March 24th, 2013 :: Teaching Days
Composer Alice Parker tells this story about the years when she was working under the late Robert Shaw. When she was a young composition student at Juilliard, she was singled out to help Shaw create arrangements of hymns and folksongs – pieces that are now considered to be standards of the choral repertoire. One of her jobs was to find texts for Shaw to set to music, and so Alice spent hours poring over poetry and hymns at the New York Public Library. She would then come back to Shaw with a pile of texts that she had found, eager to show him these treasures. Shaw would frequently interrupt her while she eagerly read to him various texts, "No," he'd say, dismissing her find. "But the second verse is beautiful," she'd argue. "The second verse is too late," Shaw would respond.
I have heard this story a dozen times and every time it strikes a chord. Shaw was asserting that if the text didn't grab you immediately, it wasn't worth holding out till the second or third verse for something better. This reminds me of a fun dinner party game to play with musicians that goes like this: you are in a sinking boat with all your loved ones. In order to save your lives, you have to throw over the side of the boat the complete works of some composer that will forever be lost to humankind. There's a lot to consider here, for in losing one composer you dislike, you might also then affect later composers. And certain composers (Berg comes to mind) don’t have enough volume of output to really help your sinking boat much. The first time Matt played this game, he was with a group of choral conductors who were throwing over Chopin right and left. Personally, I'd toss Handel, thinking that if I didn't lose another Christmas to a Messiah performance I'd be a much happier woman. But honestly, that is as cheap a choice as the choral conductors pick of Chopin. To really play fair, you have to pick from a composer that has some bearing on your world. In that case, Liszt goes. I don't even have to think twice.
But it seems no one is throwing anything over the boat. I can’t keep up. I am drowning in repertoire, technique, and expectations. Ten lifetimes would not be enough to read through all the music on my shelves. Every time I turn around I hear about another opportunity for my students. They are all good ones, I am sure, but between soccer games and homework and piano lessons I am not sure where another music festival fits in. I wonder seriously about the shallowness of our work and the frenetic tempo of our practices, and whether or not somewhere, between cramming down dinner and another sonatina, we have lost sight of land completely.
I am thinking of all this a great deal at the moment. Spring break is behind us, and staring us in the face are the annual spring festivals and recitals needing attention. It is time to stop teaching in “cruise control” and actually begin steering this boat. I play through dozens of pieces, picking out recital music for my younger students (“Too late,” I think to myself, when after 16 measures the piece hasn’t worked its magic.). Older students are memorizing and polishing, learning final sections of big works, reviewing old repertoire. For the next six weeks, we will have no choice but to throw some things over the boat: ear tunes, original compositions, new techniques and skills. These things will drift alongside for a while, until the load lightens up again and we can fish them out of the water. Thank goodness for life rafts.
Turns out, my students have plenty of opinions about what is important and what could be tossed. “Any ideas about what you might want to play on the recital?” I ask them. “Have you heard a piece you might be interested in learning? Or is there a composer or style you want to try?” These questions are dangerous, I realize, but they are really code for: I am buying myself some time here because I haven’t figure it out. Maybe you can give me a place to start or at least rule out some things for me.
I should have been asking the kids this question all along. One serious sixth grader replied, “You know, Amy, I am really into classical music these days. I think I’d like to play one of those two-page operas by Beethoven.” I tried not to laugh, after all, I understood what he was really saying to me: Come on, Amy, time for me to play one of the big boys. While original two-page operas for the piano by Beethoven are a bit in short supply, finding a great two-page piece by one of the major figures in our world I can handle.
Several other kids also quickly requested a recital piece by a “famous dead composer.” I am both surprised and somewhat pleased by this. Clearly, our work studying composers and major works in performance classes is sinking in, but the message to me is also coming through loud and clear: Let’s stop fooling around here.
Which doesn’t mean we have thrown our favorite pedagogical composers over the boat. In fact, one of the same children who requested a “famous dead composer” in the next breath told me that she loved ALL the pieces in her Dennis Alexander collection so much that each one deserved its own recital.
So we are keeping Dennis, and all those two-page operas by Beethoven. Liszt, however, is still out of here.
January 27th, 2013 :: Teaching Days
Last week I received this phone message on my voice mail:
“Hello. I am looking for information about piano lessons for young children. Please call me.”
I get a lot of inquiring phone calls about lessons, and while I often have a waiting list, I think it good business to return every phone call. I refer students to my colleagues. I counsel parents about starting ages for piano lessons. I discuss the advantages of the piano versus the violin. Part of being a music educator is a certain amount of PR work.
But phone messages like the one above make me roll my eyes. There was no phone number, no name, no helpful information. Good grief.
There was one time I had someone to handle things like this. When we lived in Boston, instead of managing my own studio, I worked for several community music schools where I was simply a contracted teacher, not responsible for any administrative duties. This, I found, had its own price.
Just because someone else was managing the business and administrative tasks of my schedule doesn’t mean this was being done well. One day I arrived at school on a Friday afternoon and the secretary Rita said brightly, "Did you get that phone message?"
"What phone message?"
"Well...a mother called and there is a sick child."
A sick child. I waited patiently to see if this sick child had anything to do with me.
"This child had a high fever. The mother did not sound concerned about it, but I am."
I continued to wait to see if this sick child would affect my life, or at the very least, my afternoon.
"This is one of my students?" I prompted her.
"Yes. The mother was cancelling the lesson. I don't think it was for today."
This was becoming more and more dubious. Parents do not call and cancel lessons for days or weeks ahead if their child is sick.
"What is this child's name?"
"Hmmm . . . seems like it could have been a name for either a girl or a boy."
Rita was surprisingly unflustered by all of this. I wanted her apologetic and groveling at my feet for not taking this phone message correctly.
I wracked my brain for potential students with androgynous names. I came up blank. I could see my time with Rita was rather pointless, so I left and waited for a student to miss his or her lesson. The sick child's name? Annabel.
Later, replaying this incident for Matt, he reminded me a Dilbert cartoon. Dilbert's secretary has been given a poor job evaluation. She asks Dilbert for an explanation and Dilbert says, "Because I got 345 phone messages last year with the note, 'Might have been Bob.'"
Of course, taking the middleman out of the equation doesn’t solve the problem either. Teaching pre-college lessons means dealing with parents. Many of these parents I adore; some become lifelong friends. Some do not.
A student named Mandy came from a particularly clue-free family. It didn't seem to matter if I talked to the mother, the father, or the kid (or all three), they didn't seem to remember anything--not what time her lesson was, or what day, or what she was supposed to practice. Mandy missed multiple lessons (always without a phone call to explain why) because no one could remember to bring her. After a few months of this nonsense, I called her mother to tell her that I was dropping Mandy from my studio. She wasn't home, so I left a message asking her call me. A few days later (on the day of Mandy's next lesson, as it happens), she returned my call. Now, I am no parent, but if my child had missed a lesson the previous week (which she had) then the first words out of my mouth would be an apology. But no, not in this case, in fact, it was debatable if she even remembered that her daughter had missed another lesson. After waiting several seconds for the apology that didn't follow, I began my explanation about how I was no longer going to keep Mandy in my studio. "Oh," the mother finally said, "how about we just start up again in the fall?" What did you not understand here? I thought to myself, and began once again. This time she interrupted me, "That's OK. How about we just start up again in the fall?" It took three tries to get her to understand what I had been saying for the last five minutes. Just when I thought she might have finally comprehended the situation, she said, "Well, we leave for Denver today so I guess Mandy won't be at her lesson tonight." Hearing this, I began to suspect that she not so much telling me this, as she was simply thinking out loud and I happened to overhear. Suddenly, in the middle of her next sentence her phone cut off and the line went dead. Did she call me back? No.
Other parents call altogether too often. The messages pile up while I teach and rehearse. "What are all these messages about?" I whine redundantly at my husband for the thousandth time in our years together as I stare at the blinking light of my voice mail.
"I bet, now I could be wrong, but I bet they have something to do with the piano: either someone wants you to teach the piano or play the piano.” At the end of the day, these messages often seem to go on forever. Sometimes they go on so long I need to pour myself a glass of wine just to get through them. Sometimes I can finish the entire bottle before I reach the end.
"We have got to set a time limit for these people," Matt often says. Last night a mother called and left a lengthy message. Afterwards she did not hang up the phone, but rather simply set it on the counter where we were then privy to five minutes of their kitchen life. "This has got to stop," said Matt.
"Might have been Bob," I answered.
June 3rd, 2012 :: Teaching Days
A conversation heard outside our window:
A couple of guys were rewiring the air-conditioner next door. One says to the other, "Man, that woman sure does play the piano a long time."
