From the Bench: Renting vs. Owning - Entrada

October 13, 2021

From the Bench: Renting vs. Owning

All posts

I recently recalled a fond experience from a decade ago, in my roles both as a teacher and a father. I revisited my own journal and updated this story:

— Fred Karpoff



In his opening address for the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy (NCKP) in 2011, Pete Jutras told of the great number of adults he encounters who say, “I used to play piano.” He said that this really translates into, “I was a renter.” Pete exhorted us to get our students to ‘own’ the process of making music in general and piano-playing in particular.

Those of us who love the piano, at some point, make the transition from renters to owners. The initial fascination is a spark. The piano calls to us to linger a bit longer–to become absorbed within the magic emanating from our fingertips. This leads to more satisfaction and dedication. No one knows exactly when it happens, but piano-playing becomes a part of us–we are no longer renters.



After seeing how much my daughter changed as a result of being immersed in music, I wanted to draw upon her experience in my work with my university students…



That summer, my then-15-year-old daughter attended a four-week camp where three hours of piano practice were structured into each day. Prior to this, it was rare that she would practice piano for more than twenty minutes. Camp also provided a social environment where community was valued—kids worked steadily on their own music, but also got together with others to play, sing, and have fun, usually with the piano at the center of it all.

After camp, we traveled to Chicago; my wife and two daughters did some sightseeing while I attended NCKP. One day, the family came to see one of my presentations. Sometime after my session, I followed the lovely sounds of Debussy’s First Arabesque into an adjoining meeting room and happened upon a young lady practicing intently, alone. It was my daughter!

After that, I had serious competition for access to the piano. And new conversations sprang up like, “Dad, do you think I can play that Rachmaninoff Prelude [that my friend played at camp]?” Even more remarkable to me — at once inspiring and humbling—her ability to play pop and music theater, both by ear and from a lead sheet, rivaled my own and quickly surpassed it.

That summer, it became clear that my daughter had become an ‘owner.’ [2021 Update: my daughter is now an accomplished singer-songwriter, church musician, and piano and songwriting teacher who also plays the ukelele, guitar, and synthesizer. She’s blessed with both absolute pitch and synaesthesia, coupled with a rich imagination that continues to reveal wonders in her own music and in her students.]

After seeing how much my daughter changed as a result of being immersed in music, I wanted to draw upon her experience in my work with my university students. My teaching has often been weighted toward balancing the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of piano-playing: seeking meaning and expression through the most natural choreography we can discover. I believe this synthesis is essential for students to progress and to continue on to higher levels of achievement.

But there are so many other facets of music study. On the cusp of a new academic year, I still strive to find ways to get me and my students out of our normal comfort zones. Playing tunes by ear and harmonizing them with gradually more extended harmonies. Playing four-hand music of different styles. Sight-reading or ‘blocking’ much more of the standard literature. Daring to improvise, especially with help from my dear, late friend, Forrest Kinney, through his Pattern Play and Chord Play series. These are some of the activities that contribute to greater commitment, curiosity and joy—in addition to greater understanding of our ‘regular’ repertoire.

With piano-playing, there are different paths leading toward ownership. Through exploration and discovery, ownership becomes more likely, and the level of pleasure derived from being an owner truly blossoms.


2 responses to “From the Bench: Renting vs. Owning”

  1. Lu Leslan says:

    Hi Fred,
    Just want to acknowledge your dedication to improving the quality of teaching and learning for our students and teachers.
    We met long time ago at one of MTNA conference. I’ve teaching for a few decades now, as always, I continue to seek out new approaches to connect with my students.
    In 2008, I played for Leon Fleisher’s masterclass at the Portland International Piano Festival. That’s an unforgettable experience. Thank you for sharing your memories of Mr. Fleisher who made this world a better place for all of us.
    The meaning of ownership translates to the willingness to embrace the challenges to be a better pianist, musician, human being.
    Again, a heartfelt thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Paavo Jumppanen says:

    Renters or owners, an analogy that is new to me but sounds perfectly appropriate. Your daughters story sounds inspirational! As for my status, at the moment I’d call myself itinerant in respect of piano. I just haven’t had the time to dedicate to it. My musical avenues have been diverging into different territories each with their own demands. At this point most of my attention toward matters music are focused on classical guitar and composing as I had an opportunity to compose a piece for classical guitar late last year and absolutely loved it. That said, I’ve yet to get back to it in any real way as I’ve had this long running work commitment that I have to get done before moving on. One day! Maybe when I can put some of that “work” behind me I will once again have time for piano but in any case, it is an instrument I will use for composition even if I am composing for guitar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Testimonials