Teaching Moment: You, Me, and Melvin the Metronome

I have this youngish pianist. I’ll call him Ed. Ed is quickly moving into the intermediate arena and is one of those students I group into the category of Magnificent, Untouchable Child-Dieties Who Practices With Abandon. He’s a really self-sufficient little dude and gets his stuff done. In terms of actually guiding and structuring his practice, I’m sort of just along for the ride, which is to be expected, as he’s a Montessori product. I’ll sit beside him and really only have to remind him to think his tempo before he begins. He tends to take care of the rest on his own.

Most of the time.

Yesterday at his lesson, there’s this tricky little technic thing he’s playing. A legato left hand, staccato right hand, plus some wacky parallel sixth activity (which, at the early intermediate level, trying to break the muscle memory of the fifth can be very “does not compute”). Ed is failing miserably at putting both hands together and keeping a steady tempo. He keeps looking at me in his peripherals, grimacing, and reflecting the look on my face.

The story only descends. I whip out my favorite tool, which we together have dubbed Melvin the Metronome. Ed cringes. I set the pulse at a moderate 90 (quarter note). He tries. He fails.

I lower the metronome to 85. No dice. I move it to 80, then to 75, and continue in a similar fashion down the swiftly darkening path of broken musical dreams.

We’re at quarter = 60 and even the separate-hand work still is just not coming together…and the greatest rhythmic activity are quarter notes, mind you (if you’re a non-musical reader, listen to the sound of a ticking clock…he couldn’t quite achieve that rhythm). The studio fills with the convoluted sounds of some sort of sad, half-demolished music box left to die on a kid’s bedroom floor. Ed is fully aware of this.

Finally, he stops playing and proceeds to ever-so-gently rest his forehead in the center of the piano, producing a dissonant chord cluster that would make John Cage beam with pride, but which disturbs my spirit. I mute the metronome.

With his face draped on the keys, and without a single ounce of irony, Ed the twelve-year-old melodramatically utters:

“My entire existence is falling apart.” 

Mine, too, Ed. Mine, too. We will get through this, you and I.

Or, I should say: You, Me….and Melvin. The metronome.

I hate you, Melvin. 

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