By Carl Radford
You never know in life how much affect you will have on other people, and in return sometimes it’s the people you expect the least, who wind up affecting you the most.
Such was the case with Abie.
Abie was far and away the most precocious and stubborn student I ever had to teach to play the piano. The first time she stepped into my studio she was eight years old. All four feet and two inches of her would look up at me from the piano, with puffy cheeks, dark brown hair, and deep-set eyes just searching for an opportunity to challenge me. Some days it was a challenge just getting her to sit down at the piano, let alone play it.
This was back in the days when I used to give piano lessons to two full days of students from children to adults. They would parade in for lessons, back to back, one after the other. I enjoyed teaching the kids for the most part. They were a lot of fun and it was always rewarding watching them improve and reach new plateaus.
Over time, however, I began to dread the half hour when I knew Abie would be coming. She would stare at the music and fumble with the notes, and it was clear that she hadn’t practiced her lesson at all that week, so she rarely made any solid progress, and if she did was turtle slow.
Neither encouraging, yelling, pleading nor cajoling were effective tools against her defenses. The more I tried, the more effective she became at learning how to push my buttons. She learned that if she could engage me in conversation about almost anything and everything, she could procrastinate from playing. She was amazingly clever in her ability to deflect my attention.
Finally, I got wise to it and cracked down with strict discipline. Mind you I prefer to be the fun, laughing, buddy-buddy piano teacher, but she was taking advantage of my good nature, so I decided that a crack down was necessary. What she really needed was a good dose of discipline, and although it was not something that I was used to doing, I was going to have to douse her with buckets of it or I was going to go crazy. Well, she didn’t like that at all, and one day in frustration, she sat back and blurted, “I DON’T WANT TO TAKE PIANO LESSONS! THE ONLY REASON I’M HERE IS BECAUSE MY MOTHER MAKES ME!” I looked over at her mother, who just shrugged her shoulders and grinned.
“Great,” I thought, “Only 28 minutes left to go in the lesson."
I am a fairly patient person now, but that was not the case back then. There’s nothing like teaching children all day long to instill a long dose of patience into your lesson plan. Abie was one of the children, who unknown to either of us at the time was instrumental in teaching me not only patience, but also how to teach more creatively.
I tried everything I could think of to motivate her. One of the things I tried was making a practice checklist, upon which she and her mother had to check off a box on every time she had a practice session. It worked for about a week, then after that the checklist was always blank.
Without a doubt the most effective motivation with her, and as I learned many of the other children as well, was to play games, and king among the games was and will always be the ‘note game’. The rules of the note game are simple: The student is touching the wall farthest from the piano in the room. I hold up a flashcard with a note on it, and the student has to run and play the correct note on the piano and run back to touch the wall again. I time them with my stopwatch and if they play the wrong note they have to go back and touch the wall again and play the correct note, all with the clock still ticking. They get to run around and try to beat their best-recorded time and we all have a lot of fun in the process. Everyone even Abie, loved to play the note game. Even long after the notes had been well ingrained and they were playing songs fluently, students would beg me to play the note game.
It was during that period I began to question my own motivation for playing and tuning the piano. I mean, what a strange thing to do when you think about it, pushing down pieces of wood that strike a piece of metal that make vibrations in the air that we hear and have collectively decided to organize in a way that we feel pleases us. What is that? What would a Martian think if they suddenly landed on the planet and saw us banging on a piece of wood and metal? Why do we play the piano? So, I asked my students the same question that week. I asked them simply, “Why do you play the piano?” To my amazement, and without any hesitation every student, even the littlest one, got it. Even Abie got it. She looked at me, then back at the keyboard, then back at me again and said, “To express our emotions."
“Wow. Pretty good from a, at that time, 10 year old”, I thought. So, then I said to her, “Why don’t you try playing the music as though you are trying to tell me something that words alone aren’t enough to express. Use the music to tell me what you’re feeling right now, whatever that may be.” And she did. She played expressively and beautifully. It was the first time that she let me see a small corner of her soul unshielded by all the obstinance. She played wonderfully and paid attention the rest of the lesson. Unfortunately, it lasted only one lesson though. By the next week she was back to her old self, challenging me once again to come up with something else.
One day Abie and her mother didn’t show up for their usual lesson time. This was great! I had a long-standing policy of monthly payment in advance, so if the student misses a lesson, or just stands me up without any advance notice, unless they schedule a make up lesson, they forgo the lesson. I’d already been paid for that week even if they don’t show up. So cool - I had a half hour break.
