Total Chaos: Fall Semester College Piano Class

Encouraged by success in the Music Theory class I took last spring, I eagerly awaited the Fall semester to start at my local college so I could take another class. Unfortunately, the next level of Music Theory is only offered during the daytime hours when Shamrockmom has to work that pesky job of hers. The job is a huge source of stress in my life, and really interferes with the things I like to do–play the piano, write, take college courses and watch K-dramas. Sigh. I have been taking piano lessons at the local music store since June of 2014, and it’s been fun…but things are changing. The teacher/owner of the store is going through a nasty divorce, and he cancels class again and again. I get it–I’ve been through that mess myself. The problem is that it’s hard to learn when you have class one week, then 2 weeks off, then another class, then 2 more weeks off. I’m kinda over it. I think this guy needs some time to sort out his life. I also have a gut feeling I am not learning what I should be either. Time for some changes. 

I thought perhaps a college piano course would be fun. I’m kind of intimidated to take private lessons, and a group lesson in a classroom sounds like a great idea. I wasn’t sure what level I should sign up for. I didn’t think I was a beginner–after 15 months, I know a few things. But the Intermediate class looked startlingly difficult–and it was taught by the same tough teacher I had for music theory. I decided to hedge my bets, and sign up for both. I knew I would figure it out by the end of the first week. The other obvious benefit: where else can a older student like me get 16 small group piano lessons from a concert level pianist for less than $150, including the book and the parking permit? Yeah, that sounds good to me too!

Nothing is easy though. The beginner class is at a college that is relatively far from my home–45 minutes one way in heavy rush hour traffic to get there, if there are no accidents! The intermediate class is right after a 10 hour day of work at the dental office. That’s exhausting.

First up is Sonsaengnim’s Intermediate Piano class. There’s only about 16 of us, and there are plenty of working Yamaha digital pianos with headphones for everyone to use. Practice rooms are available M-F from 8am until 6pm. The atmosphere is calm and serious, but not oppressive. No one has a cellphone out during class–and all the phones are quiet. Everything is just as I expected–a clearly laid out syllabus so I know what each week will bring, a piano concert report/write up that’s due before the end of the semester, 4 performances/tests just for the teacher, and an end-of-semester final where each student has to play for the whole class. Whoo-boy! That is something I’ve never done. I take a look at the pieces I’m going to be expected to not just limp through, but play proficiently; something my current teacher doesn’t even require. Wow, these are tough. Definitely above my level. And scales–I’m supposed to know all these scales. I know a few–but not all the fingering and I’m going to have to play them in contrary hand motion….uh, oh! I’m definitely in over my head. Students in Sonsaengnim’s class are expected to practice a minimum of 6 hours per week. (I try to get in a 45 minute session every day, but that is not gonna cut it for this class.) Still, on the first night, I manage to learn a fair amount of the first piece, and I start learning one of the scales….Hmmm. Maybe I can do this. And best of all–at this college, there’s free help! Yes, my local college will give students 1 free hour of tutoring per week per class–for almost every class that’s offered. Did I mention it was free? If the Tutoring center has someone who can give me an hour of private instruction every week, I might just make it. Signups start Monday the 31st. I’m excited. I can do this….but I’m scared to death. I tell myself I can always drop the class if things get out of control, but I also know that I am stubborn. Dropping this class will be dead last on my options list.

The next evening, I go out to the beginner class at the college that is far away. It’s a huge drag to sit in traffic in the heat to get there. It’s in a lovely setting in a canyon–but since it’s 95 degrees at 7pm, and I have a super sore jaw from the impromptu dental implant surgery earlier in the day, I am not terribly inclined to see the beauty in it. Thankfully, the Advil I took on the way starts to work just as the class begins. The classroom is a portable bungalow/temporary building. That seems strange–no soundproofing? Weird. When we all get into the wonderfully air conditioned classroom, I find out something even stranger. The class has 24 spots–but only 18 digital pianos for the students to use. How in the heck can you teach a class where every student doesn’t have a piano? That’s crazy! Not only that, some of the pianos don’t even have working headphones. So the poor teacher is trying to talk and teach, while one section of the class (the advanced beginners) play away and everyone else (the beginners) are trying to listen to the lecture! Meanwhile, the students are having conversations with each other, texting and snapping pictures for their Facebook or Snapchat accounts….It’s total chaos.

The teacher also recommends that if we have a portable keyboard, we should bring it to class each week! WTH!? I guess things have changed at college….next up will be bring your own desk or folding chair to sit in! I feel bad for the people of this community. They deserve a better local college. It’s not exactly a low rent district either. The taxes cannot be minuscule. I’d guess it’s probably equal to or even above the ‘hood I live in. If the name of your city in SoCal has the words “Beach”, “Hills”, or “Canyon” in it, it’s probably a good area. Notable exception-Long Beach. I can brag–my local college is not nearly this rinky-dink.

There’s more chaos here too. This teacher is quite unlike the strict Sonsaengnim I am used to. I expect to have to work my backside off to pass a class–but this teacher cheerily announces that “everybody got an ‘A’ last semester”, due to the fact that they showed up to class and turned in a concert report. (It didn’t even have to be piano related–just a classical music concert.) Practice? Pffffft….she recommends 20 minutes “most days”. Call me crazy, but I am not here for a free and easy “A” grade. I want to learn something, and be challenged. No challenge=no fun. I’m out. I need less chaos in my life, not more.

The next Tuesday, I take advantage of a patient cancelling right before lunch, and drive down to my local college to quickly sign up for tutoring….it’s first come, first serve. Since my time is limited, I hustle over to the Tutoring Center, as I think about No Ra from “Twenty Again” running across her college campus….only to find out that Sonsaengnim’s class has been cancelled–for low enrollment! I am heartbroken. I nearly cry as I read the email that my refund is being processed, blah, blah….OMG. I have cleared my schedule for four months to take this class and carve out the time I know I will need to practice. I don’t want to go to the faraway school with it’s BYO keyboard, yakky classmates, and “Everybody gets an A” teacher. I was so distraught that when I drove back to work I missed the offramp on the freeway, and had to double back. I should really not drive when I am upset. I could barely eat my lunch–the pity party I was having for myself was pretty intense.

After I calmed down and thought about it, I e-mailed Sonsaengnim and expressed my condolences for having the class cancelled–and I asked for a referral to a private teacher who  would be interested in teaching a older student who wanted to play for fun and a little bit more….so now I have the name of a new piano teacher and former student of Songsaengnim’s who lives close by the college. I also found out that the class was just 2 persons short on the enrollment, so it was cancelled–and way before the normal 2 week cutoff as well. Sonsaengnim had a couple of students who contacted her on Monday and wanted to enroll….but the decision had already been made to cancel the class. That burns me up. Follow the rules…or don’t have them. Don’t just randomly observe the rules. The good news is that the class is on the books for the spring semester, so I have 5 full months to improve my skills before I re-enroll.

I’m feeling better now about the whole situation. I’ll update when/if things get interesting again. My daughter advised me to write a letter to the local college’s dean to protest the class being cut so quickly; it won’t affect anything for this semester, but it will put them on notice that someone is watching–and perhaps they won’t be so quick to cut the class next time around.

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