Paying the Price

“Do you know how much a Rolex costs? Or a Maserati?” I asked my 16-year old student. He looked at me blankly, wondering why I was talking about luxury goods in the middle of a piano lesson.

“A lot?” he ventured.

“A lot.” I said. “And if you wanted one, you would have to work for it — and at your age, you can’t really make that much an hour, so you would have to work for many many many hours to buy one. You’d have to decide if you really really wanted it, and if it was going to be worth it to you to do all that work, and then mid-way, you might realize just how much work it was and decide you wanted something else.”

“But I don’t want a Rolex,” he said.

“No, but you came in here saying that you wanted to play the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata, which is a concert pianist piece. It’s a Rolex. It’s expensive, only it doesn’t cost money. It costs PRACTICE. Just like a Rolex, if you want this expensive piece of music that not everyone can have, you have to pay the price.”

Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is the holy grail of the adult piano student. Just like kids clamor to play Beethoven’s “Fuer Elise,” adults want to create those mysterious, soul-touching sounds. And teenagers want to take on the drama and fury of the last movement with its thundering chords and unsettled emotions.

In all three cases, generally what you’ve got is a pianist with champagne tastes on a beer budget. The pieces they want to play are the champagne. The price they are willing to pay — the practice time — that’s the beer budget. And just as with champagne, watches, automobiles, or pretty much anything¬† else in life — you get what you pay for, and what you’re willing to pay determines what you’re going to get.

I can’t tell you the number of adult students who come to their first lesson with the Moonlight on their mind. Some drag in the first four measures.Some bring simplified versions. Some bring the sheet music. One¬† brought the sheet music and his own version of it written out in note names, one at a time. He can figure out notes, but can’t read fluently yet, so he figured this would shorten the process. They come looking for a magic bullet, and want to know why it sounds different when I play it. After a few lessons, they start sounding annoyed and impatient.

“It takes years,” I tell them. They don’t want to hear it — at this point in their lives, they’ve graduated from college, had careers, raised children, paid mortgages — why can’t they do THIS simple, one thing. On average — for a rank beginner with average musical ability and dexterity, I’d say it would take two to four years before they could play the first movement of the Moonlight, and that’s with diligent practice. I should probably also mention that some students will never get there: Musical ability is an ephemeral, wispy flirt, and the Moonlight Sonata, even the “easy” first movement — is over the line where you need some musical talent to put the pieces together.

And that’s not even beginning to think about the mercurial, tumultuous last movement: with its technical demands ranging from giant keyboard-spanning arpeggios to dynamic control to touches ranging from mysterious legatos to controlled staccatos, all applied with flying fingers to fistfuls of notes.

A Rolex. Lots of people want one, but not everyone can pay the price, and of those who can, even fewer want to.

“I’m going to practice six hours a day and come in here next week and play that first page better than you can,” my student told me, and I said — with all sincerity — “That is something I’d really like to see.”

Maybe one day I will.


3 thoughts on “Paying the Price”

  1. Hi Karen. I came across this article, The Truth About Piano Lessons and News Flash: Musical Achievement is not About Talent. Loved them all. My almost 7-year has been taking violin lessons for 1.5 year and I have been teaching him piano for the past year too. I personally love music and believe in all the benefits it has to offer. In fact, the benefits are just a bonus and is a good excuse for me to spend on music education. My son recently scored an A for his Grade 1 violin exam after taking lessons for 16 months. We are all understandably proud. My point is that this would not have been achievable had I not spent time and effort in supervising his practice sessions. I am not a piano teacher but I have been teaching him piano myself and have seen the progress he makes when he practices enough. I have calculated that if he practices on average an hour each day for the next 10 years, he will have achieved around 3,650 hours. I hope that in the process he would have tasted enough success in music and hopefully in other areas of his life to understand success is a result of hard work. This is my ultimate goal together with the gift of being able to make music. Mind you, my son does not willingly practice. When he does, he tries to negotiate with me the number of times he practices a piece. It can be tiring and sometimes a struggle. The last thing I want to do is take the fun out of learning music. For both him and me. So it’s a fine line to balance. But I really believe that the more skilled he is, the more he will enjoy playing. Thank you again for your articles because they motivate me to persevere and hope that practice becomes more routine AND enjoyable. -Rachel

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