Adult Music Students and Baggage Handling

Presented at the Tenth Anniversary Celebration of AMSF, Oct 4, 1998

by Tom Potter

Keynotes, June 1999

It is no secret that, until fairly recently, music teachers have been reluctant to take on adult students. The most obvious reason is that a new adult student is not likely to progress as rapidly as young students for a variety of reasons. Whereas children are essentially tabulae rasae upon which the creative music teacher can work his own masterpiece, adults are essentially old dogs (at least from the trick-learning standpoint). Even worse, adults are stuck in their ways--ways which are almost certain to be incompatible with ways most music teachers would prefer. And, worse yet, adults are lugging around huge accretions of emotional baggage that are certain to interfere with their musical progress.

An interesting irony is that the heavy loads of emotional baggage that make us so unattractive to music teachers sometimes tend to be the very driving forces that push us to explore the possibility of performing music as adults. And, ironically again, the study of music performance can be very effective in helping us manage those burdens. That's where the Adult Music Student Forum and the supporters of adult music students come into the picture. I would like to discuss my own case as an example, even though I would never have considered speaking publicly about it in the days before Jerry Springer.

The man you see before you now is approaching his sixties. And yet, he can remember with stark clarity the severe brutalization that he endured for nearly a full year when he was a mere slip of a lad in his second year of elementary school. This torture he suffered at the hands of none other than (and here we have irony yet again) his piano teacher, one Sister Mary Florentine.

Sister Mary Florentine was a member of the Dominican Order, a group of nuns that 1 believe was loosely affiliated with the U.S. Navy Seals. This connection probably explains Sister Mary Florentine's facility with sophisticated weaponry. Rumors constantly swirled around Sister Mary Florentine. One rumor had it that she was a participant in the Spanish Inquisition. Of course, there was no evidence for this-other than her extraordinary ruthlessness and her apparent age.

Sister Mary Florentine's most notable trait as a music teacher was a truly remarkable intolerance for wrong notes. To say she was a stickler for perfection just doesn't fully capture it. During lessons she would usually stand behind and a little to the right of the student, gently cradling her weapon of choice. That, of course, was the standard-issue twelve-inch wooden ruler with the embedded brass straightedge. She would position herself strategically-just beyond the student's range of peripheral vision and just within striking distance of the keyboard.

Imagine yourself in this tableau-a young innocent boy, hands poised just above the keyboard with its hundreds of nicks and notches reflecting decades of dissonant notes, each quickly followed by errant ruler strikes or ricochets. Imagine the strikes that found their intended targets. Imagine yourself playing The Blue Danube Waltz in that situation.

Now fast forward about forty years. My family and career were by now well established. My life was on course and cruising along. Yet there remained a vague gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach-something missing or unresolved. It eventually evolved into a desire to take piano lessons.

In search of a teacher, I stumbled on Matt Harre, who lives around the corner. Matt's unusual sensitivity for the adult student was immediately apparent when he did not request a psychological profile before taking me on as a student.

My memory of the experiences with Sister Mary Florentine formed the basis of my expectations regarding lessons with Matt. For example, I naturally expected some form of torture to be an integral part of each lesson. So I was not at all disappointed when Matt insisted that I count while playing. I wondered why Sister Mary Florentine had never inflicted this upon me and concluded that she had almost certainly considered this form of torture, but probably rejected it as too mild and too subtle for her tastes.

But even from the first lesson it was clear that Matt was no Sister Mary Florentine. For example, during lessons he seated himself practically all the way across the room--way beyond striking range. Still, some of Matt's idiosyncrasies were a little confusing at first. Consider his seating arrangements-highly varied and always interesting. When he conducted lessons while seated on a medicine ball, I found myself occasionally wondering how he could throw the medicine ball at me while he was seated on it. I feared there might be some trick. My frame of reference did not permit me to imagine that he might simply be trying to ease his back pain.

Although Matt's instruction was primarily focused on the music, he incorporated imaginative physical and psychological components to aid in giving feeling to performances. He assigned exercises to develop fluidity in wrist and arm motion. He recommended breathing techniques for relaxation. He encouraged centering exercises to keep calm and creative visualization exercises to help choreograph one's performance. And he recommended approaches to learning presented in the book, The Inner Game of Music. In a nutshell, the idea is to concentrate more effectively by not thinking about it, or, at least, by not thinking about what you're thinking about.

I cannot say that any one of these approaches was particularly effective for me. But all of them together seemed to have considerable benefit. After only two or three short years, I found myself actually focusing on the music. With Matt's continued therapy, unlicensed though some of it may have been, the burdens of my youth gradually melted away and I found myself playing at least elementary pieces with actual enjoyment. And now, thanks to Matt and the spirit of the AMSF, I am able to stand here and proclaim for all to hear: "I love you, Sister Mary Florentine!"

Copyright 1999 Tom Potter


AMSF publishes Keynotes, a quarterly newsletter containing articles that educate, that explore issues of technique, performance, and practice, and that inform readers about the AMSF organization and its members. Click here for more Keynotes articles.