Monday, August 22, 2005

Confidence and challenge

Three or four years ago I used to write about Erin all the time. I felt a little guilty about this. I worried that maybe I had an unhealthy preferential focus on issues I faced with her. But there just seemed so much more to write about with her.

Now it's Noah's turn. And he's about the same age she was at that time.

Noah has had, all told, about 18 months where he's had a rough, un-motivated, frustrating time of it on piano. After the VSSM, which he enjoyed, but didn't find particularly motivating, I took some time to discuss with him what he wanted to do with his piano studies. I suggested it might be a really good time to take a year off and just focus on viola, since he seemed so excited by viola. He protested loudly. I suggested that he might consider a change of teachers, or a change of approach. Again he protested.

So I figured we'd forge onwards. Since we're here at home for 2 1/2 more weeks, and then taking our traditional September family vacation, I wanted to capitalize on this little window of opportunity to get a toe-hold on something new on piano. I know that what Noah is lacking on piano is confidence; he feels he's not progressing, he panics when faced with written notation, he cries when he plays a note wrong more than once. Grappling with the alto clef this past year has not helped his piano reading skills any, and he really isn't sight-reading very well. I wrote to his teacher, whom we won't see until October, and asked her if it was okay to try to perk him up with some Grade 2 work, since he's felt very "stuck" at the Grade 1 level. She agreed, basically saying "anything that gets him interested in playing piano is okay at this point".

Pushing him ahead a little made sense to me, since on viola and in academics I've noticed that while he shies away from leaps in difficulty and complexity, and rarely seems properly ready for them, when they're thrust upon him he usually makes great progress as a result. It's as if he only breaks out of his methodical 'beginner mindset' when the complexity of the task requires that he chunk his learning down and internalize it so that he can take in the new stuff. I had an inkling that moving him up a notch in difficulty on the piano might result in the same leap. It seemed really odd, really counter-intuitive, to consider curing a lack of confidence with an increase in challenge, but I figured at this point anything was worth a try.

So the next day I went to pull out the Grade 2 books, but couldn't find them. After a long and fruitless search I threw up some Grade 3 pieces. And wouldn't you know... he had absolutely no more difficulty learning them than he'd had with any of the Grade 1 repertoire. Not only that, but once he realized he was getting it, and that these were pieces nominally two grades more advanced than he thought he was capable of, he began smiling. He began searching the written music for clues and cues. He began teaching himself, working through problems, sticking with difficult work, rather than collapsing in tears.

The next day we found the Grade 2 books under the couch, and he chose a couple of representative pieces from them too, though his favourites are the two Grade 3 pieces he's decided to stick with. He's working hard on his sight-reading. He's using his strong by-ear skills and lovely touch and dexterity. He is sounding terrific, and he knows it. What a breakthrough.

Today, after he'd finished working his way through the Grade 3 "Arabesque" hands together, brilliantly and all on his own, I wandered through the living room and told him how proud I was of him ... not that he was managing this repertoire, which I'd had my suspicions he could do, but that he was working so hard and doing his own problem-solving from the written score. "You're really working hard at the piano, and at the reading. It sure shows!" I said. He burst into tears, told me I'd wrecked it, and that I should go away.

I apologized and left the room. Sheesh. You just never know what's going on in this kid's head.

After a few long minutes of silence he started working again. He even did some hands-together sight-reading, something I'd been trying to work him gradually back into.

Funny kid.

For those who are wondering what's happened with his request for an incentive system, he hasn't, thankfully, mentioned it again. We've been working together reasonably well on viola, and I've changed my vocabulary from "fixing things" and "polishing up" and "working on issues" to "practising to make things easier". He seems to like watching the chart I set up for tracking the ease of various tasks progressing towards "easy as pie". No candy has been necessary yet.

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