Stars

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

-Oscar Wilde

Reverse Grab Bag

There is nothing like a really long break to clear one’s head. Thanks to the gods of Albuquerque Public Schools, this has been the longest winter break in recent memory. Three weeks. Three weeks of no lessons or rehearsals. Three weeks of empty days and quiet nights. Three weeks! My heart lifts just saying those two words.

It might have been a perfect holiday all the way around. For once, we managed to exist in that elusive space called Just Enough. We went to cocktail parties and had dinner with friends. We saw three movies in the theater and watched many more at home with our cats curled up next to us. We read stacks of books. I drove up to Colorado for 24 hours to meet a friend. We spent Matt’s birthday at Los Poblanos, a historic inn in the north valley neighborhood of Albuquerque. We went to the gym and to yoga classes. I swam laps in the pool and practiced almost every day. Matt cleaned up his study. We saw former students, now grown-up and visiting for the holidays, for drinks or coffee. We listened to music in the evenings and drank wine with the fireplace full of flickering candles and the twinkling cranberry lights glowing on the mantle.

One day we drove down to Socorro in the late afternoon and watched thousands of cranes and snow geese fly through the reservoirs at the Bosque del Apache at dusk and then again at dawn the following day. The sight of thousands (literally!) of birds taking off at once was magical.

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(Click the link and just listen to the sound of those cranes and geese! Wow!)

Perhaps the most magical thing about the break was that for the first time in memory we reached a place where the holiday had been long enough. We had had enough sleep, we had drunk enough wine, we had eaten enough chocolate. We were ready to go back, back to lessons and rehearsals, meetings and emails of our regular life. Quite simply, I missed my students, my routine, my work. If that isn’t the definition of “Just Enough,” I don’t know what is.

But if holidays are good for the soul, they are often equally good for one’s creative mind. One afternoon while pouring myself a cup of tea, apropos of nothing, I thought, “What about Reverse Grab Bag?”

Grab Bag, as some of you might remember, is that compositional exercise inspired the ideas in Improvisation Games for the Classical Musician by Jeffrey Agrell. It works like this:

On my bookshelf sits a bowl of poker chips. Each chip has a note written on it: A-flat, F-sharp, C, and so on. We use this bowl to draw keys for transpositions, keys for scales or chords, etc. The “chip bowl,” as we call it, takes the blame off me. If students draw B-flat for their scales, it’s not my fault.

For “Grab Bag 5,” students draw 5 chips at random. Let’s say: C, B, G-flat, A, A-sharp. Sometimes they get a “double.” No problem. It has just become “Grab Bag 4.” (A “double” is like D-flat and C-sharp. Good to make students find the double. Even better to have students look for possible chords—major, minor, diminished—out of the mix of chips they have drawn, kinda like a musical Scrabble. This can be tricky, particularly because some chords will be spelled enharmonically: C, E-flat, F-sharp)

Students are then assigned to write a composition using only those 5 notes. Rhythms, style, character, and so on are up for grabs (no pun intended), but the composition is limited to ONLY those notes. The kids think this is great fun.

I’m not sure why a cup of tea inspired Reverse Grab Bag, but there it is. Reverse Grab Bag, as I have imagined it, would be the exercise of doing an improvisation/composition using all notes EXCEPT the 5 (or 4 or 8) drawn out of the chip bowl. This variation on a theme is hardly rocket science, sure, but I suspect as we begin lessons this afternoon this idea is just clever enough.

Christmas Letter 2016

Once, in a rare moment of great confidence or perhaps outright audacity, I said that everyone should have to write an annual holiday letter, because it forces one to make sense of one’s year and world.

Had we written our letter before November 8, what I might have said was that we continue to find our meaning and purpose in the world in much the same way we always have: Matt conducts multiple choirs and the occasional orchestra; I teach piano lessons and perform with orchestras and other musicians. We read and garden, go to yoga classes and the gym. We watched the entire six seasons of Downton Abbey over the course of a few months. We spent almost two weeks in Québec with friends in October. It is, most days, a meaningful and rich life.

And then came November 9, a day when there were many of us questioning whether there was any sense or meaning in the world whatsoever. Matt was, in his own words, despondent. I was, in Matt’s words, non-functional.

“Well, we now have work to do,” we kept hearing in the days after the election as our friends and family tried to console one another. “Time to roll up our sleeves!” My first response to this call-to-action was to wail, “But I was already working!”

