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Facing the Page, Interviews

Learning Piano and Learning to Read: Reflections from a CRW Tutor


At the Center for Reading and Writing at Seward Park Library, volunteer tutors work with small groups of students improving basic English reading and writing skills. Tutors are encouraged to reflect on their own learning, and to think how they have felt while learning something new. Here is tutor Alexandra (Alex) Steedman’s reflection.

At the piano., Digital ID 832794, New York Public Library"You’re never too old to learn" the old adage says. Taking this to heart, I decided to finally pursue a long standing dream of learning to play the piano. At the ripe old age of 42, I was ready to take on this new challenge. I rented a worn but trusty old upright, found a local teacher, and began the adventure.

It just so happens that my first few weeks of lessons coincided with another challenge — my first few weeks of tutoring at The New York Public Library. Almost instantly, I saw the parallels between what I was experiencing as a new student, and what my students must be experiencing.

There was the excitement and eagerness of taking those first steps. The bewilderment of looking at a page full of notes and wondering, "Will I ever be able to read that?" The realization that there were a few things I already knew (I played trumpet for a few years in high school) that might help me along the way. There was the need to keep my impatience in check — I wanted to be good right now, right away. But it was going to take time. It was going to require lots of practice, repetition, and perseverance.

One evening I arrived early for my lesson, and had the pleasure of hearing another adult student play. She played beautifully, almost flawlessly. I found myself thinking, "I will never be able to play like that. So what’s the point?" When she finished I said, “Please tell me you’ve been playing for 20 years!” She laughed and said, “Almost 30, actually.” After she left, my teacher said something that I still take to heart. “Don’t keep comparing yourself to others — you are doing yourself a disservice that way. Remember — it’s a personal journey.” And so it is.

Photo of Alex (far right) with her studentsPhoto of Alex (far right) with her studentsMy piano teacher, funnily enough, is also an adult literacy tutor. And he could not be better suited for it. With me he is consistently encouraging, patient, warm, and understanding. He makes me feel good about my progress, however small. He listens, and we laugh. A sense of humor can not be underrated in any tough endeavor.

And yes there are still times I want to quit piano. It is still mix of great enjoyment and reward, and hitting "walls" and dealing with frustration. But I am not ready to give up. I can actually play some easy songs now — which is a lot more than I could say three months ago, even if I still play the wrong note now and then.

As for my two wonderful students at the Library, I am looking forward to continuing the journey of learning together, for it is a mutual one.


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Alex, what a great post about

Alex, what a great post about lifelong learning! How interesting that your piano teacher is a tutor, too! Having listened to you tutoring, I can say that you have those same qualities with the adult literacy students at Seward Park: encouragement, patience, warmth, and understanding. I took up horseback riding while living in Texas, and I had many of the same feelings of impatience as a student, and sometimes even despair! If not for the encouragement and sometimes over-the-top and hilarious enthusiasm of my coach, I never would have known the thrill that came from finally accomplishing a simple move I'd been working on for months. To an experienced rider, it might have looked like much of an accomplishment, but I'll never forget that feeling! Even though I'm not riding anymore, the experience of learning an activity that was totally alien to me made a deep impression. Thanks for sharing!

Alex, thanks so much for

Alex, thanks so much for writing this entry! When you stop learning, you stop living. I'll be sure to keep this in mind whenever I feel the voice of doubt telling me it's "too late" for me to start learning something -- pish posh! When I was in grad school, many of my class chums were in their 40s and 50s, with families and established careers of their own, and yet there they were in class, learning alongside me. And I will never forget one library school professor who told me what made her decide to go back to school and get her doctorate degree: "In five years, I could either have a PhD or not; I could be a Ms. or I could be a Dr." That's pretty good motivation, don't you think? Also, I know exactly what you mean about tutoring being a mutual learning experience. Nobody has inspired me, encouraged me to learn, adapt, and try new things more than my awesome students! We've learned a lot of words together, but "giving up" is not in their vocabulary! Best of luck on your piano lessons! I envy you -- the only song I can play is "Hot Cross Buns."

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