The other responds, "She's a professional pianist. Like, she went to school for that."
"You can do that?"
These days that time at school seems a million years ago. I am weeks away from acquiring another useless master’s degree. I spent last semester in a mind-numbing measurement and assessment course, taught by someone who had the unfortunate habit of reversing numbers in his calculations. (“You know that’s how bridges collapse,” one friend said drily. Yes, but we are in the social sciences.) I spent the first month of class wondering why I never came up with same numbers as he did, and the next three months wondering which of the numbers might be reversed in the statistical equations I was struggling to understand. It was a long semester.
I turned in a final paper and the next day began studying for comps. Comprehensive exams in that last graduate degree 20 years ago (“Like, she went to school for that.”) consisted of memorizing long lists of opus numbers and keys. There was one time I knew the opus number of everything Beethoven wrote for the piano. And Chopin. I knew all the K numbers used to catalogue Mozart sonatas and concertos. I could tell you that Beethoven Opus 10 No 3 was in D major. That was a long time ago.
These days I am studying cognition theories and internal and external validity principles. I can tell you in great detail about the modal model of memory and talk to you for hours about Bandura’s social cognitive theory. I have nine hours of written comps and a morning of orals. During June, I have my last class in human development (due to unfortunate timing, I will have to write my human development comp questions the same week I am finishing the course. Not ideal.). The end is in sight.
Recently, a student of mine announced that she was “super excited” about her term paper because she was doing it on Bach and “you, Miss Amy, can be my primary source!” Research methods are not my strong suit, as anyone in the educational psychology program at the University of New Mexico will tell you, however, I am pretty sure I cannot be Corrine’s primary source on Bach.
Nonetheless, I was charmed, if not by her assertion of my primary connection to Bach, but because she was so psyched about doing an English term paper on a composer. For weeks she gave me updates, offered fun facts about what she was learning, asked to borrow books. Finally, one week Corrine declared that the paper was done. “Do you know what was the toughest part?” she asked me. “Tell me,” I responded, sensing somehow that piano practice might have taken a back seat the week the term paper was due.
“The toughest part was trying to explain musical things that I have been doing my whole life. Like ‘shaping’ or crescendo. My English teacher had no idea what I was talking about. He kept making me explain. It’s really hard to figure out how to talk about what we do.” In all my years with Corrine I have never seen her so serious. These days she is a teenager, flakey and distracted as often as she is earnest and intense. And yet, there she was, talking about being a musician (“…things I have been doing my whole life…”) as if it were a central part of how she viewed herself in the world, as if there was nothing more important than trying to make another person understand this very essence of her.
In the end, perhaps that is why I went back to school. I wanted to learn to talk more credibly about what it is that I do. I wanted to understand the theories behind how teaching and learning works. I wanted to be able to say with some conviction and authority what the educational psychology equivalent of crescendo might be. Maybe more than anything, I wanted to be able to explain to another person, “Hey! This is how I see the world.”
You can do that?
I certainly hope so.
April 29th, 2012 :: Teaching Days
This week I was teaching a pre-Impressionist piece to Sophie. It is a little early intermediate piece that makes use of the five-note pentatonic scale. I began my spiel by talking a bit about Impressionist art. We looked at a couple of paintings by Monet in an art book. I explained the link to Impressionist music, how these composers were enthralled with Asian culture, and how they began imitating this sound by using modalities like the pentatonic scale. We improvised a bit on the black keys, familiarizing ourselves with this distinct sound color. I reminded Sophie that at this time in history it was difficult to travel from Europe to the Far East and so composers had a fairly limited knowledge of this culture. I was ready to direct our attention to the actual piece that I was assigning Sophie, confident that I had done my background work thoroughly.
Suddenly, Sophie blurted out, "Couldn't they just go through the Panama Canal?"
Of course not, I thought impatiently, my eyes on the clock. Don't they teach you anything at school? This was already taking far longer than I had anticipated. Next week is our spring recital, there is a lot to do. This juggling act of time management is a constant negotiation. We need to work deeply on a few things, such as the upcoming recital piece, and yet, at the same time, I can’t ignore the regular practices of technique work, sight-reading, new repertoire, and so on. If I do, the students will be certain to ignore these things as well.
There is no right answer as to how to divvy up our allotted time together. Sometime I divide and conquer well, balancing tasks with poise. More often I’m afraid that I push through hurriedly, and probably squash some natural curiosity that might have arisen if I had only allowed a bit more space and breath in our work. Last week, in a rare moment of grace, I decided not to brush off Sophie’s innocent question. Instead, we got out the atlas and examined the map to understand why the Panama Canal was totally unhelpful to the French trying to get to the Far East.
Total time: 43.5 minutes.
Perhaps not the most linear or direct use of our time. In fact, this might be the pedagogical parallel to going through the Panama Canal on the way to the Far East. But I wonder, how much do we miss in our quest for efficiency? I suspect that if we sometimes slowed down long enough for the journey, we might discover that the Panama Canal is actually quite beautiful.
March 4th, 2012 :: Teaching Days
And then there are the one-week pieces.
Lucy would rather to do 10 one-week pieces than a single ear tune. This isn’t a reflection of her ability to pick out a fun folk song, but rather of her dislike of the task. It has gotten to the point where I now have to require her to e-mail me individual steps of the process throughout the week in order to guarantee that it will be done when she arrives at her lesson. The things we do to motivate our students. Or, if not motivate, at least threaten them into submission.
But I was talking about one-week pieces, not ear tunes. “One-week Pieces” (Or simply, “One-Week”, as in “Play me your ‘One-Week’.”) is the clever name for pieces the students must learn in one-week, sans help from me. The object is to get the music as close to performance-ready as they can. Then in the following lesson we score the performance from one to ten, much like an Olympic judging committee. I choose pieces that are generally close to sight-reading level, which ideally gives them an opportunity to spend the week not cramming notes and rhythms, but rather working at a higher artistic level. I expect students to think as musically as possible--dynamics, phrasing, balance, etc. --all of which gives me an opportunity to assess how well they can do these things without my guidance.
Students begin the assignment of one-week pieces when they hit mid-high school, one of those tangible milestones of joining the Chopin Performance Class, which is made up of mid-and-senior high students. Points are recorded for each student and then collected together to earn some kind of party or reward during a monthly performance class.
I’d like to take full credit for the idea of the one-week pieces, but truth is I stole the gist of the concept years ago from a source I can’t even remember anymore, which is how it rolls in the teaching world. Like the points for one-week pieces earned by the Chopin class, our pedagogical brilliance is somewhat collective is this field.
February 26th, 2012 :: Teaching Days
Ford is composing a multiple movement piece about dinosaurs ("A suite," I explain to him. "Is this like a really big hotel room?" he asks me.). For a seven year-old boy there is nothing more exciting than dinosaurs. He checks out a book from the library and writes down the names of five possible dinosaurs from which we are going to choose three ideas for the different movements. Fine so far.
His first composition involves a narrative that goes something like this:
A T-Rex is walking through the forest and stumbles across a baby brontosaurus who has gotten away from his mother. So the T-Rex eats the baby. Then the mother brontosaurus comes looking for the baby and the still hungry T-Rex eats the mother as well.
This movement is made up of a lot of banging on the lower half of the piano (the T-Rex) and some banging on the upper part of the piano (the baby) and some banging on the middle of the piano (the mother).
The next week Ford decides to write a composition about a dinosaur fight. More banging.
Tonight I suggest we try a contrasting mood like dinosaurs sleeping or playing. "OK," he says, "I have an idea."
"Great." I am encouraging and hopeful.
"How about a dinosaur that sneaks up on a sleeping dinosaur and eats it?"
At this point I am beginning to see a consistent theme in the Dinosaur Suite. Envisioning yet another composition that is mainly banging, I ask him if he thought if this idea would be different from the other movements.
"Oh yeah," he assures me.
In the studio there is a lot of composing happening these days. Some kids love it; some don’t. I never push the issue, offering the option if I sense a kid’s interest, but not requiring this assignment. The kids who live or die by their composition assignments never let me forget their weekly composition. Indeed, there are a few who would be forever happy if their entire practice assignment was made up of their own compositions.
In performance classes we often work with improvisation cards, which are postcards on which I have drawn random shapes or squiggles, an idea I adapted from Jean Stackhouse’s pedagogy class I took years ago. The task is to try to “play” the card on the piano. Sometimes I play a card and invite students to guess which card it might be from the selection displayed on the floor in front of them. Other times a student will play a “secret” card that they show no one and the others have to try to draw what they’ve heard. Still other times when I am feeling less ambitious and creative, the kids will simply take turns, drawing a card off the stack and one after another improving gestures and sounds to match the scribbling. It doesn’t much matter which approach we choose, across the board kids LOVE the improv cards and beg to do them in class every month.
