Performing Monkeys

A friend recently sent me a link to a video on YouTube of a group of piano students a teacher was using to demonstrate his “school” of music teaching. It got me thinking about the many links friends and students have shared with me showing some prodigy or another being trotted around on the TV shows. They always say something like “he’s another Mozart” or “she’s only had 8 months of lessons”. I mentally think of that situation as a “performing monkey.” Someone wants to show them off and bask in the reflected glory. Not to discourage the player and their love of music, but in nearly all the cases there’s a bit of questionable history involved.

For example, one little boy who was 6 or so was performing and we were told that “he could play anything he heard” after just hearing it one time. So they demonstrated with a bit of a Mozart Sonata. They played about a minute of it and then he sat at the piano and he played the theme of the piece, about an 8 bar section, but he did not duplicate what he had heard, just memorized the melody and filled in some correct harmony. Now that’s not bad, but it didn’t make him “another Mozart”. We also learned that although he hadn’t had any formal piano lessons, his mother was a pianist and played with him every day at the piano. HHHHMMMMM?

Back to the latest link my friend sent me. He was very impressed by one young man of about 12 or so who had “only had 10 months” of piano lessons. He sat down at the piano and played a very virtuosic piece – very fast, very flashy, complete with big arm movements and showmanship. Everyone clapped and thought he was wonderful. He did play well. The part we don’t know is in the “10 months” of piano lessons did he work with a teacher ½ hour a week, an hour a week, or 3 hours a day, every day. We just don’t know that. And we don’t know that he could play ANY other piece of music besides that one piece.

I had a similar experience when I began teaching and went to my first Music Teacher’s State Conference. I walked into a room where a series of 6 year olds performed wonderful classical music, flawlessly. I was intimidated and wondering what I was doing being a teacher because I couldn’t play all those pieces like that. I later learned that they were Suzuki students and had been taught each note by rote. All the students played exactly the same pieces in the first year, and they were all “helped” by putting their hands on the correct notes one at a time to learn the pieces.

I remember a piano mover one time who moved my piano and then sat down and played Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag – beautifully! Fast and even and oh, so, wonderful. As we talked, I found out that he had learned to play it by following the keys on a player piano to learn the piece. Many of the teenaged kids we meet have learned wonderful pieces by watching someone in slow motion on YouTube, showing them exactly which keys to push down and when.

We are interested in building pianists who love to play and can play music life-long. Not performing monkeys that impress with one or two pieces. Next time, we’ll suggest a list of a variety of skills that a good pianist should be able to demonstrate.

Til next time,