Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Piano Lessons

We bought our piano in November of 2009. We bought it because Sam seemed so interested in playing. We were given some great lesson books and other materials. In January of 2010 I sat down with Sam one time with the first lesson book and it's been gathering dust ever since. It's not that she wasn't ready for piano; it's that she wasn't ready to take direction from me.

For two years, Sam has occasionally plucked at the piano by herself (doing it "my own way" in defiance of any instruction that I might offer), never learning much, but recently showing signs of being able to hunt down notes by ear. I've also fiddled around with the piano, and we've enjoyed the recorded music on it quite often. Guests have played for us. But still, it was mostly just an expensive decoration.

A couple of weeks ago, Sam told me that she wanted to learn to play Twinkle Twinkle. I think she has been playing music on the bells at school, and I had helped her pick out the notes on the piano a few times. (As long as I showed her the notes in the way that she told me to, she would cooperate.) I got the sense that she might be ready this time, so I asked her if she would like me to give her piano lessons, and she said yes!

We've had four or five lessons now. Sam will sit still and observe as I give her a demonstration, and she will attempt to perform the tasks as demonstrated. We've gone over the proper sitting position. We've learned the correct way to hold her hands and how her fingers should strike the keys. We've numbered her fingers and played "wiggle number four!" type games. We've played notes with specific fingers up and down the scale. We've tapped out quarter notes and half notes. Each lesson is short - maybe 15 minutes - and we always go back a couple of lessons in the book as a review. At the end of every lesson, we have "free time" where she gets to learn a song in her old, comfortable way - I point to the keys she should play and she hits them with her index finger.

I didn't have any plan at all when we started, except that I would use this particular book. The short lessons, the reviews, and the "free time" all came about naturally, and I realize that I've internalized a lot of the pedagogical principles that I've been studying for the past few years as I've been preparing for homeschooling. That is gratifying. A little bit more deliberate was my use of Montessori language; I told Sam that first I would give a "presentation" and then it would be her turn, just like at school. I've tried this in the past with her to no avail. But now it is working and we're having fun! I am teaching Sam something in a formal way and we are having a good time!

I don't know if this is a normal parenting experience or not, but this is a huge breakthrough for Sam and me. Since she was about two-and-a-half, Sam has generally shown no respect for any teaching I might offer. The quotation marks around "my own way" in the second paragraph were not scare quotes. I was quoting her literal response to just about every challenging thing I've attempted to show her or teach her for the past couple of years. The fact that I would show her a method automatically made it wrong to her, and she would insist on doing it "my own way." Writing letters of the alphabet, zipping up her coat, putting on her gloves, tracing sandpaper letters, putting her glass of milk on the far side of the plate, opening the car door, reciting a poem, putting together a jigsaw puzzle - anything. If I tried to teach it, she rebelled and insisted on doing it "her way." Most often, her way didn't work, but that didn't seem to matter to her. At first this was very upsetting to me and I kept pushing, but eventually I backed off simply out of frustration. If she didn't want to learn from me, I couldn't force her. So I kept offering, but as soon as she resisted, I stopped trying and allowed her to wallow in her incompetence. And in many areas, she really is quite incompetent for her age.

The change is not just with the piano. She is showing me the same respect in other areas now as well. A few days ago, she allowed me to teach her how to put a towel on a towel bar. Seriously, she is five years old and she had never learned this simple task. They use hooks at school and we have hooks for her coats, but every time she used a towel in the bathroom, it ended up on the floor. I'd watched her try to do it on her own and she just could not figure out how to even up the sides and use gravity, but there was no way she would allow me to show her. This time, she observed and then proudly did it on her own. And she keeps doing it - at least when she remembers that she knows how.

Sam has had the same rebellious attitude towards her dad, but quite so strong. At school she has always taken direction - no problem. And I've seen her accept instruction from adult friends of ours and from her peers. So I've always known this was part of her natural and necessary separation process from her parents. I just didn't know if it would ever change, and that has been a huge worry for me as a future homeschooler. No matter how Montessori-ish you make a homeschool environment, the student still needs to respect the teacher.

