Mentor and Learn: It’s music!

Chair feet

 Caption: My Young Friend Chair Dives in the Goddess Gathering Room

Essay and photo by Janet Grace Riehl

 I find myself mentoring as I mosey about in the world.  It turns out that mentoring is the cycle of teaching, learning, teaching and learning. What a joy it is to find out that I know something I didn’t know I knew as I draw out something that the other person didn’t know they knew. At that point learning and teaching fuse.

One of my good friends is a nine-year-old neighbor, and I love it when he pops by. Here’s the knock. Then I fling open the door, swing my arms wide, and he runs into my bear hug. Out in the hallway we play ball. (Quietly, of course!) As we throw, kick, dribble, and dash to retrieve the ball, we talk. We’ve been working on an informal Create Original Music project. In school today he’s found out how Garage Band transfers what he plays on the keyboard into written music. Not that he can read sheet music yet, but documentation is never a bad idea.

The composing thing just fell from the sky for both of us. Last November an electronic keyboard joined their family as a big birthday present for his sister. Fortunately their piano-playing grandmother happened to be visiting just in time to launch them into the world of music. Within a week they could play more tunes than a convocation of birds can sing.

Even after his grandmother went home at the end of the holidays, he kept at it. Patterns emerged under his fingers as he pounded on the black keys, and he asked me to listen. He had a riff down, but now what?

“Oh, that sounds dark and heavy. Like Dracula.”

He agreed, and continued playing. His finger slipped and another pattern emerged.

“ Do that again. This one sounds happy.”

Thus “Happy Dracula”—a basic four part theme and variation—was born:  Happy 1;  Dracula 1; Happy 2; and Dracula 2. It ended on a leading tone.

“It wants to go somewhere. Do you want it to, or do you want to leave it like that?”

“I want it like that.”  His “Happy Dracula” thus ended on an unresolved note—perhaps like its namesake.

A complete instrumental composition had emerged. Could I play it? No. Could I chart it? No. Could I explain the underlying music theory? No. But by working with feeling tone and mood I could help him explore and invent; I could help him develop his talent naturally and intuitively. He’d become a composer.

Here comes the knock. Here comes the hug, and the invitation to visit. He played his latest tune.

“That sounds like oompapa music. I hear tubas and accordions in it.” He’d never heard oompapa before, so I pulled out my phone to find a sample. But it wasn’t a music night; he really wanted to show me his video game. I watched in amazement as he built walls and put up obstacles to stay ahead of the pursuing monster. Would I like to play? I could sign in. Nope.

And so we became an ad hoc plugged-in family while his mother ran errands. His 11-year-old sister relaxed in an easy chair with headphones and her e-reader as she heard and read the words simultaneously. He played his video game on an iPad. I played oompapa music and classic jazz  as video game background music. Maybe these songs would become an internal mix-tape: Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Dave Brubeck.  My young friend lives in his body, and his music in its raw rhythm feels most like Brubeck’s.  He’d heard Brubeck’s best known tune “Take Five” before. I thought he wasn’t listening, but he knew Brubeck when he heard it. My theory seemed to be working.

Another evening; another knock; another hug and invitation. That night he was ready to focus on music. He played a riff (again on the black keys), and we were off.

“That one sounds like a spider.” I walked my fingers up his arm like the kindergarten  itsy-bitsy spider.  “What would happen,” I asked “when the spider gets to your shoulder?”

“I’d look around and splat it!”

“What would that sound like?”

The piano keys immediately splatted the answer, and just like that we moved from mood to story—discovering another tool. He continued to experiment and develop the tune. This time he tried different octaves—and even a Blues walk-down—until we were both satisfied that “The Spider” was complete. We were on a roll.

Now we had three tunes with titles. We went back to the first pattern he’d made up (before “Happy Dracula”). “What does it sound like?” We decided it felt like a walk in the woods and called it “Dark Woods.”

If you had asked me a two months ago if I could help someone (anyone—but especially a young one) how to compose, I would have said a rousing “No.” But now I see that we are all that we have been. My young collaborator mentored me as I moseyed around this world. I sing the praises of a young composer who has taught me a lot.


Read more at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” ( Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.

4 responses to “Mentor and Learn: It’s music!

  1. How fun to have found you on WordPress, Janet! I love your quote, “What a joy it is to find out that I know something I didn’t know I knew…” You’re right – that is a joy. I didn’t know I knew you are on this blog site. I know now… and I’ll be back! Keep on mentoring. You’re an inspiration 🙂

    • Thank YOU, Jan. This is a collaborative blogging site for Story Circle Network. I’ve been writing my Creative Catalyst Column here since 2008. It’s a very good organization for women writing memoir.

  2. Improvisations are the beginning of any new skill. Some of the discoveries are superlative… Bravo to both of you…

  3. Wonderful post, Janet. No surprise to me that your musical and people skills translate well to mentoring, but lovely that your young friend is open to exploring with you. Lucky boy!

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