My first private music teacher was a machine - a video game, actually. It was called "The Miracle Piano Teaching System" for the Nintendo Entertainment System (or the NES for those of us old enough to remember). I still have it! Now that my son is reading fluently and independently, I thought it might be fun for him to try it out. So, I set it up, and gave the lessons a few runs to make sure everything was working properly. One of the earliest exercises in the game involved playing a five-finger position in time with a metronome. If you aren't familiar with the term "latency," what I experienced here was an enormous difference between the time the metronome clicked, the graphics of the keyboard on the screen, the sound of the instrument, and the instance where the software recognized my keystrokes. In order for the software to register me playing in-time "correctly," I had to play about a 16th note ahead of the beat - then I remembered something. I played through this screen before. For hours, for days, as a kid. And now I know why had such a hard time with it, after nearly twenty-five years!
This is just a small example of how important it is to have a present, real-life, in-the-flesh teacher for learning a musical instrument. And there are plenty of practical reasons... having someone correct misperceptions of hand-placement on the guitar, getting input on the nuance of large-body movements at the piano, getting a gentle palm on your lower-spine to correct your posture so you don't end up looking like Bill Evans... But, maybe more importantly, a teacher or mentor can have a profound influence on you not only as a musician, but as a whole person.
Thankfully, I was bribed into taking piano lessons with this game. What do I remember most about these early lessons? I was seven years old, so I remember playing computer games (see a theme, yet?) on her kids' computer while I waited for my lesson to start - sometimes I'd play with her kids, who were about my age, and I remember one of them showing me a fun box of magic tricks, which got me interested in that, too. But the lessons? Well, take this with a grain of salt, but I remember being yelled at: "F-sharp! F-sharp!" I remember being confused on how rhythmic values added up, and I hated having to write out my scales and their key signatures. But I also remember playing a recital - the first piece I remember performing was a "jazzy" little number that I really enjoyed - I still own it, hidden somewhere in my stash of recital pieces for my own students. I remember the feeling of being nervous about performing, and I remember seeing my grandparents clap at the end.
Although I didn't really take piano very seriously, I quickly "leveled-out" of my teacher, and my grandparents felt I should study with my Mom's old piano teacher -the running joke was, "and she was old, then!" This person, and her husband, became quick friends. Her husband would occasionally drive me home (I lived a whole two blocks away!), and I would sometimes help them with chores. My teacher pushed me, though. I wrote out those scales and key signatures, and you bet I had to go home and get my music if I forgot it - I was very forgetful, and I lost a lesson once. I only remember the once. But the music! She let me choose my repertoire (I'm sure she carefully selected my options), she explored my interests, and she let me play fast music. The challenge began to excite me, and this led to the discovery that, yes, I want to play, and yes, I do want to get better, and yes, I want to be challenged! MOAR PLZ!
But, as I mentioned, this isn't just about musical development.
She only charged $15 an hour. She didn't believe in contributing to inflation - she'd been charging that since she ran a studio out of San Francisco in the 50's (if I remember her words correctly). Naturally, her studio was quite busy, mostly with older ladies, but a few kids my age at the time. The older I got, starting in my teens, the more we entertained each other's company away from the studio. We spoke about faith and religion, charity, the future, their desires to go back to China and their adventures there. I asked for advice, mowed their lawn, chopped firewood, and shared meals with them.
My teacher, and her husband, were very dear to me, through every single developmental phase. When I started college, she began to give me masterclasses on piano teaching. And soon after, I was helping her husband into and out of bed while whatever mixture of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's took hold. I got to know his regular caregivers. I had the privilege of sharing these experiences with my teacher near the end of her husband's life - everything from him sneaking a sample of cat food, to forgetting where he was, who I was, and the few moments of lucidness where we shared memories. I am grateful for those moments.
Naturally, my teacher, mentor, and friend would also find herself preparing to meet her husband. I was also privileged to be a part of this last part of their story. Even so, she continued to offer me lessons and advice on teaching and my performance. It was very hard to see her increasingly lose her dexterity and desire to perform. I performed a piece she was helping me compose at her memorial service - what an honor!
Clearly not every person is going to have such a close relationship with their teacher or mentor. But to a varying degree, some elements here are important for new students and parents to consider:
A teacher can be a huge moral influence - get to know your teacher as much as you can, because they will have insight based on their life experiences that you will not have. Oftentimes, they will share things with you that can shape your perceptions, influence your decisions, and even lift you up out of despair.
They have more skills than you think - My teacher gave me lessons in pedagogy and composition, among others. Some people might not think to ask for help with their compositions, theory homework, or improvisation - tap into that person's vast sea of knowledge and skills!
Community - Very often, a skilled teacher is a valued member of their community. They are in touch with other influential people and professionals that you may eventually want to be in contact with. Getting familiar with your teacher, as appropriate, can open up doors socially, politically, and professionally.
Of course, results may vary! I highly doubt I would have continued studying piano without having this particular teacher in my life, no matter how much my grandparents made me practice - I danced with the idea of video game programming in high school, but fate would lead me to continue studying and composing, and even learning additional instruments. Many students make the assumption that they can "learn it themselves," because so-and-so was self-taught. And on occasion, this is certainly possible - but unlikely. Even the "self-taught" masters of their instrument had mentors, so I encourage you to get in touch with a teacher that will be a huge influence on your life, whether you know it yet or not.
If you have a story about a special teacher or mentor in your life, please share it with us in the comments!
-by Robert J. Lawrence
Jimmy here! My desire is to help others grow musically - especially those who don't have access to resources. I'm a husband, father of three, graduate student, and music educator.