And Sam's personality has not changed. I'm still going to need to be the most unobtrusive type of teacher for her. Any whiff of an attempt to control her will cause her to rebel. Finding ways to activate her internal motivation will be my biggest challenge, I know. But the fact that she now recognizes that I know things and that I can help her without controlling her is huge. My task now is not to screw it up. I need to continue to give her examples of ways in which I can help her learn faster than she would do on her own, but I need to abstain from pushing. If I can do that, I think we might actually have a chance at success with homeschooling.


  1. What great patience and love you show through your careful study of your exchanges with your daughter! This inspires me for I am not always patient enough when interacting with my daughter. What a lovely beginning to my day!

  2. I am glad that you two are enjoying the lessons!

    I'm curious, though--why do you characterize Sam's previous non-acceptance of your way as not respecting you? Would you also say that when you tried to push her do things your way (because in your eyes it was the right way, which is to say the way that would allow her to achieve what you thought was her objective) you were not respecting her? I'm not saying this to criticize you--just wondering whether the way you've framed things impeded you from understanding where she was really coming from.

  3. DGM: Despite your claim not to be criticizing, the words of your comment imply a lot of assumptions that are uncalled for, based on my post and my entire history of blogging.

    Regarding respect: Non-acceptance of "my way" (your words, not mine) means not respecting me in the sense of not recognizing that I know more than she does and can learn from me. Many parents use the word "respect" as a euphemism for obedience, but I don't see any evidence in the post or my history that would indicate that I mean it this way.

    "My way" in all of these cases WAS the right way. There is an objective right and wrong. Writing a letter "p" with the loop on the left (her way) is incorrect, and when she looks at it and says, "it doesn't seem right, mommy," to ignore that fact and allow her to do it "her way" would be irresponsible. I know I didn't give details in the post, but in every case I mentioned above, she was attempting to do something, having trouble, but not accepting help. She would become frustrated and often start hitting or banging things, but she would not accept my help, even gentle, encouraging words. When I say, "her way often didn't work but that didn't seem to matter to her," I should have been more precise. Each and every one of these cases (not most) was a case of her doing something objectively wrong, and it did matter to her - it drove her crazy with frustration - but it wasn't enough to make her change her premise about doing it herself. She wanted to do it herself, which is good character trait, but she needed to learn that she can still be independent while accepting teaching and instruction. It's a huge life-lesson, and I taught it to her without pressure or the demand for obedience, but simply by continuing to point out facts and consequences. (I would often say things like, "You can write the "p" your way if you want, but other people won't always understand what you've written.")

    Your comment actually makes me angry because it reflects the false alternative of "child-led" versus "obedience" parenting. I reject both of those, and I'm very, very proud of how I handled this issue with Sam from beginning to end. It's possible if my post was read in isolation that I might have come off as the obedience type, but even as it stands, I don't think so.

  4. Amy, I'm distressed to learn that my comment angered you. As I said then, "I'm not saying this to criticize you," by which I sincerely meant that my intention was not at all ill-intended, nor did I mean to pass judgment on you on your own blog, nor did I assume you were practicing "obedience parenting." (And for the record, I don't adopt the "child-led" vs. "obedience" parenting model either.)

    I commented because as an outsider (who, admittedly, has not read your entire history of blogging but I know enough to know that you do not embrace "obedience parenting") I wanted to understand what you meant when you said Sam did not show respect for any teaching you might offer.
    You had said that you became upset when Sam did not respect your teaching. That was the comment that struck me because it didn't sound like she was being disrespectful in the sense that I understand the word; when my own children were that age they behaved similarly but I would not have characterized them as not respecting what I was trying to teach them.

    That is why I asked what the term meant to you. It was a simple question free of the assumption you have attributed to it. I just wanted to understand what had upset you about her behavior.

    My bad: there's no reason I should have expected the benefit of the doubt.