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Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. Headshot

Why Music Teachers Matter

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When my 7-year-old daughter came home after her music recital, she announced, "I wish we could do it all over again." She had that same dreamy-eyed look that accompanies the afterglow of birthdays or Christmas.

But she was reminiscing about a four-hour recital where teenagers played Beethoven and Count Basie on the piano, a middle school student sang an aria in Italian, and a 4-year-old vocalist played air guitar to a song by Coldplay.

When I was young, piano recitals were staid affairs, an annual one-hour performance in the sanctuary of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Fairhope, Alabama, where we sat on wooden pews until our teacher, Mrs. Nancy Head, called our name from the program.

Since we memorized the pieces, our proverbial fear was the dreaded mental block, which each year afflicted at least one child, who would stare at the white and black keys with total amnesia. In the horrific silence, I would send prayers of help to this unfortunate soul, as well as gratitude that I had escaped that same hell. Growing up in a musical family, I loved playing the piano and admired the dedication of my teacher. But the recital was an obligation, not a celebration.

So when my youngest daughter wanted to do it all over again, I thought about what made my children's recital different from performances of my past. Did I mention the four-hour recital included a 30-minute potluck between Act I for piano and Act II for vocals? For the uninitiated, it's an epic marathon, no doubt, and two of my closest friends refuse to attend in protest of the sheer duration.

Yet the most compelling reason that both my second grade and high school daughter love the recital is their teacher, Annie Wright, a pianist, dancer and former singer in a rock band. Her musicians aren't students at Juilliard: rather, they include children and adults who take weekly piano and voice lessons in the 1,000-square-foot house that she shares with her husband on the campus of Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC.

When the children walk in the back door, she offers them candy, a novelty on this environmentally friendly campus where college students tend an organic garden and herd cows on the campus farm. "Want a Starburst? Piece of gum?" she asks, smacking on a piece of Trident as she practices Bach or Brahms on the piano. My children sense that she cares about them and the music -- more than any written schedule or unwritten protocol for piano teachers. And her affordable prices mean that single parents like me can afford music lessons for both my children.

Always held the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the recital reflects the power of music to generate narrative, to heal and to create a force larger than our individual lives. To me, these three lessons are even more powerful than recent research that reveals the positive impact of music on children's cognitive abilities. These lessons aren't about academic achievement: They are about creating music in community.

Music as Narrative

While I sat with my 14-year-old daughter Maya and her teenage friends at the recital, I listened to them as the younger students played. "Remember when you played 'Viva la Rhumba' years ago?" asked one, as she rehearsed her own songs by tapping fingers on her skinny black jeans. "Remember when Zach stopped 'Moonlight Sonata' and announced he was starting over?" another whispered. Their songs have become legacies, passed down from one student to the next, creating a musical lineage.

Last year, a teenager named Aurelia sang the aria "Nessum Dorma" by Puccini from the Opera Turandot with backup vocals by the Cabin Hill Choir, the official name for the twenty or so vocalists that include a 4-year-old and a 52-year-old. This year, Annie passed that torch to Zach. As a community of listeners, we have become familiar with these classical pieces, appreciating how the youth bring their own personalities to the same musical score.

The youngest students all begin by playing duets with Annie, whose presence next to them provides a safety net, a teammate on the piano bench. Some even play improvisational duets at the recital, randomly hitting keys in an uncanny rhythm that matches Annie's chords. "We don't know what we're going to get, but we love playing spooky improv," announced Annie before one piece. And the young pianists learn that it's not about avoiding the mistakes, but creating a narrative of music together.

Music as Healer

This year, the recital was dedicated to the mother of one of Annie's students, a woman named Michelle Heartsong, who recently died of breast cancer. After her death, Michelle's children moved from our town, but all the young musicians knew that Annie was singing "Fix You" by Coldplay in honor of Michelle, with their young voices providing backup vocals. At this point in the evening, around 9:30 p.m., we had been listening to music for more than three hours, but Annie turned out all the lights, picked up her acoustic guitar, and held me spellbound with these lyrics:

And the tears come streaming down your face, when you lose something you can't replace.
When you love someone, but it goes to waste, could it be worse?
Lights will guide you home, and ignite your bones. And I will try to fix you.

As the backup vocalists joined her in the chorus, "lights will guide you home," sparkling lights illuminated the darkness behind them. The sleepy four and 5-year-olds accompanied Annie with their own air-guitar movements, punctuating the room with playfulness in the midst of grief. And in their raw humanity, the teenagers sang for Annie with their hearts wide open, their voices lifted up.

Music as a Force Larger than Ourselves

As the Cabin Hill choir sang the chorus to this tribute, tears streamed down my own face; and I could see the tears on many of the teenagers' faces who knew that Michelle's death was the result of mere probability, a stroke of bad luck that could hit any family. But singing together created a presence larger than their individual emotions or voices.

Each year, the music created by the children moves me to tears. In fact, the teenagers now take bets on what song in the recital will make me cry. This year, Aurelia bet "Somewhere," from West Side Story, the duet she sang with Zach. (She was right.) And I also cried during the finale, "The Hills are Alive," from The Sound of Music, which was the theme of this recital, depicted on a poster with each child in a thrift-shop costume running on the college's soccer field, with mountains photoshopped around them.

Each child is a part of the poster, not an individual star. And each student receives a folder with the poster taped to the front. The Sound of Music folder holds their sheet music, which they can use on every song they play or sing that night. As my daughter Maya told me the next day, "I wanted to tell Annie how much she meant to me -- to all of us -- but I thought I was going to start crying. So I just told her thank you."

This is a story of a recital, but it's also a story of how light created by music can guide us home to gratitude.