The Search For Buried Treasure: Milo's Story

Photo by sergio_kumer/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by sergio_kumer/iStock / Getty Images

The following story took place in the 1980's, near the beginning of my years working with children, first as their music teacher and later as a play therapist. It illustrates what can be possible when we listen deeply to the children we serve.

Although the story concerns a one-on-one relationship, the same teaching principles apply to work with learning communities. Groups of children and adults can enter this kind of transformational space together, with equally powerful results.


I met Milo in my mid-twenties. The child of colleagues, he joined us at a family birthday party-- a first-grader with huge almond eyes, long lashes and a serious face devoid of childhood plump. I partnered with Milo for all the silly games--three-legged races, egg tosses, pin the diaper on the baby. At the end of the day his mother pulled me aside.

"You teach piano, don't you? We've heard you like to improvise with your students, not just classical instruction? We want Milo to study with you. He's serious all the time. He'­s depressed--we'­re so worried about him. If this is how he feels now, what will happen when he's sixteen?" She was convincing, and I was drawn to Milo. I agreed to take him as my student.

Horizontal Feedback

Piano lessons with Milo were quiet and had a horizontal qualitty--no big ups or downs of excitement. Non-specific praise or direct criticisms were too much for him, like throwing a large stone in a pond. I was careful not to add much heavy input to his experience.

"I notice you slowed down on this part and then you played with both hands here," I learned to say, or "I wonder what would happen if---"  or "What would it be like if–."

Within a few weeks, he began to share more personal thoughts and feelings with me.

"I like when I don't eat," he said, "because my stomach gets all tight and small.”

Extraordinary Listening

At one lesson I sat listening to him, lost in the focus of my question: "How can I help Milo? How can I help Milo?" As I concentrated, I suddenly felt as Milo himself was speaking straight into my ear, without words, giving me insight into what he needed.

"If you really want to help me," I heard, "here's what you need to do. And if you do this, everything will change."

I was too absorbed in listening to question the experience. When Milo finished his playing, I did what had been suggested:

"Milo--what if I asked your parents to leave you alone about the piano for six weeks. No rules about practicing or reminding you to do anything. You play only when you want to, whenever you want to, whatever you want to. The only rule is that you come to your lesson every week." Milo stared at me, motionless.

"Would you want to try that?"He continued staring. "Should I ask them?" He nodded.

"Okay then,"I said, "If your parents agree, we have a deal. And at the end of the six weeks, I'll be able to ask you to do some things I want you to practice." He nodded again.

"Anything you want to try!" said his parents when I spoke with them after the lesson.

The Experiment

The first week Milo tested the deal and did nothing at all.

"Great," I said when he arrived for his first lesson--then we don't know what will happen today."

We improvised and made up music together as we often did, but this time for the entire lesson rather than just a part of it. "No, she'­s not tricking me," seemed to be his conclusion.

The next week Milo, a beginning student who barely read music, brought in a composition. He had written on music notepaper in fairly accurate notation. The piece was untitled; he asked me to play it. About eight bars long, it was thoughtful, using both clefs and much of the keyboard. I played it for Milo several times as he adjusted my tempos and dynamics, and then a few times until he could 'hear the name,' as I asked--a process where Milo sat quietly listening with his eyes cast down. I waited patiently, sure he would know the name.  A title did come to him, so we wrote it down, and put his name on the piece in the composer's position above the staff.

For four more weeks Milo wrote music, sometimes several pieces, sometimes titled, but often not. We would repeat the naming process--playing new pieces again and again until he heard the title. I took playing his music quite seriously and often played through his entire repertoire of compositions while he sat rapt in listening. At our sixth lesson he came in and sat down.

The Last Day

"This is the end of our experiment," said Milo.

"Yes, it is."

"I wrote something for today," he said, and he handed it to me to play.

This music was an impressionistic Haiku, very Ravel-like: twelve bars of ephemeral music that felt timeless and deep, used the full keyboard, and were, as usual, untitled.

"Milo, I'll need to play this again."

I played it four times in a row.

"Milo, there is a title. I'm going to play this piece until you know the name."

I played it three more times, and then he stopped me. "I know what it's called," he said.

He paused; I tried to keep my face as open and neutral as possible, hoping not to interrupt his experience in any way--the piece was so uncanny, and I could feel how important the name was to him as it emerged. He looked right into my eyes and told me: "It'­s called 'Search for Buried Treasure.'"­

My relationship with Milo transformed through deep listening and through the guidance of his own creative spirit. What I heard from Milo proved true: from those six weeks forward, everything changed. Milo was happy to practice what I asked now that he had discovered himself as a composer and had been heard. With his creativity fully engaged, musical language, structures and techniques were useful tools in the process of learning and discovery. For Milo, the freedom to use his musical time as he wished unearthed his passion for composing. For me, deep listening led to a transformational experience in teaching. Milo'­s buried treasure was, in fact, himself.