And then I started thinking about what it is I really do and how I spend my days. Quite simply, I practice. In the mornings, I practice music for this gig or for that one. In the afternoons and evenings, I teach others to practice. I am always, always practicing.

The more I thought about this the more I realized that, in music, there was another word for practicing: listening. What I am really doing in my various practices is teaching myself and others to listen. To each other. To ourselves.

Okay, so there is work to be done. We can continue to practice listening. We can keep teaching others to practice listening. Because whatever one’s reaction to this season’s politics, what is clear is that we have stopped listening to each other.

The Saturday after the election I planted bulbs. This was hardly a radical act of protest, but it was a tangible way of reminding myself that I can still make my world beautiful. Turns out, if we’re listening, there is still so much beauty to behold.

Oh, Purple Sage

It’s not the students playing Beethoven and Chopin that are challenging when it comes to choosing repertoire for the studio recital. It’s the kids playing, well, nothing much at all.

When students are barely finding middle C and who have only just begun to learn to read simple off-staff notation in their early method books, choosing a piece to play for their first recital can be difficult. The first piece I ever played from a music book was from the infamous John Thompson’s Teaching Little Fingers to Play called “Birthday Party.” There are three notes: C, D, E. The music goes up and down, always by step. It’s very boring, really.

(I much preferred the second piece in the book “Sandman’s Near.” It also uses three notes—C, B, A—but has a nice minor sound. Kids LOVE minor.)

That very first recital is tough all the way around. There is so much to learn: how to walk up to the piano with purpose, how to bow, what to wear. And then there’s the issue of choosing that perfect recital piece when the piano world pretty much consists of C, D, E (or if you’re really lucky, C, B, A). Time for a good rote piece, I say.

Although I spent years in the closet with my rote teaching, those days are over. Everyone, it seems, is talking about the benefits of teaching by rote, particularly in those early beginning years of piano study. Check out this podcast with Dennis Alexander, my co-author of Repertoire By Rote. Dennis is being interviewed by a charming and very smart Austrialian bloke, Tim Topham, on his podcast about creative piano teaching. (Thanks for the fantastic shout-out, guys!)

This fall I have only one beginning student. All my other kids are way beyond the likes of “Birthday Party” and “Sandman’s Near.” While we still use rote pieces in our work, it’s no trouble to pick an interesting recital piece. The trouble is narrowing it down to a single recital piece.

But after only a couple months of piano lessons, five-year-old Nathan doesn’t have a large repertoire to choose from. He is smart and eager to learn, but years away from Chopin and Beethoven. Even Dennis Alexander’s “Giggle Bugs,” a great favorite in the studio, is well out of his reach. “Oh, Purple Sage,” one of Dennis’ and my early rote pieces, is just about right, however.

Nathan loves “Oh, Purple Sage.” Convincing him to play it on our November recital was no problem, but who to play the teacher’s duet part with him?

“Would you like to play it with your dad?” I asked him. “That would be fun, right?” He shook his head. “How about your mom?” No. “Me? Would you like me to play the duet with you at the recital?” Nope. “Someone else?” Nathan is tiny; his legs swing high above the floor when he sits on the piano bench. He is very shy and goes entire lessons without uttering a word to me. Nevertheless, it is clear he has someone specific in mind.

“Jonathon,” he told me.

Jonathon is a sophomore. He is tall and good-looking. He has taken piano with me since he was a little guy just Nathan’s size. Jonathon has a lesson right before Nathan’s and every week the two kids cross paths in the sunroom. Of course, I thought, Jonathon. What little one wouldn’t love to share a bench, not with a boring adult, but with a cool big kid?

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(The pedagogue in me must insert at this point that this plan was equally good for Jonathon. What big kid isn’t helped by taking up a leadership role with a younger person? This is, after all, the whole Montessori concept in action.)

So the following week I brought up the idea to Jonathon. I explained that Nathan needed a partner and had asked specifically for him. “You okay with this?” I asked.

Jonathon had one question, “Would I still play ‘Puck’?”

“Puck” is a popular intermediate-level piece by Grieg. Jonathon had picked this piece some months before and was playing it well. I knew he wasn’t looking to get out of his own performance. What he was really saying was: Okay, I’ll take one for the team here even if I give up my own thing.

In a career of favorite teaching moments, that was another one.

“Nope,” I told him. “You are definitely still playing ‘Puck’.”

And so it came to pass, Nathan and Jonathon and “Oh, Purple Sage” (Written that way it sounds almost biblical, doesn’t it?). You can watch their performance at the studio recital here.

Please note the matching bow ties.

