How Teaching At The Homeless Shelter Changed My Life

This past year, I did a bunch of volunteer piano teaching at a homeless shelter. I would show up for the day, walk into the rec room with a small keyboard, and who ever came through that door I had to teach. The residents varied with who needed a place to sleep that night, and there was almost no consistency.

Immediately I had to shift my approach. Because a few things became immediately apparent:

1. There was almost zero chance these students were going to practice.

2. The goals of these lessons would be slightly different from what I was used to.

I realized the lessons I was teaching were NOT about progress how we typically measure progress. Not about technical skill. But lessons were being measured in joy and emotional impact.

How can I make the most impact right here, right now. How can I help make a memory. How can I make a difference.

I remember there were two 5 year old twin girls that would come and go from the shelter. And I used to play lots and lots of games with them. We used to draw pictures on pieces of paper and improvise soundscapes with them on the piano. We would jump around the room and act out stories and incorporate the piano as sound effects. We would write songs together, and the mom would sing along.

Another teenage boy, said he loved salsa music. So I played a salsa accompaniment for him in the bass, in a way that he could improvise ANY RHYTHMS HE WANTED in the right hand on black keys. Pure creativity. Exploration. Being in the moment.

When I got home from teaching my first day there, it then hit me.

That all lessons can be this way.

Of course, students can practice. Students can have forward motion. Students can have structure.

But what the shelter taught me is at its core, music in it's most basic form is emotion.

How can we make a difference for a student, right here right now.

How can we help make and be a part of a memory.