They come as often as they want, pay as they go, schedule only one lesson at a time - I'm a piano salon. They choose their goals, make commitments, follow-through, love it or leave it.
It's a way I discovered after following a nudge: close the studio.
We'd just lost half our income in real estate investments that failed. We'd sold our "dream home" and began renting the home I grew up in. Now I was going to take away a 1/3 of what was left? It was a leap of faith, but the assurance was so strong it didn't take much courage. Adam felt just as strongly to support the change.
As I pondered the feeling, a song my kids loved from a Narnia movie echoed in my head "I'll come back when you call me, no need to say goodbye." I began writing a letter to my studio explaining the change and the "piano salon" details I described earlier flowed onto the page. I was closing my life to a traditional style of teaching and opening a new door. It wouldn't be a job, it would be a service I received payment for, but I had to let go of relying on any income from it. Many said goodbye, some stayed and adjusted - isn't Kate always changing things anyway? Some that said goodbye came back later. New students call every month lately. "This is exactly what I've been searching for." I hear so often.
Miraculously, Adam was nudged in his own direction with Day Violins so that we always had enough to pay the bills. Pay them on time even. We never declared bankruptcy. Four years later we don't need the money I make mentoring piano students. It's money for gifts and holidays.
Little by little I have expanded with each nudge. Now I teach one and a half days a week. I see some students once a week, others every two, some once a month or a few times a year. Ages 9 - 70. They all follow their own nudges and I facilitate, I love them, we love each other. It's not a job, it's a service. The music is a tool, not a wall-hanging, or a check-list. I'm not a piano god passing out judgement. I'm a mentor, a guide. They have their agency and I love them into making choices that have purpose and point in the direction they want to travel. No recitals. They put on home concerts for family and a few friends if they want.
I can honestly say that every one of my students has a love for learning the piano and every single one leaves each lesson feeling uplifted and encouraged and able to progress. They love the journey and have hope in their destination - each unique.
So the most surprising thing is that I don't love my own music journey; don't feel I know my destination. For months now, practicing my own skills at the piano brings more depression than joy. I can't find what I'm practicing for. Performing most often leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth and a pulling inside myself for the rest of the day. Not because I "mess up." It's applause and compliments that bring the dark cloud. How ungrateful I am. In changing my studio, it has changed me. I no longer practice for the same reasons. I no longer play for the same reasons, but audiences usually listen for the "old" reasons.
I love mentoring the beautiful souls that come to me, but as time goes on, I feel more and more like a hypocrite. It's about the journey, not the destination they say. Yet how to journey without a destination? After all my searching and all the answers I've found, I only have more questions - what is music for, for me? Shall I just keep instructing others to use a language and value a language that I speak less and less - except to teach others to speak it? That's the problem: viewing music as a language. If my purpose were to entertain or impress I would be happy - that purpose is easy to fulfill in the current culture.
But I want to communicate. And too often the response is comparable to listening to someone speak in a language foreign to you - you appreciate the beauty or the speed or the lilt, the unique blending of tones. And you might understand a few words here or there, but there is no real comprehension. No communication enough to move or inspire or teach. Just awe or envy. Adulation or judgment.
My thoughts spiral down dark alleys: We compete with each other or we perform to impress or we entertain by numbing the mind or blurring it with fast fingers. We don't exchange thought. We are not left better for it. We speak a language that fewer and fewer can express original thought in. We just memorize and say what another long ago has said and try to say it better then someone else. We have no fluency to speak our own thoughts - including me. Money or pride are the main motivations we learn the language.
