Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Passive Piano

We have a piano in our house. It rarely is played. Several keys are broken from the beating palms of my children and the toys raked across it's black-and-white surface. Before entering our home, the piano had been stored in a shed where warping and shifting of the piano's essential organs was inevitable. 

It makes me sad to look at our piano. On random occasions I have tried to play a little ditty, only to eventually give up because 2 of the keys don't play at all and the rest sound dismally out of tune. Our piano makes me a sad.

I once met a poet. Five or six years ago I was in Vermont at a training put on by The College Board for AP English teachers. A well-known poet of the area had been invited to do a reading and to field questions we as literature teachers might have about her poetry. She did her reading. It was nice. Then she opened the door for questions. One or two hands went up. I felt a little bad about the meager participation, so I thought I'd ask a question so she wasn't stuck feeling awkward standing in the front of a room filled with educators (which can be daunting). I raised my hand, received a nod, and asked about one of the lines in her poem and the varied implications that line of poetry carried. 

"Is there a specific interpretation you intended for the audience?" I asked.

She blinked at me, her face looked pinched as if in pain.

"Of course there's a specific interpretation," she said as though I were a middling Freshman comp student who asked the difference between a sonnet and a haiku. "If it's in the poem, I intended it to be there."

That was her answer, which wasn't really an answer. At least not to my question. No more hands went up after that. No more questions were ventured by anyone else in the room. Then, with a huff of exasperation, the poet (who had once been an English teacher herself) put her hands on her hips and said, "Well, I hope you never let your students be this passive!"

There was an awkward chuckle spread between a few in the audience who were uncomfortable with another's discomfort. Then the MC took over and put us all--the poet included--out of our misery.

As she took her seat I literally wanted to scream at her, "You made us passive!" And that's when I realized that she had done to us, as her students, what my children do when trying to play our piano. They smack it. They poke at it. They slam down the lid and ignore it. They do not play the piano as it was intended. Nor did this poet/supposed-teacher play her students as we were meant to be played.

I have been teaching for 10 years. And many students that have been beaten into passivity have walked through my doorway. They don't venture questions. They don't volunteer comments. They sit slumped at their desk, head down, doing the minimal amount of work to simply pass the class, and hope they aren't called on to offer anything. I have heard teachers refer to these students as lazy. And, yes, there may be an element of laziness present in some. But for the most part, many of these students believe that they are not capable of beautiful music. 

It's easy to coax lovely melodies from a Steinway. And often these lovely melodies bring great joy to teaching. Yet, there is something inherently rewarding for everyone in hearing the warped upright piano from the shed begin to sing.

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  1. This was a very good post, Anna. I agree with you completely. Only a few words can steal the joy from learning. Generosity with others costs us so little and gains so much, I believe. :)
    (I have a piano like that, maybe in slightly better condition, but sadly neglected.)

    1. Beautiful said, Danni. And maybe a plinking on your piano will help you forget the Oklahoma heat for a moment :)


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