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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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)

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ColdPlay

This was first posted in June 2015, but the concept of ColdPlay is timeless.

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For the last couple of months in the studio we have been madly getting ready for an onslaught of festivals, competitions, the final round of performance classes for the year, and the annual spring recital. All this, needless to say, involved a lot of practicing.

But getting ready for performances requires a different sort of practice than the everyday work of breaking down music in order to learn it. After all, the music should already be learned. The rhythms secured. The dynamics incorporated. The drama and character of the music understood and embodied. The memory checked and rechecked.

What we need now is ColdPlay.

“ColdPlay” (not to be confused with the British rock group, Coldplay, although we like the association. The quirky one word, but two capital letters spelling is all ours.) was invented and christened during one Wednesday afternoon lesson last month. Perhaps invented is the wrong word, for thoughtful musicians have been doing ColdPlay forever.

ColdPlay means sitting down to play our pieces cold, without warming up or priming our brains by looking over the music beforehand. This is not a run-through in the middle of our practicing, or after we have worked out all the tricky spots. It is Cold Play. Literally.

This first revealed itself to me as a problem needing a practice strategy from my own work at the piano. For years, I have puzzled over how often when spontaneously asked to play something (at a dinner party, on a piano sitting in a hotel lobby…), I don’t lack for memorized repertoire that should be ready on the spur of a moment, but I never play well. Suddenly the 88 keys that I spend most of my life in front of seem like strangers I have never met.

And so, about a year ago, I began starting every practice session by playing through something cold. It has been illuminating really, how habituated I had become to playing actual repertoire only after I had thoroughly warmed up with technique work. Turns out, fingers don’t need so much warming up after all. Scales and etudes keep our technique sharp for sure, but what they are really doing is sending a signal to our brains: “Hey! Remember, you are a pianist. Time to engage the musical part of your brain.”

Taking on this new practice has done wonders for my Gershwin and Joplin. I’m no longer intimated by the idea of performing on an unfamiliar piano without advanced notice. In fact, I have much less attachment to the concept of warm-up at all. I still do technique work, but now I do it for the work itself, not because I need it to remind myself that I do, indeed, play the piano.

But in spite of the value of ColdPlay I have witnessed in my own work, I hadn’t thought specifically into turning this habit into a practice technique for students until one day after the third kid in a row said something like: “I play my piece fine the second time through.” Great, I thought. Too bad the judge isn’t hearing the second time.

Most performances are really a ColdPlay, even assuming we have a leisurely practice session ahead of time. There is something about the heightened attention, nerves and excitement of a live performance that takes us out of the comfortable place where this music might live in our brains and fingers and makes the experience seem cold, foreign, unfamiliar.

Which is why that is what we have to practice. Playing Cold. Sitting down at the piano straight off the school bus and running through our recital piece. Playing through the festival requirements of scales, chords and three contrasting pieces first thing in the morning when the sleep is yet to be washed out of our eyes. Performing to an imaginary audience (or our cats) every time we pass the piano. Cold Play.

What ColdPlay really tests is our ability to access our knowledge and facility of our music in any situation, at any time. (In a box, with a fox, on a train, in a plane…) ColdPlay assumes that a good performance is not dependent upon being in the right mood or upon the practice of personal superstitions (a red handkerchief in the left pocket, a penny in our right shoe, walking around the piano three times before we sit down….). ColdPlay reassures us that yep, we’ve got this. Anytime. Anywhere.

And, we like the name.

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A Terror

Matt sometimes tells people that he lives with the person who thinks more about practicing than anyone he knows. I fear this might make me the biggest nerd on the planet.

But lately I have been thinking about practicing more than usual. In two weeks, I am doing three performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which means these days I eat, sleep and breath the Goldberg Variations. Apropos of nothing, I find myself saying things like, “Did you know that in the third variation…”

It goes without saying that the Goldbergs involve a lot of practicing. A. Lot. If ever there was a time to be thinking about practicing in all its many forms, this is it.

My students and I talk about practicing all the time. There is no set system of practice accountability that I require and impose; instead over time we create a method together, tweaking and fussing with it as we go. Some kids fill out practice charts with days and minutes. Other kids record sight-reading pages as evidence of their 5 days of practice. Still others do none of this, having proven to me long ago that they could be trusted to work faithfully without keeping a strict daily record.

