The girl looks up at me, eyes wide with eager excitement and just a hint of awe. She is about half my height, so I stoop to make sure that my eyes are level with hers. I can’t help but smile at the dress she is wearing, with its sparkly pink unicorn and purple ruffly skirt. She obviously has chosen her favorite outfit for this day. This is not our first meeting, but today, this day, we are doing something new and different that will change our little friendship.
I encourage her to stand tall and straight and then I take the tiny violin and place it on her left shoulder, holding the scroll at her eye level, helping her find the chin rest with her chin. Then placing her left hand along the curved shoulder of the instrument, I let go and she discovers that she is holding it all by herself. Now she is smiling back at me, and her excitement is growing. I point to the four different strings and show her how to pluck each one with her right hand, carefully guiding the movement of her fingers so that she can begin to hear the ringing sound of each string separately. Together we listen to the tone of each one, E, A, D, G, like bells echoing in the quiet room. By this time, something else has begun to fill the room too, something intangible and almost magic. Her curiosity has been building slowly along with courage, crescendoing to confidence and wonder as she realizes that the sound coming from this tiny instrument is being made by her own two hands. Today is the beginning of a journey of discovery for both of us, it is her first violin lesson.
One of the tasks of the first lesson is to learn all of the parts of the violin: the scroll, the pegs, fingerboard, sides, belly, the bridge. This “naming” becomes a game where I first tell her all the new words and then we go back over each part, me asking her to name it, and then correcting her as she tries to remember each name. We gather a little bit of information about each as we go: “The fingerboard is called this because it’s where you will place your fingers to play the notes. The belly is made of a different kind of wood than the sides and back; it’s made of spruce that sings. This is the bridge, can you believe that it’s just balancing there, it’s being held in place by the tension of the strings? That’s forty pounds of pressure from those four strings! Here is the bow, and I want you to notice this is real horse hair taken from the tails of special horses—we don’t touch the hair!” And on we go.
This naming game is introducing the young student to her instrument; her new-found knowledge will give her an honest respect for it and the understanding that it is very different from a toy. She’ll share these bits of information with her siblings and parents later at home, proud of what she’s learned.
But, naming the parts of the instrument is not all that I want to teach her. Even from the very first lesson I am after something else. This is something that she will apprehend before she comprehends. It has to do with the magic that enters the room, which we both feel. My job as the teacher is to reach into the heart of this young person and see the soul of the musician that is longing to come forth. My task is to help her release her emotions and personality as she touches the instrument and hears it sing. I must see the beauty of her creative soul, made in the image of God, made to worship Him. As I see this, I name it. I say, “You are an artist, you can play this violin and make it sing so beautifully! Listen to the sound you are making! You—yes YOU—have the ability to make music!”
The process of the student learning to play an instrument becomes a kind of inner journey for her—a journey of discovering her own soul. This young musician’s soul is learning to come from the core of her being to the surface, and my part as the teacher is to name her progress, to tell her what she is becoming. This naming, this believing on behalf of the child, is the first step in the journey. This is what gives the student the courage to believe for herself that she can play. If I were to add together all of the information, advice, and experience that I will share with this student over the course of many years with her, this one thing outweighs all the rest. If I give only this one gift to the student, if she never pursues playing the violin beyond this stage of her life, if she only receives this sure sense of, “I can create beauty,” then I have done what I believe God has called me to do.
Each student has a different story that they bring to this soul-discovery journey. The young ones are often open and eager like my unicorn-attired friend. Her soul was out in a twinkle, ready to play with me! As I encourage and she responds, the time goes by quickly, and I find myself full of life and energy when the lesson ends. Some, especially older students, carry their musician’s soul in a very protected corner locked inside and are reluctant for it to be seen. They may be remembering a cruel comment, or they may be reliving a previous creative endeavor that resulted in what seemed like failure. I find myself praying for these students as I work with them, and they stay on my heart after they leave the lesson. How can I help them relax enough to let their inner child find its way to the surface? I try to disarm their defenses by tapping into their imagination, “Just pretend with me that your arm is floating in the air like it might if you were floating on your back in a huge lake of water. Now relax and let your arm and bow fall into the string just like that. See what a beautiful sound that makes? Listen to the tone—your violin is singing!” As this young musician emerges from her shell, she discovers herself doing things she never thought possible. This can bring a lot of healing, and joy.
