Piano Lessons and Happiness

Gretchen Rubin asks: Did Your Parents Make You Take Piano Lessons? If So, Have They Made You Happier?.
IMHO, living a parent’s dream isn’t a very efficient way to find happiness but it can focus one’s adolescence rebellion.
Jacques Brel has a song in which some children become pharmacists because their fathers weren’t able to. It always struck me as an insightful comment about the weight of social mobility. Sure, individualism and competitiveness make more sense in the United States now than it did in Belgium or France at the time. But they only become a path to happiness after a rather tortuous process. Either children completely internalize the idea that they should live their lives in this way or they reject all of this and become more independent because they were in such a strict structure.

I did go through a few piano lessons with my aunt. My parents didn’t really nag me to take them and I did take an interest in music at some points. But these piano lessons didn’t do anything significant in terms of my growth as a person or as a musician. My cousin continued piano lessons with our aunt for a longer time and did perform rather well as a pianist, for a while. She became an educational psychologist and I don’t think she plays, anymore. In my case, I took saxophone in middle school, went to music school for esrly college, and became an ethnographer, specialized in African music. Formal music training has helped me a lot because I chose to dedicate myself fully to music, for a time. 

Childhood piano and/or violin lessons is constraining for many reasons. It transforms the joy of music into a meaningless drill. The end of Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues is very insightful, in this sense. Musical exercises are important when you want to achieve some specific goals. But the focus of too many a piano lesson is jumping through hoops. Good preparation for life as a bureaucrat (Satie’s Sonatine bureaucratique is fitting) but not that closely related to musical bliss if you don’t involve yourself in broader dimensions of music. 
On the other hand, there are multiple methods to raise musical awareness, from Dalcroze and Orff to Keil’s Born to Groove. I haven’t experienced them that deeply but I did observe some interesting results, opening people’s minds.
Of course, there’s no single way to raise children. But it strikes me that the type of music lessons some parents force their children into has little to do with enjoying life and much more to do with industrial-era productivity.

6 thoughts on “Piano Lessons and Happiness”

  1. Piano lessons! As a child I suffered through three (3) different teachers, none of which inspired me to practice or envision mastery of the keyboard. (Memories of a fat lady chewing Sen-Sen who gradually crowded me off the end of the shared piano seat.) I wanted to play the banjo, then the bouzouki when I first heard it. Instead my French uncle decided to give me violin lessons, the less said about that the bettter. Today I am happy to be a somewhat-informed & passionate audience.

    1. Thanks for sharing! Though these may not sound like so pleasant experiences, they seem to reveal something interesting about your family. Especially since your description calls up s literary sensibility.

  2. When I was younger, I used to wonder if my creative potential would have been awakened had I been given the opportunity to learn to play the piano (I’ve always been told that I have piano fingers – thin, long fingers that ache to play the piano), really learn to play the harmonica, or sing without being tone deaf. Instead, I was dealt a different set of cards and I grew up in a war torn country where my options were limited.

    But I had my vivid, insatiable imagination and my pen.

    1. Sounds like your potential was directed at the word. If you let your creativity resonate, you’re not losing anything. And the worth is as worthy as the piano, if you ask me. If not more!

      But, of course, I’ve never been a big fan of the piano and other percussion instruments. It has the advantage of being polyphonic and some instrumentalists manage to make it as expressive as possible. Yet its apparent self-sufficiency hides some dark sides. Like the fact that, under normal conditions, it can be used to play something as fundamental as a perfect fifth or the fact that there’s very little room to play with each note’s “envelope.” At the risk of stepping on some toes, I’d say the piano is the musical equivalent of the typewriter. Sure, people have done wonders with the piano. Just as some wonders have been typewritten. But the piano is a tool which wears its toolness as a badge of honour. Furthermore, learning to play the piano is typically quite similar to learning how to type. Technically, socially, pedagogically. Not saying that other instruments are “better.” Evaluating instruments on a comparative scale brings them to the purely technological realm. In that sense, one might give a better “grade” for the piano than for other zithers (its mechanism is a feat of engineering). But it might have a lower “grade” than most electronic keyboards, which have more “features.” It’s also not about comparing instruments as being more or less expressive. Bringing an air of objectivity to subjective judgment tends to be more misleading than intersubjective understandings of those instruments. My guess would be that, when these “surveys and contests” are done, the human voice tends to win and the piano is somewhere between the theremin and the triangle. In other words, some people may care deeply about this kind of thing, but it seems to me to be besides the point. The point is that music isn’t merely about instrument use. Combining electroacoustics, comparative musicology, organology, and ethnographic approaches to music, we rapidly find out that any sound source can be musical. What the piano has done, apart from adding dynamics to polyphonic instruments like the organ and harpsichord, is impose a sort of standard on music. Since the piano was invented, a lot of music has been influenced by it, to the point that some of its limitations have often become limitations for whole categories of music. Despite Bach’s advertising for equal temperament, the piano is probably the make cause for the 12TET hegemony during much of the 20th Century. And tuning isn’t the only issue. I’d guess that the percussive character of the piano, along with some limitations in early recording technology, may have had a profound impact on modern music, much of it erasing some important dimensions of music diversity. I’m still waiting for post-modernism in music. They say music suffers from cultural lag. That might be why we’re still stuck with the piano.

  3. As a former piano student and now teacher, this is a difficult question. The craft of piano is effectively taught through lessons and drills. Many (if not most?) artists receive some training in their craft. The “art” of piano, a play within and beyond established forms, takes courage and encouragement given the heavy weight of tradition and convention.

    1. Sounds like your perspective on music is broader than that of many a pianist I’ve met.

      Still funny how specific piano playing gets, in such contexts as discussions on piano lessons. It’s a versatile instrument, like many others, but there are social expectations as to how people are supposed to learn it and “use” it. Music is so much broader than “instrumental skills with musicality added” (an exaggeration of what music schools tend to propose as a model for music). But piano playing is perceived as equivalent to chess or baseball, by some people. So it’s refreshing to hear another vice on the issue.

      Not only am I glad that I left music school early on but my training in ethnomusicology still does a lot in terms of helping perceive music in a broad frame.

      Thanks for dropping by!

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