The piano

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.

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2 comments so far

  1. bobbiejane on

    That’s lovely of you to try and set up a scholarship !

    I enjoyed reading this post – I liked hearing about the different ways people interacted with the piano.

    Would a keyboard have the same effect I wonder?

  2. musicwork on

    The keyboard might attract them in different ways – I can imagine there would be a kind of ‘what does this button do?’ curiousity of it. there are so many choices on a keyboard! I think they’d approach it very openly. In fact though, I don’t know. I’ve never had a keyboard in a school that is just out in the room, available for anyone to play. It would be interesting to compare!

    For me, pianos offer a very particular kind of attraction. You know, they are just there in the room. They don’t require switching on, or putting together. They are kind of like furniture! You open the lid, and touch a key and straight away you are playing. And you can feel, somehow, the mechanism inside the instrument working, to get the sound to produce – an impact that is not part of the experience on a keyboard. I think that the sensual experience of exploring the instrument is an important part of the experience for the students, particularly those who have never even been close to a piano before.

    The scholarship idea is a challenging one. The organisation I work for has offered scholarships to new arrivals in the past, in order to help them access tuition, or concerts, or other experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. But it can be fraught with problems. the fact is that for ANY young person to be able to engage in musical studies outside of school, a lot of support is needed, and not just financial. You need a kind of family support base where someone can help you get there, can support you (the young person) in prioritising it, can encourage you and give the activity and learning status. For many newly-arrived families, there is a lot stress. There may be trauma from past experiences, stress and fear about the new country, the rules and bureaucracies with which they have to deal, anxiety about loved ones who have been left behind… and then, often, the places in which they are living may be far from public transport, the family is unlikely to have a car, it may not be safe for young people to move around independently…. all sorts of things! So what we find is that even when the organisation does whatever they can to minimise some of these factors in supporting the young person to develop their talents, the surrounding stresses and problems can be in surmountable in the long run.

    However, with the young girl I describe above, the situation may be different. The fact that her father is a musician means that music may have a different kind of status in their home. If she were singled out for additional support, that might be something her family or support network might do lots to support.

    I guess, in addition, when offering support of this kind, you also need to be mindful that you might be adding another burden to a family already under a lot of stress!

    Anyway, at this stage, for this particular student, I am only speculating. I have mentioned her to the funding organisation as a possible scholarship recipient. I have mentioned my interest in her to the staff in the school, and they are going to try and find out a bit more about her home situation. We’ll see what we can do!


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