Some musical moments pull me out of my hole. Glimmers of light. Like, a few weeks ago I was hired to accompany a cello studio recital. These kinds of moments I still find joy in - when I'm playing with others or helping others to play. In that way, it is the same as mentoring my piano friends. They are moments that are too few in my life. The smiles and the gratitude and compliments from those experiences are beautiful to my ears - I've used the language of music to enrich a life, to create beauty that the one complimenting drank in with me. We communicated. Like a part of an interesting Joni Mitchell interview my mom had me watch the other day. Around minute fifty-four I almost cried aloud, "Yes! She's described it!":
"If you listen to that music and you see me, you're not getting anything out of that music. If you listen to the music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you'll learn something about yourself and now you're getting something out of it. . . those are the people, you know - my communication is complete. . . but its such an intimate art form and I'm doing so much of it that all the attention is going to me. Which is insane from my point of view. It's like, you're not going to get anything out of it if you look at me. . . When somebody pays me the few compliments that I've really enjoyed . . . they humble me. They're heartwarming because a real connection has been made. We have met. I've put out a signal and this person has picked it up, right? And we're meeting like this [on the same plane], it's not like they've got me on a pedestal or they're looking down on me because I'm not their favorite or whatever. We meet. And so, that's a communication."
That's why the ensemble playing appeals to me. We meet - we communicate together. Too often, piano is a lonely instrument. I start learning guitar, violin - maybe that will help? More opportunities to communicate together? Yet, that same night of the cello recital I was reminded there can be real communication in solo work, too. The teacher took a moment before the final group number to share a selection - a prelude from a Bach cello suite. As I listened, I found myself wiping away a stream of tears. It has been a long time since I've cried at a concert.
Bach on the cello! What a combination! I've decided it is such a human instrument - a sound like the voice of a soul. And in that moment at the recital, such a sound was combined with Bach's "words." The result is a feeling of worship. Of purity. And something else...
The tones wrap around the fibers of the player, then spiral outward and intertwine with mine. We are now listening with our souls, not our minds. We are wrapped together in a moment of solemn beauty. There is something familiar about the emotions that are touched and coaxed to the surface. Truth. A premortal knowing. I can't translate the message into words. That would kill it.
This I know. The cello and the music are dead things with no life in them of their own. They are inanimate objects that must be brought to life. Too often, these objects are paraded like marionette dolls on a stage with blank expressions. But in that moment that night - the tones were brought to life using a cello. The performer melted into the background, eyes closed, a mirror turned outward. We saw our souls reflected - the eternal part of us. We were reminded of that eternal identity - the temporal and the fallen is forgotten for a moment.
I realize, I have had too many experiences as the person "on the stage," or as an audience to "puppet performances." This moment reminds me what it can be like. A deeper "what is it for?" answer is discovered that begins to point me in a direction I feel I can journey to.
As I say goodbyes at the cello recital, a little boy comes to me with a shy smile and holds out a rose. "Here. This is for you." I don't even know him - one of many in a group piece I accompanied I guess. From a child, any compliment is beautiful and pure. I'm soft from the Bach experience. The gesture humbles me.
A rose. Symbol of beauty. Color of the love of God. It reflects that. Can I? Can I untangle the musical knots that lie within me? Can I share with others and not analyze the moment to death for hours afterward?
An idea keeps nudging me. A destination I could give myself. A way to share and not have to know the audience response. Choose a piece. Set a date. Post it here. Comments are turned off. I can just play "with the window open." Maybe that is the place to start?
Okay. September 25th. Ravel's Ondine. It's a piece that tells a story of a water sprite. It will feel more like communicating that way. The sounds paint a picture of things not in the real world. I like that. I learned half of it before I hit bottom walking down my dark alleys of thought. Back when I practiced for the purpose of inspiring my children to play and it was enough.
I'll record it without demanding perfection, but communication. I'll post it pretending that those who listen, do so not to put me down or prop me up on a pedestal, but to "meet" and "communicate" together. Maybe it won't work. But maybe, just maybe it can be the therapy I need - the baby steps - to one day share with greater power like the cellist. Maybe one day I can lose myself and stop judging. Maybe I can learn somehow to turn the mirror outward and reflect and remind myself and those who "meet" with me of things eternal.
I'll commit. Like my students. September 25th. Hold me to it.