For weekly composition assignments, I have a composition bowl, filled to the brim with little pieces of paper on which are written various composition titles. Kids draw from the bowl and, Poof! like magic, there is their composition assignment for the week. I love this, because I don’t have to search my brain and be creative on command; students love it because they never get tired of the suspense involved in taking down the bowl from the shelf, ruffling through the scraps of paper (and inevitably spilling half on the floor, which they also find amusing) and drawing a composition subject every week.
Lately however, students have been complaining that they have done “all” the compositions in the bowl. I think they are lying, because it looks like there are hundreds and no one has done that many, but the kids insist. “Miss Amy,” they whine, “I have already done this one.” I’d like to point out that like the sight-reading books, it wouldn’t kill them to do one twice, but the lure of the novel is irresistible. One day recently, tired of the whining, I came up with a brilliant solution to the problem: I would empty out the entire bowl (That’ll show them! I thought to myself.) and they would be charged with the task of refilling it with their own composition titles, each student responsible for five new ideas.
Of course, like all pedagogical ideas that involve less teacher and more student, this was the perfect solution. I didn’t have to do a damn thing, and the kids are thrilled to have this responsibility, loving the notion that other students will soon be playing their ideas. Win-win.
Now if they could just write their own sight-reading books…..
December 25th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
I was not the only one struggling with discerning the truth about life last month. Apparently, in one of the kindergarten classes at a nearby elementary school there has been much concerned discussion about the existence of Santa Claus. I know this because I have a student in this class, Annette. For weeks, as she played her Christmas tunes for me, Annette would puzzle out loud about how Santa Claus was going to get into my house. "Is your fireplace real?" she asked one day. When I responded that it was a fake fireplace, she assured me that "Santa could use the front door." Meanwhile her classmates have been trying out the theory that perhaps Santa is actually mom and dad. I hope not. I may need to find some space in my life, but I am not ready to give up the idea of Santa Claus.
Elizabeth is 7-years old and completely unpredictable. She has been working on Rudolph, which is rhythmically challenging for a little one. In fact, it has been rather touch and go, pedagogically, which is the often the case when we tackle Christmas tunes. Often, I view the playing of Christmas music as an opportunity to introduce certain rhythms, knowing that for the beginners these might be more advanced than they are ready to take on. Oh well, I usually think, come January we can put these behind us for awhile, no harm done one way or another. As far as Elizabeth goes, I suspect she has been picking out more notes by ear than actually reading the rhythms, but in the last lesson she had appeared to turn a corner. I complimented her on her hard work. She interrupted, her little face screwed up in disgust, "I know, but I don't like those 'mess-ups'."
This reminds me of another young kid with an already healthy respect for accurate performance practices. Last week Kyle stopped in the middle of his eight measure ditty and announced to me, "I am going to start over because that was just full of mistakes."
We are doing winter/Christmas compositions in the studio these days. Last Wednesday I assigned Luke to do a composition about bells. To start his creative thinking process I asked him, "What happens when a bell rings?"
"An angel gets his wings," he answered confidently.
Tuesday Julie came into her lesson just as Anthony was finishing playing his final piece for December, a rowdy version of "Jingle Bells." As he is leaving, slamming the door behind him, Julie turns to me, "Miss Amy, how come he got to play 'Jingle Bells' and I got stuck with 'Away in the Manger'?"
On Annette's last lesson before Christmas she lost her first tooth. "How will the tooth fairy get in your house?" I asked her, wondering if while working out Santa's escape routes she had considered the tooth fairy. It was clear by her expression that she had not. "Maybe flies in the window?" She suggested, thereby closing the door of that mystery for another day.
Maybe flies in the window. May Santa and the tooth fairy bless you, however they get in the house. May your holidays be mistake-free. May there be thousands of bells ringing, and angels singing.
Merry Christmas to all.....
October 23rd, 2011 :: Teaching Days
The notorious 5 Fun Facts have a new twist.As I have mentioned here before, “5 Fun Facts” are what my mid and senior high students call the short composer backgrounds they are required to present during performance classes. They were so named because one dry-humored student would always begin her presentation by announcing, “Now these facts are really fun,” and then proceeding to tell us about some obscure biographical trivia involving horrible skin diseases (Bartok) or childhood accidents (Kuhlau). These presentations did not focus a lot on musical facts, regrettably, but we were offered an often slanted and always human take on the more gritty details of the lives of various composers.My group this year decided it would be more fun if they could add a lie to the mix of fun facts, thereby turning the activity into something like a crazy game of Two Truths and a Lie. Recently, this group attended a recital given by my friend and mentor, William Westney, who was appearing on a concert series headed by my husband. (As I write that sentence it does seem rather wrought with inside connections, doesn’t it? Something almost like musical nepotism, but not quite.)Afterwards, the performance class had use of the sanctuary and the nine-foot concert grand (“Are we going to get to play that piano?!!”). Since this is still early in the semester, performances are a long way from recital-ready. Practices like making constructive comments after performances are a bit rusty and awkward. Later in the year, the kids will volunteer all sorts of insightful thoughts about one another’s playing, but this early in the semester they are still shy and quiet. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about such a practice in the first place. I think it makes them listen more attentively and to think more about what makes a good performance, but I squirm uncomfortably at the idea nonetheless. I don’t love the prospect that I am training anyone to be overly judgmental or critical. What we need are more people looking for the joy of every musical offering, not what might be wrong. I don’t want to cultivate a negative atmosphere among them, but rather a supportive one. And so, I require that for every “What could Molly work on in her performance?” sort of comment, there must be TWO positive, “this is what you did really well” kinds of responses. It isn’t a perfect solution, and forces me to control the conversation more than I wish, but there is nothing--and I mean nothing---more effective than when another student makes a constructive comment. It usually fixes things that weeks of harping on my part never would. If all this wasn’t enough to make performance classes tricky, this early in the school year the expectations such as the infamous 5 Fun Facts (and One Lie) are still being established, especially among the new 6th graders. (All this does remind me why I feel like performance classes are a minefield of potential dangers and difficulties in a way the private lessons never are. And yet, I remain convinced there is nothing more important in the solitary world of learning to play the piano than the interaction with your musical peers.)That particular week several kids were playing music by composers they have researched in the past, so instead of repeating the task I did what I often do in such cases: I give them something related to look up (i.e. “Mazurkas” instead of Chopin or “Musette” instead of Bach).This time the alternative meant doing some research on our guest artist, Bill Westney, complete with the required blatant lie. When I explained the activity to Bill over dinner the night before, he thought this was hysterical. “How will they know it’s really a lie?” He asked. “They could be telling a truth without realizing it.” It was a very good point.He shouldn’t have worried. My kids can lie just fine and proved to have creative imaginations in doing so. As we learned, Bill doesn’t like to ski, nor does he hold five endowed professorships from Texas Tech (but imagine how busy he would be if he did.) I learned that I want Bill on the opposite team anytime these kinds of games are playing because he has no ability to hear lies about himself and keep a straight face.That afternoon the most clever set of facts, true and untrue, were about Chopin. See how you do:
1. Chopin’s heart is buried in Poland.2. Chopin died of a broken heart (not sure what this means exactly, but I went with it.)3. Chopin had a daughter named Kate.4. Chopin had a girlfriend named George Sand.5. Chopin suffered from horrible performance anxiety.6. Chopin’s gravestone is in Paris.
September 18th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
Yesterday little Noah came into his lesson. He is young, tow-headed and freckled, a generally happy kid. Yesterday, however, he was despondent. “What’s up?” I asked him. At this question, Noah burst into tears. “I made bad choices,” he told me sobbing.
This kid clearly lives in a political correct world defined by choices, good or bad. While I was sorry the poor kid was crying, it was hard not to smile over what was so obviously a direct imitation of adult-language behavior modification. “OK,” I responded calmly, “what were the bad choices?”
Quickly it became clear that over the recent semester break between lessons he didn’t complete all his assigned practice days, “choosing” to play some days rather than practice and had lost track of how much time he had before his next lesson. When we examined his practice chart together, he only had eight out of ten required practices completed. I immediately thought, “Hey! I can live with this,” but of course I didn’t want Noah to think I don’t take my own assignments seriously. “So, how can we make better choices in the future?” I asked him, parodying his choice of vocabulary.
