Once upon a time, I was living in Birmingham and freelance teaching at the largest music studio in town. At the end of one summer, I was sent a new student—an eleven-year-old girl named Christianna who had been with the studio for three years. I was between lessons when the new studio manager, Samantha, pulled me into the lobby to brief me.
“Let’s see,” she scrolled through her emails, tapping her ring-finger impatiently. “Christianna.” She leaned her chin on her hand as she searched for the previous teacher's notes, “Ok, here we go. 'Christianna just finished level 2B in Faber Faber…been in this book a while'...dah dah dah…looks like ‘Pumpkin Boogie’ is her favorite song”—she looked at me to confirm that I knew what that was and I nodded, and she squinted back at the screen—“Ok…interests…Christianna plays football on her middle school team, and attends—”
“With the boys?” I interrupted. “That’s a thing?” I loved her already.
The manager looked up and blinked. “ Oh. Football? I guess so.” She shrugged, “Or maybe there’s a girls’ team?” She adjusted her glasses unconcernedly and continued. “Anyway, it looks like you will be the fourth teacher she’s worked with here.”
That wasn’t a great sign. “Why is that?”
The screen glinted off her glasses as she scrolled. “Says here there were some behavioral issues. Not bringing books to lessons, not practicing, uh, 'defiance during lessons.' Mom is hoping this will be a good fit.” She looked at me, slightly apologetically. “I think you can crack it. Plus, I’ll be here to help.”
I nodded, curious, and apprehensive. “You’ve met her, right?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Last week.” Samantha ducked my gaze and began shuffling through some files on her left.
“So"—I leaned over the counter towards her and lowered my voice—“what's she like?”
Samantha replied without looking up. “She’s a force. You’ll have to see for yourself.”
Five minutes before my first lesson with Christianna, I heard a commotion in the lobby and walked out to see two siblings arguing loudly over crayons, with Samantha’s trying to stem the chaos. A girl with a ragged punk bob was wrestling a backpack from her brother, whose arms were still threaded through the straps. A pink streak and a braided feather ran through the left side of her hair, and her shirt read, Strong is the new pretty.
Samantha tried to get her attention in a patient teacher voice, “Christianna.” The tussling continued. She tried again, exasperation seeping into her tones, “Christianna,” and narrowly missed being hit by a chair that bounced off the wall. Her face grew red. “CHRISTIANNA!”
The girl let her brother fall to the floor and looked up. She saw me in the doorway and comprehended who I was. Without greeting or acknowledgment, she dislodged her brother and walked past me into the piano room. The backpack was flung against the wall, and she plopped down on the piano bench and proceeded to pound on the keys with all her might. By “pound on the keys,” I’m not saying that in the way adults do when they don’t appreciate the music being played—I mean literal pounding, using fists, elbows, and books. To say I was in shock would be an understatement.
I shut the door and walked to the instrument, closing the keyboard lid firmly. “Christianna, stop. That is not ok.”
Her hazel eyes surveyed me, and she relented, and smiled sweetly, “Ok.”
I sat in my chair, unnerved, and she threw open the cover again and resumed her pounding, but louder this time, grinning at me gleefully all the while. I managed to close it again without removing any fingers, and held it closed this time, to Christianna’s chagrin. She tried to heave it back up with all her might, but I also played football with the boys, and it stayed shut.
She gave me her attention for the first time, and we sized each other up in silence.
I was the first to speak. “Christianna. If you treat the piano like that again, the lesson will be over, and I will be meeting with your parents.”
The corner of her mouth rose in a smirk, and the pink braid swung back and forth as she nodded exaggeratedly, and assured me in a mock-angelic voice that she’d 'never, ever do it again.'
I will spare you the details of what she was like the next two months, except to say that it was terrible, and at the end of eight weeks I had met with her parents as often as I had met with her, and no music had been learned. I asked the studio to assign her to another teacher, but there was no one else to give her to who hadn’t already tried. Our dynamic had devolved into a battle of wills that she won every time by refusing to learn or bring her books to lessons or practice or work with me in any way on any song by any artist. I was caught in the middle: on one side were her parents who needed her to be in lessons at 3pm for logistical reasons; on the other side was Christianna who desperately wanted her parents’ very limited time and attention and saw being a holy terror in lessons as a means to that end; on the other side was the studio, who had no policy or prerequisite in place for letting a student go, and resisted my requests to start now.
I was at my wit's end, and hating my job for the first time.
One day, ten minutes before her lesson, I was sitting in the room, playing at the piano and singing a new song I had written the day before. I was utterly absorbed in what I was doing—stopping here and there to scribble out new lyrics and try new colors in the chord progression—and didn’t hear her come in until she was nearly at my elbow.
“What are you doing?” She asked curiously, looking from me to the page.
“Writing a song,” I replied, tensing myself to respond to whatever hell she was planning for me that day.
Her eyes lit up. “How do you do that?”
I took a breath. “You just explore how you’re feeling, and try to get it to come out like that in the music." I stopped, but she was still listening, so I continued tentatively, "Sometimes I start with the words, sometimes I just start at the piano and explore sounds until I find what I want to say and how I want to say it…” I stopped again, but her eyes were still fixed on me.
“Can I try?”
I hid my surprise and scooted over to let her sit at the top of the bench. “Sure. Uh, we can start with a melody.”
She looked from left to right on the keyboard. “Where should I put my hands?”
“It doesn’t matter. If you start, where you need to go from there will become more clear.”
We wrote our first song together that day. And she was hooked.
After that, we restructured lessons entirely and stopped working from the books. The girl was bursting with creativity. We learned rhythms and notes by ear, and I gave her a crash-course on lyric writing. She started coming into lessons fifteen minutes early and scribbling all her ideas across the wall-length whiteboard. Often I would walk into the room to find her already deep in her creative zone. She’d wheel around and pull me to the board, eager to show me her new ideas for the chorus. Her voice was raspy and soulful, and we began singing together and recording our collaborations. She learned how to write in notation, and we started adding other instruments to our mixes.
Her whole demeanor had changed. She became happier, more grounded and sure of herself. I stopped meeting with her parents, except to tell them how well Christianna was doing in lessons. Once she let me in, the bravado and defiance fell away, and our rapport became strong. I was there for her through drama at school and grief at home while her grandfather was dying and her Mom was absorbed in his care-taking.
The lesson books were gathering dust somewhere, but what we accomplished was much more profound and lasting. Songwriting became her non-destructive way to deal with the big emotions of life, and she became more stable within herself, and calmer. She was a born creator. Some of the songs were about her grandpa. Some of the songs were child-like, about dancing in the rain and counting stars and making new friends and the ups and downs of middle school. I loved them all. Against all the odds, she became one of my best students.
When people ask me why I’m building a studio around songwriting and departing from the traditional model of music lessons, I tell them about Christianna. I have seen again and again that there is something about the act of creation that heals the deepest parts of us, something about finding that creativity within that gives us hope and something tangible to hold to.
I want to help more young people, like Christianna, find their way and become the artists they were meant to be.