Jeanne Sparks

Piano Teacher – Make a Joyful Noise

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Arts, Education

Jeanne Sparks, Piano Teacher, talks about the importance of quieting the noise and listening. She shares how she helps her students work through mistakes and acknowledge what's good. She explains what she sees as effective prayer and how it's helped her find answers with her students. Her insights apply to any endeavor.

How did you get started with the piano?
It's been a major part of my life. Since the time I was 3 years old, I started begging for piano lessons. My brother was already taking lessons. When he was done playing, I'd poke around on the piano and figure out what he had just played and then play it. I got to take lessons as I entered kindergarten. I stayed with that same teacher until I graduated high school.

Each week I had both a private and a group lesson. Lessons were usually on Saturday morning. Dad would take us in and then we'd walk to his office when we were done with our lesson. We had a strictly enforced practice routine. An alarm went off at 5 a.m. My brother and I would alternate who had to practice from 5-6 and who from 6-7. Mom fixed breakfast for one of us and we worked on our Sunday school assignment while the other was practicing.

Through all those years, I learned a lot about performance and ear training, which fits in well with the Bible—hearing that "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12). That requires good listening skills.

Listening is so important, and there is a genuine need for good listening skills today. How do you help students listen?
I've actually had to work a lot on this. There is so much noise, so much clickity click with computer games and TV. It's necessary to quiet the noise to listen. The Bible story of Jesus calming the tumultuous sea with, "Peace, be still" (Mark 4:39) comes to mind. I would venture to say that Jesus saw the excessive waves as a disruption to the forward movement of the ship as well as a distraction to his sense of peace. He adamantly refused to buy into it. As a result, the noise stopped.

Students are capable of making beautiful music, but to do so, they have to listen. If they're not listening, if they're just going through the motions, they're not playing music; they're just warming the bench. I've stressed this to my students.

In my studio, I have two grand pianos side-by-side so I can play next to my students. This helps to convey ideas without me saying anything because they can listen and hear what's coming from my piano. I also have recording capabilities on my two digital pianos so the students can listen to themselves at half speed and hear what's really going on in the note and rhythm accuracy as well as the dynamics and coordination between the hands. It helps me, too. I've had students say, "How did you hear that?" And I've answered, "That's what you're paying me to do."

Psalm 100 declares, "Make a joyful noise…. Serve the Lord with gladness" (1-2). I want to help my students make joyful sounds, and I want to maintain my joy as I teach. I've been teaching at the piano full time since 1983, and I had two studios before that. Consequently, I can see the changes in education. There are different challenges now.

What are some challenges, and how have you addressed them?
One issue goes along with listening. Kids' attention span these days is about 10 minutes because that's how long a TV program runs between commercials, which are louder than the regular program. Children are also not being trained to memorize things because all they have to do is go to the computer and find whatever they need in a matter of seconds. So that discipline in learning seems to be falling apart. One of my requirements for my students is to memorize ten pieces of music a year at their own level. This can be difficult, and the ability to stick to a project seems more challenging to my students than it did 30 years ago. This has forced me to grow so that I can help my students grow.

How do you best help your students grow?
I feel that Jesus was in the business of removing human limitations—immorality, lameness, blindness, lack of supply. So I'm trying to help my students remove limitations. There seem to be plenty of limitations—they don't have enough time to practice, they just don't get it, they can't listen, or they don't know how to listen. If the students are feeling limited, they just make noise. I really practice seeing and acknowledging what is good in the student, what is the perfection in the music, what did go well in the lesson. There's no condemnation for a problem that occurred. We read, "… let me not be ashamed…. Show me Your ways, O Lord; Teach me Your paths" (Ps 25:2, 4). We just move forward.

How do you work through the mistakes with your students or help them to a higher level?
When I hear things musically that are not moving or pleasing to the ear or are technically incorrect, I'm praying about how to help the student turn it around. I often think about Moses when God spoke to him through the burning bush. Moses was concerned about God's plan for him and didn't trust his ability to speak to everyone. God responded, "I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say" (Ex 4:12 NKJV).

I ask God to tell me what to say. I ask for the clarity to express thoughts respectfully, honestly, lovingly, and in a way that the students can easily understand. I love the fact that Jesus used parables to teach. So I do my best to use parables to help my students grasp the ideas of music. If I'm listening to what God wants me to do or say, everything works well and the students go away from the lesson happy, satisfied, and looking forward to the next week.

When you pray, what are you doing? What is prayer to you?
I'm asking God what I need to know right now for the situation: What do I need to do, how do I need to do it, when do I need to do it? My point on prayer is that there are three parts – 1) asking, 2) listening, and 3) obeying. What's the point of asking for help if you're not willing to listen for God's answer? And then, what's the point of getting an answer and then doing zip about it? So there are three parts for prayer to be effective. It's so important to ask: "ask, and ye shall receive" (John 16:24 KJV).

The answer doesn't have to be labored: "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt 11:30). That's what I'm looking for. The answer, our work, etc., is not meant to be a burden, but we make it a burden when we get all wrought up. I find that the more I simply ask, listen, and obey, the faster the answers come. Then expressing gratitude for that answer is really important. I also thank my students for listening and following through with the suggestions I make. I want to reward and praise them for their efforts.

Over the years, I've had a lot of students who go to church. I refer to Bible stories to help them, and I ask them to pray about certain situations. I don't tell them how to pray, but I suggest that they have a family get together and pray about an upcoming recital so they have confidence. I'm very big on performance confidence. During lessons, I've had kids drop their hands and pray, take a minute of silence, and listen for the answer to the problem they're facing at the moment, such as a difficult passage they can't get. The answer always came.

How do you approach your lessons?
I basically have a mental lesson plan for each student, an agenda for what I'd like to accomplish. But I've learned to be flexible and aware of what is needed at the time. I've gotten over the sense of rigidity, which came from my upbringing and from being a French teacher in a public high school for four years. There were certain things that I had to teach in a certain amount of time in the school setting. Sometimes the need in my studio is for counseling. If kids come in with tears, they're not going to be able to play. So I respond with love and take some time to work with them before we start the lesson.

I've been trying to gain a better understanding of unconditional love, since "God is love" (1 John 4:8). No matter what the student comes in with or doesn't come in with, we can still move forward with a sense of love. Students don't want to be thought of as idiots when they make a mistake. So I tell them that mistakes don't bother me. I'd rather have mistakes happen at a lesson rather than a recital. So we'll keep working. The only ones who don't make a mistake are those who don't do anything.

I love working with my students. With the way I teach technical concepts and literature, it takes students a good 3-4 years before it all kicks in. But I love doing the beginning work: if they don't have the understanding and the foundation of the technique, they can't apply it. If we don't learn math or history or language, we don't have the broad basis to move forward. It's like the foundation we have with the Commandments and Beatitudes. There are unfortunate consequences if we break them and great consequences if we follow them.