday," "A House for Hermit Crab," and perhaps our greatest creation of all (certainly our most hilarious)—"Prehistoric Dinosaurs".

While I might have preferred that Yoni play the accompaniments rather than I, and would have liked him to have participated in choosing the chords, these reservations were minor. With our recent struggles still fresh in our memories, I encouraged him to do those things that came easily and naturally to him. Except for my occasional suggestions, the words and melodies were all his. What's more, I was impressed by Yoni's insights into how our songs could gain variety and shape through changes of tempo and dynamics.

Among my most vivid recollections of this period are the many occasions on which Yoni would improvise in the higher registers of the piano as we played and sang our latest musical madness for a wildly appreciative audience—Yoni's mother and sisters.

Now you might think that at this point, my confidence in our new direction would have been on the rise. And in some ways, it was. But I was also discovering an interesting, if unsettling, truth about myself. Though Yoni was overjoyed, and Susan wasn't complaining in the least, there was a part of me that was less than comfortable with the new order.

I knew that Yoni was having a great deal of fun, was learning about song form, and was gaining confidence in his own creativity. But as the one who earlier had been prepared to discuss with Susan all the advantages of a laissez-faire approach, I was now discovering that it was I who needed reassurance from her. More than once, as the months wore on, I felt compelled to say, "Look, Susan—nothing tangible is happening here. Yoni isn't learning to play anything new, and I have no idea when, or even if, he will. And do you realize that sometimes, when you think we're playing the piano, we're actually playing catch? Are you sure you're OK with all this?"

More than once I asked, and more than once Susan said, "No problem." So what exactly was troubling me?

For one thing, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was being paid for doing nothing. Susan had originally answered my ad with the expectation that I could teach her son to play the piano, and I wasn't exactly doing that. How could I take her money knowing that Yoni and I were basically goofing off for forty-five minutes each week? Music lessons weren't just about having fun, were they?

But there was more to it than that. My experience with Yoni was threatening my self-image as the great educator, the inventor of Music as a Second Language. After many months of concocting our little songs, improvising, and playing catch, it was becoming more and more obvious to me that Yoni wasn't developing any additional, concrete, skills that I could see. (Though he was getting pretty darn good at playing catch.) It often seemed to me that all we had to show for our efforts were some goofy little songs. And if Yoni wasn't mastering repertoire, how could I show how brilliant I was?

For nearly a year, our state of limbo, as I had come to think of it, continued. And as I tried to evaluate with honesty our work together, I was torn between two conflicting messages: my own doubts, and Yoni's joy. If he had been more restrained in his delight—if he had behaved, in other words, more like some of my other students—it would have been even more difficult for me to hold to our untried course. Thankfully, Yoni's enthusiasm flowed so abundantly and unwaveringly, that it would have taken a harder heart than mine to discount his feelings and refuse to take seriously the more trusting, relaxed, approach to which he seemed to be calling me.

God had sent this teacher a teacher, and God had chosen wisely.

And then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as it began, our "problem" resolved itself.
One day Yoni said that he wanted to learn to play "I Just Can't Wait to be King," from the just-released "Lion King." He had been talking about this movie for weeks with great excitement. Thinking back to a year earlier, a time when Yoni had begun and then abandoned a whole series of projects, I was skeptical, but I agreed to arrange the song, and began teaching it to him.

As we worked on this piece over the following weeks, I gradually began to accept that something had indeed shifted inside my young friend. Somehow, he was ready once again to apply himself to that process which, above all, makes a piano teacher feel all's right with the world: the step-by-step, painstaking mastering of a predetermined sequence of events. He was ready to learn a new piece.

I was delighted, surprised, grateful. After eleven months of needing me to join him in his place of comfort, Yoni was suddenly ready to rejoin me in mine. But with a difference now, because my place of comfort had shifted, and because a new understanding, and a new relationship, had evolved.

Months later, after he was already playing "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" with considerable panache and was well into his next song, Yoni surprised me by suddenly interrupting our lesson to say something that obviously had great meaning for him, something I will long remember. With the earnestness, simplicity, and sweetness that come naturally to a child who knows that his feelings are honored, he said, "Bruce—thanks for making this fun."

But Yoni had made it fun for me, too, and today, as a nine-year-old, continues to do so. Though the pedagogue in me is still often exasperated at his desire to play, joke, and digress, our course has run smoothly for quite some time now. In truth, I stand in awe of his insistence that life not be taken too seriously, and am grateful for all the ways he has shown me to make our lessons into a weekly musical mini-party, all the while acquiring a flair for the piano that has made him a minor celebrity at school. (His friends often insist that he play the theme from "Mortal Kombat" one more time, and his schoolteacher calls him "Magic Fingers.")

One of Yoni's innovations in the field of music education is a game he calls "Imaginary Music". He'll say to me, "OK, Bruce. I want you to make up something on the piano that sounds like this: Two elephants, a mother and her baby, are walking through the jungle, and then it starts to rain and one of them sees a hippo swimming in the lake." After doing my best, I challenge him in a similar vein.

And then there's "Playing for Pickles", as Susan calls it. This is a weekly event that began when Yoni spied a jar of Vlasic #2 Crunchy Dills on my counter. It revolves around this concept: "Yoni, if you can play this measure three times in a row without stopping, it'll be worth a big green one to you." (Pickles, as you can see, have been a recurring theme in our relationship.)

But quite apart from these zany goings-on, Yoni's joy is solidly grounded in the music itself. His interests are wide-ranging, and he's never at a loss to tell me what he wants to learn next. The arranging assignments he has handed me have acquainted me with music I may not have heard otherwise, and have generated repertoire that other students are eager to learn.

And Yoni loves Beethoven as much as ever. He tells me that when he finishes learning "Spinning Song," he wants to play the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony. "It's really emotional," he says.

Because it's a matter of concern to so many, I'll add that Yoni is now learning to read music. He's doing well, and he enjoys the ten minutes or so we spend each lesson with it, probably, in part, because I've never insisted on those abstract symbols as a matter of great urgency.

As to the specifics of our work together, I've had mixed results in carrying them over into my work with other students. Songwriting is a good example. It's a hit with some, while to others, it's either less interesting, or a little intimidating. But that's the point. There is no standard set of procedures. I cannot know in advance what anyone needs.

Is it hard for me to be so flexible? Actually, it's liberating. It's a relief to know that I don't have to be the one with all the answers. Nor do I have to fight what I sometimes perceive as a student's reluctance or laziness. I just need to be open, from moment to moment, to what truly motivates that person sitting on my piano bench. I just need to listen.

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