The Drawing Lesson


The Drawing Lesson

About three years ago I began teaching a five year old to play the piano. In the past I have taught piano, but the most awkward moment in the piano lesson was that few minutes after it was over when you had to be paid. For some reason I hate to be paid for teaching piano, but I will not offer any explanation.

Why should I explain something so obvious as why it is wrong to be paid to teach piano? No, I should have been the one to pay, pay for the opportunity to be allowed to instruct a five year old in music. But I didn’t pay for the privilege, at least not at first I didn’t.

But I did stipulate that the lessons had to be free, and the mother of the five year old agreed if only I would consent to take some vegetables from their garden home each week as a form of payment. This I said I would do. As the summer was just beginning, this form of payment was used for a while, but when fall came it became obvious that some new form of compensation was needed.

At the end of September I offered this arrangement. I suggested that my piano student do a drawing each week and pay for her piano lesson with the drawing. I had explained in the past that I was an artist and often sold my paintings and drawings. “Drawings are worth money aren’t they?” And to this idea she readily agreed.

Then, for many weeks when I arrived for her lesson she formally offered me her drawing, created during the week, sometimes with great care, and sometimes dashed off as I was coming up the walk. The price of the piano lessons was $25 dollars, and her drawings were considered to be worth that exact same amount, but that amount was quite arbitrary, arrived at only by convenience.

Then one day when I arrived my piano student informed me that her drawing was not a twenty-five dollar drawing, but this most recent work was two hundred, two hundred dollars, exactly. She asked me if I would be able to make change for the drawing. Subtracting twenty-five from the two hundred left a hundred and seventy-five.

She agreed to take the change in small drawings of various denominations. Everyone knows that the only reliable measure of value when it comes to art is the question of size. “A tiny drawing by Rembrandt could be worth thousands,” you might object, but a larger drawing by Rembrandt will invariable be worth much more. So she was correct to expect the change to be rendered in small drawings, which I began to produce during the week in preparation for her piano lesson.

Perhaps you might imagine that making these drawings might have become a bother and a nuisance, but you would be wrong, it was just the opposite. The drawing created for change became very important, and I especially was concerned that she would like my drawings. I wanted her to like my drawings instantly, and not after any kind of thoughtful consideration, and especially not after any skeptical questioning. A five year old has a precise and invariable reaction to something she likes, she will yell out “Mommy, Mommy, look at what Richard drew. ” You might think that a review in the New York Times is something to be proud of, and perhaps you might be right, but to my mind, “Mommy Mommy, ” is a more significant accomplishment.

Inevitably, after some time of the exchange of drawings, the activity of creating drawings and paintings became a part of the piano lesson. The piano lesson itself was progressing very slowly, perhaps because of the young age of my student. At the beginning her idea of piano playing consisted of pressing down as many notes on the keyboard as possible, even resorting to the use of a yardstick to hold as many notes down at once. She also loved to press notes down with her entire left hand, while pressing the buttons and turning knobs to alter the sound, as it was an electric piano.

I did make attempts to instill in her the concept of “one note at a time,” using one finger at a time, but there is not the slightest element of discipline in my approach to teaching, and I am the sort of teacher that would much prefer to hear a child playing the piano with a baseball bat, as opposed to that Bach gavotte you have heard a billion times at grade school recitals. I know John Cage would agree with me, even though I despise Mr. Cage and the presumptuous idiotic noise he called music. Is he dead now? I don’t know but I hope so.

I would occasionally make attempts to interrupt her tendency to play the piano only with her palms. For example sometimes she would use both hands at once, employing a variation consisting of having her hands land close together, and then far apart. At other times she created a variation by playing first the left and then the right hand alternately. A logical extension of these patterns of hers might have been to suggest the introduction of a rhythm, for example, one hit with the left hand and twice with the right, and that would lead perhaps to twice with the left hand and twice with the right, treating the keyboard as a sort of percussion instrument.

It was easy for me to picture in my mind her willing acceptance of these ideas, and I could even imagine an entire lesson where we might alternately invent various rhythms, I would suggest one pattern and she would invent another. That idea turned out to be simply the daydream of a person long unacquainted with the stubborn intransigence of a five year old.

