I play the piano, sing, and improvise. I help people of all ages do the same. On my tax return, I list my occupation as "music teacher."

But secretly, I think of myself as a relationship counselor. A therapist of sorts. Because I do more than teach my clients to make music. I help them to live with it.

I have no psychiatric training. No license. And my couch. . . well, it's a piano bench. But what I do have is empathy. The kind that develops between people who are on essentially the same journey.

Isabel has been studying with me for about a year. A writer with two kids, she's calling, after a two-month summer break, to make a confession. "You know what? I've completely forgotten the chord changes to that blues improvisation. Can you believe it? And not only that. . ."

Isabel is embarrassed. But forgetting a few chords? Let's put this in perspective. I have a recurring dream in which I forget to show up for my senior recital. (A recital which I actually did give thirty years ago, you understand.) I know musical guilt. And I think I can help.

"Vacations are important, Isabel," I say. I remind her that she's accomplished a lot in the past year, growing as a singer, and learning, for the first time, to improvise. "Sometimes you need to play the piano," I tell her, "and sometimes you need to get away from it."

She seems to breathe a little easier and we make plans for her next lesson.

Isabel is not a professional musician. Music is not even her main creative outlet. Writing is. While she's excited about her piano playing these days, she's married to music only in the sense that she loves it and wouldn't choose to live without it. But all marriages should be this good.

Two weeks later Isabel is at my studio. After catching up with each other, the conversation turns to music and I say, "OK—what would you like to do now? I mean really like to do? What would be fun?" She smiles a bit tentatively and doesn't answer. So I tell her that, over the years, I've learned something important about getting back to the piano after a layoff.

"It used to be I would make big plans. You know—new projects, exercises, the whole thing. But it never worked. So these days, if I haven't been playing much, I ease my way back in. I treat myself like a beginner who's here for their first lesson. What can I play that'll make me feel so good I'll get hooked all over again? It might be something really unexpected."

Isabel seems perfectly willing to forget ear training, scales, and her transgression in forgetting a few chords. Growing sunnier by the moment, she asks me to teach her Pachelbel’s Canon—one of the resounding favorites among my students. I'm glad to. I teach her the left hand part, I show her the melody, I help her to improvise on this gorgeous chord progression. Sin or no sin, Isabel gets Canonized.

A few weeks later, Isabel explains what her lessons mean to her. “You know, I had piano lessons when I was ten or eleven. The usual stuff—a song book, an exercise book. I liked it. But when I look back, I realize that the music always came from the book, the composer.”

“Piano was not a big part of my life, you understand. But I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to improvise. Later, I even bought some books on the subject, but it all seemed like calculus to me. So I figured that improvising was something other people do. People who have a special talent.”

Reading The Artist's Way encouraged Isabel to revisit some old dreams. And piano lessons seemed like a perfect opportunity to take a creative risk or two. “I don't think of myself as a musician, so it doesn't matter how 'well' I do at it. It's not like writing, where my ego comes into play. I feel safer to experiment with music, to try new things.”

As I do with most of my students, I gave Isabel just a few notes and asked her to start improvising with them. That was a year ago. With each passing week, her music has become fuller and more alive. “From the simplest improv, it was mine. It feels like magic. I still can't believe the music is coming from me.”

“And you know, it’s changed my outlook in more ways than one. I’m more spontaneous as a writer and as a person. I feel more at home with the irrational. More at home with my feelings.”

That’s Isabel’s story; each of us has our own tale to tell. Each of us has our own set of “shoulds” and false limitations to dispense with. Each of us, in the end, has our own way of living with music. And if I’m more appreciative, these days, of my students’ diverse musical lifestyles, it’s because I’m becoming more comfortable with music myself. I understand this relationship better. I know what's true for me.

Which brings up an interesting point. If many musicians dream of becoming professionals, my own greatest triumph has been in finally learning to be an amateur. That is, an amateur first and a professional second.

It's a funny word, "amateur"—the Latin root means simply "to love." Yet perhaps more than anything, it has come to mean a lack. The logic, I suppose, runs like this: Amateur is the opposite of professional, hence the opposite of money, hence the opposite of what really matters. Hey—he's only an amateur. It's only love.

At any rate, until recently, I never, ever, used the word "amateur" in thinking or talking about my musical lifestyle. This is true even for those periods of my life when I abandoned all hopes of playing professionally. Everything it implied was the exact opposite of how I wanted to see myself. An amateur was some sorry character who wasn't very good at what he did, had little or no interest in disciplined work, and probably didn't have a great deal of potential to start with.

Without giving it a second thought, I simply knew that an impenetrable wall separated the amateur in his approach to music, from me. It had to. My insecurity demanded it.

But hearts open, thank God, and walls come down. Learning to be an amateur—a lover rather than a pretender—was a change that happened gradually. It felt, most of all, like a homecoming. It meant discovering that no accomplishment or paycheck could ever be as important to me as the way I feel when I sit down and play.

Above all, it meant understanding that there are different kinds of success. And that the success I value most has little to do with what others give to me, and everything to do with how well and deeply I give music to myself.

It's true that my relationship with music, particularly in years past, has been stormy at times. After many years of passionate dedication to becoming a pianist and composer, there were periods when music and I seemed to be going our separate ways. Living apart, as it were.

Yet there’s something to be said for my having inched along, step by step, towards a better understanding of my musical needs and desires. Whatever conflicts or uncertainties my students may be experiencing, chances are I've been there myself. And often, just by listening, I can help.

