November 17, 2010 § 10 Comments

“The fish in the water is silent
The animal on the land is noisy
The bird in the air is singing…”

You know Desert Island Discs? It’s a programme on BBC Radio 4 where famous guests interweave their life story with their favourite songs and, stranded on a desert island, also get to take one luxury item with them. My choice, and until I’m on it, I will defer plumping for either, is between a piano and reams of paper and pencils with which to make language plants. If I chose this latter one, any lost soul would in years to come, I hope, marvel at the magnificent tome I would have created with only the golden sands and white surf to break my concentration during an afternoon. Should I choose the former, then there would be no trace of all the sounds that had drifted out across past the moonlight and into the emptiness above the waves.

The debate this week has centred on the merits and drawbacks of NESTs and NNESTs. Cecilia, Rick, and Richard have all perfectly summed up the debate of Challenge#6, and I don’t feel I can add to them.

A few years ago, my next-door neighbours were a lovely Sri Lankan family, three young boys under ten, two youthful parents and an aging grandmother. We first met when I went out into the back garden to throw their ball back over the garden fence that they were calling for, and within a few weeks or thereabouts, I was giving the eldest one lessons in English and maths. That stray kick cost the father more than he could have ever known.

I started playing the piano when I five, and gave up when I was eleven. Really, it wasn’t my fault, my first teacher moved away, he was nice, a plumpish jovial little bald old man who used to peer over his half-moon specs when he was reading the music and gave me nice pieces to play like Riding in the Park, just a little tune with the left hand clip-clopping along under the melody.

Sombreness took his place. Cloaked in the respectability of pastel cardigans and ruffed blouses and with a baby grand in the bay window overlooking the pristine lawn and flower bed, this talented pianist exhaled the very soul from my music, forcing upon me the most obscure ponderous washed out dirges that had ever seen the light of day. She wouldn’t even play them for me first so I at least had a fighting chance of working out all those grating chords and dismal melodies.

Priya’s English and maths were progressing nicely, and I suggested to his dad whether he’d like Priya to have piano lessons too, and that’s how I found myself teaching music. No exams to aim for, just Priya, a piano and me.

You see, my musical tale has a happy ending, one day at school, when I was 16, a friend of mine in the music room bashed out a honky tonk Scott Joplin ragtime, I came home from school and played my first notes in 5 years, and have kept it up ever since, so I felt able to teach this little boy, armed as I with an understanding and appreciation of harmony, rhythm and melody, and with Dogmeic principles of teaching that I felt could be equally well deployed in this sweet-sounding setting.

We got him playing two, three finger chords, and dueted all the time, me supplying a steady beat, Priya rhapsodising above, then vice versa, pink ponk pink ponk, and learning how to tuck his thumb under his fingers so he could start at the very bottom note and walk his way up, literally, with his fingers and feet all the way to the high notes and back down again without ever taking his hand off the keyboard or getting his fingers twisted inside out and back to front. He composed pieces about his teachers, big bass drumming for the heavy footsteps and booming voice of Mr Moore and tinkly trills for the high heels and happy giggles of Miss Peters.

I’ve had an opinion on NESTs and NNESTs for a long time. If I’m going to judge teachers, and I do, then I can say that I think I’ve seen and experienced good and bad of both. It personally doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think it’s the most important issue. Personality, subject knowledge and an ability to enable learning to take place in all its many guises, shall I even say teaching? don’t seem to belong to the preserve of, we can say, an arbitrarily defined group of people.

“…but man has in him
the silence of the sea
the noise of the land
and the music of the air.”

Rabindranath Tagore

By the way, I once taught this poem to ESOL learners and got them all to translate it into their own languages and recite it to the others. And of course they drew pretty pictures and lovely language plants.


§ 10 Responses to Music

  • And the NNPT (non-native piano teacher) was the best piano teacher Priya could have had 🙂 He saw through his student and was able to motivate and enable meaningful learning, even if at the expense of the boy’s teachers 😉 (just kidding about the teachers!)

    You’re absolutely right David – the art of teaching doesn’t belong to any arbitrarily defined group, and I think I can say this for all areas in which teaching can take place. Some of the people I learned most in my life weren’t even teachers. Not as a profession anyway.

  • crazykites says:

    I think as both a student of languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese and a bit of Arabic) and a teacher of English, one HUGE advantage of the non-native teachers of English is that they have undergone the process as the students. They are therefore a success story for students. It’s easy for me to be great at English as I am English (though there’s a slight hint of Scouse that does confuse: “Teacher? Is it “wait” or “wais” ? I say what I think is “wait” and they still think I’m saying “wais” but it is all colour) and perhaps I am not alone in saying that I get quite jealous of people who’ve mastered English so well that they can teach it to others. I tried to teach French, once. And Spanish another time…. but fate intervened on both occasions. I was all prepared with my materials to teach French to a woman who must have been around my age, I panicked planning the class, I’d bought a book to guide me through a syllabus, I’d set off in the pouring rain only to look at my phone and find a text messsage from her cancelling on me because she preferred to concentrate on her gym membership. It obviously wasn’t meant to be.

    My favourite idea is a CLIL idea. I’d like to teach craft in English to students as I learnt to make earrings in French. I love the idea of taking the focus away from the language in question and using it as a medium for some other skill. Did you ever think about teaching piano in English, David?

  • dingtonia says:

    Hi David
    My mother was a piano teacher. She didn’t teach me the piano after about the age of 9 – she maybe thought I wasn’t talented enough, but I feel it probably had more to do with me taking up the time slot of a fee-paying student!!So I quit, stupidly. I just LOVE your description of learning the piano “dogmeically”. If that had been open to me, I’d still be playing. You taking any more piano pupils? 🙂


    • David Warr says:

      Hi Candy, sorry for the late reply, am away in Germany currently. Piano lessons… any time 🙂 I’ve just come back from church with my wife (who’s Kenyan), one attended mainly by the African diaspora in Cologne, and while the preacher prayed, a pianist was improvising quietly with him. It really was good. Do you think you’ll ever take it up again?

      • dingtonia says:

        I would love to David, but….Why do we always say that? But seriously I would need a piano, a teacher and time. You know, maybe I will start looking for at least the teacher part. Pity you’re in Cologne 😦

      • David Warr says:

        Back in Birmingham now. It was just a short trip. Those are three excellent reasons you come up with for not taking it up again.

  • Richard says:

    I can’t ‘like’ above coz I’m not a wordpresser. So this is for you: LIKE!

    And thanks for the mention ; )

  • Naini Singh says:

    Hey David,
    You quoted Rabindranath Tagore!! I had to study his poetry and fiction in Bengali. Very poetic langugae …he often uses oxymorons in Bengali…i never could translate them easiliy into English without loosing some of its flavour.

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