Learning about Music

September 24, 2007
Memories are one of the few things that can travel far into the past. They show how we were, what in us changed, and why those things changed. When I dig deep into my early memories, the memories of elementary school, specific things pop out at me. I always remembered being non-athletic and smart; I never really was a model student had it not been for my grades. If I look at my life now and look back, everything has totally flip-flopped, except for my grades. I am a focused, intense, athletic and motivated person. What happened that changed me? What event shaped my life and made me the person I am today? Luckily, memories are there, and I know I started to change when I discovered music.

I began to play the guitar. My family of four used to reside in a condo in Spring Valley across town from our new Redlands home. Next door to us at our condo lived a woman named Josie, whom we called “Grandma Josie.” I don’t think I really appreciated her until she passed away, but Josie was always there for our family. When someone was sick, she would take care of the family. When my brother had to be taken to St. Mary’s for a life-threatening allergic reaction, I was chauferred to Josie’s house by, well, Josie.

Eventually, Josie moved away from Spring Side Court in Spring Valley and lived on the other side of town from us. My brother and I would always play with her old-school typewriter and her 1970s radio and her guitar. I always wondered how to unlock the mysteries of that strange instrument. Luckily for me, my mom suggested I take lessons.

I think my teacher totally ruined my guitar experience, mainly by yelling at my 8-year old self to “inspire” me. Even today, I am definitely not motivated by yelling. During this tough time for me, my brother began to learn to play piano. To me, piano seemed more fun than guitar did! I really wanted to unlock the mysteries of this instrument. My improvisation again caught the ear of my mom. One night in the kitchen, we had a deep conversation about it.

“Eric, would you like to play piano?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I exclaimed, much less emphatically than I felt.

Ultimately, my music experience started for me when I took my first piano lesson from Ms. Schow. Ms. Schow had a house very close to my best friend at the time. I walked in to that house, it was always kind of dark, and sat down at her piano. After the introductions, she started to teach and evaluate my music prowess. I guess she figured I was no Mozart yet, so we started with the black keys.

Black keys were not my idea of fun. They were too easy after 15 minutes of practicing them, but again, at my second adventure to Ms. Schow’s home, we were still working with black keys. My brother, far superior in his piano skills, progressing to complex pieces such as “Hot cross buns” and “Mary had a little lamb,” aroused me to ask him a few of my questions.

“Noah,” I asked of my little brother, “when do I start learning the white keys?”

He replied instantly, like he always has, “After about two lessons, you learn the white keys.”

“Wow!” I thought. I was going to learn how to use those white keys. Soon I was going to be good. And Noah was right! I learned how to use the white keys. It seemed like I would be a concert pianist in no time!

I realize now that that was a naïve thing to think. One of my first disappointments in piano, however, occurred at my first piano competition, two years into my piano lessons. Ms. Schow had taught me a lot of things in those two years. My note reading was past the students my age, and I was competing in a level that, unbeknownst to me, I would be competing in again some years later. I listened to other students play until I heard my name called. Walking up to the baby grand, I knew I would win. From the first note of my piece, I was confident everything would work out how I wanted it to. I did all that I knew how to with the piano. After my piece was finished, I bowed to the applause and sat by my family. Then we waited and waited and waited some more. It took about 35 minutes for the judges to decide the winners. I listened to the honorable mentions, wondering what that meant. Then I listened to the third place winner, the second place winner, and finally, I heard the first place winner announced. I wasn’t one of them, so I started to cry. I was devastated! Ms. Schow came over and said I played very well and awarded me with flowers and a card. I appreciated the kind gesture, but it didn’t cheer me up. Everyone tried their hand in helping me, but to no avail.

“Eric, the judges loved your jazzy piece!” my real grandmother, not Josie, said proudly. “They were tapping their foot to the beat!”

Through my sobs I croaked, “That’s because the beats were uneven!” This, confirmed by my grading card received two weeks later, was a very accurate prediction. I still didn’t see that I needed a new teacher to help me progress. I was actually pretty bad at piano, but I still didn’t realize it even after my competition, and I wouldn’t have known how I was so bad had it not been for the Colorado Suzuki Music Institute my brother and I attended that year.

