We bought our piano in November of 2009. We bought it because Sam seemed so interested in playing. We were given some great lesson books and other materials. In January of 2010 I sat down with Sam one time with the first lesson book and it’s been gathering dust ever since. It’s not that she wasn’t ready for piano; it’s that she wasn’t ready to take direction from me.
For two years, Sam has occasionally plucked at the piano by herself (doing it “my own way” in defiance of any instruction that I might offer), never learning much, but recently showing signs of being able to hunt down notes by ear. I’ve also fiddled around with the piano, and we’ve enjoyed the recorded music on it quite often. Guests have played for us. But still, it was mostly just an expensive decoration.
A couple of weeks ago, Sam told me that she wanted to learn to play Twinkle Twinkle. I think she has been playing music on the bells at school, and I had helped her pick out the notes on the piano a few times. (As long as I showed her the notes in the way that she told me to, she would cooperate.) I got the sense that she might be ready this time, so I asked her if she would like me to give her piano lessons, and she said yes!
We’ve had four or five lessons now. Sam will sit still and observe as I give her a demonstration, and she will attempt to perform the tasks as demonstrated. We’ve gone over the proper sitting position. We’ve learned the correct way to hold her hands and how her fingers should strike the keys. We’ve numbered her fingers and played “wiggle number four!” type games. We’ve played notes with specific fingers up and down the scale. We’ve tapped out quarter notes and half notes. Each lesson is short – maybe 15 minutes – and we always go back a couple of lessons in the book as a review. At the end of every lesson, we have “free time” where she gets to learn a song in her old, comfortable way – I point to the keys she should play and she hits them with her index finger.
I didn’t have any plan at all when we started, except that I would use this particular book. The short lessons, the reviews, and the “free time” all came about naturally, and I realize that I’ve internalized a lot of the pedagogical principles that I’ve been studying for the past few years as I’ve been preparing for homeschooling. That is gratifying. A little bit more deliberate was my use of Montessori language; I told Sam that first I would give a “presentation” and then it would be her turn, just like at school. I’ve tried this in the past with her to no avail. But now it is working and we’re having fun! I am teaching Sam something in a formal way and we are having a good time!
I don’t know if this is a normal parenting experience or not, but this is a huge breakthrough for Sam and me. Since she was about two-and-a-half, Sam has generally shown no respect for any teaching I might offer. The quotation marks around “my own way” in the second paragraph were not scare quotes. I was quoting her literal response to just about every challenging thing I’ve attempted to show her or teach her for the past couple of years. The fact that I would show her a method automatically made it wrong to her, and she would insist on doing it “my own way.” Writing letters of the alphabet, zipping up her coat, putting on her gloves, tracing sandpaper letters, putting her glass of milk on the far side of the plate, opening the car door, reciting a poem, putting together a jigsaw puzzle – anything. If I tried to teach it, she rebelled and insisted on doing it “her way.” Most often, her way didn’t work, but that didn’t seem to matter to her. At first this was very upsetting to me and I kept pushing, but eventually I backed off simply out of frustration. If she didn’t want to learn from me, I couldn’t force her. So I kept offering, but as soon as she resisted, I stopped trying and allowed her to wallow in her incompetence. And in many areas, she really is quite incompetent for her age.
The change is not just with the piano. She is showing me the same respect in other areas now as well. A few days ago, she allowed me to teach her how to put a towel on a towel bar. Seriously, she is five years old and she had never learned this simple task. They use hooks at school and we have hooks for her coats, but every time she used a towel in the bathroom, it ended up on the floor. I’d watched her try to do it on her own and she just could not figure out how to even up the sides and use gravity, but there was no way she would allow me to show her. This time, she observed and then proudly did it on her own. And she keeps doing it – at least when she remembers that she knows how.
Sam has had the same rebellious attitude towards her dad, but quite so strong. At school she has always taken direction – no problem. And I’ve seen her accept instruction from adult friends of ours and from her peers. So I’ve always known this was part of her natural and necessary separation process from her parents. I just didn’t know if it would ever change, and that has been a huge worry for me as a future homeschooler. No matter how Montessori-ish you make a homeschool environment, the student still needs to respect the teacher.
And Sam’s personality has not changed. I’m still going to need to be the most unobtrusive type of teacher for her. Any whiff of an attempt to control her will cause her to rebel. Finding ways to activate her internal motivation will be my biggest challenge, I know. But the fact that she now recognizes that I know things and that I can help her without controlling her is huge. My task now is not to screw it up. I need to continue to give her examples of ways in which I can help her learn faster than she would do on her own, but I need to abstain from pushing. If I can do that, I think we might actually have a chance at success with homeschooling.