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October 29, 2015

The time I quit music lessons

by Abraham Levitan

I often hear from parents who are concerned about their kid losing interest in music lessons, or whose kids are wanting to switch instruments for the third (or tenth) time. Truth be told, I hit a wall with piano myself halfway through seventh grade, and I took a year off.

Me rocking out on a homemade guitar.
Me rocking out on my homemade guitar (in my mom’s scarf).

Throughout my adolescence (actually, since kindergarten), I wanted to be a rock star. Someone like Bruce Springsteen (see photo at left), whom my dad was (and is) a huge fan of.

My piano teacher, Ms. Meadows, taught in a traditional style. But she also had a fun side. At the recitals she cleverly disguised as holiday parties, she let me play pop songs I arranged myself. And I loved the opportunity to show my stuff.

Despite my rock-star heart, I enjoyed the discipline of my weekly lessons with Ms. Meadows. As a conscientious, structure-loving kid, I found that the method-book approach worked for me: I was progressing, and I could see the payoff every week.

But right around seventh grade, something wasn’t clicking anymore.

I became more adventurous in my listening, delving into everything from James Brown and Memphis soul to Led Zeppelin to Elvis Costello and Lou Reed. Obsessed with pop and rock music, I wanted to figure out how it worked, to explore the chord structures behind it. I’d begun writing my own songs and wondered— could lessons even support that? Did my interest in writing and performing rock music make me such a rebel that I was somehow beyond music lessons?

That was around 1990 or ’91. I asked Ms. Meadows to teach me contemporary music. She was a great teacher, but her suggestion of teaching me Chicago and REO Speedwagon songs seemed a little behind the times for my vision.
My goals are too radical, I thought. I’ll have to teach myself.

So I quit lessons.

This was (long) before YouTube could teach you how to do anything, so I made recordings of myself playing and singing my own music. I was quickly humbled. I didn’t have tools for knowing how to write interesting chord changes. My fingers weren’t very fast.

Over that year, I saw my blind spots, and I decided I could use some help again.

My next piano teacher, John Bizianes, made a huge impact on my musical education and my life. An easy-going, basketball-playing twenty-something, John played keyboards with his twin brother in a band called Double Vision. They played out at clubs in Louisville, my hometown. It was so exciting for me to learn from someone who was actually doing what I wanted to do, out in the real world.

John also happened to be an amazing jazz pianist. I wasn’t specifically setting out to learn jazz, but John showed me that if I really understood jazz theory, then I could easily apply it to pop and rock.

John demystified songwriting by showing me there were only a few main chord sequences that every genre uses. I felt more on top of it, like he was teaching me the secret musician vocabulary.

Regretfully, I didn’t play my original arrangements for him. I thought what he was teaching me was so heady and sophisticated that I couldn’t open up to him about the simpler stuff I was writing and performing with my high-school rock band.

I wish I’d shared my songs with John while I was writing them. Looking back now, I see that I was assuming adults wouldn’t respect what I was feeling musically, or what I wanted to do.

In my own story, and in working with Piano Power families, I’ve learned that brave, honest, and clear communication among teachers, parents, and students has to be a top priority.

Part of Piano Power’s mission is to understand when our students want to change course. Sometimes switching teachers does the trick, but other times it’s a matter of encouraging our students to be totally honest with their current teacher about what they want—or don’t want— out of lessons.

Like me in the early nineties, students might believe that parents (or teachers) can’t relate to their musical goals.

They may need a little reminding that we teachers understand a lot more than it seems. After all, we were once–and maybe still are– young rock-stars-in-training, too.

Abraham Levitan

About the Author

Abraham Levitan is the founder and head of Piano Power. He began offering at-home piano lessons in 2001, continuously refining an engaging teaching style. He was proud to see students thriving through his curriculum, which mixed fundamentals, collaborative original compositions, classical repertoire, and the latest hits from top-forty radio. In 2007 he founded Piano Power, building a talented and enthusiastic team of instructors with this curriculum at its core.

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