Starting from Scratch: Why I Teach Music Lessons to Kids

Originally published at Kat Downs’ blog and reposted here with kind permission.

If there is one thing I have learned that I constantly need in my life, it’s perspective. For some reason, when anything becomes even remotely challenging, that’s the FIRST thing that goes. Every time.

This is why I enjoy teaching private music lessons.

Seems unrelated, I know. Just stick with me.

I had the joy of starting a brand new flute student a few months ago. I love this. You both sit on the floor cross-legged and open your flute cases. You tell the new student the names of the different parts of the flute. You ask the student to put the instrument together the way they think it should be put together and then play it for you. It’s this great cozy bonding moment. One of my favorites ever.

I’m laughing because this moment is so special and endearing.

Why? I love it because the reason you sit on the floor like this is because 95% of the time they will drop the flute. Less distance to the floor means it’s less likely to break. (Ah-ha! Clever!) I love it because I always have to bite the inside of my cheek while they put the instrument together incorrectly, hold it up to their face the wrong way, and spit all over the place trying to make a sound. It never gets old. Never.

If they get it right, I praise them for being such a natural. If they get it wrong, I praise them for being so incredibly creative. I gently correct their hand positions, the way they hold the flute up to their mouth, and then I show them how to make a sound. And then bite the inside of my cheek again.

I’m not laughing because they look foolish. I’m laughing because this moment is so special and endearing. Because I know by the time this 30-minute lesson is over your eyes will have lit up when you made your first sound, you’ll know how to play four notes and how to read them off the paper and I know how new and foreign and exciting that is to you. We will high five, you will go home and practice those four notes harder than you will probably practice anything else for the rest of your life, and you will be SO EXCITED to come back in next week for your lesson and show me how good you are. In a year, when you’re playing full songs and we’re laughing over duets and working on more finely tuned concepts on your instrument, there is a good chance that you won’t completely remember today. But I will. I will remember that once upon a time, you held that instrument up to your face backwards and tried to make sound. And today you played Mozart.

That is pretty kick-ass if you ask me.

And it’s not just the first-lesson students. In every lesson with every student, either child or adult, no matter what level they’re at, there is at least one “OH!” moment.

“That will be much easier if you use your fingers like this…(OH!) And that’s WHY there’s an F sharp in the G Major scale…(OH!) By crossing on the third and THEN the fourth you can play two octaves straight without running out of fingers…(OH!) If you bring your arms up this way your pitch won’t go flat…(OH!)” And on and on and on.

I need that in my life. Because it’s so easy for me to lose perspective. And because there was a time when I didn’t know ANY of this stuff. When I am fighting with a song or have hit a dry patch in my writing, I’ll be so frustrated I want to scream into pillows. Then I have a lesson with a six-year-old piano student and I remember that once upon a time I was at my first piano lesson. She had a baby grand piano which felt as big as a house. And she had a big dog. And she showed me where middle C was. And my first song was two notes. And by the end of 30 minutes I could read the music and I felt so special and excited I couldn’t wait to go home and show my Mom.

Remember that, Kat? Remember? Calm the fuck down about the Dorian chord progression not working perfectly with the melody and the fact that the lyrical syncopation isn’t lining up perfectly with everything else.

Just calm the fuck down, okay? Geez.

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About Kat Downs

Kat Downs is a musician, artist, teacher, composer and performer originally from Green Bay, WI. She began studying music at the age of 6, continuing on through high school and college earning a BA Degree in Music from St. Norbert College in DePere, WI. Now based out of San Francisco, CA, Kat’s current projects include the powerhouse Hard Piano Rock duo, Sit Kitty Sit, and the goth rock band, Saints of Ruin. She is the staff composer for Wily West Productions, the Music Consultant for Blue Scorpion Dance Theatre and has an exclusive studio of piano and flute students. Best known for her intense piano playing style and exceptional lyrical compositions, Kat tours nationally and has shared the stage with such names as LP, The Memorials, Chris Wyse, En Esch, Mona Mur, Erica Dilanjian, Shannon Curfman, Lennon, Javier Mosley and WASP.

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