Somewhere in my piano adventure, my brother quit and picked up the flute. His teacher was a certified Suzuki method instructor; naturally, she recommended we attend the institute in Snowmass. This turned out to be the turning point in my piano career.

4,000 students attend the Colorado Suzuki Music Institute in the two weeks it is offered yearly. It has always been one of the most fun things of my summer. They had mime classes, improvisation classes, master classes, repertoire classes, and the whole shebang. My first day there was very fun, one of those days where you establish traditions you will do again every year. Then there came my master and repertoire classes in the afternoon.

Dorris Harrell was my master teacher. She was an old, white-haired woman well learned in the ways of piano. I, still thinking I was very good, played my piece for her and the other girl who was in the class, thinking they would be impressed. Actually, that old woman would have a few contradictory things to tell me about my piano playing before the week was over. Another one of my teachers was Nehama Patkin, who taught my repertoire class. She is now one of my favorite instructors at the camp. She and Dr. Harrell were the first ones to tell me that something needed to change in my piano playing. My technical skills, such as finger speed, hand position, posture, and raw technique had developed much more poorly than my note reading skills. Ms. Schow had been great to start, but it was time for new blood.

When my family arrived home from that eye-opening week, we informed Ms. Schow that we needed to change teachers. She was more than understanding, and recommended Ivana Cojbasic (pronounced choy-ba-shich), from the former Yugoslavia, and Andrea Elias, from Argentina. After interviews with both teachers, we eventually decided on the teacher I still take from five years later: Dr. Cojbasic.

All I remember about the first year with my new teacher was a lot of hard work and a lot of temptation, from teacher and student, to just give up. Yet, we both persisted. The piano competition I was so disappointed by years ago rolled around again, and I experienced shocking results.

I moved down from level 3 to level 2 that year. It was two years since I was “burned” by the Sonatina competition. That Saturday morning, I played my piece. I was the first to play out of 30 students. That is a lot of waiting, but I fortunately had a basketball game that morning, something I started in 3rd grade and was improving at, just like piano! After we won the game, my mom drove me back to Mesa State to hear the winners announced. A little déjà vu occurred there. I listened to the third place winner and the second place winner in vain, but here the déjà vu stopped. I was not expecting to get first place at all, but I had! I went from being at the bottom of the list to a first place caliber player! Dr. Cojbasic, who we call Ivana, congratulated me profusely. That night, I got to perform my piece in front of the whole auditorium at Mesa State College!

This was the turning point in my life. From here, I earned an honorable mention in level 3, first place in level 4 and first place in level 5. I have not participated in the competition since, but if I participate this year, I will perform Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a level 7 piece, as high as the levels go. I attribute all my success to my teacher, Ivana, Dr. Harrell and Dr. Patkin of the Suzuki Institute, and my family for supporting me. But I couldn’t forget Josie, without whom I might not have ever played music.

I am a totally different person now than I was in my “early days.” I actually used to get in trouble a fair amount. I didn’t care if my extracurricular activities were done with mediocrity. Piano and guitar helped me learn many things. Performing pieces that are three minutes long or pieces that are 17 minutes long take focus. I learned how to focus, which I attribute to my good grades. Learning to focus is important these days with all the distractions in life. Focus on the good, not the bad. Focus on what needs to be done, and it will get done with hard work. Focus can help ensure that things get done better and faster, whether it is homework, shooting baskets, lifting weights, whatever! Focus can help those activities.

Piano requires playing a lot of complex passages that need to be done more or less perfectly, passages that baffled me at first. This element of the instrument made me into a bit of a perfectionist. Not a 100% perfectionist, but I am usually not satisfied unless I have done my best.

My life is great now. I know what direction I want to take, and I know what it takes to get there. Piano laid the foundation for many things that I needed to build up. It helped me get where I am and be able to do things I never really thought about and care about things I never would have cared about. It may not seem like an instrument could have changed me much, but the skills that came from it shaped me into the person I am today. Fortunately, one of my fondest memories just happens to be the one that got me to where I am now!

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