Jun / 04
“From the time that she was about five years ago, I’ve been taking my daughter Peanut to piano lessons. She used to go to a school run by a friend (which unfortunately has since shut down), but that was her start- on the keyboard with a certain teacher named Jon. She was a kid back then, but showed promise right from the start.
I then took her to another school for a couple of years, wherein she developed her talent under two different teachers. The teachers were good and well-meaning, but I couldn’t somehow get the vibe that the school really cared about her. It was in the way the principal behaved; it was even in the cold behaviour of the receptionists. I learnt for the first time, first-hand, just how much your front office means to you as an organisation. The teachers delighted in Peanut’s ability though, and they let me sit in to take notes on her behalf because she was small and could barely write. Her little fingers moved with ease over the piano. She was good at sight-reading. And most of all, she seemed to enjoy playing.
I remember the day we invested in her digital piano, a Kawaii KDP 80. It was on a monsoon discount, but it still cost a LOT of money. But by this time, she’d already been playing for about a year, and I knew that it would be an investment worth making. It was. Her ability to practice went up – whereas earlier, I’d have to figure a way to get her to the school when the piano room would be empty, we now had our very own piano at home. This made all the difference to daily practice. One day soon after we got the piano, she had developed fever – but to make herself feel better, she actually got up and went over to practice. My heart soared. It had been the right choice to buy the instrument.
So when it came to her piano exam time, her Initial and Grade 1 came and went pretty smoothly. She didn’t seem to know what it meant to be tense about the exams. Heck, she didn’t even know what exams really were or meant. She’d go in, do her stuff, come out and get ice-cream. She was a kid.
And then, I decided it was time to make a shift. Her teachers had quit and old school – the cold school – just wasn’t cutting it for us anymore. In search of a better environment, we wound up at the One World College of Music. How did I discover this? One day at Galleria market, I found a bunch of musicians setting up near the fountain and breaking into a performance. Enquiries led me to understand that this was a different sort of school, led by one intrepid Nidhi. Conversations with Nidhi led me eventually to get Peanut admitted in for Piano lessons then, and it’s been three years since.
There were ups and downs in the journey. Peanut grew up a little and decided that it was unfair that she had to practice daily. She grew up a little more and realised that exams were something that people were scared about. She cried before her Grade 3 examination. She grew up some more and became more resentful about how I obsessed about her practicing to the point of perfection.
And then it was time for me to grow up.
The teachers at the school went through a shuffle; by this time, I’d learned that great teachers make a huge difference; but the environment that the right school provides makes at least an equal amount of impact. Both the new teacher as well as the administrative leads of the school, consisting of the team of Nidhi and Adhiraj, made me see that Peanut was being put under too much pressure by the examination system, which the school didn’t really believe in – they felt it really didn’t actually contribute to learning and technique as much as it did to rote memorisation and mechanical repeated playing of the same few pieces over and over again. Further, it was gently explained to me that now that Peanut was old enough to take her own notes, I really had no need to sit in like a hawk into her lessons.
In short – I had to let go.
I was a little bewildered in the beginning. Let go? Really? When it was MY disciplinary watching over her and insistence on daily practice that had got her so far? Was this the right thing to do?
Yes, said the teacher wisely. Because kids around this age, she explained, go through a phase where they may rebel and even begin to hate the instrument. My heart sank. I didn’t want to be that parent. I wouldn’t be that parent.
And so, a new phase began, with young Peanut and her new Ma’am Nandita taking a different, more relaxed approach to playing and learning and having more fun. And I was just hanging around class now, so an interesting side benefit ensued. I began to take my own lessons. In Piano. And the Guitar. After all, the school’s program was one wherein they believed that students of music should go through multiple exposures to develop completely and Peanut was therefore not only a piano student but also in a Group vocal class. What was a mom to do, hanging around school for 80 minutes each week? So, sure, I signed up too. And for two years, I’ve been plodding along and learning to play the piano while refreshing my memory of my old instrument, the guitar. The school introduced the concept of Recitals, to give their students a chance to prepare for something and play for an audience occasionally. I participated in these a couple of times though, and Peanut certainly seemed to like the idea of playing at a recital better than playing for an examination. These recitals were small affairs, usually about thirty people in the audience, enjoying themselves on the roof during wintry evenings or inside a darkened performance room on the second floor of the school’s building when it was too hot.
And then, after the first year had passed, Peanut’s piano teacher casually announced that Peanut was ready to start preparing for her Grade 5 examination. Huh? I did a double take. She had last done Grade 3. It didn’t matter, said the teacher, shrugging. She’s ready, she’s developed well. What of the exam stress, I enquired. Well, this particular type of examination was different – it involved simply recording three performance pieces in a row and sending them off to London for professional evaluation. Well, that sounded cool, and Peanut seemed open to the idea although not entirely thrilled about the whole thing.
Grade 5 pieces are tough. They’re a whole different ball game from Grade 3 or even the Grade 4 that she’d simply skipped past. We went through a tense couple of months, with my old nervous habit of enquiring about daily practice creeping back. Peanut was resentful again, this time of just how long and how difficult the pieces were. Making even one mistake would throw off the performance and make her have to go back to start from the beginning all over again. It’s not a joke playing three such pieces in a row, she complained. I didn’t say it was a joke, I told her. Just go and play it all over again. She’d stomp over to the piano, dragging her feet, and I’d clutch my hair in frustration.
Why are examinations in music important? Well, I don’t actually believe they are except for the fact that they give you something to work towards; a way to judge your performance and improvement. And most importantly, another milestone to celebrate if you get it right.
And that’s what happened with Peanut’s Grade 5 assessment. A few weeks post the examination, we were hailed by Nandita and Nidhi as we arrived at school for our lessons – saying Ms. Peanut had received a Distinction. Eighty Six marks out of One Hundred. Nothing to Sneeze At. Peanut grinned. ‘Can I have an ice-cream?’ She asked cheekily. She certainly got a lot of treats -the entire family went out that weeknight to celebrate her achievement.
We don’t know where Peanut’s going to go with her music. But Nandita put it well, ‘Her friends will come and go. But if she sticks with her music, it will be there with her and for her, always.’
So there we are. Music is an intrinsic part of our lives. As a busy corporate professional, I still manage to squeeze in a few minutes occasionally, and my teachers at the school have learnt that there’s no point in pressurising me to practice. I’m going to be an amateur for life with music, but at least I’m in touch with it again. And Peanut is valued as a good student with potential, one that is to be watched and nurtured and supported in the best way possible.
At home, young Pickle and Papad are waiting for when they can also get to the school for an appropriate program. But in the meantime, since life seems to come around, I found a certain Jon Lama, on Urbanclap of all places, and he’s been coming home for over a year to tutor them on the guitar and the piano respectively. As if this wasn’t enough, my mechanically minded husband dug out my old drum set which I’d bought fifteen years ago in Bangalore, and has set it up in the kid’s room, and that’s an additional instrument that Peanut is now taking weekly lessons with Jon at, and in short, we have a loud, musical home – often filled with a cacaphony of instruments and voices singing at varying levels of skill but with full heartiness.
And to top it all off, it’s even given me inspiration for writing my next children’s book. Peanut Vs. the Piano is currently in progress with my platypus-like publishers at Duckbill.
There’s nothing like music. And we are very, very lucky to have it in our lives. And so – we play on.”
This article was written by Yashodhara Lal, Mother of Anoushka Lal and Student of OWCM.