He suggested, and I agreed, that it would now be easier because school had started and we would be back to regular weekly lessons with the expected 5 practice days in between. “I get confused when it is too long between lessons,” he wailed at me, “I want to come to piano every week.”
I want to come to piano every week. This statement was music to my jaded ears. Not only because it demonstrated Noah’s commitment to piano and our relationship and practice routine, but because it reminded me how much the rituals and routines of our lives bring us comfort and assurance. Watching kids come in my door these last few weeks, excited about new teachers and new schools, new backpacks and new tennis shoes, I can almost hear their sigh of relief: Oh yeah, everything at Miss Amy’s house is the same. I know what to do here.
I echo their relief. I am equally anxious about new classes and new routines every semester, and breathe easier in the places in my life where I can keep on keeping on. As I take up the rituals of fall--the practice of planting pansies and collecting pumpkins by the front door, the cooler nights and shorter days requiring me to water in the dark every evening, the upcoming performance classes and recitals to organize and plan, the annual October get-away to Taos to anticipate, the books and music needing to be bought---I am thankful for the familiar: the Noahs of my world that I understand and know and love: breakdowns and bad choices and all.
August 7th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
Katie was playing a piece for me from her sight-reading book. Checking out a book every week from my SR library, as we call it, is something she had been doing for some time now. I have several hundred method and repertoire books in my library, catalogued by levels. To look at my shelves of SR books one might think that I am an organized person. The kids would tell you this is deceptive at best, and that, in spite of what appears to be an unlimited supply of SR books, I am ALWAYS in need of fresh material. After all, many kids have read through every book in my library. I remind them that they could probably check out a book twice and it wouldn’t kill them, but they don’t believe me. I am tired enough of their whining for new SR books that I promised them that over this break between the summer and fall semesters I will take myself to the music store, armed with my inventory list, and buy new books to start the year. They are thrilled. (Really, when I think about it, what am I complaining about? The kids are begging for sight-reading books. Clearly, I have won some pedagogical battle.)
But I digress. I was talking about Katie. She had come to me several years before from another teacher, but in spite of her previous lessons, Katie was basically a beginning piano student. Since coming to study with me, we had been working to systematically fill in the gaps in her skill set and to establish a strong basic foundation of rhythmic and note-reading skills. It’s a frustratingly slow process, particularly so when the student should have already learned these skills because it means circling back to the beginning, and trying to be less than obvious about the fact that we are essentially starting over.
But in the last 6 months or so, I had seen Katie turn a corner. She was finally learning assignments consistently well and making progress at a nice clip. The sight-reading assignment she was playing in her last lesson was a nice example of her progress. When she arrived in my studio, she had basically no reading skills in spite of the fact that she was working from second level method books. Now she could sight-read elementary level pieces nearly perfectly. It seemed a good time to take mark of how far she’d come.
“Katie,” I said to her, “do you notice how well you are sight-reading?”
“Yes,” she responded.
At this point, my educational psychology training kicked in. I couldn’t help myself. I had to get her thinking about why this skill of sight-reading was important, and why this assignment of sight-reading a piece every day would remain on her assignments until Kingdom come.
“Do you know why we sight-read?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she answered confidently.
This startled me. I was not expecting her to have thought this through.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if you were ever in a performance and then you turned the page and realized, ‘Oh no! I never practiced this page!’ you could just sight-read it.”
This sounds suspiciously like a repeated nightmare I have in which I have gotten to a concert only to realize I never learned (or memorized, depending on the dream) the second half of the program. This, I have to admit, is an excellent reason indeed to be good at sight-reading, and one that I will consider carefully in the future.
March 20th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
Last night was my “Chopin” performance class. The Chopin group consists of mid-high and senior high kids, and they take their name from birthday party
that several of the girls decided to throw for Chopin last February. That evening they brought cupcakes and I served sparkling cider in champagne flutes. Last night there were no cupcakes.
There was, however, a bonanza of “5 Fun Facts.” This practice came about because of my insistence that the kids arrive to performance classes with at least five facts about the composer or piece they are performing. At some point, there began a kind of competition among them to see who could find the most outrageous facts. “This one is really fun,” Kari would prime us, before telling us about how such and such obscure composer died when falling through the ice while skating. Now, although the original students behind the 5 Fun Facts have left us for adventures in colleges around the country, the practice continues.
Last night’s class was structured around an article written by Anthony Tommasini
for The New York Times
in January. In it, he took on the task of deciding who were the top 10 composers in western music and then ranking them in order. His one rule was that no living composers could be considered, but otherwise anyone was fair game.
There are 10 of us in the Chopin class, so during the last several weeks I let kids choose their composers from Tommasini’s list. The kids had plenty of opinions about his picks. “OK. Where’s Chopin?” several of them asked, annoyed that the namesake of their class didn’t make the cut. “And Schumann? What about Kabalevsky?” (They are a rather piano-centric bunch, to be sure.) Mostly I just listened to them chatter, thrilled that they knew enough to have opinions. “I’d put on Copland,” said one student. “Shouldn’t Joplin be on this list?” asked another.
Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms were quickly grabbed up. “Bartok! Ugh! I hate Bartok. What is he doing here?” a number of them complained. To be fair, they hardly have a holistic view of Bartok, familiar as they are primarily with the Mikrokomos books. I use these volumes for technique work and, across the board, the kids hate them. These exercises are fabulous for teaching how to organize the physical gestures of phrasing between the hands. There is nothing like them for getting straight to the heart of the coordination challenges of counterpoint. And the tonality is so wacky that they inadvertently provide great sight-reading because kids learn quickly they can’t trust their ears. But the Mikrokosmos are certainly a microscopic view of Bartok and his compositional range, and exposed primarily to this limited knowledge of Bartok, the kids do not think highly of him. In fact, most of my students now form a group we have named the “Bartok Club.” The Bartok Club is full of students who so hate playing the Mikrokosmos that this assignment has become a battleground between us. My compromise is that for every week they successfully play their Bartok ditty, they get the next week off Bartok completely, letting us all feel like we’ve won. I was curious to see which kid would choose Bartok for their 5 Fun Facts. Finally, late in the process someone rose to the occasion. “Well, I’ll take Bartok,” said Simone, resigning herself to the chore. “I want to know what is so great about him.”
Last night we took on the composers in order, each student sharing their 5 Fun Facts. As usual, the kids got straight to the non-essential information, quickly diving into Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Schubert’s supposed syphilis. And who knew Bartok suffered from painful childhood eczema? Now we do.
“Are you going to feel better about Bartok now that you know he had eczema?” I asked them. Some of them reluctantly shrugged, “Maybe.” I’ll take it. I’m not above using painful medical conditions to help generate good will and respect.
After we finished laying out postcards with the 10 composers into their appropriate musical periods on the floor in front of us, Jake looked at the cards and announced, “Miss Amy, these are all dead white European men.” I was pretty impressed with this categorization, since I’m fairly sure he has never heard the phrase “Dead White Men” when referring to composers of western music. Of course, he was right. There isn’t a non-Anglo or woman in the group, but that is hardly a surprise.
Still arguing, the kids trooped out into the evening, another performance class behind us. I wonder, not for the first time, what they will remember about these evenings together. Schubert’s syphilis? Their own performances? The occasional cupcakes? It hardly matters. What I most want is for them to feel a part of a community of musicians and to take this identity with them as they grow up and away from us.
Bartok’s eczema? Now that’s a bonus.
Tommasini’s Top 10 Composers:
March 6th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
In the studio, many of my students are learning a stack of Dennis Alexander's new and still unpublished pieces. "You mean I get to play this before anyone else in the whole wide world?" one little guy asked me. "Yep." I replied, "and Mr Alexander wants to know what we think." Josh is going to play one of these pieces on an upcoming recital, and I suggested that he write Dennis and invite him to come. His note read:
Dear Mr Alexander:
I am playing Capriccio in G Minor on a city recital. I hope that you can come! I think that Capriccio in G Minor is a good piece but there are some changes I would like to ask you about.
I am a bit uncomfortable with this kid's spunk. Secretly, I am afraid I no longer have this kind of confidence in my own opinions. “What changes?” I asked him. “You know,” he shrugged, “important stuff. Like dynamics."
"It's unsettling when you realize there are only so many things you can teach a child," wrote Fred Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer. "And, finally, they are who they are."
