Piano Lessons: Do Writers Need a Teacher or a Coach?

Jim Sollisch
From the March/April 2018 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

On the day my son Max discovered his superpower, Raffi was singing “Big Beautiful Planet” on the car stereo as the two of us tooled around town doing errands while leaves fell like giant confetti from the sky.

Max ran into the house ahead of me, and as I put away the groceries, I heard the last song we’d been listening to in the car playing in the living room. I rushed into the room, and there was Max, three and a half years old, playing the antique piano that had sat mute in the corner all these years.

Possessed. That was the word that came to mind. Who was he channeling? The people in my family were nonmusical. The piano was simply a giant end table.

When he finished, I put on an album and played a version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by the great jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Before it was over, Max was playing along—Max and Ahmad, filling the room with tiny, syncopated stars.

It is an awe-inspiring thing to watch your small child do something you can’t do. I could listen—and I did for several weeks—but after a while I assumed he needed a teacher, not an audience.

There’s a difference between teaching and coaching. I learned this by teaching a composition class for beginning writers at the college level for seven years, having taught my last class just months before Max was born. I hadn’t yet articulated that difference, though, and it would be years before I saw that my struggling writing students needed the same things my musically gifted son needed.

Atul Gawande, author of four best-selling books, including Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (Metropolitan Books, 2007), points out in an article in the New Yorker that the concept of coaching comes from sports and is a recent development in the history of skill acquisition. Teaching goes back to the beginning of history; coaching seems to have gotten its start at Yale around 1875 on the gridiron.

Max’s first piano teacher was eighty-two years older than he was. She lived in the neighborhood and came highly recommended. You could tell she loved kids, and she couldn’t have been more delighted with her newest, youngest pupil. She showed him how to draw notes, she had us buy him a beginner’s book, and within weeks Max wouldn’t go near the piano.

When I taught writing, I told my students there was no reason to worry about punctuation until they had written something worth punctuating correctly. I was trying to show them that the important part of writing—the part their teachers didn’t teach them—was the revision process. The stopping and starting, the rethinking, the crossing out, the sharpening of a thought—that’s writing. It’s a verb, after all. Punctuation, which their teachers had “taught” them, was simply politeness, no different from covering your mouth when you sneeze.

By the time Max was nine, we’d been through eleven teachers, including a Suzuki-trained theorist, a few classical pianists, a seventeen-year-old music student, and a series of jazz pianists, one of whom wore only pajamas and greeted us at his apartment door accompanied by the smell of pot. Even he could not stop himself from trying to teach Max theory and requiring him to read music. Every teacher started the same way, full of optimism and promising to meet my requirements, which were simple: Just play music with the kid for an hour a week. Help him master difficult sequences. Don’t try to teach him to read music.

The difference between teaching and coaching is the difference between thinking and doing. Teachers are in the concept business; coaches deal in the physical world. Theory versus practice. Admittedly there is overlap. Coaches teach and teachers coach. And there are gray areas made grayer by semantics. But the older I get, the more I believe we too often teach when we should be coaching.

We don’t teach basketball, we coach it. So is writing more like basketball or more like physics? To get good at physics, you need to know the laws that govern the universe. And to really grasp those, you need to understand the mathematical concepts behind them. You need a teacher.

To acquire the skill of basketball, you need only to watch others play and to practice. Imitation and repetition. Isn’t that how you learned to write: by reading essays and then writing? Like the kid who learns to play basketball without a coach, you acquired the basic skill of writing. You did it despite the teacher, who got in your way by trying to teach you concepts like the parts of speech or constructs like the five-paragraph theme. These are as useless to the would-be writer as a lesson about the dimensions of a basketball court would be to a developing basketball player.

A coach would have helped. But you got a teacher.

My wife, a gifted teacher-coach of young children, loves to say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” When Max was fourteen, we finally found the coach he needed. Danny was a senior in high school, four years older than Max, and a jazz-piano whiz who was on his way to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He coached Max through the jazz standards. After a year or so, Max was ready to learn chord progressions, theory, and even history. And the teacher was already there.

We seem to believe that to acquire skills, especially academic ones, we first need to learn concepts and theory, and then put them into practice. But that’s not the way humans acquire language or learn the pattern recognition that leads to categorization, which is the foundational skill of the natural sciences. You practice and then you learn. More accurately, you learn while doing. But doing often precedes understanding. Learning is more like a sport than we think.

At forty-five, Atul Gawande, an accomplished Harvard-trained surgeon entering the peak years of his career, decided to hire a coach. He had all the knowledge and understanding he needed; he had practiced his craft—performing more than two thousand surgeries—but he wondered if his skills had plateaued. He wondered if he could get better.

Gawande makes the point that coaches are experts at breaking down the mechanics of physical actions into steps. His coach told him to keep his elbows lower and to change the way he draped the patient so the surgical assistant had better access; he recommended adjusting the surgical light. He tinkered with Gawande’s mechanics and approach like a tennis coach might. In surgery—as in tennis—insight can come from practice.

And so it is with writing. All writers know the same secret: Writing is the art of figuring out what you know, not the process of recording what you already know. I have told this secret to many classrooms, but it’s something that cannot be taught. You can’t know it till you experience it, and you can’t experience it without lots of practice. 


Jim Sollisch is creative director at the Marcus Thomas advertising firm in Cleveland. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and many other publications.