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Penguin Problems

Sometimes it takes a children’s picture book to put everything in perspective.

Several weeks ago I was browsing in a bookstore. Always on the hunt for good books to add to my studio library, I was paging through picture books. One with about a hundred penguins on the cover caught my eye. “Penguins are cute,” I thought to myself as I opened the book.

It is way too early.

The illustration showed a penguin lying on his back, talking to himself.

My beak is cold.

This was clearly a penguin with a lot of complaints.

I understand completely. I have a laundry list of grievances myself these days. But I am hardly alone in my negativity. Everyone I know is whining. We are all too busy. We are fearful about what the future might hold. Our beaks are cold.

…I waddle too much. I look silly when I waddle.

….I wish I could fly, but I can’t.

I have five hours of teaching today and then a three-hour dress rehearsal. I really should call my sister. I have no clean socks.

…I have so many problems!

And nobody even cares!

In the middle of the grouchy penguin’s litany, he is interrupted by a walrus, who proceeds to give him a lecture about paying attention.

I sense that today has been difficult but lo! Look around you, Penguin. Have you noticed the way the mountains are reflected in the ocean like a painting? Have you gazed upon the blue of that cloudless, winter sky, my friend?….

Hmm. Have you noticed that in the middle of a Friday afternoon you have the time to browse in a bookstore? Do you remember that this morning you sat on the couch with two cuddly cats and read a book and drank a cup of coffee? Did you see that yellow rose next to the sunroom door that has insisted on blooming in November?

The Walrus continues:

…Yes, some things are challenging out here….But hear me now, my new friend: I wouldn’t trade my life for any other, and I am quite sure you wouldn’t, either. I am certain that when you think about it, you’ll realize that you are exactly where you need to be.

Well, then.

The self-pitying penguin has three quite predictable responses.

1) Who the heck was that guy?
2) Okay, maybe that walrus has a point. I do love the mountains.
3) My beak is cold.

How quickly we forget the important lessons we learn. Which is why we need to read a lot of wise children’s books these days.

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My beak is cold.

Penguin Problems by Jory John. Illustrated by Lane Smith.

Okay

Once when I was going through a particular rough period I got through it by asking myself over and over again the simple question: “Amy, right now are you okay?”

At the time I was faced with a normal garden variety of stresses, just coming at me too quickly from every direction. There were some family concerns and some friends in trouble. I had too many notes to learn and a worrisome situation with a student. I had a migraine I couldn’t shake. Matt was under a lot of pressure at work as well, which added to the strain at home. It was life, with all its messiness, just too much of it all at once.

But the worst part of the whole thing wasn’t any particular situation. It was my unhelpful and self-destructive thinking, spinning off into the future, imagining the end of the world as I knew it. I discovered, almost by accident, that stopping long enough to check in with myself—Amy, right now, at this very minute, are you okay?—was enough to halt my mental madness. Because this is what I quickly figured out: I may have been unhappy, I may have been worried or sad or angry or frustrated or stressed, I may have had a headache, but in the big picture, I was okay.

Some days I had to remind myself of this about twenty-seven times.

I have been asking myself this same question a lot in the week since the election. Roughly thirty-nine times a day, in fact. It has been too easy to get caught up in the general doomsday thinking, most of which I manage to think up without any outside assistance. I don’t need the 24-hour news cycle, or the New York Times, or my bewildered friends and family to make me feel any more vulnerable. I am, after all, a musician. If the economy goes south, my livelihood could easily go south with it. Nor do I need any help imagining a world in which I and all the people I love might be on a life raft in the ocean drifting west. Or where there’s an increase in violence and hatred and intolerance in this country, and a new casualness about sexual assault and racial discrimination. I can come up with these kind of dark scenarios all on my own.

This kind of thinking does not improve the quality of my life or my work, however. Quite the opposite. Hence the return of my mantra: Amy, right now, right at this very moment, are you okay?

Well, yes.

Having said that, let’s make sure we clearly define what isn’t okay: sexual assault, bigotry, racism, hatred. Nope, those things are not okay and never will be.

And I realize that the great lesson of last week is that much of the world is not okay. There is too much of the above lurking around out there. There are too many people on life rafts. There are too many people on the street corners begging for food and money. There are too many people without meaningful work or a purpose in this world. We’ve all been shaken out of our little okay worlds. We must start listening to one another now.

