What are piano lessons for?

This came to me via the weekly newsletter of the IPTG (International Piano Teachers Group), and is from the blog of Elissa Milne, an Australian piano teacher and composer of piano music for students. Her pieces regularly appear in the syllabus of the ABRSM and other exam boards, though I have not taught any yet….

1. Piano lessons are for learning to do cool stuff on the piano

2. Piano lessons are for learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it.

3. Piano lessons are for understanding other people better

4. Piano lessons are for understanding yourself better

5. Piano lessons are for understanding the world better

6. Piano lessons are for exercising your body, your emotions and your intellect all at the same time.

7. Piano lessons are for changing who you are

8. Piano lessons are for joy.

At the risk of sounding a little trite at times, this is a rather good ‘manifesto’ of the purpose of piano lessons, for  students and teachers. Sometimes I think students (and teachers) lose sight of the reasons why they are taking piano lessons. Some children are made to take music lessons (I was!) because their parents think it will be good for them, or because the parents didn’t keep up their lessons as children, and now have a need to live their lives vicariously through their children (dangerous). Where I live, in the leafy, affluent, aspirational suburbs of SW London, there is a strong trend amongst parents for signing their children up for extra-curricular activities which are both healthy (sport) and mind-stretching (music lessons, Kumon maths, learning Mandarin Chinese etc). I am all for children having full and active lives, but I also think children should have the right to choose what they do with their free time. Fortunately, all of my piano students come to me willingly, i.e. they have chosen to have piano lessons, for whatever reason, and gradually, they will come to appreciate the value of their lessons, beyond the activity of “typing” notes on the keyboard to create a pleasant sound.

For my part, my lessons are for self-improvement, first and foremost. At 40, I decided it was ridiculous to have more than a modicum of talent that was under-used and under-stimulated. My lessons give me a proper focus and the practising lends structure to my day. I enjoy the discipline of it, and draw satisfaction from hearing myself improve. On another level, the piano is a form of therapy: it’s my “me time”, the place where I go to play (forgive the pun), to escape. It’s a displacement activity that actually brings tangible results (unlike my other great displacement activity, shopping for clothes, which simply ruptures my bank balance!). It’s intellectually and physically tiring, yet I can come away from a successful practice session of a couple of hours buzzing with endorphins. It has made me more self-reliant and self-critical because it has forced me to confront my own imperfections and to strive for excellence every time I sit down to play. It has taught me confidence and self-belief. It is also a huge privilege to engage with some of the greatest music of the repertoire, wonderful works to be explored and understood, full of things which continually surprise and fascinate, and remind one of the full rush of human life.

Read the full text of Elissa Milne’s manifesto at http://elissamilne.wordpress.com/.