Dr. Susan Wang-Selfridge
Ph.D. in Music, UCLA, 03'
A long time ago, my loving parents discovered that I was attracted to anything that made a musical sound, so they gave me the opportunity to study with my first piano teacher when I was 4 and half years old. Throughout my developing years, I have studied with several other piano and music instructors. There were two specific music teachers who made lasting impressions in my heart. One teacher, my first one, was very strict especially regarding correcting my figure posture. On the top of her piano, she often prepared a couple of pencils, while they functioned as notation devices; they also functioned as mini-sized rods. When she found my finger posture did not meet her standard, she would whip the knuckles of my fingers forcefully with those pencils to “remind” me to curve my fingers back up. As a result, I quickly improved my finger posture, but I was also on the verge of quitting playing piano, just as I was getting started. To encourage me to continue learning to play the piano, my father found me another teacher. This teacher eventually became my mentor and a dear friend of mine who re-ignited my passion towards music and inspired me to be a great teacher!
In Chinese philosophy, there are five elements in the world that can greatly influence humanity: The heaven, earth, rulers, parents and teachers. To quote an unknown author “Teachers who inspire know that teaching is like cultivating a garden, and those who wish to have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers”, and a quote from Henry Brooks Adams “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops” these quotes sum up how teachers can affect our society tremendously. The greatest gift that my mentor gave to me in addition to the teaching of musical artistry and techniques was her personal demonstration of being a loving, respectful and encouraging person that inspired me to be a great educator like her.
Having mentored many students myself over the last two decades, I have enjoyed a fruitful and fulfilling music teaching career. It has not always smooth sailing under my tutelage, but through many trials and errors, I have learned that the three main ingredients of successful mentorship are love, respect and balance. A while ago, I encountered a boy in one of my group keyboard classes who was always being disruptive in the class while other students were striving to learn. At first, I tried to reason him, bribe him with awards, give him time outs and even threatened to call his parents to take him home, but none of the methods lead to lasting improvements in his behavior. After a few unfulfilling sessions, I asked myself: did I not give enough to help this boy, did I not do enough to make him become successful? One day, I noticed that the boy was still half-heartedly playing with his classmates, but apparently he had done some homework practice. So, I invited him to play for the class. Even though he missed a few notes here and there, I praised him and encouraged him wholeheartedly in front of his classmates for his performance. At that moment, I saw a shy smile surfacing from his face, and miraculously, he was no longer disruptive during the rest of the class. By witnessing such a dramatic change, I realized that it must be the true sincerity and love coming from me that had touched the boy. That was the positive energy coming from the depth of my heart that sent out the frequency of justness and taught me to truly respect one’s differences even someone like this particular once unruly student. Deep down in everyone’s heart, there is a true self that is pure and conscientious and is awaited to be awoken.
Recently, I received a few new students coming from adopted families. For the parents of those adopted children, some have their own children and some don’t; but one common thread between these parents is: they all very much love their adopted children as their own! Those parents strive to love and to provide as much as they can to give their adopted children a loving place to grow. From soccer practices, piano lessons, art lessons, oversea vacations, ski trips, etc., you name it, these angels get it all. One adopted girl is the only child in her family and is treated just like a little princess not only by her parents. In the first month of studying piano with me, the girl’s mom often carried the music bag for her to and fro my studio. During the lessons, she sometimes stopped playing and ran to the parent’s longue area for a hug or two from her mother. Observing from her conversations with her parents, I found that she is sometimes a bit irreverent towards them. As a great master once said, “Peace needs love, and love needs to be balanced!” To love someone is not simply to shower them with materials goods and affection, but to provide guidance and respect. After getting to know this student a bit better, I gently reminded her about being more responsible and respectful to others, and how much her parents love her. I purposefully situated this discussion where her parents could also hear it, and they mouthed a silent “thank you” before they left my studio.
Every living thing in the universe wants to be loved and to live with dignity and respect; since everything is different, we must constantly strive to find the right approach to nurture the things around us and encourage them to improve themselves. Within everything, there is a natural balance that must be struck; like the young boy who could not be bribed or coerced, given the respect and the attention that he was missing, his behavior improved. The girl being smothered in affection will not learn self-discipline and instead become spoiled. This is to emphasize the importance of finding the right balance; but to never forget the need for love and respect.