Why Johnny Can’t Play Piano is a satire on a famous book in the 1950’s, WHY JOHNNY CAN’T READ, which launched a public furor that was largely responsible for the introduction of phonics into the public schools.
Prior to phonics, American children were taught by a ridiculous system developed by the book companies.
This system contained the immortal and lovable characters Dick and Jane, but did very little to help American kids learn to read.
But there were many other reasons why Johnny couldn’t read in the 1950s, just as there are reasons that Johnny can’t play the piano today.
We should make clear that we don’t mean children in general have difficulty with the piano.
Properly introduced, the piano has a well-earned reputation as an infectious toy that commands interest from kids.
But most kids don’t get the brilliant, creative piano teacher they need. They get Mr. Noodleman, let’s call him, (with sincere apologies to any actual piano teachers named Noodleman.)
Mr. Noodleman thinks that playing the piano involves only reading music. He doesn’t believe in playing by ear, by eye, by brain, by anything other than the “old school.” And, frankly, he’s right.
Yes, the musical conservatives are right in this sense: unless you learn to read music, you are helpless and illiterate in the giant world of music. You cannot speak the lingua franca, and will have to have everything explained to you in words of one syllable, if you can find someone who will do so.
But what these musical “conservatives” don’t acknowledge (though they must see it coming) is that the student of such methods will quit the piano long before they have any chance to reap any working, usable benefits.
Is a piano method usable if there are no students who will endure it?
It’s like a kamikaze army, who defeat themselves with every battle. That’s what childhood piano lessons are like with average piano teachers.
But, back to Mr. Noodleman, who has chosen the Kamikaze method of piano teaching because he was taught that way. If you don’t learn, tough luck, you die (quit) and another kamikaze takes your place.
Now YOUR child gets to attend these expensive ritual meetings, ostensibly intended to get the child interested in expending years of hourly effort to learn this arcane sport.
Instead what they get is Mr. Noodleman, who really wants to make his mortgage payment more than finding that subtle key that will unlock your child’s fragile mind and get them interested in the piano enough to do a little self-directed work.
No, Mr. Noodleman has a curve on which he grades, and if you don’t measure up, there is really no direction for you but OUT of the lesson room.
It’s not that he wants to lose a client and the income therein. It’s that his method only allows for a certain reaction from the student, and when Noodleman doesn’t get that reaction soon enough, he will turn cold and ugly enough that your child will soon figure out that the piano is not for them.
Who loses? Your child.
Noodleman can still find any number of six year-old kamikazes willing to pay his mortgage, so he doesn’t need the complexity of Johnny’s sensitive case folder. In other words, he doesn’t care. What Noodleman doesn’t understand as a teacher is that every child’s case folder is sensitive and difficult. There is no “norm” at the piano unless you are trying to get to Carnegie Hall, and if you’re trying to do that, you’re crazy.
But your child is not without guilt in this j’accuse, since we have been so brutal with poor Mr. Noodleman.
Here’s Johnny’s problem, which can easily be solved with a patient, creative piano teacher:
Johnny is too young to understand effort. Waited on hand and foot by Mom, he knows how to do almost nothing for himself.
Johnny’s only mechanical skill is with computer games, an activity that sharpens motor skills even as it eats away and destroys any creative impulse: Nintendo does it all for you. So there’s no need to be creative.
In the same sense, the television is doing the same thing for Johnny: don’t think, just watch the stories and the fun commercials and everything will be all right. But it isn’t all right, in the sense that computers and television ask the child to do nothing creative that hasn’t already been mapped out for them.
There’s no feeling a child has during a television program that hasn’t been carefully crafted by a producer, a director and a team of professionals against whom the child’s mind has no defense.
I’d rather have my child spend a half hour with the thoughts of Beethoven than any one of the predatory “educators” churning out the garbage at Disney and the “culture mills.”
The piano is never passive, and is much like driving a car: you have to be aware every second or risk injury.
The piano requires the opposite skills that computers and modern empty digital activities require. You have to do everything, every time.
Yet most piano teachers serve as destroyers of interest rather than nurturers.
Someone should help Johnny play his piano, since Johnny’s piano teacher is too busy paying his mortgage.
Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press