Miller: The cost of private music lessons for non-majors

Kelly Miller, Op-Ed Contributor

Fourteen years ago, I hopped up on the splintered wooden bench of my grandfather’s Steinway grand piano and ran my tiny fingers over the ivory keys. I could barely plunk the middle C, my feet were far from reaching the pedals, and perfect pitch was not in my purview, yet I was indescribably drawn to the instrument. From that day forward, I insisted, as any stubborn six-year-old would, on indulging my curiosity.

One year of weekly lessons and failing to understand proper piano posture later, I threw on my favorite pair of sparkly pink dress shoes, and performed a what at the time I considered “magical” rendition of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” at my first recital. At the time, I never would have imagined that the piano, and later the cello, would become my outlets for creative expression, my voice, my sources of stress relief and, perhaps most critically, the mediums through which I chose to experience the finer things in life.

As a pianist, I was exposed to the versatility of the world of music: culturally significant, emotionally charged, politically relevant and endlessly detailed. As a cellist, I finally felt like I belonged to something greater than myself, a community, one with a shared appreciation for Shostakovich’s genius, exhausting every profound, unpredictable and beautiful dynamic in unison for ourselves and our audience. My grandfather would print sheet after sheet of Chopin waltzes and Liszt etudes for me to practice, and by the time I was in middle school, I aspired to be a concert pianist and dreamed of standing on the stage at Carnegie Hall where George Gershwin and Vladimir Horowitz once stood.

While my friends ventured to popular music festivals like Lollapalooza, I was content listening to Beethoven’s 9th at an outdoor classical music concert. I often questioned who I was and who I had the potential to be in the competitive and exclusive environment of my suburban public school where I never really fit in. But when it was just me, my piano and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, I felt at peace with myself, mentally and emotionally, no matter what external pressures were gnawing at the back of my mind.

Upon coming to Northwestern, I was excited to discover that there were music opportunities for non-majors — specifically private piano and cello lessons that are available through the Bienen School of Music. To my disappointment, the notion that such lessons would be free was wishful thinking. According to Bienen’s “Opportunities for Nonmajors” webpage, enrolling in private piano lessons for zero credit would cost $315 with “quarterly registration fees” to be billed to my Caesar account. I simply could not rationalize paying high additional fees to continue my career as a below-average or at best decent, classical pianist.

I also learned that access to practice rooms in Regenstein Hall of Music for non-majors is contingent on registration for private lessons and ensembles, including the $315 fee. Therefore, practice spaces for people pursuing music as a hobby or for relaxation are severely limited. Unless I am willing to struggle through the riffs of a Chopin piano concerto for the late-night Fran’s audience, it seems as though I am sore out of luck. Today, I am hard-pressed to remember most of the pieces that I used to play, and although I can still read music, many of the technical skills that are necessary to play the works of Chopin or Dvořák would be difficult to learn without private lessons or a trained mentor.

Every day that passes without lessons and practice, I am able to remember less and less, playing only to the tune of my growing frustrations. What once served as a bridge of understanding between me and my grandfather, an intrinsic expression of my individuality and an integral part of my identity, is practically gone.

So, how then, can I entertain my creative side at Northwestern? Do I audition for a capella? Given the invention of the Mediocretones, maybe I’ll have a shot. Seeking a creative outlet, is, in part, what brought me here to The Daily Northwestern. However, in the past year without my endeavors in music as a viable option, I became wrapped up in the social pressure to judge the “worthiness” of activities based on how they would fit on my resume as an aspiring lawyer, letting hopes of prestige and ambition, rather than my love of music, dictate the workings of my life and the enjoyment that I got from living it. Eventually, I regarded music lessons as the sacrifice I had to make in order to save money, attend career fairs and join more competitive clubs, seeking to build up my LinkedIn clout at the expense of healthy self-care practices.

Although I often preach that there is more to life than a LinkedIn profile, a sentiment I largely owe to my time spent as a musician, I must admit to my own hypocrisy as it feeds Northwestern’s career-oriented culture. I hope that in the future, my misguided perceptions, and the affordability, accessibility and availability of private music lessons for non-majors can change for the better.

Kelly Miller is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.