‘Ever wondered if maybe every student you teach has talent, if you could just unearth it? Me too. For me, I think this comes from the early steps in my own music journey. You see, when I was 6, my mother announced to me that it was time I started piano lessons. Even at 6 years old, this was food for thought. I don’t recall having expressed any desire for piano lessons, and I wasn’t at all sure what it would involve, and although mum thought I was keen, I don’t remember feeling especially enamored with the idea. It’s like being asked if you would like x for dinner, and you don’t know, because you’ve never tasted x. However, even at that comparatively young age, I took a few things away from mum’s statement. Firstly, piano lessons are very important. Secondly, obviously everyone needs piano lessons as I wasn’t asked if I would like to learn piano, but told ‘it’s time you learned piano’, as though at six naturally everyone should be starting piano.
So, mum acquired an upright piano. I must admit, it was a little bit interesting over the next few weeks, as mum sought out and found a large and bulky piano. Eventually it arrived in our small house, and I discovered it there after school one day. The piano itself was not especially appealing, either in appearance nor tone. Having started its life as no doubt a lovely piano, probably over 80 years previously, mum had rescued it from a church hall, and installed it in our small living room. Over time she painstakingly removed the candle stick holders, the old-fashioned carved legs, all the black shellac with which some enthusiast had covered it, and gave it a lovely timber-stained finish. Unfortunately, that did not change the tone, or the feel.
On a cool afternoon in April, Mum put my baby sister and I in the car, and my music journey officially began. We were off to my first piano lesson, at the convent nearby in Sydney. At dinner that night, Dad asked how it went. Did I like piano? I wasn’t sure. I had met middle C and a few of its friends, and they seemed ok, but I couldn’t commit to more than that.
Over the next few weeks, piano lessons continued with ‘Mr Thompson’ and my patient nun, and weekly life fell into a new routine. School each day, weekly piano lessons, family time at the table each night, Grandma on weekends, and… piano practice. A new, and unfamiliar concept in my little world. Apparently, although piano lessons were once a week, piano practice happened every day. At first it seemed easy – the pieces were short – so just a quick run through them and then I could escape back to play time. I had a good memory, so being unable to read music was not a problem if I could just get my teacher to play it once or twice. This was also excellent ear training as it turned out, although I’m sure it was not at all what my teacher had in mind! But as we progressed through ‘Teaching Little Fingers to Play’, my little fingers stumbled unhappily as my little eyes completely failed to learn how to read music, and my teacher steadfastly refused to play it for me to copy. Piano practice at home became vastly more difficult.
With a toddler and now a new baby in the family, life was busy. ‘Mr Thompson’ and my still patient nun forged ahead with piano and theory lessons, and the new notes kept coming, but the hieroglyphics on the page made little sense to me. I have no doubt that my nun pointed out the goings up and the goings down, and the steps and skips, but just as Mr Thompson’s Lazy Mary did not Get Up in the Morning, neither did my piano skills. Lessons stagnated, and felt very samely each week. Actually, they probably were the same each week! Same book. Same pieces. Same problems. Same frustrations. Same unintelligible code on the page. Practice did not interest me. I could endure through my uninspiring lesson each week, but why on earth would I want to do that at home? In my brain, music notation became something impossible to understand, and something to avoid. I would watch my hands, I would gaze out the window, and I would watch my teacher’s face so I could tell if I was getting something right, but looking at the page as she wanted me to do, was not helpful at all. It was a stalemate.
Fast forward 18 months. We now lived in Darwin, where my father was an eye surgeon, and a flying doctor going all over the Northern Territory. Family life settled into a new normal. I started keyboard class. Yes, 1970’s style keyboard class. This I enjoyed! Not because I learned any more about playing piano, but because at my keyboard, hiding away in my headphones, I could turn the dial and hear everyone else! Great fun! Until the teacher came to see how I was going, and I wasn’t… He recommended mum get a private teacher for me.
A few weeks later, I began lessons with a private teacher who came to our home. A sweet, kind, pretty young lady, a family friend from church. But she was far too kind for me and I could generally avoid getting much of this ‘Mr Thompson’ music stuff done in lessons. Music may have been important for some people, but it was irrelevant to me.
The following few years passed by, all much the same. After six years, and five piano teachers, in four different cities, I had muddled through to Mr Thompson’s book 2. I could sight read only five notes in the right hand – I could not have passed even preliminary grade, and I knew I was a complete dunce at music. Through those years, my mum persisted with my piano lessons. Ever patient, ever busy, but still sure that one day it would be worth it. But at the beginning of high school, there was a change. Mum talked to me, she said there would be more homework in year 7. She said I wasn’t practicing anyway, and maybe I should stop piano lessons. She gave me a choice. And she asked me to think about that choice for a few days before replying. Much to the surprise of both of us, I did think about it, and I discovered that I wanted to continue piano lessons! And the reason was, that deep down, underneath all the excuses against practicing, and the juvenile rebellion, and the musical ignorance, I wanted to be really good at piano. I had heard Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Liszt on records, and I wanted to master that darn piano, like other people obviously did. After all, I had been learning for 6 years, and even as a child I didn’t like having so little to show for that!