If my piano student suspected, just by the slightest change in the tone of my voice, that I was going to suggest anything new, she would bow her head down to the keys, and then extend her arms to cover all the keys at once thereby symbolically conveying to me that she was going to have nothing to do with any suggestions I intended to offer her.

Banging on the piano with her fists and her palms continued for about a year. Some time after her 6th birthday we arrived at the skill of playing individual notes with specific fingers, and this was probably a turning point. I recall an absurd conversation with the mother in the form of a progress report, in which I commended my student on having graduated from handwork to finger work.

Don’t think that I was not sometimes discouraged by my lack of progress in the conventional sense. For years I have been familiar with videos that present well groomed little three year olds dressed in tuxedos, bowing and sitting down at gigantic black Steinway pianos in a hall someplace, and with a serious bow of the head, launch into a Bach Fugue, and play it faultlessly, even the trills.

You can dismiss what I am about to say as an expression of the frustration of a failed piano teacher, a person who has perhaps even failed in many other aspects of life, a person perhaps congenitally unable to appreciate the accomplishments of others. But I can’t stand the sight of virtuoso children, and have to turn away after just a minute.

I don’t like virtuoso piano, or virtuoso violin or virtuoso anything, because it looks to me like the result of discipline, discipline with a capital D. I could be wrong, but I think childhood virtuosity is attained by punishments, constant relentless punishments.  There are punishments that only the parent can inflict, not physical punishments, but simply the act of the withdrawal of approval repeated over  and over again, until the child, crushed in their innermost being, becomes an accomplished performer.

“But what of Yo Yo Ma,” you say? Is he some sort of crushed victim of childhood repression, or simply one of the most fortunate individuals who ever lived? You are correct to bring Yo Yo up, and so I will admit to you that, because of Yo Yo Ma, I am wrong, but still, I suspect that Yo Yo stands on the top of a mountain of emotionally damaged children.

I for one experienced just the thing I am trying hopelessly to explain. At five years old I could not tie my shoes. My father, sitting on the stairs a few steps below me was attempting to explain. He was saying, “Make a loop, tie it around and push it through.” I did not know what his words meant, but after his third attempt he gave up with a look of frustration. All these years later I recall that look, and what it signified. It signified that I was, “a slow child”. 

My Mother made a serious attempt to encourage me by frequently saying to me, “Now Dicky, you’re not stupid.”  She said this repeatedly through out my childhood, and it wasn’t until I was past middle age that I realized how correct she was. 

But then, after a year of almost no progress at the piano the question arises, “How did I view my student, and her prospects.” I will offer this description of her. She was an unusually intelligent child who manifested an iron, rigid determination never to learn anything form anybody, except herself, and my attachment to teaching her can therefore easily be understood since that was also an exact description of myself.

The business of playing the piano with her fists had an equivalent expression in the visual arts. Shortly after her piano lessons started I began to introduce a session of drawing to the lesson. On the dinning room table was a drawing pad and some magic markers. I picked up the pad and drew a red circle in the middle of the page. Having completed my circle I handed the pad to her and asked her to ad something. She took the marker and scribbled all over her side of the page. She stopped for a moment and looked up at me questioningly to see how I would react. When she detected no reaction she proceeded to extend her scribbling to cover my red circle which at first she has spared.

I said, “Now it is my turn again,” and I took a different marker and drew another shape on the paper, ignoring her scribbles. I handed the pad to her again indicating that it was her turn to draw, and she did something that took me completely by surprise. She took all of the markers at once, grasped them in her fist and then scribbled all over the paper again with all the markers at once. She did this in a kind of bemused defiance, just to see how I would react to what she imagined was a kind of deliberated disobedience.

Regardless of the scribbling, interactions involving drawing now became a regular part of our weekly lesson, and her contribution was to scribble all over whatever idea I was trying to explain to her. She was going on six years old at this time and I had observed that she had long ago developed all the various drawing skills one expects at that age. There were examples all over the house of her drawings with the characteristic ground line, figures with clothes and faces, trees and houses, and always above all the yellow sun with its rays in the upper left had corner.

And yet I patiently allowed her to scribble over everything we would set out to draw, but then one day I pulled a devious trick on her, one that she could never have imagined or anticipated. I introduced her to the works of Cy Twombly, the greatest scribbler of all time.


