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How one piano teacher found the right key

One may know how to teach without being able to do it

--- adapted from Sun Tzu [1]

Mark was an active and chatty boy who loved listening to music and getting all pumped up by movie soundtracks. He’d rush to the television set just before an action movie or drama serial just to catch the opening music theme. Naturally, his parents were keen to develop his enthusiasm for music further and decided to buy a piano.

Mark was delighted and started playing simple tunes with his right hand almost immediately. He had a keen sense of hearing and could play the melody after just one hearing.

Then one day, a certain Miss Lim showed up at his doorstep and his parents introduced him to his new piano teacher. She had a diploma in music and was very competent in teaching both the practical and theoretical aspects of learning the piano. Mark was happy because he believed that Miss Lim could help him to become a better pianist. During the first lesson, Mark played some scales and wondered when he’d start playing the majestic tunes like ‘Chariots of Fire’. After a few weeks, Mark found out that Miss Lim was teaching another one of his schoolmates and felt it would be fun for them to learn together. But when Miss Lim told him that he wasn’t good enough to play with the other schoolmate, Mark felt an arrow piercing his self-esteem. Mark’s schoolmate had just started piano lessons. And he was already better than Mark? Ouch.

After weeks of playing scales, Miss Lim then introduced Mark to some music theory and said that he needed to pass his theory exams before they could progress on to more difficult practical piano pieces. Mark was far more interested in playing the piano because he loved it rather than playing it for an exam. But grades seemed to be Miss Lim’s main focus. When she met with Mark’s parents, she would always refer to the piano exams as a benchmark for their progress. “Oh he’s not ready for the exams yet!” or “He should buck up because he’s only interested in playing the fun pieces...”. Despite her being clear about what Mark needed to learn and how she was going to teach it, Mark’s parents were concerned because they wanted him to love playing music rather than passing exams.

Then one day, when Mark was playing a difficult scale and couldn’t keep up with the timing, Miss Lim threatened to slam the piano cover down every time he missed a beat. At first Mark thought it was a joke, but when the cover came crashing down and grazed his fingernails, he knew she was serious. He couldn’t control the tears that started to flow down and it only made his eyes blurry and difficult to read the score. The piano cover came crashing down again and again before Mark couldn’t take it anymore and ran into his room, slamming the door behind him.

That evening, Mark’s parents told Miss Lim that they had found another teacher and her services were no longer needed. Mark, however, was terrified of the piano and it would take him a few more months before he sat at the piano to start playing again. His parents then asked him if they could get another teacher whom they had heard great things about. Mark reluctantly agreed.

One Saturday afternoon, a bubbly lady turned up at the doorstep and asked for Mark. Mark’s parents were a little apprehensive and asked if she was the piano teacher, Ms Choo. She laughed and pretended to play a tune in the air. Mark smiled and immediately decided that she would be different. Little did he know that his future in music was about to be changed forever.

The first lesson involved Ms Choo getting to understand Mark’s likes and dislikes, nothing to do with music. Then just before she left, she asked him, “What’s your favourite music piece?” “Chariots of Fire!” came the quick reply. Ms Choo smiled and put her bag down. She walked over to the piano, took out three empty score sheets and started writing. Mark was dumbfounded and asked her what she was doing. She waved him off and told him to come back in ten minutes. Just before she left, Mark had his first ‘Chariots of Fire’ score. It was a very simple variation, but it was enough.

When Ms Choo came back the following week, she was impressed that Mark had taught himself to play the entire piece with some of his own variations too. That week, she taught him to play “Somewhere out there” and the following week “Unchained Melody”. Mark’s interest in the piano was increasing exponentially but he soon hit a glass ceiling. It was then that Ms Choo felt it was necessary to teach him some theory and advanced scales. The music exams were, however, never mentioned.

A year later, Mark turned ten and played for his birthday guests the most amazing birthday song on the piano. He then treated everyone to his own rendition of ‘Moonlight Sonata’, ‘Fur Elise’ and of course ‘Chariots of Fire’. His mother smiled when she saw everyone enjoying themselves and went to the kitchen to get everyone a glass of water. She thought they’d be there for a while and wanted them to be comfortable. In the corner of her eye, she noticed that some of her neighbours had gathered outside their house and were trying to peek into the house to see who was playing the piano.

At 16, Mark went on to become a professional pianist at several hotel lounges. He completed all his theory and practical exams but never needed to show those certificates during his interviews.

Ms Choo and Miss Lim both knew the music curriculum, pedagogical methods and assessment requirements. But the difference was one helped the child learn music while the other tried to teach music to the child.

[1] Sun Tzu said that one may know how to conquer without being able to do it.

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