May 19th, 2013 :: Performing Days
Last Saturday night was my studio recital, the touchstone every spring that heralds the end of the semester. “Are we going to have a theme this time?” several kids asked me. Last May we celebrated the works of our friend and fellow Albuquerque resident, Dennis Alexander. Last November we had an all-duet recital. This time there was no theme. “How about the theme could be ‘Let’s all play really really well.’” I suggested. The kids thought this idea was boring. Clearly, I’ve lost my creativity and any fun I ever possessed.
But, of course, what I know, and the kids do too if you question them hard enough, is that the recital is never the point anyway. The recital is merely the punctuation on weeks and months of hard work and preparation. That’s where the real growth takes place: the moment we realize we don’t really know the B section of our piece; the stumbles that humble us when we play for our peers in performance class; the corner we turn when we go from merely playing at the music to owning it. “I know why we have performance class,” one kid announced in the recent pre-recital class. “Because in performance class we all mess up sometimes and we know that no one is going to laugh at us or make fun of us.” Another kid followed up this comment with: “I know why performance classes are required.” (They are, and rightly so, very impressed with the idea of required classes.) “Because we play better at the recital when we have to play in performance classes. Like, the recital isn’t the first time we have ever played our piece for someone.” Yet another one had this advice for his classmates: “When you have a memory problem--I know because I have lots of them!--you should just think like Nemo. Instead of ‘Keep swimming’ you should think ‘Keep playing.’” Ah, these kids are so smart.
Really, it’s all I can do to keep up with them. Recently, one precocious 7 year-old walked into his lesson and before I could open my mouth said, “Miss Amy, I need to tell you about sharps and flats,” as if this was a world he had just discovered and he thought he better let me in on it. OK, kid, I thought to myself. Bring it on.
Not only have we been preparing for recitals around here, but also for festivals and talent shows and other events where someone will judge our work. One little girl sheepishly admitted, “I just don’t like being judged” when I encouraged her to participate in a local festival. Later I wondered if that wasn’t the smartest, most intuitive thing I had heard all week. I don’t like being judged either and breathe a big sigh of relief when talent show auditions and festivals and contests are behind us for another year. It’s not that I worry too much about how the kids will do---they will do fine, perhaps even show moments of greatness. Even the tiny kid who played his entire audition last Friday with his tongue stuck out in concentration, completely unaware of the chocolate on his pants, walked away with a proud ‘I’ rating from a tough judge. We can be judged and hold up well under the scrutiny. We just don’t necessarily like it.
Now that the required recital, festivals, and performance classes are behind us for the semester the road ahead is empty of pressure or deadlines. We can spend as much time as we want on sharps and flats, scales and key signatures, new repertoire and new techniques. I, for one, welcome the lack of judges in the months ahead. Spring may have just arrived, but summer—with all its liberating freedom—is just around the corner. Bring it on.
May 12th, 2013 :: Reading Days
My mother’s old leather handbag,
Crowded with letters she carried
all through the war. The smell
of my mother’s handbag: mints
and lipstick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened,
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.
May 5th, 2013 :: Ordinary Days
The winds are back.
Today they blew so violently my birdfeeders were knocked to the ground. The tulips were stripped of their petals and now the stalks stand naked. The huge bell hanging in the courtyard rang wildly all afternoon. Inside, the house is covered in a layer of dust. The bottoms of my feet are black from walking barefoot on the wooden floors. My beautiful new black and white tile floors (with white grout—what was I thinking?) are gritty and dirty; no amount of sweeping helps.
The winds mean spring is officially here, a marker more reliable in New Mexico than a calendar. This year, spring has been flirting with us for weeks---the daffodils and hyacinths bloomed a month ago; last week my first yellow rose appeared. I have a field of purple irises in the back garden. When I look out my bathroom window, all I can see is green: the Elm trees are in full leaf. But just two weeks ago we also saw snow: 6-12 inches in the upper elevations. Even in this, the most urban of neighborhoods some 5000 feet below, we got flurries.
This bi-polar weather reflects the pace of the semester thus far. We have seen weeks and weeks of non-stop work, reeling from one performance to another. Then suddenly, dramatically, comes an empty afternoon and we spin dizzily in the open space, only to be thrust back in long, long days with every minute obsessively scheduled. It’s enough to make us question our sanity, or at the very least wonder how long we can keep this up.
