During my piano lesson last week, my long-suffering teacher, Wesley, explained the value of recognizing a chord not as a set of single notes but as one unit. For example, he wants me to read the notes for C E G as a C chord and not as the three separate notes C E G. After showing further examples of this throughout the piece I am currently working on, Gymnopedie, he asked that I focus on this while practicing this week.
I was amazed at the ease with which he went through Gymnopedie identifying chords in this manner. How easily his hands rested on all the correct keys! When I see a new chord, and there are so many in this piece, my eyes read, usually bottom to top, sometimes top to bottom, each note separately. I eventually find each corresponding key until , finally, I have found the chord. After several hours of practicing this, the chords in several measures come more quickly and more fluently and I move on to the next set of measures and more practice. Clearly, my piano teacher expects me to move forward on this.
As I drove home from my lesson last week, I thought about a lesson I myself had taught earlier in the day. I teach English – not literature and not research papers about literature. I teach the English language to people living here in Virginia Beach but coming from places like Nigeria, Korea, and Belarus. That morning’s lesson had included an introduction to collocation. You may well ask what that is. Collocation is a set of words in a language that are frequently found near each other. In English, some examples of collocation would be as opposed to, in common with, take care of, and more frequently than not. The lesson for my students was similar to my piano lesson that day. By recognizing these clusters of words as of one meaning instead of deciphering the meaning word by word, my students will increase their reading speed and fluency.
Just as my piano teacher had gone through Gymnopedie pointing out the chords he wanted me to read as one unit, I had gone through a passage in the textbook, pointing out other common collocations. I recalled, driving home, the ease with which I did that. And I understood, driving home, how hard that must be for my students. This was something I had not fully appreciated when I prepared to teach that lesson.
My students’ ages range anywhere from 18 to 48. Students in their forties are usually women who arrived to the States thirty years ago, spending that time at home raising their children, who are now grown and away at college or maybe even married. These women decide it is their turn to learn English, if for no other reason than to be able to communicate clearly with their children’s spouses, often native speakers, or looking ahead, with their grandchildren. They are highly motivated. They are also greatly challenged, for the science is clear. As we get older, our brains loose the capacity to learn a language as easily as it was when our brains were younger. So what this boils down to in my classroom is an older woman surrounded by students who are half her age but twice as quick to pick up on things like collocation. I see her frustration when a younger student sitting next to her finishes an in-class exercise in five minutes, while she is only half way through, terribly stuck on number five.
Sometimes, after I have practiced a piece for a couple of days, and start to get the chords right, I visit YouTube so I can listen to it. This way I can check on my timing, as reading rhythm is a great challenge to me. On YouTube Piano pieces, sometimes you can see who is playing, and sometimes the camera is just on the keys. I like the ones with the camera just on the keys. And this is why. If I can see who is playing the piece – so perfectly – and it is a young child under the age of twelve, I resort to the mouth of a sailor, directing a series of expletives at the child, furious at her or him for being so darn clever.
I have never seen one of my older students give so much as a wearied glance at a younger student. I have much to learn about grace from my older ESL students.
When my piano teacher first shows me the next piece I will be working on, he wisely introduces the melody first. We run through the first few measures with just the right hand. Then I go home and, over a cup of tea, I take a good long look at it. Does he really think I can do this? I am certain he has made a terrible mistake, as I slowly look it over and see all that stuff I am going to have to figure out. Look at all those chords! Flats! What note is that sharp for? Dynamics! Yeah – like I will ever get to dynamics on this piece of music! Look at all those notes out of the lines! OMG! What was he thinking? I think long and hard about drinking something stronger than tea. But I go upstairs to my piano and I play – and play, and play – the melody with my right hand, and the I try a chord or two in the first few measures. The next week, with his guidance, a bit more, and then, a week later, with more of his guidance and encouragement, a bit more. In four or five weeks, depending entirely on how much I practice, I am playing the piece. Not well, but I am at least able to read it and play it.
My piano teacher takes me places I would never, ever attempt on my own.
Next week is the end of this term. I have been teaching one grammar/composition class since the term began in late August of this year. My students have written a short composition each weekend for homework. The first one was a short biography of themselves. I am talking very short, as in 12 sentences. Back in August, they wrote sentences like “I be student TCC.” Last weekend they wrote again about themselves, a topic they have not had since August. This time, they wrote sentences like “Right now, I am studying English at TCC.” I always hold onto that first composition to return it to my students when they write on the same topic some fourteen or fifteen weeks later. I have even brought a camera to class to catch the expression on their faces when they see the remarkable progress they have made….depending entirely on how much they practiced.
As an ESL teacher, I can only hope that I take my students to places they would never, ever attempt on their own. But only as a student myself am I able to clearly understand the full extent of the challenges I place before them.