Piano Lessons

March 16, 2010 — 2 Comments

Yesterday I attended a winners’ recital for a piano competition that my daughter did not win (she got an honorable mention and a $30 check, which felt like a win to us). The players ranged from first graders to seniors in high school, the latter performing nine-minute compositions by, mostly, Chopin. By the end, I admit to stifling a few yawns.

I began to reflect on this system that I myself have bought into: of paying someone to teach my daughter to play someone else’s compositions, and paying to have her judged on her performance.

Creation vs. Iteration

My first question: Why do they work so hard to memorize and perform these pieces? (They obviously work really hard. My daughter worked hard for her honorable mention.)

Made me think: It’s just like all the time I put into writing a story. No one really cares whether the story exists, but I invest so much of myself to bring it into existence.

But then I thought: No, it’s not exactly like writing a story. Yes, the time, the technique, the focus are the same. But the end result for these piano players is not a new creation but an iteration.

And: Why aren’t we teaching them to create?
Why is there an entire system—of teachers (there were a half-dozen in the audience making a living on their ability to teach the playing of Chopin), of students (more than a dozen winners and another dozen honorable mentions), of parents (here!), of judges (featured in the program), and of sponsors (the university, library, and local music store donated their facilities and pianos)—dedicated to the mastery of a technical skill whose primary value in the real world is the performance of background music at weddings and funerals?

I teach creative writing; I creatively write. I understand the importance of foundations, of technical skill, of mastering the masters. I also understand that creative writing has even less real-world cache than music. Maybe I’m just jealous that parents will shell out hundreds a month on the playing of piano instead of on the writing of stories. Or that music students arrive at universities with excellent technical backgrounds while some of my students’ only experience in writing—not to mention reading—takes place on their cell phone.

Maybe the Ph.D. in Creative Writing is the best of both worlds: you study literature while you write it. But is it a wee late? Olympic swimmers don’t wait until they’re 25 or 30 to get serious about swimming.

The Lesson

Imagine if parents (people!) valued writing as much as music. Imagine there were private lessons and public competitions and cash awards in your community. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not.

Variations on a scene

Imagine the following lines of dialogue in households all over America:

“I’m taking Maddie to writing lessons!”

“Jackson, have you practiced your story-writing today?”

“Honey, have you paid for poetry lessons this month?”

“Mom, I need a new outfit for my prose poem competition!”


I don’t begrudge music its success, and I certainly don’t mean to overstate it.


I commented on this article in the NY Times by Jason Freeman, a music composer who wants to bring composition to the masses–or at least to audiences:

As a composer, I want audiences to experience creating music. In my work, I blur the traditional divisions between composer, performer and listener, inviting others to make the music along with me. It is not enough for me to share only a polished performance or a mastered audio recording. I want to share the experience of composing music.

Kudos to him!


2 responses to Piano Lessons


    Every state component of the Music Teachers National Association, which sponsors performance competitions for students ranging from the very young to the graduate level, also sponsors composers’ competitions for those same age groups. If your child’s teacher does not teach music theory and creativity as part of your child’s lessons, tell that teacher that you consider that an essential part of that child’s training. If the teacher declines to include creativity (whether it be improvisation or writing notes on paper or composing with a computer program such as Garage Band) in your child’s music lessons, find another teacher.

    For over two decades, the public school system where my four children attended sponsored composition contests for elementary school children. (It was recently disbanded due to administrative neglect, and the fact that most of the winners came from the two schools where the music teachers emphasized creativity the most.) This project won high praises from such Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Gunther Schuller, who visited these schools when in residence at the local university. The best compositions produced by the winners of these contests was almost always superior to the drivel heard on most elementary students’ piano recitals.


    Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful response. I’ll ask my daughter’s teacher about these opportunities, but my sense is that most of the piano teachers in the area are not themselves composers–and wouldn’t know where to begin teaching it.

    I’m not sure if it’s a fair comparison, but the divide between composing and performance seems like one I experience daily between creative writing and literary studies. One is for making new work; the other is for, broadly speaking, interpretation. Many of my English colleagues are baffled and intimidated by the idea of even assessing creative writing, not to mention teaching it. (And these are people who know literature and literary theory backward and forward.) Similarly, one of my colleagues in the music department is a composer and his wife is a performer; I’m not sure he could teach piano lessons or that his wife could teach composition. (I may be totally wrong about that, though.)

    Isn’t it interesting that “most of the [composition] winners came from the two schools where the music teachers emphasized creativity the most”? That’s the power of developing a culture of creation and composition. It’s not that those kids are necessarily more talented than others; they’re just nurtured and empowered to explore their talents.

    I liked what you closed with–that the best student work was “superior to the drivel heard on most elementary students’ piano recitals,” and I wonder if you have further thoughts on that–on what one of the NY Times readers called the irrelevance of classical music today. The other part of the piano culture I’ve observed is that it’s all classical, all the time. No jazz, no ragtime, no contemporary work, and certainly no women. Is classical music relevant? Is there room for innovation in piano–for contemporary, relevant compositions? Who’s doing it? Where?

    I know my daughter is proud of what she’s accomplished musically, and she is committed to piano because she knows she wants to be able to play it, as she says, “when I’m old.” But in her free time she’s far more likely to pick up her (new, pink, electric!) guitar and sing some Taylor What’s-Her-Face than to play another waltz at the piano. Anyway.

    Thanks again for your post; I’ll ask around about composition competitions.

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