December 5th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
Although I might be getting ahead of myself here, let's talk about scales
Because tis' the season for holiday-themed scales, or so my kids think. If I forget, they will remind me. Actually, with the fall recital over and done with, there's a lot of "Jingle Bells" being played around here. My students know my rule---no Christmas music until after Halloween. Once the pumpkins are thrown in the compost pile
for the season, all the Christmas sight-reading books are brought out of the basement and the fun begins. Kids squeal with excitement---if you can only imagine---at the idea of getting a Christmas
sight-reading book. Suddenly this task
takes on a whole new light. And with recital music behind us, kids are welcome to bring Christmas music to their lessons. Sprinkling a bit of holiday sparkle in between their sonatinas keeps them practicing merrily this month. Win-win, I always say.
I love these well-established patterns of our lives, and this season
brings many such rituals. The weekend after our annual St Cecelia party
, I wash 100 wine glasses, put the house back together and get out the strands of cranberries, crochets angels, and stockings to decorate the fireplace. Christmas CDs and books fill the shelves, the dried berry wreath is hung on the door. "I'm taking the simple route," I told my friend Lora. "Too late," she said dryly, surveying the house.
The manger is assembled on the floor in front of our fireplace. "Are you going to move all those things so Santa can get down the chimney?" one student solemnly asked looking at the fireplace full of candles and the piles of books and pottery that are stacked precariously in Santa's way. Many years the manger is the scene of mysterious, unexplained events
. One year Mary disappeared completely, leaving us no choice but to give Jesus two daddies, which is a modern twist on the story indeed. Another year, I found the animals taking center stage, and day after day I would discover sheep and cows perched in the manger on top of baby Jesus. This week I went to light the candles in the fireplace only to find a mouse plopped down in the middle of the manger. Thankfully, this wasn't a real mouse
, but one of the cats' toys. Clearly, some feline in this house is taking seriously the charge to Come Let Us Adore Him.
Or maybe they are onto something. I suspect there just might have been a mouse or two in that long ago manger.
But I was talking about scales, and holiday ones at that. What two Christmas carols contain intact scales? is my annual question. The older kids know this answer cold by now---Joy to the World and The First Noel. This is all an excuse to play the scale-passages in the carols as our scale practices this month. I like what this does to their brains as they have to think through descending scales for the first carol, and how to set up their fingering correctly to start and end the first line of The First Noel. (mi-re-do...re-mi-fa-sol...la-ti-do-ti-la-sol). It makes them stop and think to begin scales on "mi", and end them, not on the customary "do", but rather on "sol." If the fingering doesn't match the assigned scale, it doesn't count. The older kids even do the carols using harmonic and melodic scales, something just counter-cultural enough to thrill them. "You know, Amy," said one kid, "The major one is the Christian one. The harmonic one is the Egyptian one. And the melodic one is just weird. But I like it."
Counter-cultural though it might be, we're playing a lot of scales, doing a lot of sight-reading, and mostly calling it good. After all, I'm keeping it simple this month.
November 7th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
In the last few years, I have had three kids break their left wrists. This may say something about the clumsiness
of my studio, or perhaps about how physically adventurous my students are. In any case, it does put a damper on piano playing. Luckily, in all three cases, this was not their dominant arm, and so most of their lives were minimally affected, but piano playing was another story. When something like this happens, the parent calls me in a panic, assuming that I will ban them from lessons, at least until the cast is off. When I assure them there is still plenty to do, even with one arm, parents are relieved (I'm not sure about the kid). Indeed, teaching a student with a broken arm just yesterday, I was struck by how easy it was to fill 45 minutes. In fact, when his mother came to fetch him, Joshua begged to be allowed to stay and finish the improvisation exercise we were working on.
Surely I am not the only teacher that occasionally faces lessons with students with broken arms. Short of despairing and throwing up our hands (and what good would that do anyway?), what are the options?
Although some would say my approach to theory in music lessons
is pitiful at best, this is a great time to do all kinds of thorough theory checks----reviewing key signatures, spelling
five-finger positions, scales and chords, and so on---in as many creative and fun ways as possible. Last summer, a friend gave me a set of blocks by Lucy Chu
that let students physically spell scales and chords with magnetic wooden blocks. Each of the seven cubes is labeled with a specific note, which is written in three ways on different sides of the block. For example: A, Ab, A# or B, Bb, B#. A few---C and F come to mind---even have a side for double sharps, which fascinates the little ones beyond belief. (There's a way to fill lesson time right there, let the kid "discover" the C-double sharp, and watch the questions come flying your way. "WHAT is this?" "Why do you need this?" Why can't that just be a D?" In all honesty, I have often entertained the same question about that last point.) Whereas once kids might have been less than enthusiastic about spelling scales or chords, now my students beg--beg--
to do the blocks. In fact, they bargain with me: "Miss Amy, if I play all my pieces REALLY GOOD do you think we will have time to do the blocks?"
Another favorite tool in my studio is the magnetic staff board. I like in particular the one that Music in Motion
sells, because the grand staff on the board is large enough to really distinguish clearly between putting magnets on the spaces and on the lines. I use the magnetic board a lot in the beginning stages of note-reading, but frequently forget how helpful it is even with fluent note-readers. A great game is to play a note on the piano and ask the students to put a magnet on the correct line or space on the board. I am always amazed how this is somewhat disconcerting for students, for somehow having to decide precisely where that particular "A" or "C" is on the grand staff makes them stop and think. We can't do this enough, I think, every time I'm faced with a transfer student who doesn't have a clue that notes indicate specific
keys in specific
octaves on the piano. Even my own beginners can get sloppy with this without regular check-in. Spelling intervals: spell a 5th up from D, spell a 2nd down from G,
etc---is a also good use of the magnetic board, but recently I found another related activity that is proving to be educational in lots of ways. I ask students to spell chords on the magnetic board: spell a I chord in F,
or spell a A-flat chord
, or spell a V7 in B,
and so on. This has been great, because just like those written theory exercises
that I generally dislike assigning, student start to see
what a IV
chord in 2nd inversion or a V
chord in 1st inversion looks like
as opposed to just how the chords feel under the hand. These are chords they run into all the time, but admittedly sometimes they are slow to recognize by sight that this group of notes is something they know intimately after months and months of playing chord progression exercises. This is clearly an example where my students ability to read and recognize chords drags behind their playing---something written work would rectify I admit, although I---and the kids---prefer the more tactile magnetic board to work on this.
Obviously, all technique work---five finger positions
, scales, chords
, arpeggios can be done with one hand. Often, I hastily jump in with both feet (or both hands as the case may be) in my own playing and forget how important and educational this step can be. There is nothing bad about a month of one-handed technique work.
Sight-reading (or sight-playing
as I am trying to train myself to say) is a great one-handed activity. Even good sight-readers are more successfully reading and playing only one clef at a time. A great exercise for a broken arm is to play both the left and right hand parts with whatever functioning arm we have at the moment. When playing the left-hand part with the right hand, we often find it doesn't fit that comfortably, which is fine as long as we realize the written fingering is not going to work and we accept a certain amount of good humored hopping around to negotiate the notes.
And finally, there are millions of improvisation exercises that can be done with one hand. So many, in fact, I am not about to list them all here, but let me tell you about the one Joshua and I were doing yesterday when his mother came to fetch him. Stashed among my studio toys, I have a collection of postcards from art museums and trips and other random sources. On the back of each postcard I have written a question or exercise of some kind: spell a 5-Finger position in x major; What is the name of the far left pedal? How many keys--black and white--are on the piano? What famous pedagogical composer lives in Albuquerque?
(Actually, what the card says is, "Who is the composer who recently moved to Albuquerque?" which worked great 3 years ago, but as one kid said last week, "Dennis Alexander
has been living here a LONG TIME.") We spread out these postcards on the floor with only the picture side showing, the student chooses one and then has to answer the question. I use this game a lot in group lessons, making teams and keeping points. The kids love it. Many of the questions are theory or history based and a good way to drill those things, however, on about 20 cards I have sketched some shapes: three triangles of different sizes, or a spiral and a circle, or stair-steps leading upwards, and so on. When a student draws a card like this his assignment is to improvise something on the piano in response to the shapes on the card. It was this activity that Joshua and I were in the middle of when his mother walked in. These improvisatory cards are wonderfully freeing because they are so wacky; there is no obvious answer. I first got this idea sitting in Jean Stackhouse's pedagogy class at New England Conservatory, and have used it as an ice breaker when guest teaching groups, in my own performance classes, when trying to introduce improvisation to a new student, and with student composers in my own studio. It never fails to win over even the most reluctant student. Even good improvisation students "see" music differently after trying to depict shapes on the piano.
One-handed lessons remind me that it is always helpful in life to turn things upside, shake up our expectations and assumptions, and try out our patterns and familiar habits in an unexpected way. After all this one-handed fun, just try to tell me that my students don't try to break their arm on purpose.