But here’s the thing: I listen better when I’m okay, when I have both feet on the ground, when I am not getting caught up in a future I can neither predict or control. I listen better both to the people I struggle with and with those whom it is easy for me to love. I listen better to my students and colleagues needing both my musical ears and my rooted self. I listen, ultimately, better to myself, to the voice that nudges at me, “Yep, Amy. More to do. Keep listening.”

Staying okay for me these days means lots of laps in the swimming pool, plenty of yoga classes and loads of time on the mediation cushion and the piano bench. It means taking time to tend my garden both literally and figuratively, having breakfast with my mother, lunch with my father, calling my brother on his birthday. It means setting aside time to have coffee or tea, drinks or dinner with friends who are as confused and searching as I am. It means protecting quiet night with Matt in order to spend an entire evening drinking a bottle of wine and petting our cats.

Last Thursday I asked a friend who teaches at a local private school how she was holding up. “It’s been a hard week at school,” she said. “Turns out it only takes a couple of gloating teenage boys to make an entire classroom of sixteen-year-old girls cry.” Well, I thought, if that isn’t a microcosm of the whole thing I don’t know what is.

Whatever one’s politics, there are likely to be tough times and plenty of tears ahead. I personally am not equipped with the skills or the power or the influence to solve the problems to come. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. At the very least, there are children all around me who, more than ever, need sane, kind, compassionate, okay adults in their lives.

Spoiler alert: it’s not going to be easy. As a friend said to me over lunch today, “How do we stay vigilant and okay at the same time?” It’s a good question, but if I’m really listening I think I’ll hear the answer.

Today’s okay guarantees nothing about tomorrow. But right here, right now, right this very moment, okay is an honest place to take a deep breath and start listening.

Choose Something Like A Star

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

-Robert Frost

Best Days

This will forever be the semester divided into two halves. Before Canada and After Canada. Halves sometimes mirror one another. These don’t.

Before Canada was dominated by Bach’s Goldberg Variations. About a year and a half ago, I decided my life would simply be better if I owned the score for the Goldberg Variations. In between other projects, I dabbled in them off and on, but mostly off. Then last May, Movable Sol, the house concert series that I produce with a couple of colleagues, decided to program the Goldbergs in October. Nothing like just putting it on the calendar to inspire one’s practicing.

For the 8 weeks before the Goldbergs, I was a monk. I taught and practiced. When anyone asked me for lunch or coffee, I said no. It wasn’t even the time restriction; it was the mental exhaustion. Like an athlete getting ready for the Olympics, I felt like I had to conserve my energy and monitor my behavior or I simply wasn’t going to make it. The Goldberg Variations are HARD. They are, quite bluntly, unlike anything in the keyboard repertoire. I suspect will spend a lifetime with the Goldbergs. The three performances earlier this month were just the first round.

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Then Canada.

About the time I acquired the Goldberg Variations, we had dinner at a local Italian place with friends Anne and Dan. It was one of those long evenings, supplemented by lots of wine. At some point we started talking about favorite trips we had taken. “1998. Québec,” Matt and I said. “Absolutely magical.” “Let’s do it,” Dan said as we went on and on about the fall foliage and the food and the culture and…and…and….. “What’s stopping us?”

What’s stopping us would be our lives. It still seems a bit of a miracle that 18 months later, the four of us boarded a plane to Montréal.

We divided our time between Montréal and Québec City. Québec was, in a word, beautiful. Imagine the most vivid fall colors and multiple that times ten. Yes, I know, New England is beautiful, I’ve lived there, but I think for whatever reason (the variety of trees perhaps?), Québec must have an extra long foliage season. We saw mountains covered in trees where some leaves were still green, some yellow, some orange, red or brown, and some trees were already bare. Stunning.

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We spent ten days wandering the cities, hiking in the mountains, eating and drinking, browsing in bookstores (all in French, unfortunately!), and meandering through art galleries and farmers market. We had drinks twice at the Château Frontenac (famous hotel in Québec City where Churchill and Roosevelt met during WWII). We went to two movies and heard two memorable recitals. We ate fantastic meals and consumed our weight in croissants.

One afternoon, I left my phone on a park bench in the middle of Mont-Royal, which is the Central Park-like space in the middle of Montréal. By the time I discovered this, we were about three miles away and it was raining. I did not go back to retrieve the phone, which meant I was completely cut off from the world for the remainder of the trip. This was perhaps the best part of the vacation.