My favorite musical marking of all time might very well be tornando al tempo: Return to the tempo. The Midwesterner in me likes to read this as tornado al tempo, which sounds very dramatic as if we should all scurry to the basement in search of shelter. In the tornado seasons of my childhood, getting to spend the night in the basement was a great thrill, particularly if it involved sleeping bags and candles. There was something strangely comforting about the whole family camping out together in the dark sans electricity. Return to the tempo. Somehow these Midwestern storms seemed to force us to return to the tempo of an earlier, more simple time, something that even as a child I must have longed for.
Nothing has really changed. I still want the occasional good ghost story and the lulling sound of the rain on the roof. Candlelight is my favorite way to light the darkness. And there is nothing like a raging storm with lots of thunder that makes my teeth rattle.
But I live in the desert. Instead of rain, I wait out the winds. I shut windows and lock doors, keeping out the gusts of air and dirt, protecting my corner of the universe from nature’s elements. Slowly, hesitantly, we are returning to the familiar and comforting tempo of our lives, the terror and sadness of recent weeks beginning to abate slightly. Outside, the bell tolls and tolls as it is tossed about in the wild air, singing the arrival of spring.
April 21st, 2013 :: Extraordinary Days
Monday morning we got word that a dear friend of ours had a baby boy. He was healthy and beautiful; the mother, father and older sister were all overjoyed to finally welcome him into the world.
Several hours later I received two text messages. The first was a photo of the newborn. The second was news of the Boston bombing.
I had already been thinking about Boston all morning. Hoping to make a trip back east this summer, I had been planning to call a friend in Boston whom I want to visit and to look at some possible dates. After hearing the news, I didn’t call Julia. It didn’t seem right just then to plan the future. When tragedy strikes, we need to honor the moment, sit with the terror, be present with the grief, if only for a short time.
There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t miss living in Boston. Sometimes in my mind I wander down Commonwealth Avenue from our old apartment in Kenmore Square all the way to the Public Gardens. To counter insomnia, I count swan boats paddling slowly across the pond. I wander down the long tree-lined sidewalk alongside Beacon Street through the Common on the way to Park Street T stop. I putter down Charles Street to our other apartment on the backside of Beacon Hill. To entertain myself, I invent stories of the people who might live in the brownstones. I imagine them to be interesting, cultured people; blue-blooded Bostonians of the first order: they are art curators at the Gardner Museum or professors at Harvard. They throw great dinner parties and read every one of those books I can see in their libraries through the windows. They go to Symphony. They spend summers on the Cape.
Other times I remember walking along the path next to the Charles River, passing the Memorial Shell where the Boston Pops play every 4th of July. On late summer nights, we used to take a bottle of wine to a nearby boat dock and watch the sun set. I walked across the Mass Ave and Longfellow bridges on the way to a T stop in Cambridge more times than I could count. I can still see the crew teams, out for an early morning practice, cutting across the water. There are always dozens of sailboats in my mind. My piano technician here in Albuquerque learned to sail on the Charles River when he was in graduate school. Why, I think now, did I not learn to sail when we lived in Boston?
I know every inch of those blocks of Boylston Street that have been the subject of the news and our scrutiny since Monday afternoon. I whiled away countless hours in the Starbucks near where one of the bombs exploded. It was there that I often skipped church with the New York Times or daydreamed in one of the big chairs next to the picture windows that overlooked the sidewalk. I marked time by watching the duck boats full of tourists go by. I wrote the first draft of an article for American Music Teacher in that Starbucks and drank countless cappuccinos.
Many Sunday nights -- when not at St. Starbucks -- I attended services at Trinity Church in Copley Square with a motley group of congregants all seeking sanctuary and meaning: students, tourists, professors, the homeless. I have checked out dozens of books from the Boston Public Library across the street. Copley Hotel was worth ducking into at Christmas time, if only to gawk at the opulence. In Back Bay Station, I caught hundreds of trains out to the suburbs to my church and teaching jobs. I met Matt at his favorite Starbucks at Boylston and Berkeley too many times to remember. Waiting for Matt, I would putter up and down Newbury Street, window-shopping in the designer boutiques. I once spontaneously bought the greatest pair of red boots ever made in a shoe shop near Arlington. My favorite haunt on the way home from work was Trident Booksellers, which is still my idea of the perfect bookshop/café. Once I sat out a late spring nor’easter at a table there in a bay window, drinking tea and writing.