October 31st, 2010 :: Teaching Days
Today on this day of magic and mystery, a story from the studio......
Yesterday, I had to call the home of my student's to talk to his mother. His grandmother answered the phone and in the background I could hear a very hurried and sloppy rendition of one of Mozart's early Minuets. "Nic is playing too fast," I tell his grandmother. "Can you tell him that?"
His grandmother calls to Nic. "Miss Amy is on the phone and she wants to talk to you."
A few seconds later came Nic's tentative, "Hello?"
"Nic, you are playing that Minuet too fast."
"It is really you! How did you know?"
"I am magic."
Nic, breathless with wonder, "Wow."
October 3rd, 2010 :: Teaching Days
Madeleine has a song in her beginning piano book entitled "Money Can't Buy Everything." She comes from a privileged upper middle-class home. She asks me what this song means, and I decide to take the opportunity to teach some non-musical values. I give her an assignment for the following week: Write down 10 things money can't buy. She looks confused, but she doesn't argue.
The next week she returns with a poem she has written:
Money can't make you a cat,
Money can't make you a bat,
Money can't make you a rose,
Money can't tickle your toes.
Money can't make you a bear,
Money can't buy you real hair,
Money can't make you a bag,
Money can't make you sag.
Money can't make you a cat,
So how about that!
You will forgive me, I'm sure, for overlooking the fact that there are only 8 items instead of 10.
June 13th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
Last fall, prior to a local competition, Dennis Alexander came to my studio to coach some of my students. "What does this mean," he asked the first kid, pointing to a tempo marking in the score. "I don't know," shrugged the student. "Do you know what Scherzando means?" Dennis asked another student, who simply shook his head in response. "What does Allegretto mean?" He prompted yet another student, who then looked over at me in confusion.
By now I wanted to crawl under my chair, because it appears that my students know nothing, and possibly don't have a teacher at all. In fact, in the course of the several hours Dennis spent in my studio, exactly 100% of my students failed to answer his questions regarding musical markings or tempo indications in their scores. I haven't yet taken statistics, but I do know that this is an alarming percentage. I'd like to defend my teaching by saying the problem was that on this particular day they were using my clean score versus their scribbled up one. Of course, the markings would have been written in their own music. But this is only partly true. Dennis might have had more luck if he would have asked the questions a different way: What is the tempo of this piece--slow, medium or fast? Or: What is the character of this music? My students generally do know what they're doing, but they don't always know how they know it.
This painful awakening made me put cheerful red music dictionary in a prominent place on the shelf next to my piano, and to start requiring that each student look up all unfamiliar musical terms and write them in their scores. This is a good thing, and makes us more accountable for our work, a reminder we all need from time to time. But the whole incident got me thinking; because taking the time to do this in every lesson takes time away from something else. Which is why, I suppose, I got into the habit of not being more thorough in the first place.
On the heels of Dennis' visit, I found this note in a young student's practice notebook:
If there is a *, I totally memorized it. If there is a x, I did some.
"What's this, I did some?" I questioned young Kathryn. She shrugged. (I am beginning to notice a lot of shrugging in my studio.) "I couldn't do it all. I did some."
Later, thinking this over, I had to admit that I have gone into a lot of situations with "some" being my level of preparation. I haven't totally prepared. I have played important recitals with gifted colleagues in which I have not looked up every musical indication in my score. I have some general idea about what to do, but I haven't totally done my homework. This is nothing to be proud of, this habit of doing "some." A cursory look at my life as a whole reveals plenty of areas where that is exactly what I have done. I have done some. I have done some good writing, some hard weeding, some focused practicing, some deep yoga, some thoughtful teaching. But what about the rest? What would it actually look like to "totally" do something?
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that it is a myth to imagine that we can totally do anything. We will never "totally" understand the hearts and minds of our students. We will never "totally" learn all the piano repertoire. We will never "totally" be the pianist, or teacher, or human being that we are striving to become. Looking at it this way, changes the equation a bit. And this, in a coded childish way, may have been what Kathryn was trying to say: I only truly honestly know x. Of course, the goal of "totally" is a good one, and one that we should strive for in our performance preparations and in our lives in general, but most of life is about the "some" of what we have done.
Next time Dennis comes to my studio, my students should be well prepared to answer his questions. (Although it would help if he would give them to us in advance. In writing, please.) But to imagine that there aren't always going to be holes somewhere is to only deceive ourselves. However, maybe now our preparation of "some" will be more honest than our claim of "totally" ever was.
April 25th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
It is a sad commentary on my career that "Happy Birthday" is the most requested song I am ever asked to play. This fact only supports my theory that practical piano skills are a lot more useful in the real world than beautifully crafted performances of any Beethoven sonata. Or Chopin waltz. Or Bach prelude. Not that I am about to abandon that music, but it does give me perspective. I want my students to be able to play the glorious traditional repertoire of our instrument, but they better be able to play "Happy Birthday" on demand as well.
To this end, once students are comfortably playing two-hand accompaniment patterns in any key (chords in the RH; roots in the LH---usually just the standard I-IV-I-V-V7-I chord progression that makes up our lives), I start in on the Happy Birthday sequence. First the student picks out the melody beginning on C. Happy Birthday isn't the easiest song to pick out by ear, as many students discover. It has a range of an octave, with lots of skips and jumps. And then there is that tricky B-flat, which often throws a kid who might otherwise assume they are in the key of C. (Just because the piece began on C, doesn't mean it is in the key of C. This is a hard lesson to learn.) Once the student has found the tune, we write out the words and sketch in bar lines. What meter is this song? I ask them. Most students get it immediately, but again, because of the pickup notes, the words don't line up to the measures so kids who think about this too much sometimes mistakenly guess 4/4. I pencil in boxes on the first beats of each measure and ask them to find chords that fit. Only once, in all my years of teaching this, has a kid come back with this done correctly on the first try. The kids think they are being smart to match the melody note with the harmony, but Happy Birthday is harmonized against a lot of suspensions, which makes it tricky. Then there are the students that have already forgotten that they are in the key of F, and try to harmonize the song with chords in the key of C, which doesn't work too long. Happy Birthday, we painfully learn, is not so easy after all.
But in the end, with a big arpeggiated introduction, and a full 2-hand waltz pattern (no one needs the melody played, I tell students, it will sound bigger and "fancier"--they love anything "fancy"---if you play only harmony), the Happy Birthday assignment is always a hit. It stays on their practice assignments forever, and periodically I will ask for it, just to make sure it still is working. Students are happy to tell me anytime they are able to make use of this ability: Guess what? I got to play Happy Birthday at my friend's party on Saturday! and we often sing it together with someone playing it in our monthly performance classes, honoring whoever might have a birthday that month.
It was just such a moment that inspired our recent Chopin birthday party in my mid-high/high school class in February. In that class students have to come prepared with at least "5 Fun Facts" to share with the group about the composer or the piece they are performing, and in January several kids played and talked about Chopin. His 200th birthday, they realized, was in February. "Let's have a party!" suggested one enthusiastic high schooler. "We'll make cupcakes!"
I'm always up for cupcakes, not to mention anything that gets them looking forward to performance class with anticipation. To add to the fun, I invited the kids to bring their ipods and to be ready to play a song of their choice for the class. "It could be anything," I told them. "Bring your favorite song." "And 5 Fun Facts," another kid suggested, "Let's do 5 Fun Facts on our song for once."
So that month, after doing our customary scale spelling drills and performances of their prepared pieces, out came the cupcakes, the sparkling lemonade in wine glasses ("Wow. This is really fancy, Amy," one kid remarked.), and the ipods. For nearly an hour we sat around and ate and talked about popular music. "This was the BEST CLASS EVER," several kids told me the next week. They were right, I must confess, for not only were the cupcakes fantastic, but listening to the kids share music they love was something worth repeating. I want to cultivate this enthusiasm for music of all kinds, and this idea that a great evening can be had out of listening to music with friends. The original inspiration for the evening, Chopin's birthday, was a bit neglected I'm afraid, although surely he was there in spirit. I suspect a tradition has begun with that group, and that they will go to any ends to find composers' birthdays to celebrate every month, cupcakes and all.
March 7th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
What with an upcoming recital or competition always around the corner, some days I feel like I do nothing but teach to the next test. After all, recitals and competitions, while providing huge opportunities for growth and potential development, inevitably halt progress in some crucial ways. It takes up large amounts of lesson time to get ready for such events, because the demands on performance and readiness are different and higher. Appropriately so, to be sure, but sometimes I wonder: what would it be like to teach for even one year without the forced structure recitals and competitions? What would it be like to not teach to the test?
