A couple of years ago someone donated a piano to the Language School I work in. It is lovely to see how the different people in the school interact with it.
Some children gravitate towards it everyday – at lunchtime and at playtime. Some have learned to play in their country of origin, and they bring music to school with them to play. Sometimes their friends gather around them, other times they play on their own, perhaps enjoying the solitude and the oasis they create for themselves.
Other students are fascinated by the instrument, and have clearly never had the opportunity to try it out before. Sometimes on their own, sometimes with friends, they sit at the piano and touch the keys. They get bolder, little by little, and go from prodding out single notes one by one to using all five fingers of the hand, playing notes simultaneously, using the left and right hands simultaneously, and inventing patterns and melodies.
When the piano first arrived, I occasionally found teachers playing it. They would go into the room at the end of the school day to play. At those times, it seemed like this single instrument was offering a kind of solace or personal space to everyone in the school’s population. Teachers seem to use it less often now. They are very busy, and I guess the novelty has worn off. But I like to think that it is there for them to turn to, if they ever find themselves in need of an expressive moment in the day.
My favourite pianist is a new girl in the school. She is in the secondary section, so I don’t teach her. But everyday that I am there, she comes into the room, on her own, without fail. She prefers to play on her own – she often stops if I am there. The one time I tried to play with her, she politely joined in the different things I suggested, but as soon as I left, I heard her embark on her own music – the music she had gone in there to play, presumably.
One day she had a copy of Fur Elise with her. I was on the other side of the room, writing in my notebook, and trying to be invisible to her, so that she wouldn’t feel self-conscious. She played this piece – not the notes that Beethoven wrote, but her own interpretation. She copied his written rhythms accurately, in both hands, very slowly, but she improvised the notes. I guess she understands the rudiments of how Western notation works, but is slow to read the pitches. Or perhaps she learned in the past, but can’t fully access the information anymore.
She’s from Eritrea. I think I have gleaned (from our halting conversations) that her father is a musician. She clearly has a very strong affinity with the piano, and it is an amazing thing to watch. I hope it is something she will be able to continue to develop through her schooling, but the likelihood is that she won’t – so many of the African students are far behind the educational eight-ball when they arrive here, as their schooling has been so disrupted and irregular, and the families are often incredibly disadvantaged financially. I am investigating the possibilities of some kind of scholarship for her, that might enable her to have some piano lessons.