Living in Boston during and after 9/11 meant that a kind of suspended anxiety became familiar, almost the new normal. Because Boston was closely linked to the 9/11 tragedy, rumors and threats to that city circulated for months. We flew out of Logan the day after the shoe bomber flew in, part of the first wave of people that will forever be asked to remove their shoes at security. Watching the news Monday night sent us back to those horrible days after September 11th, 2001, only this time instead of sitting in the middle of the terror, we watched from afar, the distance both comforting and frustrating at the same time. Without even knowing it, all these years we have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And now it has.
We didn’t know anyone who was likely to be at the Boston Marathon Monday afternoon. My sister-in-law Mary is the only person I know who might run a marathon on the spur of the moment, and she was Morocco, not Boston. This event shouldn’t be personal for us; except, of course, it is.
In Wishful Thinking Frederick Buechner writes, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.”
Monday evening Matt sent this quote to our friends, the new parents. Since Monday, I have thought more about this little child that entered the world on such a complicated day than I have about the victims in Boston. A day that is split open, raw and wounded, seems a particularly vulnerable place to begin one’s life. But precious, too, and rich with the possibility of healing.
Some days I would trade every precious part of my current life—the cute house and garden, the lazy cats and feisty betta fish, the beautiful grand piano in the living room, every last familiar and dear student—to go back to Boston. To go back to living on the edge: the tiny 350 square-foot apartment, the crowded commutes on the T, the hurried walks down Marlborough dashing to another rehearsal or lesson. I’d take even the fear again. But as tempting as it may be to chuck my whole life and run racing back to Boston, the real answer, the difficult but honest response to Monday’s events isn’t to give up on my world, but to embrace it. To accept that it includes new babies and great sadnesses all at once. People are born and people die, and the poignancy of just that is what makes it holy.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
-dedicated to Liz, Seth, Anna & baby Jacob. xoxo
April 14th, 2013 :: Practicing Days
Sometimes there is no avoiding the metronome.
I am reluctant to admit this, because of the widespread stereotypes that involve metronomes, bad piano lessons, and stern music teachers, but sometimes there is nothing more comforting than the tick-tick-tick of the metronome pulling us along. Even the kids seem to sense this, earnestly telling me that they “should just use the metronome” when I ask them how they could fix a piece that is running away or coming apart at the seams. Metronomes keep us honest, when too often it is easy to look the other way at an unsteady tempo or a frenzied performance. Leased to a metronome, we can happily trot by its side.
But while metronomes are brilliant devices for managing tempo, they should never be used to organize rhythm or to understand the underlying pulse. “Should I use a metronome?” beginning older students who have never used a metronome before sometimes ask me. “I know the ‘timing’ is off,” they will explain as if music was a cake that hadn’t been baked long enough. In these cases of bad timing (or rhythm as I gently correct them), metronomes are never the answer. In fact, the tick-tock of the metronome in these instances would inevitably become just one more thing that a student with a poor sense of pulse could learn to ignore. Indeed, there is nothing worse than a student who obliviously manages to learn to play away in his own rhythmic la-la land, while the metronome is ticking away, the two actions completely unrelated to one another. (Try it yourself sometime. Not playing with the metronome is actually really hard to do. The whole point of its strong unrelenting beat is that it is supposed to shove our unsteadiness into its reliable groove.)
I have come to believe that the longer I can keep beginning students away from the metronome, the better. Exercises like passing a ball to the pulse of a song while singing or chanting rhythms and melodies helps internalize a strong sense of the beat. Learning to switch between passing the “beat” or the “rhythm” at the drop of a hat is a game we play in performances classes. The last kid standing wins, which makes the students both giggle and focus. Ask any of my early elementary-age kids the difference between “beat” and “rhythm” and not one of them will use the word “timing.” If I have done nothing else right, at least they understand this.
In my own practicing lately, I have been using the metronome a lot. Needing to push a whole recital of pieces up to tempo, the metronome is just the kick in the pants I am looking for. I practice way under tempo. I throw caution to the wind and rip along at performance tempo. I swing manically between super slow and insanely fast, giving the music a sort of bi-polar character. I move the metronome up one notch at a time, baby steps so small I don’t even notice the tiny changes in speed. I practice each hand separately with the metronome. I organize music with a great deal of rubato against the steady beat, reminding myself how far I might have strayed.
It’s satisfying work all of it, much like a good spring clean rids the corners of cobwebs and dust bunnies that might have been collecting unnoticed for months. Which I need to do as well; but, as always, I’d rather practice.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org