Names in this post have been changed to preserve the privacy of those involved.
John is a great student. He’s had the benefit of growing up in a house with older siblings who had been studying piano since before he was born. He’s exceptionally bright. With most young kids, I have to lead them to seeing patterns in music. Even at 5, though, John would notice patterns that I wasn’t even expecting him to be capable of recognizing. A year later, he’s progressed quickly, having completed the primer level and level 1 of Piano Adventures and nearly half way through level 2a. Concentration is rarely a problem with him. The other day, though, there was a problem.
Last week he’d learned the concept of half steps. He picked that up with no problem. Before going on to whole steps, which Piano Adventures introduces with the piece My Detective Agency, I led him through a review of half steps. After a quick recap of the concept, I played a key and asked him to play the key a half step higher.
He did so, so I repeated with another key. Continuing, a rhythm emerged. It became more and more fun as the random choices of keys made the music we were creating sound sillier and sillier. By the end we were both laughing. Then I explained whole steps. He got the hang of that quickly and we did the same game with whole steps. We both agreed they weren’t as much fun as half steps. There’s a reason tip-toeing in cartoons is often accompanied by half step music.
So we went on to Our Detective Agency. I pre-taught parts of it that used D-flat & E-flat and A-flat & B-flat, showing him keys by rote and asking him to play patterns on them, then showing him places in the music that used those patterns. Then I played it for him. I’ve never had anyone not like the sound of this piece, and he was no exception.
He did fine on the first page, but measure 7 gave him a little trouble, as it does most students. I usually do not pre-teach this, because it is a good test of a student’s grasp of the rule for notes with accidentals repeating in the same measure. John forgot about that, so I reminded him of the rule and asked him if the 2nd & 3rd E’s were flat or normal (he hasn’t learned “natural” yet). That’s when the concentration problems began.
Besides being exceptional at recognizing patterns, John has learned to identify individual notes very well. So normally, identifying E would be no problem. But he struggled. Instead of answering, he took a guess at playing it correctly. I told him to first answer my question, but he just took another guess at playing. He had quickly gone into panic mode. This would be easy to miss. I missed such things often in my early years of teaching. It would be easy to see it as “John’s not cooperating.” I did that, as well! But experience and learning about children and the mind, in general, have made me much more aware of such changes in a student’s state of mind.
On the face of it, he wasn’t cooperating, but there was a good reason for that. Panic mode scrambles the brain and renders one unable to focus, and thus unable to make sense of what one is dealing with, which tends to increase the panic. Even though I know that very well, when John’s panic mode was first triggered, I didn’t see it for what it was, and my panic mode was triggered! Can you imagine where that could have led? Often, with teachers and parents who have not had enough learning or experience to recognize what’s going on, such a situation leads to the teacher or parent simply asserting authority, demanding compliance, blaming the student, and so on. And in such a situation, the teacher or parent is really just as helpless as the child to do anything else. Asserting authority is misreading the situation, but it’s also better than just letting the panic escalate. We all have to do the best we can with what we have.
Fortunately, I caught myself and recognized what was happening. So I said, “Hold on a second, John. Do this.” I took a long deep breath and blew it out. John did the same. I did it again, and one more time, as he followed. With that, we were both safely out of panic mode. Then I pointed to the 2nd E in the measure and asked him to identify it. He did. So I asked him to play it. He did. I reminded him of the accidental rule, pointing to the first E., and then, pointing to the 2nd E, calmly asked him again, “Should this be E or E-flat?” Then the lightbulb went off. “Oh!” he exclaimed, “E-flat!” Then we were able to get through that measure without problems.
After we’d gone through the rest of the piece, I knew it was time to switch gears, so I led him through exploring the differences in the sounds of half steps and whole steps. That’s when I let him on the secret of tip-toeing music.
Panic can overtake any of us if we have not learned to recognize it and the value of preventing it. By the time you’re panic is apparent to others, the seed of it has blossomed into a large and frantic flower. Getting out of it quickly is important to preventing it creating more problems—and more reasons to panic! It’s much harder to do that for yourself, though, than to do it for someone else. In negotiating the challenges of learning to play piano, kids and adults alike are often faced with situations that can easily induce panic. Some show it more than others. One way of dealing with that is to avoid all but the easiest challenges. Sometimes this really is the best possible way with a child. Yet, we are all going to face challenges in life, and learning piano is a great situation in which to learn how to face them; to learn to stay calm, focus and be patient. And if you find yourself getting panicky, stop and breath.