This summer I’ve done something that I’ve never really done before: I made formal arrangements to give a little something back to my community. I’ve always been happy to support community and school activities, but I’ve never before made a formal time commitment to give in a specific way.
I know I talk about living in a small town a lot, but one of the things I love the most about it is that you don’t have to be very good at a thing to make a contribution. Take, for instance, music. I’ve mentioned that Patrick is very good at music, but he apparently got that from the milk man, because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket with the lid nailed down. Nor am I very good at instruments. I play the piano well enough to entertain myself, but those around me usually breathe a sign of relief when I close the keyboard. I’m not good at it, but I do know the basics–the notes, timing, registration, stuff like that.
Patrick and I have benefitted enormously from Megan’s after school and summer daycamp program, and this spring we decided that it was our turn to give a bit back. We talked to Megan, who was delighted to slot Patrick in with some tutoring time in math and reading. And we decided that I would give piano lessons.
As I said, I am far from concert caliber, but I do know the basics. Megan made a list of the kids who wanted to learn. It was a mixed bag; several face special learning challenges, while some were already proficient on another instrument, and just needed help transferring their skills and knowledge to the piano.
And so this summer, every Thursday and Friday, I go out to the day camp and give music lessons–in most cases to young people who find complexity baffling. And they’re actually learning–and what’s more, they’re loving the experience.
They’re learning, but I’m learning far more. This summer has challenged many of my ideas about music, and learning, and teaching. Most of all, it has taught me the beauty of simplicty. Take, for example, how music is written and read.
For those of you who never took music lessons, this is the process:
1. Memorize the piano keyboard, using the letters from A to G.
2. Memorize musical notation, which is nothing more than black dots and lines, placed at various points on two five-line, four-space areas. Notes may also be written far above and below the baselines and spaces. Notes for the two lines occur at different points on the lines and spaces.
3. Identify the note based on its location on the lines and spaces, and translate that note to the piano keyboard–a completely different, and absolutely arbitrary transition.
4. Identify how fast or slow to play the note.
5. Play the note.
6. Do the same thing for every single note on the page.
For the thousands of people who play the piano well, this happens so quickly that it’s nearly instantaneous. But even before I started, I realized that the abstract connection between written notes and the keyboard was not a connection that some of my students would easily make, and unless I could find a way of simplifying the process frustration would end the experiment before we had even started.
And then I got the idea of color coding. I color coded the keyboard and each students’ fingers–and then I found simple music (no more than one note at a time) and wrote it not in musical notation, but in color.
And it’s working. Through a process of trial and error I’ve learned that for one group of students–the children with Down Syndrome–one note at a time is all that we can comfortably manage for the moment. But the linear focus that makes adding additional notes difficult proves a wonderful asset in another way. We started playing together–rounds mostly. Today we had three people each playing one part of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”–and it absolutely worked. Harmony and complexity happened.
I’ve been tracking down rounds and writing them for five notes, using color. And it works. And suddenly I’m seeing that the sky is the limit here. By combining players carefully (one student who is a beginner with one or two who are transferring to the piano) even I, who am no musician, can offer the experience of music to a group of people for who it has been out of reach.
I love my mornings there. I spend hours in between tracking down simple musical arrangements and transposing them to the color notation system. I’m on the prowl for a young readers’ life of Beethoven for Annalee, who is deaf, and who is experiencing music in the same way that Beethoven did when he wrote his Ninth Symphony–by leaning against a resonating surface and feeling the notes vibrate in the wood. I’m going to download the Ninth Symphony, find the biggest speakers I can, have Annalee press her back against them, and crank the stereo. I just found the music for one of the very first songs in the English language for which we have music. It’s a round, and it talks about cows farting, of all things. I’m going to teach it to the kids. How cool is that? These kids, who are just starting to explore the world of music, will be playing a song that was written when English-speaking people as a group were just beginning to to do the same thing.
I might be teaching the day camp kids the basics of music, but this summer has taught me far more. I had always thought of music as something I heard. This summer has taught me that it’s so very, very much more.
So, here’s where you can help. Think back to camp, or church, or school, or whatever, and send me the names of the rounds you sang.