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Repertoire in reverse.

In high school, forbidden stacks of pop sheet music bulged my creaking piano bench. I hid them there, sitting on a gold mine of pleasure. Hanon, Bach, Schumann paled next to REO Speedwagon and Bon Jovi, with air time only after weekday practice was complete or during long Sunday afternoons. But I thought about them all the time. Lionel Richie breathed on the hammers, singing melody lines no Chopin could tease from teenage fingers. Song lyrics taped on locker doors shaped countless melodies on the old Baldwin in my living room. Billy Joel taught me forte. Elton John was a study in chord theory.

No question, I was a difficult student to motivate: I was gifted, I was bored, I was naughty. I wanted the life I felt in music to stand in my line of sight, to end up on my practice sheets. I was willing to count it, transpose it or even rewrite it upside down in a bathtub filled with jello, if they just let me play it. My teachers sighed.

So, I learned what I was supposed to learn. I covered the standards; I practiced correctly. Other than one brief stint with a Baptist minister's wife as my teacher, musical constipation ruled my piano training. I was sure college would be the gift of creative expression in exchange for the years of conformity I paid at the keys. Strangely, "creative expression" didn't show up on college course requirements.

How can any successful musician love the music I craved? The hierarchy of pieces we love determines our seriousness as a musician, or at least that's what I was taught. Don't let anyone hear you playing the music that is on the radio, the themes from musicals, Amazing Grace improvised in cut time, I was told. "Cooperate to graduate" vibrated in my eardrums each time I left the practice rooms, while my musical self died in a coffin of repertoire rules and regulations.

I played my last college jury that year in yellow sweats. Not out of spite, certainly; I simply ran straight from a dance final to the recital hall. I earned an A. Intended or not, the message was clear: you can be who you want to be, play what you want to play and wear yellow sweats or a black skirt and white blouse. I realized I wanted to love music. I wanted to study how to love music and how to help others find a music they love.

As teachers, we struggle to keep pace with repertoire too large to consume. We agonize over options at each level, shaking our heads at stacks of lists, storming stores for compilations, genre-based songs or the newest music. We ask students to play from books other people have selected. Serious musicians. Serious lists. Real pieces. We want students to love "the great musicians"--"dead guys," my teenagers call them. As teachers, we pick apart concepts in each piece, we dig for gems to show our students, neat little glimmers of hope that will excite them, feel good under forming fingers. And, often, we come up short.

I find myself weighing music on a scale tipped with obligation and tempered with a new culture. Do I want the new generation sitting on a library of must-haves, regardless of their connection to the music, love of the melody, understanding of the harmony or ability to play with understanding and passion? How can I teach a student to love music beyond genre, behind times and keys? I must provide the best music education possible, but is it only found in the face of composers, sonatas, etudes and preludes children may never remember, appreciate or love?

Every child insists on learning the classic duet, Heart and Soul. Woe is me, but they do. Forced inside this song by sheer student momentum, I swore I'd find a redeeming quality in its lilting annoyance. There's no denying it's a conceptual storehouse! Tonic and dominant, root triads, block chords, broken chords, inversions, straight rhythm, dotted rhythm, melody singing over harmony, ensemble play and improvisation. I might cringe at its sound, but I sure can teach from it. And since a full 100 percent of my students--even the adults--are satisfied by its sound and will find someone to teach it to them, it may as well be me.

Perhaps repertoire should not drive our teaching. If we crawl toward the center of ourselves as musicians, we discover passion didn't start with a list of songs to learn by the end of the yean Perhaps it was a sound ... a sight ... a smell ... the beat of a drum. Something knocked us over the head and said, "You must play!" I want to follow that voice as a teacher and a musician. I want to teach the love of music first, and introduce my friend Leopold, old buddy Johann, a Robert here and there and maybe even a Frederick or two. Lifelong musicians are built slowly. Take your time. Don't be ashamed to teach what is under the bench.

Serena Mackey is owner and program director of the studio, a teaching studio in Boise, Idaho, serving 200 piano students of all ages and levels. As an education clinician for Roland Corporation, Mackey presents nationwide on a variety of topics including group teaching, the business of teaching and pedagogy.
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Title Annotation:music education
Author:Mackey, Serena
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:891
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