“Not all who wander are lost.”
Paul's Street Sweeper (a long article)
Paul is musically brilliant. He has a phenomenal ear for replicating complex harmonies on the piano, a comfort playing difficult passages and a general ease with the keyboard even though he’s never taken piano lessons. He’s picked it all up himself just by listening. In addition, Paul possesses delicate and powerful musical sensibilities that translate to subtle nuances, instinctive dynamics and a pianist’s touch. He becomes intensely passionate over the music of one composer and immerses himself, during which time he seems to absorb the music through his pores, internalize it, “Paul-ify” it, and frequently synthesize it into a creation of his own.
Once, after Paul had spent a frenzied period of a few months jumping back and forth between Beethoven and Gershwin, I jokingly asked what a piece might sound like if it were written by someone named Paul Van Gershwin – in other words, a combination of Beethoven’s, Gershwin’s and his own styles. He thought about it for a few minutes, then played something that really was a meld of all three. As I study him with admiration and awe, I can’t help but think that he is a good argument for the fact that Beethoven was once a child of nine.
Paul is so highly motivated, gifted and purposeful that he always knows exactly what he wants to do. Not only does he rarely solicit my input, but when I do offer a suggestion he often rejects it, having something else already in mind. He has no interest at this point in learning to read music, though lately he’s been bringing in some sheet music and asking me to play it. It’s the “Charlie Brown” book of Vince Guaraldi songs that he’s been figuring out by ear. Now he wants to hear them played accurately and compare them with his version. With my elementary piano skills, I’m not up to the task, and though Paul is polite enough, I can only imagine how disappointing this is. Therefore, I’ve spoken to his parents about finding a real pianist who can model what Paul is after, and they’re on it.
Meanwhile, in desperation, I’ve promised Paul that if he assigns me a piece from the book, I’ll work on it and get it to sound at least passable. He has agreed to that. When he was leaving today, he said, "Please practice the middle part of Linus and Lucy." I told him I'd try, but couldn’t hide my apprehension. "Don't worry about it,” he said. “Just relax, take your time and have fun!"
So it seems as though I’m not exactly teaching Paul things, helping him in any concrete way or being a pianistic role model. Truthfully, after two years no one is able to really articulate what is going on, yet I am told by his parents that coming to Music House is one of the high points of Paul’s week. He’s lit up when he comes and even more so when he leaves. What is happening? I have some idea.
Paul is largely possessed by his Muse, who, at this point, is primarily in need of a clear path. Teacher-driven activities and structures are nothing but obstacles: trees crashing down in his way that he must maneuver around. I think that in this capacity I, the teacher, am for the most part a diligent street sweeper. My main job is to keep the path clear of debris: doubt, fear, guilt, feeling misunderstood … I welcome, encourage, validate, trust and respect everything he does, and whether I signal this through words or silence, Paul is aware of it.
In addition, Paul does want to draw from what’s out there, which is where my experience and expertise come in. While I refuse to persuade or coax him to do particular things, I will not keep it a secret that there was a Beethoven or a Gershwin who wrote magnificent music. The logic of musical relationships is compelling, and I see no reason to withhold knowledge of this fascinating realm. However, if something that seems appropriate pops into my mind, I will wait until whatever he’s doing winds down a bit (This can take quite awhile) and then toss it out there. Like a farmer scattering seeds, I never know which ones will grow.
One day around a year ago, I introduced Paul to “chord flips” – in other words, inversions, where the bottom note gets flipped to the top, causing the chord to tumble up the keyboard. Each inversion has its own color – a particular ambience that determines the state of tension or repose of the music. When I first mentioned this, Paul gave me a blank stare and went on about his business. A few weeks later, when I gingerly brought it up again, he graciously declined. A couple of months ago while he was listening to some music that made use of chord inversions, I pointed them out. This time he allowed me to show him how it worked. (Note that while I never pressured Paul to do this before he felt ready, I didn’t abandon it altogether. My sense was that this might be useful to him some day. I am confident that he understands our relationship well enough to know that I put those things out there with no pressure to do what I suggest.) I showed him how you can travel with block or arpeggiated inversions, and demonstrated the function of each inversion in various contexts. He listened and tried a few things. However, there was no mention of it for the next several weeks.
Last week, in the middle of something totally unrelated, Paul suddenly said with genuine nonchalance, “Oh, by the way, I practiced the flips.” At first, with this remark coming out of nowhere, I had no idea what he was talking about. He then proceeded to deftly jump, from the bottom to the top of the keyboard, from one inversion to the next. He did this as he does everything on the piano: with utmost confidence, control and accuracy, as though his fingers are magnetized to the notes.
Paul has been obsessed with Vince Guaraldi’s music for a few months now. While he learned it all by ear, and with precision and style, he appears to have hit a plateau, and I sometimes feel myself beginning to squirm. Geniuses do things that make their teachers squirm. I have the right to be uncomfortable as long as my discomfort doesn’t cause me to coax Paul into some activity that will satisfy my needs at his expense. And actually, with the realization that Paul is wonderfully content where he is, I realize it’s a gift that I, as a teacher, have the power to give: the gift of time to be where you want.
While it’s nice that he’s been able to learn this music by ear, it’s no big deal for Paul - just another tidbit from the musical scenery that he is stockpiling for the day when we say, “I knew him when …” For someone of Paul’s musical caliber and vision, achievement in itself is unimportant; it is only a tool, a means to an end. As Paul gallops along the path giving free rein to his Muse, he is able to access any tools or information waiting by the roadside. I have heard that there is an art to street sweeping, and I cannot think of a nobler role for a teacher than being the street sweeper for someone like Paul.
© Meryl Danziger 2004