A young woman named Tina is on the phone. She sounds intelligent and energetic as she explains that she's interested in taking piano lessons. But barely does Tina finish telling me that she played clarinet in the seventh grade, when she suddenly says, "Well, you know, I'm not really sure I can fit this in. My schedule is so incredibly hectic. I get home from work, take care of the kids—how can I ever find time to practice?"

Just as I'm about to suggest that she think about it and call me back, Tina shifts gears and goes on. With an inflection that seems more appropriate to discussing a long-overdue root canal, Tina insists, "But I can do this. I just know I can make some time. I have to make time for this."

"Tina," I say, "it doesn't sound like you expect your lessons to be much fun."
As Tina warms to the fact that I grasp one of her unspoken concerns and want to talk about it, she relaxes.

"Do you like to sing?" I ask. In a manner that somehow manages to convey equal parts shyness and bravado, Tina tells me that she loves to sing in church. "Great," I say, "singing is a big part of what we do here." And I'm thinking, that's good—she doesn't just want piano lessons, she wants music lessons.

I also learn that Tina likes R&B, pop, and early rock, but doesn't care much for country. I tell her that those 50's and 60's oldies, because they use only three chords, are great songs to start with.

"You know, maybe my kids will want lessons, too. I just don't want to ask them to do something I don't want to do myself." Excellent—a parent who doesn't think I'm running some kind of finishing school here.

Two weeks later, our dialog continues as Tina and I meet for her first lesson. As I open the door to greet the powerful-sounding young woman with the Jewish surname whom I spoke with earlier, a petite, attractive, Pacific Asian enters.

We speak briefly about Tina's children, and about her demanding career as office manager of a law firm. She's constantly in touch with clients, Tina says, via cell phone. Happily, in trying to clear a space in her schedule for a larger musical involvement, she has the full support of her husband, who has encouraged her to give this gift to herself.

Twenty minutes later Tina is well into learning her first piece, and, for a long moment, I pause to consider our next step. Before I begin speaking again, Tina says, "Sorry I'm such a tough case." I'm surprised and yet not surprised. Surprised, because the lesson is going well—the farthest thing from my mind is that Tina is a slow learner. But at the same time, I know that in matters of music and learning, in one way or another we all seem to feel insecure.

As it turns out, Tina has a brother who's four years older. He's the musical one, she says, the one who could always play. When I suggest that, like anyone else who's musically accomplished, he loved to play, spent countless hours doing so, and became skilled in the process, she says, "Nope. He could always play. Ever since he was little."

This strikes me as irrational and I’m touched by her vulnerability on the subject. As Tina reveals some of her thoughts and fears about her musicality, I feel—as so often happens on such occasions—honored to be so entrusted. And I'm thinking, this will be fun. Wait til she finds herself improvising. She may think of herself as a beginner, but I'll bet she has just as much music in her as her brother.

As Tina's lesson ends, I remember our first conversation. At the time, she wondered out loud whether she could find a way to bring more music into a life already overflowing with commitments. For me, and I venture for you, the challenge is much the same. With so many conflicting priorities vying for our attention, how do we honor our need for beauty and self-expression? If life is a balancing act—being in the world while living from the heart—it's a question we never stop asking and answering.

But if fulfillment seems just out of reach, always awaiting some future accomplishment, we might take more seriously what our children know. Like members of the societies we're self-important enough to call primitive, our youngest have not yet been hypnotized into believing that expertise is a prerequisite for enjoyment or meaning. As these "beginners" are only too happy to remind us, the simplest form of expression is often the most soulful, the most soulful is the best, and the best belongs to everyone.

For me, one such mentor was a six-year-old named David. On a day when I was supposed to be bringing music into his life, David taught me about the power of the authentic and the unrehearsed.

Even for a kid, David had remarkable energy. He also had a remarkable determination to channel that energy in ways that sometimes made working with him difficult. Bottom line, he was a sweet, intelligent kid whom I often enjoyed teaching when I had the stamina to keep up with him.

One afternoon, David was making it quite clear that he had little desire to practice the piece that was our current project. None of my usual strategies were working, and rather than ask him yet one more time to please join me, I decided instead to look for a better way to join him. So I put on a tape that I knew he really liked. I thought that if he were caught up in the spell of his favorite Disney tune, his natural enthusiasm might yet give rise to some sort of productive, educational, activity.

What happened next, though more than five years have passed, is still vivid in my mind's eye.

As the music began to play, David instantly came alive. After our long and frustrating tug-of-war, the change in his demeanor was startling. Sitting with eyes closed, he sang, and he danced. Boy, did he dance. Intensely, exuberantly, without a trace of self-consciousness. And, with a rhythmic perfection that (I'm embarrassed to say) I had begun to wonder if he was capable of. Surrendering completely to the music, David seemed to be in another world, or maybe he was just more deeply into this world than we grownups usually get to be.

So I'm watching this ecstatic trance dance, and I'm of two minds. Part of me is trying to figure out how to get back to something remotely resembling a piano lesson.

At the same time, I'm asking myself: Does this kid need me to help him relate to music?

Home  l  Private Lessons  l  Student Audio & Profiles
Bruce's Audio & Sheet Music  l  Student Stories  l  FAQs  l  Resources
Bio  l  Slideshow Humor  l  Contact
Copyright © 2000 by Bruce Siegel.