Practice records are a good thing. I, too, make practice notes, reminding me of what I intend to do the next day with the metronome on variation eight or what variation needs to be practiced with hands separate (Hmmm….all of them, actually.) Some students have developed elaborate systems of record keeping, involving stars and stickers and rewards. Even I have trouble remembering how some of these plans work. Micah’s accountability system involves a daily assessment of up and down arrows to show me how things are going. Generally, I suspect that these little charts are filled out mostly on autopilot and don’t represent a real thoughtful evaluation of his work, but that’s OK for now. The little charts help him to remember to do everything, and he likes the act of recording his repetitions and assessment arrows. For now, it works.

But last week, Micah came into his lesson, set down his practice notebook on my desk and announced, “You will see that the first three days of scales were a terror.” (I can totally relate to this. I have some variations that I think of as “a terror” as well.)

True enough, in each of the first three practice boxes for scales was an emphatically drawn down arrow.

I loved this. This might have been one of my favorite teaching moments ever. I loved this, not for what it represented about his struggle, but for what it revealed about his attention and evaluation of his practicing. This was, my Ed Psych colleagues would say, proof of meta-cognition.

It was also evidence of something else I was even more proud of: It was proof that this young boy understood that practicing was hard and that sometimes things didn’t go particularly well, but that with trust in the work and the will to try again tomorrow, things would get better.

This has been pretty much what the last 35 years of practicing has taught me too.

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Who he is

There is something about exposure to that big country that not only tells an individual how small he is, but steadily tells him who he is.

-Wallace Stegner

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What’s New?

It has recently come to my attention that I start every piano lesson with the question, “What’s new?”

This is not intended to be a probing question, nor is it, as some kids think, a version of I Spy. “I think you moved that basket!”

Nope. It is simply my way of saying, “Hey there! Come on in. Let’s have some fun.”

But last week, little Audrey came prepared for my question. She must have practiced her answer in the car on the way to her lesson. Before I could utter a word, she said, “I have some new things.”

“Well, do tell. What new things?”

“First of all, I have gymnastics on Saturdays now, but I only go to karate once a week. I used to go twice a week, but my mom said that was too much, and now I only go once a week. But I do gymnastics every Saturday morning. So that means I have gymnastics and karate and piano every week. Only now piano is on Mondays. Last year it was on Tuesdays, but now it is on Mondays.”

This kid has always spoken in a sort of stream-of-consciousness kind of way. But honestly, I like this full-paragraph thinking. I’ll take an excess of information over the teenager who simply grunts in response to the question: “What’s new?”

There are the kids who can’t be bothered to answer the question, and then there are the ones that are just confused. Eight-year-old Anthony, a transplant from a colleague’s studio, does not hide the fact that he is puzzled by this line of questioning. When I ask, “What’s new?” he says, “I don’t understand the question. What do you mean, what’s new?” You can hear the irritation in his voice. I think I’m frustrating this kid before his lesson has even begun, and yet I keep doing it. Every week. I am consistent, if nothing else. In this case, consistently annoying.

Matt says that he sympathizes with Anthony’s frustration completely, and that this question reminds him of when his father used to fill every silence of his childhood by asking, “Well, what do you think?” There was never any subject at hand. leaving Matt to wonder “What do I think about what?”

This makes me think of the calls and responses woven in worship services. “The Lord be with you,” says the presider. “And also with you,” replies the congregation without pause. These calls and responses are part of fabric, the language, of a spiritual community. This is who we are. These are the things we say and the songs we sing.

“What’s new?” is only a small fragment of the language and identifying characteristics of this studio. This fall we are welcoming in a number of new faces, more new fingers and hands than this studio has seen in a while. We are generally a pretty stable and consistent village, but now and again change can be good for us, and new pianists bring new energy and enthusiasm into our tired ways.

But, given these changes, I’ve been thinking about this piano community a lot lately, and trying to figure out what makes this musical village unique. We have our practice notebooks filled with my colorful scribbles. We have practice charts completed with students’ sight-reading pages and practice days and minutes (or, at least that’s the idea). We have performance classes where we work on not just performance etiquette, but also on all the little bits and pieces that make us pianists. We have our songs, those several dozen Name That Tune melodies that the new students (poor Anthony!) are trying to learn in order to keep up with their peers in performance classes. We have Rhythm & Movement classes, places where we step and clap, chant and sing. All of these classes and practices are really just a kind of team-building musical ropes course, a way to build a bonded and supportive piano family: This is who we are. These are our games. These are our songs.

Musing over this, I am reminded of my favorite moment from last spring’s studio recital. It was actually a moment I missed completely, although a quick parent caught it on camera. It is a photo of one of my older kids high-fiving one of the little ones as she came back to her seat. Forget the music performed that night. That was the best moment of the evening for me. Proof that we are a family. We have each other’s backs. This is who we are.

What’s new? in the end, is just the beginning.