Recently, I asked myself this question: “Did it really matter?” At the time, I was going through some old papers and came across a lesson plan that I had typed out for a student, Jennifer. It was very detailed, and likely took several minutes to compose. I don’t know where Jennifer is now. I did recall that she was a talented child. Too talented, if there’s such a thing. Good at gymnastics, good at piano, good at violin… She withdrew from lessons, and it was so long ago, that I’m fuzzy on the circumstances. Now that I think about it, I believe her mother found a teacher closer to home to reduce family stress of traveling. But at the time that I gazed at that lesson plan, a thought came into my mind before I could squash it: “Did it really matter? I spent all of that time on that student, and does it really matter?”
I must confess that I am being prone to morbid musings. My sense of humor helps me chuckle at myself a bit about imagining my own funeral – who would come? Occasionally I wonder if my life has meaning. I would probably think such thoughts, no matter what my profession. Jimmy Stewart’s character, George, was lucky enough to learn through an angel’s help about the impact he has made on so many in the iconic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Fortunately, piano teachers are pretty lucky: at low moments, we think about that student who majored in music, the ones who stay in touch and let us know we have made a difference. We know that many lives have been altered (hopefully for the better!) because of our interactions with our students.
But such knowledge only provides a partial panacea. Recalling that former student who is now a composer in Hollywood, for example, can feel like a mantra that is vaguely comforting, but lacking in any immediate pleasure during dark times.
But, what if the moments that occur during a lesson that we have planned with care are completely sufficient and valuable, without even knowing where those moments will lead? The moment that a student shapes a phrase musically, communicates an idea, becomes more secure as a musician, and the satisfaction of the work itself is important in a way that we can fail to acknowledge. If we don’t try to give ourselves as completely as we can to the process of teaching, we are cheating ourselves and, most important, are cheating our students. We can only control what we give. And that is sometimes enough. Each “wonderful” moment we spend planning and working with students could exist completely in a vacuum, without any further implications, and still have great value.
Fortunately, in addition to these moments, we know that our impact can be lasting and permanent. Just the other day, my young student reported that her much older brother had a message for me. He wanted me to know that he found a piano to play at college and likes to play his favorite pieces. Yes, it is a wonderful life!