With my decision to continue came gradual change. I still couldn’t read music – in fact I was pretty well immunized against it! But now my teacher started finding more interesting pieces, not just method books, and I liked that. Sheet music felt more like ‘real’ music.
Another 3 years down the track, and with still mediocre practice and progress, I decided that I had had enough! By age 15 I was frustrated at still being only around grade one or two level. Mum had always talked about her cousins, who had played so well, and did piano eisteddfods, so putting two and two together, and getting five, I figured that must be the missing link! I picked up an entry form for the local eisteddfod, which had started recently in Port Macquarie, and entered myself in a section ‘Piano Solo – 16yrs & under’. It didn’t sound too difficult. But of one thing I was quite certain – I wasn’t going to play any of these easy pieces! Clearly, I needed a 6th grade piece…or so I thought. Pulling an old 6th grade book out of mum’s second-hand music cupboard one afternoon, I thumbed through it carefully. I had no idea how any of these pieces sounded, so I just looked for one that looked ‘do-able’. In my mind, that meant less black on the page, of course! Lighting upon a Clementi Sonatina movement, with only 3 pages, I figured I had found my piece. Only three pages. How hard could it be?
The next few weeks, unbeknown to my piano teacher, my every afternoon was spent decoding my new found piece. I’d arrive home from school, have a quick snack, and make a bee-line for the piano. My sight reading was still really appalling, heavily reliant on Good Boys Deserving Fruit, so of course it was a very slow process. And I had never heard this piece before in my life, so playing by ear was not an option. However, I painstakingly learnt it, bar by bar, writing on some letter names, and memorizing as quickly as possible, to overcome my profound sight-reading deficiencies. Mum had been keeping an ear on my efforts, and as the eisteddfod date drew closer, she suggested letting my teacher in on it, and taking it along to lessons. So next lesson I turned up clutching Clementi. Mrs Rees did not show the shock she must surely have felt, but got straight in to helping me. Over the next several lessons, she helped me decipher the 6/8 rhythm, she sorted out some sensible fingering in several places, she insisted on me practising smaller sections, and, best of all, she played bits of it for me. I was thrilled! I hadn’t realised how helpful she would be! I knew nothing of her urgent phone call to my mother, to find out what was going on! Between them, my mum and Mrs Rees decided that although I may not be ready for the eisteddfod in time, as it was an extremely ambitious goal I had set, I would be allowed to continue my project for now. However, six weeks later, with my piece finished, I was ready, and I played in that eisteddfod. It wasn’t perfect, but it was vastly better than anything I had previously done with piano. From frustration and dissatisfaction, through hard work and practice to absolute elation. A leap of five grades, in 3 months. And yes, although I didn’t win the section, the adjudicator, Eric Aubert, gave me a highly commended in a very large section of 20 or so. I was happy. Very happy. So happy, that I decided I wanted make music my career.
So, you might ask, what changed? Why did I stall so profoundly, languishing around preliminary level for so many long years, and then in only three months learn a grade 6 piece? How could that be? Well, I think it came from a combination of factors: I was fortunate that my parents valued good music, and played it at home on records and on the radio; I was lucky that my mum, and my various teachers, did not give up on me, even when my progress was virtually non-existent; and then finally, I was lucky enough to stumble over the real power that comes from heart-felt goal-setting.
But one thing I do wish is that my earlier teachers had taught me how to practice. Later on, studying at Newcastle Conservatorium under David Jones, I learned how to practice. And it was fascinating! Absorbing, addictive and satisfying beyond expectation! David was a magnificent pianist, who traced his teaching line back through Gordon Watson, Egon Petri, Busoni, Liszt & Czerny. And boy, did he know how to practice! He was precise, dictatorial, terrifying, and brilliant, and I finally learnt how to practice well. And play expressively. And perform confidently. Because those three all go together, of course!
I used to think that it was a shame I had such a rough start in music, and wish I had learnt much more quickly. But, you know, the perspective that my childhood experiences in music gave me is a much more interesting perspective to teach from now, forcing me to find more creative piano teaching solutions. And so often I find myself thinking, ‘What if this student really does have significantly more talent than we’re currently seeing? What if I help them find their dream, set some goals, give them a bag of ‘practice tricks’ they can get stuck into, and fall in love with practice?’ The possibilities just may be endless!
Anne Hilberts BMusEd, AMusA, MMTA, MVMTA
Anne Hilberts is a music teacher, specializing in piano teaching, in Newcastle, Australia. She loves being at home, with her husband, kids and cat, and she is passionate about music education and finding and developing talent in each and every student! With over 30 years’ experience in piano teaching, and having learned a great deal from raising and teaching her eldest five children to grade 8, certificate and diploma level, and her special needs son, she now enjoys writing creative music teaching resources, books and games for 88 Musical Keys, hoping to inspire another generation with a love of beautiful music!
Are you keen to inspire your own students along on their music journey? You may like to check out Anne’s practice books ‘My Bag of Practice Tricks’ and ‘My Music Journal’, full of revolutionary, fun practice strategies, goal-setting, and practice motivation for kids, inspired by her own music journey, and earned expertise.
And, thanks to Vanessa Munns and Top Music Co, you can check out a video review of the books here:
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