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Honestly, it was a holiday filled to the brim with competing favorites moments. Another one was the night we arrived in Québec City. After checking into our Airbnb apartment, we walked up to the Upper Old Town, a steep four-story staircase into the walled city, and found a little French-Canadian bistro. We had a three-course prix fixe meal on the patio under a heater, where just across the way was the Château Frontenac with a full moon rising behind it. After dinner we went over to the hotel and had whiskeys. When life is too full and too busy, we will remember that night.

After Canada.

Re-entry back at home in the last week has been brutal. I had a long list of one-offs: appointments with the dermatologist and the vet, two extra rehearsals for a concert next week, lunches and drinks with several friends (see the above for Before Canada monk-like behavior). We need stucco work done on the house and had to finalize the contract. The swamp cooler maintenance had to be scheduled. The geraniums had to be brought in from the courtyard and cut back. Momma wanted her ginormous ferns split again before bringing them inside for the winter. It has taken four trips to the grocery store to get a reasonable amount of food in the kitchen. I had 200 emails waiting and a new phone to figure out. I got a migraine for two days and a sore throat. And then there was the laundry. So much laundry.

I’ve been thinking the last several days about those old Looney Tune cartoons where roadrunner goes through a wall and leaves his outline behind. This seems to be an apt image for what happens when we step away from our lives, even temporarily. Even with something as innocent as going on vacation, we leave behind an imprint of the shape we must assume in order to fit back into our routines and days and relationships. The trick, I realized this week, is re-finding that shape again upon return. “How long to you think it takes to get back into the pattern of your life again?” a friend asked me last night over drinks when I was explaining my newly hatched theory. “Exactly half as long as you were gone,” I said, my answer based upon nothing but instinct.

In spite of the inevitable bumps that come with returning home, home and work is a good place to be. “The days you work are the best days,” said Georgia O’Keeffe. The days you work, I tell myself, trying to make peace with my post-vacation restlessness. Not vacation days, not holidays, not weekends. The days you work.

I was reminded of this very truth on the first week of this semester when sixth-grade Peter came in to the studio and said, “Who has a lesson before me?”

Every single semester he asks me this. It is as if he needs to know who has lessons before and after him in order to orientate himself in the piano universe.

“You are my first lesson on Tuesday,” I told him.

“OK. Who has a lesson after me?”

“The Smiths. After you, I have the four Smith kids in a row.”

“Wow, Amy. This is going to be a really fun day for you.”

You know, he was right.

In fact, this little corner is my favorite place on earth, a small truth I forget from time to time when I am stressed and overwhelmed and moving through my days less than gracefully. And if I need any more reminders of that, there are plenty around me: I have a house and garden full of cheerful pumpkins and pots of mums. This awful, never-ending election season is almost over. Next Saturday we get an extra hour of sleep, my favorite night of the whole year. The Christmas sight-reading books will soon come out of the basement. The pre-recital performance classes are looming. Quintessence has started work on our holiday concert. Momma has ordered the smoked turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

Best days ahead, for sure.

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Metronome Mountain

Recently a friend and I were talking about our teaching. In passing, I mentioned something about “Metronome Mountain” as a practice strategy. “Good grief,” Joel said, “what is ‘Metronome Mountain’?”

There are probably dozens of ways to use the metronome creatively in our practicing. We can use it to systematically inch our tempo forward, one notch at a time. We can “sandwich” slow and fast speeds (particularly helpful if one embraces those huge double-decker BLT sort of sandwiches so that our metronome sandwich becomes Slow-Fast-Slow-Fast-Slow.) But for both my own practicing and for student assignments, I really love Metronome Mountain.

Metronome Mountain goes like this: I begin at a comfortable tempo, something that doesn’t push me at all or force me to sacrifice accuracy in any way. The next repetition I move it up slightly, halfway up the mountain of tempo possibility so to speak, still comfortable, but starting to cause me to work harder. Then I jump the speed up to my edge, perhaps closer to the actual performance tempo, right where I am really beginning to dance against security. After that somewhat breathless run, I reverse the climb. I set the metronome back to halfway down the mountain. And then, for the final repetition, I once again take the easy route, solidifying the notes and gestures at a leisurely tempo. It might look something like this: 80-92-112-92-80. Or 100-120-144-120-100. Or…Or….

Metronome Mountain. I like it. I like that the repetitions are weighed more towards the comfy and safe than the edgy and dangerous. I like starting and ending with the same tempo. I like the chance to fling myself at the top speed without living up there where the air is too thin to breathe well.

Matt and I just returned from two weeks in Quebec where we climbed several mountains covered in spectacular fall color. I liked that too.

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

-Naomi Shihab Nye
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (A Far Corner Book)