I suppose you could divide the population into two groups; those who know who Cy Twombly is, and those who do not. Those who have never heard of him would be by far the larger group. You might find that those who know his work hold him in high regard, as one of the important but lesser known modern abstract artists. He has attained that stature in the art world that you can be certain, if you go to the library you will be able to find a large coffee table book devoted to his life’s work. 

And so, I went to the library, and I got out a huge volume of his collected works, and I brought it to the piano lesson, and I showed it to my six year old student, to show her that one could become world famous for one’s scribbling. 

I have to stop right here and state that I will not be dragged into any sort of art discussion examining the question of whether Cy’s paintings are more than scribbling. Obviously there is composition, I am aware that there is sensitivity to color, I can’t deny that his obscure archaic titles point to deep meanings, but I am talking about the understanding and perceptions of a six year old, who is not going to be impressed with the idiotic things docents say in museums. A six year old knows scribbles when she sees them, and so do I, and that is all there is to it.

Perhaps you imagine that in this instance my plan was to try to impress my student with the fame of the scribbles in the book, but my objective was the opposite, it was my intention to criticize Twombly, and my criticism was sincere. Here is what I said, “This artist is a very famous artist, and he is famous for his scribbling. When he scribbles he is trying his hardest to be a child, and he wants his marks to look just like a child might do, but you are a true child, and your scribbles are the real scribbles, a thing that Mr. Twombly can only hope to imitate. So you see, your scribbles are better than the ones in this book, and you are the better artist, because your things are more true.”

I was uncertain whether my student would understand my argument about Twombly, but I discovered instantly that she comprehended the critique entirely. She shouted out, “Mommy Mommy, Mommy Mommy.” Then she grasped the book in both hands, ran into the living room and declared to her Mother, “My scribbles are better than these scribbles.”

It was a double, “Mommy Mommy.”

I was pleased with the success of my critique of Twombly, and its effect on my piano student, but there was something about it that bothered me. I thought that her extreme reaction had more to do with the compliment, than the art history lesson, because, although I had been teaching her for a year and a half, I had hardly ever complimented her on anything. This might sound strange, but it is true. There was one exception. When I told my daughter about my failure to make any progress at the piano she asked me this question, “Are you giving her any stars?” 

I did not even know what Julia was talking about. What did stars have to do with teaching a child to play the piano? 

“Everything,” I was told, stars are the best and most often used stimulus for children to learn. “Isn’t it a kind of manipulation,” I asked? “Isn’t a Twombly lecture a kind of manipulation?”

If a child draws a picture they will be told by any adult that the drawing is beautiful. This is an automatic response. Once in a while an adult will append a question to the complement, in order to feign interest in the child’s work of art. I do not know why it is, but children become utterly and completely absorbed in their drawing, and it has always seemed to me that telling them that their things are “beautiful,” in an automatic way is an inadequate response. But I am an artist and so I am aware that the life of the artist consists of a lifetime of meaningless praise. 

So I did not complement my piano students drawings and paintings but that is not to say I did not appreciate her things. She was now seven, and the exercise of my drawing something on paper and her scribbling all over the page had slowly evolved into something both strange and beautiful. We would place two pieces of paper side by side and she would begin a drawing, and then pause, and I would, to the best of my ability, duplicate her drawing on my piece of paper. Then she would continue her drawing, and I would copy it line for line, all the while describing with words what I was doing. So I might say, “This half circle of the sun starts here, about an inch down, and ends here about an inch over, and twists and gets lighter as it ends.”

She would respond, “That very good Richard, you are doing a good job.” When our two identical drawings were done they were pasted up side by side around the wall over the piano. It was not possible to detect who had drawn which drawing.

Since she was now seven, her piano skills began to improve, she composed a song, and wrote it out on paper, and improvised a version of it. You can see this manuscript here. It was called, “I love my Mom.”So finally, after two years me student was learning to play the piano, and she was entirely absorbed in her drawing and painting each week, to pay for her lessons, and I was absorbed in producing little drawing and paintings for her to give her as change for her two hundred dollar paintings and drawings.

And then she and her Mother moved away, so ended the drawing lessons.

I love my mom e. mahoney

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close