474 | Freely I’ve Received; Freely Give

November 19, 2017
Sunday, 5:00 p.m.
Letter #474: Freely I’ve Received; Freely Give


Dear Family,

I met a young man named Dan in my Bakersfield College classes, a smallish fellow with a big bushy brown beard, more yard gnome than lumberjack. The nicest guy, Dan is the quiet, studious type with a ready smile, a face full of blue eyes, teeth, and beard. I wasn’t surprised when he enrolled in the college classes, but when he began showing up at the keyboard practice times, it surprised me.

I used to teach a weekly piano class here, but its chaotic nature (30 guys with only six keyboards isn’t great mathematics and is even worse for a hands-on class experience) discouraged many potential students almost as much as my helper discouraged them.

My “helper” was a guy who knows a lot of music theory, but is a beginning pianist. The collegiate-level theory courses on constant repeat week after week drove many students away, and I finally ended the class format while retaining practice sessions three afternoons a week in the chow hall.

Typically, I will set up the keyboards, have everyone sign in, pass out copies of the curriculum, and stay nearby to answer questions the students may have. Meanwhile, because everyone uses headphones, the chow hall stays quiet enough that I can get studying for my classes done or even writing projects.

We begin at 1:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and we end just before 4:00 p.m. This gives enough time for twelve students to each get at least an hour at one of the keyboards, making for a halfway-decent practice schedule.

When Dan began attending these chow hall practice sessions, I noticed immediately that he takes learning very seriously. He asked detailed questions and then would go back to his dorm and create practice materials to fill time between actual practice sessions, such as flashcards and a paper keyboard. I admired his determination, so I made sure to give him a bit of personal, one-on-one teaching time. He was so grateful for the instruction, as it filled a long-held dream of his to learn how to play the piano.

I faced a bit of an internal crisis at that point. Dan had the desire, the mind, and the time to learn, and we have great curriculum that could certainly show him the basics of music theory and piano technic. However, I knew that he could really use more focused instruction, with information on practice techniques, understanding, and sight-reading complex chords, and conquering tricky timing (such as triplets over eighths). I also knew that it wouldn’t take much of my time to teach him, and I also knew that I was his only option here. However, this teaching time would take away from my much-needed study time, time I’d have to make up elsewhere. I knew I really should help him out.

I told Dan that I would be willing to teach him if he was willing to put in the time to practice. I enjoy teaching piano, but that joy doesn’t come just from the transfer of information. It comes when I see a student grasping ahold of the information and applying it. I like results, and after teaching hundreds of students, I’ve come to expect them. He agreed to do his part, but he let me know he’d be going home in one month. Well, we’d work fast, I told him, and boy did we ever.

I’d worked with Dan for about a month when he finished the first level book of the adult piano course I have, a very aggressive feat to accomplish. In the past three years while teaching piano, I’ve completely changed up my teaching strategies, focusing more on the psychology of retaining information, the gamification of practicing, and the ways to build success rather than subliminal failure messages into one’s brain while practicing. These new methods are really my adjustments to teaching adults exclusively, and I’m grateful that they seem to work well in this environment.

Dan was excited to surprise his family with his new-found piano skills, and he assured me he’ll keep up his studies, thanks to the fact he’ll be at his parents’ house with a full-size keyboard. I told him he’d better do that, since I gave him approximately $2,000 worth of individual lessons for free.

Dan and I became good friends in this process, and I felt immensely blessed by his deep gratefulness. We’d exceeded all of his original goals for learning to play the piano, which is always fun.

I knew I wanted to send him off in a special way, so I invited him to come to the Saturday morning Christian church service, held in the chow hall. I told him it was an excuse for him to come hear me play and lead worship, and that I’d also like to “pray him out,” a sort of laying-on of hands we do in prison as guys are either transferred to other facilities or they are on their way home.

I was glad to see Dan in church yesterday. Raised in a Christian home, Dan has strayed from his godly foundation. I called him up, and put my arm around him, and we all prayed for his success and a renewed walk with God. He genuinely thanked me and hugged me as he left.

Of course, I wonder if anything I said to him will “stick.” Will any of it have a lasting impact? Who knows? Will he retain what I taught him? I’m not certain … but that isn’t my job! With God, I can plant the seed of the Word, and then expect results, for He is faithful.

I know this: I’ll miss that beard.