Decoding the piano.
Music tinkles throughout our house, from the piano that had long sat idle, until recently. Ainan has taken to playing music, on its black and white keys. This, however, is a bit of a surprise.
Five years ago, when Ainan was six years old, we tried to introduce him to the piano. We secured for him a piano teacher, of Chinese descent. For several months, Ainan duly took piano lessons. However, he chafed under the regimen. He didn’t like the order of it, what he perceived as rigidity and repetition. He became uncooperative towards the lessons. In due course, we stopped inviting his teacher because it had become clear that the relationship was not working. Ainan was unwilling to learn in the style that was being imposed. He rebelled against it, in his own, quiet way...of simply not doing what was asked.
We found this a surprise at the time, since Ainan liked to compose his own tunes on the piano, even at that early stage. Perhaps that should have been a clue to us as to his real interest: he wasn’t, then, interested in the mechanics of piano playing, but in the art of composition. Had his lessons focussed on the latter and attempted to evoke that behaviour, perhaps we would have had better results and more cooperation from him. Unfortunately, we didn’t come to that understanding then.
So, it was a great surprise to me, to find Ainan playing the piano, on his own, in the front room, a few weeks ago. The tune was complex, evocative and somewhat elusive. It really surprised me that he was able to play such a tune, after five years of not touching the piano.
“What is it?”, I asked.
“It is the music to Portal 2.”, he said, matter of factly.
I understood then, what that meant. Ainan had reconstructed the music to the videogame, by “reverse engineering” it, on the piano – using his ear, to judge which notes were to be played, in which order. I said nothing, but this fact quietly impressed me – for it said one thing, clearly: he had to have a clear memory of the music in his mind, whilst he did so, for the PS3 player was in another room, quite far away, and could not be heard from the piano. Ainan was expressing his memory of a piece of music, through the piano, by playing it, in real time...without any lessons more recent than five years ago.
A few days later, I heard more family music playing. It was Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. Ainan played both hands (as he had with Portal), different notes on each, rendering Moonlight Sonata accurately.
Again, I was struck by what he was doing. He was taking an internal memory of a piece of music, to the piano and reconstructing it on the keyboard – then playing it, in real time, with both hands as they should be – without any music to guide him, for none could be played near him. Furthermore, Ainan has never learnt to read music, so he was not playing Moonlight Sonata from the page...and, indeed, there was no music to play it from.
All of this struck me as very revealing of who Ainan is. He would much rather work out the piano for himself, than be taught how to do it. When we tried to have him taught, he rebelled – but when we left the piano alone, quietly, in a room...he eventually found it, sat at it and began to play.
Ainan enjoys the act of autodidacticism. He would rather teach himself, than be taught. He would rather decode the piano and how it works and is played, on his own, than be taught how to do it. This act, embodies his profoundest nature, very well. In seeing him play the piano, without prompting, or lessons, we are seeing Ainan at his truest, deepest, self.
This recent development reminds me of how Ainan taught himself computer programming when he was six years old. He also reverse engineered it. He sat down at a computer keyboard and typed in statements that he thought might represent VBS (Visual Basic), commands. He watched what the computer did as a result and learnt, thereby, what each phrase did, and how the computer responded. He kept on typing and trying phrases and syntax, until he had, overtime, reconstructed the programming language, for himself and deciphered how it worked. He did this without any programming lessons – he just worked out how VBS worked, on his own. Thus, it is with the piano, recently: he has simply decoded it for himself.
Seeing how he learns, and how he teaches himself, I do wonder at the necessity and value of traditional education. Ainan’s achievements show that a child can teach himself essentially anything, on his own, by trial and error and experience of the thing itself. Ainan also shows himself to be rather better than a typical child, his age, at learning. Could it be, that traditional education is not helping people as much as it should? How is it that Ainan’s self-directed tinkering, can be superior in outcome – as it typically is, with him - to all that careful inculcation and “well-crafted” traditional lessons?
The lesson here is that some children, at least, are able to learn without the aid of traditional schooling. Indeed, as Ainan shows, in some cases, such children PREFER to learn without the aid of traditional schooling and find traditional schooling to be an encumbrance against which they rebel.
I am happy that Ainan has rediscovered the piano. I am happier still to note the way that he has done so. I am left, now, however, with a conundrum: having seen him play the piano on his own, should I encourage him to get lessons...or should I continue to leave him to his own devices? Would he now be responsive to tuition, or is it his own interest that propels him and propels him alone?
For now, I will let him tinker on, in his own way. In the meantime, I will ponder the question of whether to intervene, or not.
Posted by Valentine Cawley
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