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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

The Piano Project

We were discussing Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, written to commemorate Russia’s defeat against Napoleonic forces advancing towards Moscow in that year.  Just your early-morning, everyday breakfast discussions at our house.

“The ‘Overchurch’ has both Russian and French elements in its composition,” recited Sashenka, our youngest.

“Overture,” I remind.

“Who wrote the piece?” I quiz.

“Tchocke,” one tries.

“No, that’s a Yiddish word for knick-knack….”

“Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky,” I finally answer myself.  Many are my discussions which are solitary in nature….

For years, I dreamt that my children would have music lessons.  Our verbal volleys were as close as we could come.  Trying to study several languages, moving up to grade level in their school studies, and learning English were effort enough for our Russian adoptees.  Arriving home at older ages, their music training might need to be in the Russian language, which was difficult in itself to find, but the cost in our major urban locale was another consideration:  $52 per 30 minute session, just when the economy tanks.

Times four children.  Times four weeks in a month.  Almost $1,000 per month just for piano lessons.  And that did not factor me driving them to the lesson and then sitting there for two hours, then driving back in rush hour traffic and wasting at least half a day, and gallons of gas.

Certainly, all of us have our priorities in life.  My goal for my children was not necessarily for them to be Julliard-bound.  Instead, should all go well, we aimed for them to learn to carry a tune, play some songs for enjoyment or worship, be able to read music, and not have moi forcing them to practice for two hours every day.

Which would all be well and fine, but we had some unusual challenges that the average family might not face:  extensive travel obligations, language barriers, children having never been rocked as babies which meant they had no inner metronome or sense of beat.  It was against this dark backdrop of “Family Least Likely to Succeed in Music” that we came across the website of music teacher extraordinaire, Duane Shinn, at www.pianolessonsbyvideo.com.  He offered 52 weeks of piano training by DVD, designed particularly for busy adults who wished to learn, who then could, if they so chose, teach their children.

The last time I sat at a piano was possibly around the age of 13.  I was not sitting there a long time, let’s say.  I grew up playing the violin, becoming rather proficient, then dabbled a few days in the piano, and then promptly gave up both for reasons I’ve long since forgotten.  Here I was, who knows how many years later, facing the fact that I would need to learn… in order to be everyone else’s teacher.

The students included my willing, but passive-aggressive, husband, Benedetto.  The idea was for him to be a teacher, as well, but alas, that was not to be.  He had been  happy to say for years that the only musical instrument he ever played was the radio.  Talk about brain-block times one hundred:  I was discovering that the children would be the least of my problems.

“I can’t sit here.  My hands don’t reach,” he started.

We were using a simple keyboard given to us by friends who thought the children might want to learn the piano one day.  I had purchased the first month of the “One Year Crash Course”, four more than ample lessons, for $100.  We had everything in place when my husband decided he didn’t know how to sit, nor where to place the keyboard.  He put it on a tall table, so that while he was sitting, the keyboard stood at about at eye level.

“Belly button height,” I tried to reason with him.  “Did you watch the DVD?”  I had my suspicions.

Placing the keyboard back down in a more sensible position, he protested again.

“My fingers don’t move like this.  It doesn’t feel natural….”

“You need to train them.  You’re pecking at the keys like a woodpecker.  Use more of a rolling motion, more fluid and even playing.  This is not some military march.  Slow down, and keep a steady beat,” I counseled, acting as his metronome.  “ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four….. You need to set an example for the children.  You are not giving up before you even begin….”

With Duane’s straightforward instruction and close-up shots of his fingers on the keys, our family was playing (drum roll here):  two-handed songs in our first week.  It’s all in the first lesson, and there was so much meat in the class, that we broke the first lesson into four parts of three songs each week. That was plenty for us to master in the beginning. So the first week took us approximately one month.  Alright, we’re not going to take our gig on the road anytime soon… but still….  (Hear an actual audio file of me after the second week of lessons.  Don’t laugh at the slow-mo pace-!  It’s progress…)   Audio Recording 3

I had my own struggles and self-doubts, however, my advantage over my children was that at least  I recognized the tunes.  None of them knew much American music at all:  “Merrily We Row Along”, “Largo”, and “Lightly Row”.  “Jingle Bells” they grasped, “Pop! Goes the Weasel” had a troublesome story line, and “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” thankfully had no lyrics.  “Aunt Rhody” came complete with issues all her own.

“Mama,” Pasha started.  “Who is dis ‘Aunt Rudy’?”

“Rhody.  Aunt Rhody,” I repeated.  “I have no idea.”

“But vhat happened to her gray goose?  She had gray goosie, no?  Vhy is he dead?”

“Look,” I levelled with him, “goosie or no goosie, Aunt Rhody must have needed to know about it.  And you need to know the G and C chords for your left hand.  The song is in 4/4 time, so let’s count:  one, two, three, play!”

Duane wasn’t kidding when he said to sit with your children.  Even after they watched the DVD and had their “practice” time, I realized most did not have a clue.  I decided to check up after each lesson.

“Alright, show me your stuff,” I said to Mashenka who claimed she was doing quite well, and approaching virtuoso level.  Being around the kids 24/7, I was sure they were not on drugs, but something was definitely altering their thinking if they thought their music-making was fine.

She splayed her fingers straight out, and began randomly mashing the keys, proud as a peacock, almost beaming at her imaginery audience.  How could I break the news to her?

“Um… did you watch the DVD?” I probed.

“YESSS…” How dare I interrupt the maestro.

“You need to be reading the music—looking at the book.  Do you know what ‘Oh Susanna’ should sound like?  Let’s start just with the right hand and play the melody.  Look—you see the numbers of the fingers and even the letter of the key is written right next to the note.  Would you like for
me to play it for you?”  I simply repeated again what Duane had taught on the DVD, and within minutes, she was playing with both hands slowly, but you could definitely make out the tune.

Mashenka, our youngest at 10-1/2, had few problems as I walked her through the paces. A little instruction and guidance got her going.  “Faith of our Fathers”, “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere”, and other songs came alive with her small fingers on the keys.

“Mama, where is the Isle of Somewhere?” she asked, excellent in majoring in the minors.

“Okay, I’ll let you guess.  It’s the Isle of SOMEWHERE.  Where do you think it is?”


Ah, the joys of living with literalists….

Our oldest, Petya, at 14-1/2, grasped the concepts mostly without my assistance, even when we began moving our right hand to different positions on the keyboard, and even when the chords with the left hand increased beyond the first basic two or three.  The piano book labelled each song clearly with the letters of the notes next to the notes themselves, along with the left-hand chords drawn in diagrams above each song.

None of the children practiced with any regularity, but the three times per week that I could squeeze out of them seemed to be productive without paining all of us more than necessary.  The first month of lessons may possibly take us three months to master, but we’re going at our own pace.  During the lesson, there is not the fluff of a student talking or playing, just the instructor himself, so you end up with a class that is 50% more than average.  And best of all, the course is affordable:  figuring lessons for all six of us at $100 per month, rather than $1200 per month in a traditional setting, makes a real difference in this economy.  Not to mention a pleasant selection of songs where there’s something for everyone (personally I can live without the “Can Can Polka”, but I digress).

So here you have our “Least Likely to Succeed in Music” family, happily making music in no time, playing the piano practically for pennies.  It’s like music to my ears.  Thanks, Duane.




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4 Comments : Leave a Reply

  1. avatar Gwendolyn says:

    You are certifiably NUTS! LOL.

  2. avatar Sybil says:

    Loved the blog in it’s entirety, but the best part for me was “Tchocke”. If that happened in our house, forevermore, Tchaikovsky would be Tchocke!

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