However, when they didn’t show up for their usual slot the following week, I became concerned. Abie was consistent, if nothing else, and it was odd that they didn’t show up two weeks in a row, without so much as a phone call. Was she finally able to convince her mother to let her quit lessons?
After a month went by and still no Abie, I knew something was up. The parents were going though a difficult divorce and the older brother had been having some issues with acting out at school. Even so, why wouldn’t her mother have let me know? So, eventually, I had to fill Abie’s time slot with another student.
It wasn’t long after this that I finally found out why she had stopped coming to lessons. Abie had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Cancer. How can that even be possible? It doesn’t seem right that a child should be able to get a disease that devastating and so life threatening. Nevertheless, she did.
I’ve had a theory for a long time that negative emotions which are not released, but are turned inward and harbored in the mind, can eventually cause disease in the body if it goes on for long enough. I had a feeling that perhaps Abie was being emotionally abused by someone close to her and had turned those emotions inward, and she subconsciously reacted the only way she could.
By the time I found out what happened the tumor had already been removed and she was recovering in the hospital, so I decided it would be a good idea to go and visit her. I thought I would bring her a gift, but I didn’t have a clue about what a tweenaged girl might want, so that morning at breakfast I mentioned my concerns to a waitress at a restaurant where I was a regular, whom I knew had several teenaged girls of her own at home. Indeed she knew exactly and recommended getting a copy of Teen People Magazine for her. Who knew there even was such as thing as Teen People Magazine? Not me for sure. I was a little dubious, but it was the best idea I’d heard so far, so I went to get one and set off for Children’s Memorial for a visit.
I was a little tentative about visiting, because I’m horrible when it comes to funerals and hospitals. Some people have a gift for cheering up the sick or mourning and for lighting up the darkest of moods. My gift, if you want to call it that, is empathy. Sometimes I have too much of it and I wind up feeling so much empathy for the patient or the grief stricken that they wind up comforting me instead!
My concerns, however, turned out to be unfounded. I wandered around the hospital and finally found her room filled with people. Both her parents were there, along with her best girlfriend sitting Indian style on the bed next to her, and some friends of the family. Abie’s head was wrapped up in bandages like a swami. I said hello and presented the Teen People. Both girls squealed and dove into the magazine as if the Backstreet Boys were there in person, completely ignoring me and everyone else in the room. I chuckled and made a mental note to thank the waitress next time I saw her.
The following months were even more difficult for Abie and her family as she began chemotherapy. Her hair fell out, and her skin became sallow and her energy ebbed and waned with the treatments. I heard that Abie’s church was having a fundraiser to help pay for some of their medical expenses, so I offered to tune the rickety old upright piano in the basement and play for a set or two during dinner. Hundreds of people were there to show their support. Abie came over while I was playing and requested a song. She had grown taller and seemed to be growing into a young woman instead of a child and she was wearing a hat to cover the lack of hair. She didn’t say much, but I could tell she was grateful for and humbled by all the attention just for her.
I’m not sure what was more surprising to me, hearing news that Abie had cancer or getting a call from her mother a little while later telling me that Abie wanted to start up with piano lessons again.
“She doesn’t have all the mental processing that she used to right now, so she might be a little slower and she gets fatigued easily after treatments, so she might not be able to make all the lessons, but the one thing she said she really wanted to do was to take piano lessons again. I think it would help her with her mental processing too. Do you think that would be alright?”
Of all the students I would never have expected to want to come back to piano lessons, especially after battling a debilitating disease, it was Abie. She hated piano lessons.
“Of course,” I told her. “I’d love to have her back for as long as she likes."
It took me a long time to figure that one out. Why would she want to come back to do something that she clearly disliked so much and had put little effort towards? I concluded that it wasn’t so much the piano or the lessons that she wanted. It was more the consistency and the regularity she was looking for. After all, when everything else in such a young life is turned topsy-turvy, when everything you had counted on to be the same suddenly changes, you turn to the things that you can count on. And as much as kids hate discipline, they also crave it and grow from it. And there’s nothing like learning the piano for that. From that day on I learned never to underestimate the power of the piano to heal and provide miracles.
So, Abie came back to lessons. But this time around she was a little older, quieter and paid more attention. After a few lessons and when we had gotten bogged down trying to learn a more difficult piece, she looked at me and asked,
“Can we play the note game?"
I’ve lost contact with her now, but last I heard she was thriving in a women’s college out West and doing well.