Several Fridays ago, just after all the students left school for the weekend, I sat in the English classroom and played one of the two pianos all by myself. But not for long. In just a few minutes, I saw a curious, freckled face peek in through the door. When the girl saw that it was me, and no one else was in the room, she quickly ran in and stood by the piano, fascinated by the fast-moving fingers and beautiful sound. She was followed by two more Tibetan girls, all nine of whom stay at the school over the weekends because their home is a 14-hour train ride away. Unable to resist, they were soon tapping away on the piano as well, and I stopped playing to open up the other baby grand so they could play on both. Their smiles were far more beautiful than the sounds I had been playing.
After a few minutes of rather discordant pounding, I stuck my hand in the midst of them and tapped out the “Two Tigers” song (the most popular children’s song, equivalent to our “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”). They were mesmerized, and asked to learn. So we began!
Thirty minutes later, they were realizing that piano, though difficult, was achievable! Though they were straining to control their hands and fingers in new ways, they were thrilled by the familiar sounds emerging from their efforts. I thought we had very good progress for the day, but they weren’t finished yet. “Can you teach me to play Beethoven?” Quinn asked. Of course.
By dinner time, the sounds of Fur Elise were probably driving everyone else on campus crazy. But these diligent girls were walking on air, ready to play their 10-second version of Beethoven to anyone who would listen. And that was just the first day.
Since then, every weekend has involved several hours of happy piano study with various girls. They can all play “Two Tigers” to perfection, and most of them have learned an extended 30-second version of Fur Elise. Three or four have worked hard to learn to read the sheet music, and they’re being rewarded by success each time they try. I love seeing their fingers, minds, and hopes all working together!
Today, while working with them in the music classroom, I thought about what really sets one piano student apart from another, what I love to see in a student, or what factors most help a student succeed.
1. Not surprisingly, the most important element is the girls’ determination to copy what I show them, exactly. In these first stages of learning, they don’t understand why I keep telling them to use this finger, not that one. But when I move to another student and they return to their own habits, they find that the song becomes much more difficult. The girls that use their fingers the way I show them rarely make the same mistakes.
2. Speaking of mistakes, perhaps the most influential aspect of learning piano is the means of dealing with errors. The girls who never correct their mistakes end up in habits that are incredible difficult to fix, cause their songs to sound wrong, and leave them discouraged and ready to give up. The girls who groan and moan each time they press the wrong key also find themselves easily discouraged. But the students who realize their mistake, correct it with help, and continue unruffled are most successful. They realize that focusing on the sound of the correct note is more helpful than wallowing in annoyance over their errors.
3. However, the truly successful students are the ones who work hard to read the music notes. This method is slow, difficult, and the beginner songs are boring compared to the exciting sounds of Fur Elise. But these girls are the only ones who will be able to continue learning piano on their own. When they forget how to play Fur Elise, they will be able to read the music themselves.
Can you see all those spiritual parallels?!
I can’t help but think God hopes for the same qualities in us. As we are learning to live life His way, often we forget that He is the teacher, He is the One bringing it all to be. When we become followers of Jesus, God doesn’t tell us, “Okay, now give me your best and I’ll tell you if it’s good or not.” No! We are learning to live, just like by Tibetan girls are learning to play the piano. And we can’t learn without a teacher. So as a teacher, I think God may value these elements too:
1. Do what He says! We hear “obey God,” and we often think “Wow, God is so demanding.” But in the case of learning piano, we know it would be ridiculous to disregard what the teacher is saying! My students don’t understand why it’s so important to use their index finger here, and their thumb there. In the same way, God may be asking us to do something we feel is insignificant at the time. But I can guarantee you that God knows the song better than we do. He knows what we need to learn, and it will be far easier and more beautiful if we simply trust and obey.
2. We mess up. We just do. We’re human, sin is in our genes, and the Bible even reminds us of that: “anyone who says he is without sin is a liar.” But I think we often handle our mistakes the in the same way as my piano students. Some of us ignore our errors, causing major problems down the way. But more of us actually agonize too much over what we do wrong. Yes, sin is a big deal to God. But to those of us who have placed our trust in Jesus, sin is done! God sees us as righteous, and I think we’d benefit from seeing ourselves more that way as well. Not that we deny our mistakes, but we take our focus off of ourselves and place it on Jesus. We accept God’s love for us, we let Him teach and assist us, and we move on to the things He has called us to do. No one learns to play the piano if they avoid all errors by not playing at all. I believe that God would rather see us try, fail, and try again than never risk anything at all. After all, when Peter sank into the water due to his lack of faith, did Jesus sigh and go find another disciple? No, He reached out and lifted Him up.
3. My most successful piano students are the ones who learn to read the sheet music. And I think we would all acknowledge that the most fruitful Christian lives are generally those soaked in the Word of God. God wasn’t required to give us a book; He didn’t have to inspire people to write the Bible. He did it because we can live more abundantly with it. When we forget how to play the song, we can go back and read it. It may seem monotonous, slow, and even boring at first. But the hard work of laying a foundation will, in the end, give us the ability to play far more beautifully.
God is your teacher, and He loves to teach. Will you be His student?