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Laurie Niles

March 1, 2004 at 6:42 AM

I have an adult student who learns like no one I’ve ever encountered before in life. This is actually a joy for me because he makes me think and do everything completely different. No following my little rut, here.

I like to start everyone on something by rote, to get their ears working and set-up solid, then introduce concepts of reading. Usually, that means starting with Suzuki “songs,” then introducing either Muller Rusch or Doflein method books.

Well, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was nothing short of a bitter pill for Rich. He just couldn’t stand it!

“My goal,” he said after dutifully playing through all those Twinkle variations, “is to play music that is emotionally satisfying.” He just wanted to let me know; he wasn’t really complaining, nor did he expect he’d be able to do anything about this goal right now. He seemed steeled for the goal of playing a lot of awful stuff first; he looked like someone who had just been forced to write “this is fun” 500 times on a chalkboard. It was clearly time for a change of approach.

“What music do you like?” I asked him. I requested a list, which he brought the following week. It included quite a bit of popular music, mostly things I knew. Heck, I could just write out on some notepaper for him. Why not learn the melody from some popular piece by rote next instead of, say, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”?

“How about ‘Imagine’?” I asked, after looking over his list. Who doesn’t like John Lennon?

So he has learned “Imagine,” an incredible feat for a complete beginner. I didn’t think it would do to completely water it down, so I gave him the real thing, with accidentals, slurs and all Lennon’s funny little vocal inflections. Anyone who has taught a beginner or who remembers being one knows that this is like re-inventing the wheel. But he was ready to conquer those barriers for “Imagine.” Next we’ll a spiritual “Amen” song, and then maybe a little Elton John.

I’m still making him play scales and a traditional method book, so that he will get a foundation in the basics along the way. But I don’t mind peppering his journey with things that are “emotionally satisfying.”

It’s emotionally satisfying for me to see someone in the middle of his life, in the middle of so much chaos and conflict in the world, taking on this effort to make music, when everything about it can be so difficult and discouraging. Imagine that.

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