Lessons Learned From Former Students: You Know What You’re Doing

Lauren was an intellectual. She was a high-school vocalist and my very first private student. I was twenty, a cash-strapped junior in college, and thirsty for relevant professional experience that didn’t involve waking up at an obscene hour to change diapers at a “child development center” (glorified daycare?).

At the time, I was playing in a jazz combo for college credit. My combo leader Loyd called me one day to inform me he had recommended me as a private teacher to Lauren, to which my response was about eight seconds of dead silence, followed by a frantic slew of questions and self-depricating statements like “I’ve never taught anyone before,” “how does this work, then?” and the age-old “I barely know what I’m doing.”

Loyd was (and still is) one of those laid-back jazz cats who goes with the flow, but really has his life together and manages to pull off some pretty complicated things, like teaching a classically-trained and high-strung pianist (me) how to swing her eighth notes without her losing her shit. His response to my mild, yet predictable and inevitable freak-out was, “you know what you’re doing. Just take it one lesson at a time.”

“What do I charge, then?”

“I’d say no less than $20 an hour.”

…which was one hundred sweet, glorious, unsullied dollars of cold, hard-earned cash a month, for only one hour of weekly work that involved zero diapers. Music to my ears, quite literally. After receiving a proverbial shove in the right direction from Loyd, I phoned Lauren’s mother, Betty, and arranged the details. I began driving to their house once a week, under full disclosure that I very well could have no idea what I was doing.

Even back then when I was green and poor, I had developed an increasing awareness of my own lack of knowledge. The more I learned, the more I discovered that I didn’t know jack about anything, really, and that terrified me. Through most of my collegiate schooling, I perpetually operated with the dreadful feeling that I was forgetting something, or missing something painfully obvious in my day-to-day functions. I would over-think my interactions with teachers, friends, and other students in the hopes that understanding every facet of every situation I encountered would inform me, and by being informed, I was safe. The horrible irony of it all was that the more I was informed of things and the more knowledge I accumulated, the less secure I felt about the world and my place in it. In fact, I became confident that I had no idea what I was doing and that the world would find me out and receive me with torches and stones. By agreeing to take on Lauren as a private student, I was suddenly woefully burdened with someone else’s musical knowledge and responsible for this person’s future perceptions of music. Talk about Pandora’s Box.

One week later, I arrived at Lauren’s house armed with questionably-legal sheet music and worn anthologies. Lauren and Betty lived in a hip part of town, a neighborhood of mid-60’s and 70’s ranch-style houses surrounded by mature trees and tucked away in the center of the city. I came to discover that that particular neighborhood was a sort of liberal hotspot; a cluster of artists, writers, creatives, and intellectuals resided in the area, and I was welcomed into Lauren and Betty’s mother-daughter abode with a glass of fresh apple-carrot juice and a shameless plug for organic gardening.

You know what you’re doing…

I taught Lauren on a parlor-sized, woefully untuned upright piano. I led her in all the things I had spent years doing in my own lessons; we warmed up, sightread, chose music, she sang for me previously studied literature. We talked about her background in choir and band, and how her mother went to Dartmouth, and how she herself one day wanted to attend an ivy-league school. Both women were exceptionally bright and knowledgeable, a trait I gleaned from the hundreds of books lining the walls of their house in messy-chic fashion, as if the girls were too enchanted at the possibilities within the spines of the volumes to care how dusty the piano was or that the final page of Lauren’s music was missing, no doubt lost among the thousands of chapters of knowledge in their home.

You know what you’re doing…

60 minutes flew by. Then a year flew by. Lauren was involved in musicals, school choir, sang in a jazz combo, and we even submitted an application to the prestigious Tanglewood summer music institute, a process for which we were both woefully unprepared. I put Lauren through hellacious hoops to garner the discipline that she lacked. She acquiesced with fervor.

You know what you’re doing…

We called an emergency lesson, set up my room divider as a backdrop, and spent two hours memorizing and recording “Amarilli, mia bella” and “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” on a frigid Sunday evening. I spent another hour figuring out how the hell to burn the video for her to pick up the next day, and we crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s on her application together. She made it in, and I penned my first letter of recommendation to her summer voice teacher, praising Lauren for her strengths and bluntly revealing her weaknesses. She returned at the end of her summer with a somewhat disillusioned and certainly more realistic perspective on high-level music learning. Eventually, she phased herself out of lessons, though I don’t remember specifically how or why.

Lauren is memorable because she was my starter student, and I was her starter teacher. I learned and leaned on her; she was forgiving yet malleable. She showed me that I did know what I was doing, and gave me the confidence to carve my path as a teacher. I can only hope she one day becomes the starter anything for anyone and gives someone as much direction as she gave me.

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