Public school teachers all over my city are asking themselves this question these days as students are deep in standardized testing. My mother teaches fourth grade in St. Louis and bemoans these annual tests and the pressures they put on her teaching agendas. As an independent teacher whose job is not on the line, I still find myself succumbing to the testing pressures, assuming that it is worth the work and struggle to put students in yearly competitions and recitals every semester. Of course, the potential benefits are huge: students gain confidence and poise from performing and learn how to handle nerves and pressure. The process of preparing more carefully and attentively and being subject to higher demands on their abilities and musicality potentially makes students better musicians. Many of the requirements that go with competitions in terms of technical work--scales, chord progressions, and the like--are good ones, and a positive reminder for all of us to not let those things slide. But still. What about all the things we give up in the process?
There is no question that in the throes of competition season, I let things go. I don't do nearly enough creative work, don't have time to encourage composition or improvisation, let ear-training assignments fall by the wayside. Performance classes are focused on performance only--we stop doing important rhythm and movement activities, listening games, theory drills. I forget to ask maintenance questions about composers we have studied or pieces we have learned. I let sight-reading slip through the cracks.
There are music teachers who take this teaching to the test seriously and are remarkably good at it, their students winning competition after competition. Judging these events, I find myself wondering if these kids parading in front of me, performing their Rachmaninoff and Chopin, have any idea how to play anything but these single pieces. Are they learning to play the piano or learning to play just this music? Are we nurturing future lifelong musicians or simply training monkeys here? I am bothered by the evidence that indicates that many of these same teachers who produce competitions winners year after year, do not have the assumed high numbers of students who go on to become music majors or even continue music lessons in college. Producing professional musicians isn't my goal either, but I'd like evidence that there was some desire to make music in the future. I don't see these kids accompanying their high school choirs or their fellow students in solo and ensemble contests, the assumption being that they don't need the distraction from the more important business of their solo playing. I admire these teachers for the musicianship they get out of their students, but at the same time am not impressed by the lack of musicians they seem to be nurturing. Playing two or three show pieces a year is not the same thing as being a whole, integrated musician.
My favorite kind of teaching--and learning, for that matter--is spiral learning: where we encounter the same concepts again and again, just at higher and different altitudes. I am convinced this is how life works, but unfortunately, very little of our educational system is modeled on such a concept. We take World History as sophomores, US history as Juniors, heaven forbid that the two should ever cross. "Battle of Hastings: 1066," my husband and I reminded each other when we were visiting England several summers ago. "Now what in the world was the Battle of Hastings anyway?" Neither one of us, multiple degrees in hand, had any idea as we had only encountered this world event in one single class, in one isolated year, which now was decades ago.
Lately in my studio, we have been circling over old concepts and pieces, reviewing past literature, thinking about familiar ear tunes in new ways, with fresh harmonies or accompaniment figures, revisiting chord progressions with new assignments, figuring out what the perspective might be from a higher altitude and a deeper understanding. I love this kind of teaching, but I have to remind myself to do it--the push to the new, more challenging, more impressive is always strong. If we are to learn the piano well, and possess a thorough knowledge of how music is put together and shaped, then it must always be two steps forward, one step back. Circling and spiraling around our work.
Truth is, I need this kind of circling and spiraling around my life at large, picking up old good habits and behaviors, reminding myself of things that somehow got pushed into the back of my mind and routines. It is good for me to revisit old teaching pieces, or old literature I once played regularly, and to see it through a more current lens, just as it is good for me to clean out my bookcases and teaching files and to refresh my memory of that beloved book I want to reread, or an article that inspired me. Because I write nearly daily, I have dozens of old journals and forgotten essays, tangible evidence of the tracks of my thinking and my path. Returning to them I am reminded that this prickly issue in my life that I might be currently wrestling with is not a new one, but rather one that sneaks into my life every spring. We may gain perspective and altitude over time, but good and bad, lessons that life wants to teach us return again and again.
Or at least they should in an ideal learning situation. Which brings us back to the upcoming competition season. In their own way, these events are important to us--potentially for the student, and also for my professional reputation as well. In the best of worlds, I wouldn't have to give up the good solid progress that happens during the periods between contests and recitals. Instead, we could just benefit from the challenges these opportunities provide us, and still have time for all the important little things: creative thinking, theoretical understanding of what we are doing, strong technical work for the sake of technique alone, ear-training, listening. It's a hard sell though--for each of these things takes up time. And time is always in short supply. Instead, it becomes a balancing game, a careful trade of this for that, at least temporarily. None of this is bad, and indeed necessary, but should be approached with our eyes open and with a full grasp of what we are giving up, and what will need our attention once the recital is done and the competition winners are announced.
February 21st, 2010 :: Teaching Days
Already deep into another semester, I am reminded daily of the daunting list of assignments and new lessons I must get through with every student. Most of the time, I have 45 minutes --60 if I'm lucky -- to do so. It is enough to take my breath away. Or at the very least, to make me exhausted before I've even begun.
Of course, there are very good reasons why there are so many varied notes in every student's assignment book: I want my students to practice for a good chunk of time (therefore I need plenty to keep them busy) and to work carefully and thoroughly while they are at it (thereby requiring me to write complicated and intricate series of steps, assignments and pieces of cautionary advice: Fix blue marks! Don't forget F-sharp! Play brackets three times, then whole song....) My students' progress indicates that this method of thorough practice assignments is generally successful. Yes, there are the random kids who on occasion ignore or misread something, but most weeks my students come back well-prepared and thoroughly-practiced. I shouldn't mess with what's working, but lately I've been wondering, is all this necessary? Is there a way to keep them practicing with good results that lets me off the hook a bit?
The problem, I suspect, is my deeply held belief that my job is to nurture the well-rounded musician and creative person. And this, I have come to realize, just takes time. It takes time in every lesson to work from a wide variety of angles; it demands practicing in different ways with differing intentions. It means there is always a lot to get through, and a lot of different requirements to fulfill. Add to that outside expectations of recitals and competitions and performances and the job can seem intimidating quickly. No wonder I am a bit breathless.
I've been thinking about this lately, both in the teaching studio and in my life at large. I wonder how it is that I have ratcheted up the expectations in every area of my life, all with good and honorable intentions, only to be left with a life that's largely all work and little play. I get a staggering amount done every day -- that isn't the issue. But my life lacks empty space, time to meander around the paths my thoughts might take me, or to wander around aimlessly in my world. Taken to an extreme, this would mean that I'd get nothing done, but could I give a up a little productivity in exchange for wallowing deliciously in the gift of an empty hour or two?
"I love a broad margin to my life," wrote Thoreau. That's what I want: broad margins to my life. But change is easier said than done. Just ask anyone who made New Year's resolutions.
Today Luke came into his lesson without any of his music or assignment notebook. In two years of lessons he hasn't ever done this before, so there is little reason to scold. But a lesson without materials is a different lesson indeed. Even after working through the basic technique assignments and ear pieces we could do without his books, there was time to spare. "I figured out the chords to We Three Kings," he told me proudly. "Can I play it for you?" Time is not usually so much on our side. "Sure," I said. He played his version, and we explored a few different chord changes to try in several places. "Thanks, Miss Amy!" Luke exclaimed and spontaneously gave me a big hug. A hug. All for taking some time to play around a bit during his lesson. It's important to note that this isn't a kid who hates me or his lessons normally. He is a happy student, but this sense of "play" that we had in the last lesson isn't cultivated nearly enough, my determination to see us through his assignments and to set him up well for the next week wins out every time. That might be OK generally. After all, his parents are paying me good money to ensure that we use our time well, but a bit of aimless meandering through a kid's interest and curiosity isn't a waste of time either. Experimenting with harmony in a familiar tune is a good use of time and I know it. I just don't usually allow us to wander off the path so freely. There's a lesson in there somewhere if I can slow down enough to take heed of it.
Recently I read that when NPR's Susan Stamberg was asked what she was planning do to after she retired, she answered simply, "Less." I like this. In fact, I like it so much I have made it my motto of 2010. New Year's resolutions with their expectations of "More this" and "Do that" can be damned. I want to take more pride in leaving things on my to-do list undone, and regularly to go to bed knowing that I've let some things go. I suspect that the sun will rise anyway. I suspect that it won't make much difference to my students' overall progress, that they will still practice and will manage to learn even if I am not pushing so aggressively behind them. I imagine that the garden will get watered and more or less weeded, and that somehow food will get on the table, and the house cleaned. The cats will, most surely, remind me when I have forgotten to feed them; and I'll manage to get recital programs learned and my writing deadlines met. But maybe, just maybe, in 2010 I'll stop racing the clock and finally take a deep breath.
