384. Lessons

There’s a kind of anti-intellectualism among some artists (and parents of artists) that places the untutored genius high above the one who had a teacher, studied, and finally created some good stuff. I’ve had that mindset to some degree for a long time, and still do, somewhat. I’ve been proud of the fact that I knew how to play piano before I
took lessons, and I’ve clung to the belief that lessons, when I finally took them, didn’t do me a bit of good.
All right. I admit that the piano lessons I had taught me how to read music. And though they didn’t teach me to write music, I couldn’t have
figured it out if I didn’t know how to read it. Of course, as soon as I took lessons, my untutored genius status was ruined; when people heard me
playing and said, “Isn’t he amazing? And he never took a single lesson!”, I had to correct them.
Lessons are okay. I think they’re best when they’ve been requested by the person taking them, for reasons that have something to do with what
the lessons actually are. They’re even better if they’re tailored to the learning style and interests of the person being tutored.
But that’s not quite true of the music lessons I remember having. And listening to many children, I’ve heard many of their complaints about lessons. Too often, they’re told what they’re going to learn, told to practice, and scolded if they haven’t practiced, or seem not to have. And they either quit lessons or wish they could.
I don’t think children should have to take lessons. If children are talented, lessons too often end up being their punishment for having talent. They envy those lucky “untalented” children who get to go do what they want to do. This is not as true in the nineties as it was in the fifties and sixties, and not as true in the communities in which I’ve taught, because almost all of the children are taking lessons. Maybe the spontaneous baseball game on the empty lot is a thing of the past.
Lessons also play a role that wasn’t as necessary thirty years ago: they make it possible for adults to live their busy lives. Of course, if the
timing is bad, lessons just make the busy lives even busier; driving a child somewhere for a forty-five minute lesson and driving back to pick him/her up doesn’t add much time to an adult’s day.
I’m an idealist. I think lessons ought to be, for children, what they are for adults who take them. We identify something we want to learn, and we look around for a teacher who shows promise. If we decide that the teacher is good, we stick with her/him. If not, or if, for some other reason, we don’t want lessons after all, we stop. That’s the way my parents handled it, and it’s the way my wife and I handled it with our
children. And it worked.

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