One time I listened to a mother share the story of how her daughter had been told by another teacher, “You will never be any good at playing the violin.” My heart broke for her and it was probably a good thing that I never met the teacher. But that student, that wonderful soul later became a beautiful violinist who now sits ahead of me in the orchestra when we occasionally play together. The joy of seeing her hidden soul emerge is one of my favorite memories as a teacher.
I don’t believe that I, or any teacher, can create what does not already exist in the student. There is something within that has been given by God. Ours is the work of naming, not creating. Our task is to first perceive the talent that lies within, and to call it forth with patient encouragement. As Michelangelo famously said:
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
It is also true that just as Michelangelo’s statue could not release itself from the marble, the student cannot name herself a violinist. Nor can I or anyone fully recognize the qualities that are latent in themselves. It takes another, perhaps many others including loving friends, parents, and kind mentors to see and identify a gift. It takes others to call a soul forth. Instead of a chisel, we are wielding words, spoken in the right moment and with love. I am the one who says, “Now you are ready for your first performance, you have learned your first piece of music and polished it. You are going to show your proud parents that you are indeed a violinist!” This does not come without much discipline and work, and often a healthy dose of frustration, but if the student has within her a true musician’s soul a teacher’s patient guidance will call it out of her.
As the first lesson with my new student comes to an end, I pull out the notebook where I write notes for her, reminders of just the few points that we learned today, along with a list of tasks that the she is going to practice at home. I make sure that she sees the special spot on the page reserved for a sticker that she will receive the next week for accomplishing these tasks. I show her how to carefully put the violin in its case, which she practices with a bit of pride. When she opens it again at home, she will rehearse the little seed-truth that has been planted in her. Each time she begins to draw the bow across the string, the thought will grow in her heart, along with her confidence. It will mature as it grows, day after day, year after year. She will learn to say it for herself, “I am an artist, I can create beauty. This is what I was made for.”
Featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
Terri Moon is a musician and a lover of Jesus. She delights in all kinds of good, true, and beautiful things that point to Him. As a classically trained violinist, she has performed and taught students of all ages for over 40 years. She serves on the leadership team of the Anselm Society, and is still pursuing her lifelong passion of the intersection of music, worship, and spiritual formation. Terri’s dream is to bring to life the beauty of the Church’s heritage in the arts. She lives in Colorado Springs with her husband Steve and their dog, Chesterton.
Oh Terri, this resonates in me as a parent, and is so different from the prevailing “tabula rasa” attitude that guided parenting in so much of the “Christian” culture I was raised in. You so beautifully articulate the way that we are meant to see and name and patiently hold space for the soul of another, to call out what is already there, to bandage what has been wounded, and to call the other into a fullness their soul was created for. Whether artists or not, we are all meant to bring beauty to the world, and the way you frame it here makes that so clear. Brava!
Terri! This is so wonderful. I love that way you see your students (and just the people around you) as chances to call out the beauty and potential God has placed in each one. What a gift you have (and are)!
Terri, your intentionality, your clarity of vision into the heart of each student, and your goal as a teacher have me winking back tears. If every child could be seen this way — and introduced to beauty and music and study this way — what a rich and jubilant world it would be. Thank you for sharing this, and thank you for nurturing so many with the touch of the freedom and joy of the world that is coming.
Terri, I haven’t met you but I too teach young souls how to call music out of black and white keys, and how to delight in the way their fingers move and shape and find melodies. You’ve articulated here what I’ve instinctively (but not as consciously) done for years in many countries around the globe as I’ve taught piano lessons, and I am so grateful for your words which have given shape and clarity to why I love what I do! Thank you!
Thank you, friends, for your encouraging comments! It means a lot to me that you found something that resonated with you here and took the time to share it. Carolyn, I would love to meet you, and wish I could learn from you to play the piano! May God use each of us to see, name, and call out the hidden beauty of the people God places in our lives.
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