A Faustian Rhythm Bargain

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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  1. Sarah January 14, 2015 at 10:39 am

    I had the opposite experience as a child, Wendy. The very first lesson I had at 6 years old, my imposing and 3-piece suit wearing (with an ascot) piano teacher showed me what middle C looked like and what a quarter was and I was off and running. Reading and rhythm was emphasized from the beginning and as a result I’ve always been a confident reader of notes and rhythms. However, engaging my ear was totally neglected and to this day I have to make myself work on that. I think my students are pretty good readers and I work to have them be able to sight read from the beginning (we sight read music a lot in the lessons) but I have to remind myself to also work on their ear. Sometimes I think I need to stretch my ear more so I can do the same with my students.

  2. Wendy Stevens January 14, 2015 at 10:44 am

    I completely agree Sarah! I think we all have to be aware of what are strengths and weaknesses are and be deliberate about making sure our students don’t suffer from an insufficiency of important skills. I think “engaging students ears” (as you eloquently put it) is so neglected. Teachers talk about “ear training” but that’s not the same thing as engaging their ear! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  3. Kelly January 14, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Thanks for sharing you story with us. What great perspective and valuable advice!

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