My Cabbage Patch Kid Plays Piano

Every now and then one of my piano students' parents asks me, "We have all these old piano books... what should I do with them?"

That question always torments me. On one hand, I understand that pianists tend to accumulate a whole lot of music and though I seem to consistently fail at decluttering, other people are quite good at it and don't want books hanging around that their kids aren't going to touch ever again. On the other hand, there's a part of me that wants to scream, "Keeeeeeeep themmmm!!!!" 

Some children play house. Some children play school. Or store. Or doctor. Or business. Me? I used to play piano lessons. I would line up all my dolls and take them one at a time to the piano where we would start with my very first method book (Music Pathways A). I would demonstrate every single song to my dolls and explain every single concept. We would work our way through all of the method books I'd covered at that point. And like most children, repetition (of certain things) was just a given. So first my Cabbage Patch doll would learn for a bit. Then we'd start over and my Barbies would learn a bit. Then we'd move to the rag doll that my grandmother made me. And even the teddy bears would get a turn. This game would go on over the course of a weekend, usually, and we might even end up staging a recital. I'd choose favorite songs from all of the different books I had and put together a program. And often I'd take the tape recorder and make a "permanent" keepsake of the experience.

Sometimes I didn't need the dolls. I'd just go back in the books for fun. I'd pick out my favorites and play those. I'd learn the teacher duet parts and make my sister come and play the student parts. I'd write variations. I'd learn the songs that we hadn't "officially" learned in lessons. And this was all possible because we saved each and every one of those piano books.

I am 100% sure that each and every time I went back through those old books I was cementing concepts that made it easier for me to later pick up new ones. I am 100% sure that I became a piano teacher because of my experiences with Barbie at the piano. And I am 100% convinced that I am the pianist I am today partly because we had all those old books in a cabinet right next to the piano, at my disposal any time I wanted them.

Those old books were a way for me to create success for myself. And I think that's such an important idea in teaching. If we don't have success at an activity, then we aren't going to want to do it. So at times, a teacher must create success for students so that they are inspired to take the next step. I'm not talking about the kind of success where everyone on the soccer team gets a trophy just for showing up. I'm taking about creating an experience that a student can successfully complete and that will naturally lead into the next experience on the learning path. So maybe a very early beginner is learning the names of the piano keys. They have a little chart that tells them that C, D, and E sit under the group of two black keys. The teacher works with them to learn those three keys. Then at the end of the lesson, the teacher might write down for them "E D C D E E E" and ask the student to play those notes in that order. Mary Had A Little Lamb. Instantly, the kid's eyes light up because s/he recognizes the song. SUCCESS. The child feels SUCCESS. Perhaps the teacher instructs the child to go home and figure out the rest of the song. The student will come back the following week with the rest of the song figured out and written down and perhaps one or two others written down. S/he will absolutely know where C, D, and E are on the piano from now to forever, and there will likely be a strong desire to learn the rest of the key names. That's the kind of success I'm talking about. I experienced that kind of success when, as a child, I picked up a book I hadn't seen in months and realized that I could now play through the entire book, beginning to end, with very little trouble -- even if some of the pieces in that book had been stumbling blocks when I initially went through them. I was experiencing success.

I'd be deceiving myself if I thought that every single student I have spends their weekends teaching their Bratz dolls at the piano. But I do see students pulling out old books from time to time saying, "Hey, Miss Libby, look what I learned!" or "Miss Libby, do you remember this song?" And that makes me happy as a teacher, knowing that my students have experienced a success that will likely keep them going for even just a little bit longer at the piano.

I'm going to have a "swap box" at my studio's end-of-year picnic so that families can trade music that they may no longer wish to keep. If people really want to get rid of music, I'll usually tell them to donate it to Goodwill so that others may find it and be able to use it. Sometimes I even take it so that I can give it to other students who might need or want it. But I'm hoping that with a swap box, some of my students will pick up a new treasure or two that will keep the flame burning.

I suppose I should finish my story and let you know that while my Cabbage Patch doll was by far the most talented of my first crop of students, ultimately, her lack of opposable thumbs was a hindrance. She took up percussion instead. Barbie found piano difficult because her hands were too small, but she still puts on her cheerleading uniform sometimes and does cartwheels and backflips to make pleasant sounds on the keys. Raggedy Ann enjoys playing to this day. Raggedy Andy plays along on his ukulele. All in all, I think that the dolls had a good experience with their music lessons. Their teacher sure did.

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