I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Mississippi, and I learned a great deal from listening to my older siblings practice for their piano lessons. I have very early memories of sitting in my mom’s lap while she would play and sing from a Walt Disney song book. I still remember the book art.
Perhaps this is why one of my first attractions to music was for song form. The works of Billy Joel played a huge influence. When no one else was home after school I would listen to vinyl records and play along. I learned a great deal from this.
I remember the magical feeling of learning from Mr. Joel that when playing a C Major chord, you don’t need an E in the Right Hand if it’s present in the bass. A wonderful introduction to Bachian voice leading! I remember playing with the headphones on late at night when everyone else was asleep and discovering how to play the sharp 9 chord I had just heard Paul Shaffer use on Late Night with David Letterman. I didn’t know what the chord was called at the time, but it didn’t matter. It’s these kinds of self-learning experiences I want to foster for my students now.
Then I began formal instruction, first with Ouida Graves when I was a child, and later with Lois Leventhal at the University of Southern Mississippi. They were both great personal models of how to teach with warmth and excellence. Mrs. Graves taught me the importance of tone, and Dr. Leventhal taught me that I can play like a beast and have consistency, too!
My teacher at Eastman, Barry Snyder, was very impersonal, which became a model for me of how I *don’t* want to teach. He gave me my first “B” in piano! Nevertheless he taught me great artistry and I finished my tutelage with him with an “A.”
Thus began a heady period for me when I moved to North Carolina and performed as a singer/songwriter, played in funk and rock bands, performed with the North Carolina Symphony orchestrally and as soloist…I look back at this time with such fondness. I can’t believe the variety of excellent musical experiences I was a part of! I produced my own CD of piano compositions and arrangements, I performed a recital with world-class violinist Joshua Bell, I recorded a CD with the NC Symphony accompanying Branford Marsalis and his combo. Just amazing experiences!
At no point was learning piano a tedious experience for me. And it won’t be for my students, either. Teaching is so much more than telling them what I know. It’s showing them how I think, and giving them a vocabulary they can use to think for themselves. It all started with family for me. I think a lot of times we in the music profession put “music” on a high pedestal and then lament that our students aren’t worthy of achieving. I think music is just a way to make life richer. If sharing it helps my students add meaning to their lives the way my teachers helped me add meaning to mine, then I think I will have done a pretty good job.