The Piano Teacher Does More Than Teach Piano

A piano teacher recently came onto an MS forum and asked a few questions about what she could do to help a new adult piano student who lives with multiple sclerosis. It was great to see the teacher seeking out information about the disease.

The MS community offered suggestions

Suggestions from the community ranged from hand exercises to ways to overcome cognitive difficulties. When the piano teacher asked “what kind of hand exercises?”, it became clear that a lot more information needed to be exchanged in order to produce useful suggestions to the teacher.

Sharing my experience as a pianist and teacher

At first, I offered up that I was a pianist and piano teacher who also lived with MS. I mentioned that I had lost much the use of my left hand for a period of time and that intense physical and occupational therapy over several months helped me to regain strength and coordination. The piano teacher didn’t ask me any follow-up questions.

More on this topic

I saw that the piano teacher mentioned to someone else in the discussion that sometimes the 4th finger on the adult student’s left hand didn’t press the keys. However, she didn’t specify anything else about the circumstances of how the finger didn’t seem to do what it was supposed to do.

Many symptoms could cause problems with the finger

Could it be weakness of the finger itself? Fatigue of the muscles of the arm or hand that made the finger seem weak? Lack of coordination that caused the key to be pressed at the wrong time? Lack of dexterity that prevented the finger from reaching the desired key? Or some other suspected cause of the perceived inaccuracy?

The teacher's questions

The piano teacher did question how much to “push” the student, how much to correct the student, or whether to simply suggest an alternate fingering. The desire for this teacher to support her new student was apparent.

Several community members suggested that the piano teacher ASK the student how MS affected her. Ask her the motivation for starting lessons — Did she want to maintain or regain hand dexterity? Did she simply want to play music? Did she have a goal in mind?

I wanted to help this student

Reading this dialogue became frustrating for me (which surprised me). I wanted so badly to be able to go straight to the person with MS who had started lessons and have a talk with her and to work with her to help her reach her goals. I wanted to learn more about her. Basically, I felt like I wanted to become her teacher.

I wanted to share my learnings and experiences

More importantly, I wanted to share my own experiences with her; to draw upon the superb instruction I’ve received over the years regarding the physical nature of being a pianist. I wanted to share the multitude of exercises and maneuvers my hand specialist/physical therapy used with me when I couldn’t use the 4th and 5th fingers of my own left hand around the time of my own MS diagnosis.

Sharing finger exercises and tips instead

What I did do was to share resources with this piano teacher. I recommended that she check out some of the more basic finger exercises that the famous Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), a pianist, professor, and composer from Poland, had developed as fundamental to piano playing.

Side note: My own childhood piano teacher was a direct student descendant of Leschetizky by way of Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Many of Leschetizky’s techniques were a huge part of my own piano upbringing and I believe strongly that they have helped me to keep my hands strong and agile despite MS. The techniques definitely made my piano playing more agile and ferocious at the time.

Finding ways to adapt

I suggested to this piano teacher that a large part of living with MS is finding ways to adapt and customize activities to be able to achieve what you want to achieve and to continue doing what you love to do. There are no hard rules about what “should” be done and “how” something gets done. Creativity is key!!

Dedication to the things that are most important to you

In college, I took lessons with a horn performer who demonstrated to me that if something is important enough to you, you can find ways to stay involved. His story is that he lost his left index finger during the Korean War; the finger that is used most frequently when playing the french horn. Rather than giving up the horn, he learned how to play with the next three fingers on his left hand. This was a huge task, and hard for me to wrap my head around, but playing the horn was important enough to him to make it happen.

Making my brain and my hand communicate

As I’ve been sitting here in my comfortable reclining chair with my laptop, I’ve been going back and forth between typing and doing some of those same finger exercises which my childhood piano teacher taught me 40 years ago. As a result, my left hand and arm are tired and fatigued. But, I feel satisfied in knowing that I made my brain and my hand communicate a little more intimately today.

So this piano teacher who came on an MS forum to ask for advice unknowingly helped me to reconnect with a part of my past that I had not thought of in quite some time. In my attempts to help her help her student, I am reminded how important is each person whom we encounter in life. Never underestimate your own importance and impact.

How we influence others

Our influence spreads in ripples that we may never see. There is no way that Leschetizky could have known that his technical methods for gaining skills and mastery of the piano would continue to help a person living with MS more than 150 years later.

I hope that you know there are things you may do or say that have an effect well beyond the immediate moment. Don’t be afraid to share what you know, share your experiences, or help others in navigating their own experiences. That’s what community is all about.

I know that this new piano student is in good hands with a teacher who reached out to the community to learn about MS from those who know is best.

Thank you for reading!

Best wishes, Lisa

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