Tears were streaming down my face as I sat on the cold wooden bench at my Baldwin piano. I finally had to admit that I had no idea how to play the rhythm in this piece.

I bawled. 

“I can’t do it!” I told my mother. “I can’t count. I’m going to quit.” Now my declaration that I was quitting was pretty serious. At 12 years old, I really enjoyed playing and I don’t think I had ever said that before, so my mom knew this was trouble.

What I Learned from my Mom’s Faustian Rhythm Bargain 

Here’s the scoop. My teacher was great. She was solid in teaching theory (though I always left my theory book at home), great at choosing repertoire, and faithful to the important elements of piano pedagogy.

But somehow I had made it through 5 years of lessons without really having to count. She had always played the piece for me, so I could easily mimic the rhythm.

However, this week, I think she must have gone to a conference and had some kind of epiphany because she didn’t play THIS piece for me.

And so I sat and sobbed because I finally realized I didn’t know how to count and therefore figure out a piece myself.

Mob Bop by Wendy StevensMy mom, knowing me very well, invited me into the kitchen and made a life changing decision for me. “Okay, you may quit.” A strange pause followed as I was pretty surprised by this. She continued, “But if you quit, you can never play this piano again.”

Now, decades later, I asked my mom about this bargain and she swears she did not ban me from the piano as a I remember, but rather said, “But if you want to play this piano at our house ever again, you have to learn to play it right.” My mother also now tells me that she knew this was a huge gamble and she wouldn’t recommend most mothers make this bargain, but it was just what I needed at the time.

You know all these popular rhythm books you are probably using like Rhythm Cup Explorations, Rhythm Menagerie, and Rhythm Manipulations? Well, these were not created because I was naturally good at rhythm. 

These reproducible books are the result of the learning struggle. Remember “the struggle that produces hope and whole-hearted living” that Brene Brown talked about last week? I guess I’m an example of this in action. 

So what did I do?

Obviously I couldn’t stand the thought of not touching my mom’s piano again (because that’s how I remember the conversation…the way I remember the story, she told me I couldn’t touch the piano again if I quit), so I came back to my lesson and admitted to my teacher I didn’t know how to count. And thus began the period in which I actually brought my theory book to lessons and learned to be quite fond of it.

So what’s the big teaching lesson?

I think good teaching involves BOTH modeling AND requiring students to figure things out by themselves.

For the first 10 years I taught, my pendulum swung to the opposite of my teacher’s…I never played pieces for my students. I made them count every single piece. Every. Single. Time.

Now I know that modeling is extremely important, both for technique, artistry, AND rhythm. But like with anything in life, solid pedagogy balances modeling AND taking the time to allow the student to struggle through the learning process. This is what produces hope and therefore, whole-hearted living.

What is your modeling and struggling balance like?

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