Managing Diversity with The Power of Music

by Katherine Farnham 

The following story is true. It is a testimony to the power of music to overcome fear, misunderstanding and prejudice. 

When I first moved to Southern California I was performing live, recording and teaching music at a private school. Most of the students were Korean and the teachers represented a mix of different ethnic backgrounds. The head of my location was a beautiful and fun lady, with an eccentric personality and a desire to help people. I enjoyed talking with her and going to the school. 

After being there for several months I encountered a young piano student who touched my heart. There was just something different about her. I think it was her intelligence for one thing, but mainly it was the way she looked at me. She was very direct, very honest and she seemed to notice everything. Her performance during lessons was only average at first but her outstanding communication with me soon made me look forward to our lessons. 

Then we hit a rough spot. I learned from the head of the school that she was struggling with her grades, having trouble with her mother, etc. She said she thought the girl was going to quit. 

My stomach felt tense. I didn’t know what we were supposed to finish exactly but it felt like we weren’t done yet. 

It occurred to me that in recent lessons the girl had walked in with her head hanging down, staring at the floor. She never smiled. All the adults around her talked about her as if she was a problem student. I did not share that opinion. In fact, I felt she was one of my smartest students. 

Despite everyone’s concern, the girl arrived for the next lesson. We were working on “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. I think she liked it because she was more animated. She had been extremely quiet for some time. Suddenly, out it came. In a almost-outburst, she said, “I don’t think you can help me because you’re not Korean!” I absolutely, completely knew 100% in my heart that she did not really believe this. I wondered if someone around her had said anything to that effect. Maybe someone close to her had expressed doubt probably because they were trying to protect her. It was not the first time that I had seen a student torn between loyalty to a helpful, cherished teacher and their family. It is never an easy position for anyone involved. But it can be worked out. 

I knew I was being tested, and that I was staring prejudice and fear right in the face. I also knew her life might never be the same if she walked away like that, thinking something that was untrue. I picked up a book of music from on top of the piano with a flourish and held it open dramatically. It was filled with piano music but all the text was in Korean. 

“I can’t read this text. You can. You can teach ME Korean. But music - this notation is the same 

in your country as in mine, as in France, in Japan, in Russia, in England.” “It does not change!” “You see, you are right. I cannot speak your language - but you can help me with that. I will help you to see that yes I can help you because music is universal to all people around the world.” 

Then I showed her another book of music with text written in English. “You have to translate Korean to English and back again if you can’t understand correct?” She nodded, starting to see the logic. Then came the clincher. 

“YOU WILL NEVER IN ALL YOUR LIFE NEED TO TRANSLATE THIS LANGUAGE OF MUSIC I AM TEACHING YOU BECAUSE IT IS TRULY UNIVERSAL - IT BELONGS TO ALL OF US.” 

She stared at me. Then slowly her eyes lit up and she smiled. I knew, as smart as she was she would never be happy with me just telling her what to do every week. By allowing her to show me some things, it made her feel important and it built the trust between us. From then on, she would rattle off two new words in Korean each lesson and I would practice pronouncing them as she set up her music books. We would take five minutes and do that until she laughed. Then we would play music and she would then be very honest about everything she was mastering and also everything she was struggling with. 

I discovered that the girl’s analytical process was about six or seven years above her natural age. I could have a mature and enjoyable discussion with her about many topics, similar to that of my high school students - yet she was only ten. She was not just interested in her own life and world, she seemed interested in all the people and happenings around her. She became frustrated with her physical coordination because her mind was ahead of her physical development! I told her, “You must be patient with your brain and your hands and the link between the two.” 

After that day, she never argued with me again. Whatever lies or ignorance or pain that had been there, truth put it down. 

Her grades went back up. They said it was very unusual progress. She began speaking better with her mother. When she came in every lesson, she walked with a spring in her step, and a twinkle in her eye. Our lessons began to illuminate a sharp wit, a curious mind, and a girl who had a wonderful sense of humor. 

God gave us a written language or philosophy that is fairly universal around the world. To a certain extent, human beings have already achieved unity amidst diversity. I work regularly with world-class artists who continue to prove the truth of that. 

In many years of teaching, she was one of my best students. She had a rare courage to express everything about her learning process, even the things that were bothering her. It was useful because sooner or later there would be other students with similar challenges. When she finally did stop lessons, she smiled and winked at me as she went out the door. I knew we had finished our work together and come to a good place. I knew she would be ok. Her mother never spoke to me directly. By the time the girl had stopped studying, however she bowed to me in respect before going out the door. Tears welled up in my eyes. Then - they were gone. 

Education is the battle that must be fought by everyone. 

Certain students may have something to teach others. However, they should still make an effort to follow the process of lessons as much as possible so everyone can benefit. By blending the best of Old School discipline with New School flexibility, we can recognize the gifts God has given each student and help them to grow. 

Sometimes parents are rightfully concerned about the teachers that teach their children. Although opinions of friends and family are important, ultimately the journey is between teacher and student. The best teachers do not try to hang on to their students forever. Sometimes these relationships may last for many years. Sometimes however, students must move on for the good of all concerned. But with effective teamwork and persistence, everyone benefits. 

The universal power of music can teach us that humans can truly connect with children, the elderly, people our own age and people from any nation or faith background. Music is the language of the heart. It reminds us that the heart is more powerful than the differences we have. 

(c) 2017-2018 Katherine Farnham

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