February 7th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
It's the fiddlers that kill me.
You know the ones I mean. The kids who are always fiddling at the piano, mindlessly noodling while you talk. They fish and fudge their way through their technique work and chord progressions, finding notes by ear rather than actually learning patterns. This drives me crazy. I think what I am saying is brilliant; they need to be listening with their full attention. I want them to learn their notes solidly, not meander their way into the correct patterns. I can't understand why their hands and fingers have to be on the piano messing around during every second of our time together. The constant noodling gets on my nerves. I can't hear myself think.
And then there are the students in constant motion. Often these are the same kids. Take, for example, Jack. Jack never stops moving from the moment he walks in my door. He is always noodling or spinning around on the piano bench, or, worse yet, lying down on the piano bench with his feet up in the air and his head hanging off the side. I kid you not. Of course, this is the same child who broke his arm the hour before our fall recital. This is also the kid who has placed in performance and composition competitions. I both adore Jack and want to strangle him at the same time.
Jack is not an unusual example of whirling motion in my studio. I have more than my share of fiddlers among my student roster these days. Almost without exception, these are also my best students in many respects. They practice faithfully and learn fast. They are creative and love to improvise (as evidenced by their constant noodling). They are enthusiastic, and have strong opinions about their music and their practicing. But, even with all this going for them, they are hard to teach in many ways, because it is difficult to know when I have their real attention and focus. I find myself talking louder and faster to get their attention. I reprimand them for not listening. I remind them constantly, "Don't play while I am talking." These are good kids, and they don't mean to be rude, I know that. But something is not quite working here.
Over the holidays I was reading about a form of physical therapy that deals with sensory integration issues. This book by Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger called How Does Your Engine Run? focuses on kids who have sensory integration problems of all kinds, from not being able to handle too much outside stimulation and becoming inappropriately overwhelmed, to those who don't have the normal sensory triggers that should give healthy mental engagement and energy. The book offered some specific tools for dealing with kids who have even intermittent sensory integration issues. The examples that most interested me described the kids who needed a certain level of activity in order to focus. Their squirming around wasn't a sign they weren't paying attention, but rather was necessary in order to keep their brains engaged. Asking them to sit still and not move was a recipe for them to zone out completely.
This got me thinking, because the applications to teaching are huge. Even when working with students with no diagnosable sensory issues, everyone has different needs with regards to what keeps them engaged mentally. Some people need silence when they read; others read more attentively when listening to music. Some people constantly fidget while watching television or listening to a lecture; others seem to never even blink. Some people concentrate better while chewing gum or snacking on crunchy foods; for other people this would be distracting. Most of us more or less intuitively figure out what we need to do in order to stay engaged in activities requiring various levels of energy and attention. Could it be that my fiddlers were actually paying closer attention to me while they were fussing at the piano?
I am suspicious this might be the case, but I don't think the answer is for me to just talk louder above their noodling. After all, I am a person in this relationship too, and I can't think while this constant noise is happening. There has to be a balance and a compromise, which means yes, sometimes I should let them noodle away and spend precious seconds (or sometimes minutes) allowing them to finish whatever energetic spurt of creativity they feel compelled to work out. Sitting there quietly while they mindlessly fiddle usually has the result of startling them into becoming aware that they are fishing aimlessly and they stop on their own. This doesn't mean the habit is fixed forever, or even for the remainder of the lesson, but it is a peaceful, non-verbal way to bring some awareness to the behavior.
But if it true that these kids need some physical stimulation to stay mentally focused, then we have to look hard for other ways to work around this. I've learned to ask these kids to get up off the bench, walk the three feet over to the table where I sit and look with me as write, talk through assignments or show them something to think about in their music. They can't fiddle if they aren't near the piano, which is so obvious that I don't know why it took me so long to figure out. Besides, this on and off the bench is helpful---the physical activity feeds their brain, and getting them away from the piano while we chat solves the random noise problem. When I need a longer teaching moment, I'm trying to make available something to keep their hands busy---a tennis ball to pass between us, squeeze therapy balls for them to manipulate while I talk, rubber therapy bands to pull. Whether I like it or not, these kids will be active while we are talking and learning, directing that activity towards things that don't drive me crazy prevents a lot of impatient outbursts.
In the end, I'm discovering that all this directed non-musical activity makes them learn faster and, ironically, actually saves time. Without even knowing why, these kids are happier and more focused, because this constant physical motion keeps their little brains energized. Even better, I don't feel like I am about ready to scream because I can't get their attention. This is one more example of the importance of thoughtful pacing: As teachers, our job is to learn to be sensitive to what each student needs and then structure activities accordingly. This is something I think about a lot, but unfortunately, with these kinds of students it has taken a particularly long time to figure out what works. I think I failed to see the problem for so long because on the surface, these students and I look very well suited for one another as we all generally function at the speed of light. In fact, we move too fast for our own good much of the time. But the similarities end there, because I need a lot of silence to think, and find fidgeting not engaging, but rather distracting. Over the years, it has been all too easy just to allow the frustrations and the noise level of these lessons to spiral out of control.
Giving these kids permission to move a lot has proven to be a graceful moment in my learning curve as a teacher. With these students I just accept that there will need to be a lot of activity of all kinds---more time fussing at the piano, more systematic rhythmic movement work, more opportunities to manipulate toys in their hands, more time off and on the piano bench. I used to think that much of this was a waste of time, but I'm learning better. In fact, getting these kids to sit still for the length of the lesson is not the indicator that it once was that we have had a successful lesson. A good lesson these days looks entirely different, but I know it when it happens, because I am happier, more grounded teacher, less ready to strangle the joyful bundle of enthusiasm in front of me.
October 25th, 2009 :: Teaching Days
Yesterday I was just beginning my early morning warm-ups on the piano when I heard a knock on the door. Several mornings a week I teach an 8am lesson to elementary age students whose school, a few blocks away, doesn't begin until 9 o'clock. But this particular morning, I didn't have a lesson scheduled. Instead, I had already drunk several cups of coffee while dabbling in a few books piled on my coffee table, had checked e-mail, and was now settling down to begin an hour or so at the piano. But standing at my door, I find young Teddy and his dad, music books in hand. Teddy is only "kind-of" taking lessons. I teach his older sister, but didn't have an empty space to begin his lessons this fall. We did a few over the summer, and Teddy was an enthusiastic student. So enthusiastic, in fact, that I agreed upon a compromise until a regular spot appeared in my schedule: Teddy would come for a short 30-minutes every other week, instead of my default weekly 45-minute beginner lesson. This way, I reasoned, I could pretend he wasn't exactly my student. He was young enough that this non-commitment was hardly a problem, and in the meantime, he'd get a healthy taste of music lessons. Win-win, I thought.
Except that I am having trouble remembering to write down, from month to month, when it is that he will be showing up at my doorstep. This isn't exactly a problem, because there's no danger I would be teaching any other student on those mornings and I am not likely to be out running errands or anything, but his rap at the door does sometimes startle me. "Come on in, kid," I told him yesterday. "I forgot you were coming, but let's have a piano lesson."
This fall I am teaching Sunday afternoons. I resorted to this schedule after discovering that most Ed Psych courses are offered in the late afternoons, which is, by all accounts, prime piano lesson time. In order to carve out room in my schedule for even one class, I had to find another three hours I could teach. And so, Sunday afternoons find me working. In a similar attitude to pretending that I don't actually teach Teddy, I am trying to pretend that I don't really teach five days a week or on weekends, but rather that random kids I happen to like just "show up" on Sunday afternoons and we do piano. Mostly this is working, which tells you how easily I can ignore reality. But my success here has me wondering: what if I could persuade myself that there was no difference between work and play, that it was all equally appealing and fun, that my life wasn't unbalanced, but instead a bountiful manifestation of what I loved doing? This would be a wonderful way to live if I could just wrap my mind around it.
Some month ago, someone knocked on the front door. We have two entrances to our sun room and the big French doors that open to the courtyard are rarely opened. Everyone--Matt and I, our friends, my students---generally just walk into the house through the side door. So a knock on the French doors is a sign that it is someone we don't know. I peered out, and there at my door was a man I recognized as being someone who lived down the street. I opened the door, and he said, "Hi. I heard that piano lessons were given here. I am looking for a piano teacher for my daughter."
While I have gotten students from a variety of sources, never, in all my years of teaching, has someone just walked up off the street and inquired about piano lessons. This makes me fear that I have become like the piano teacher in The Music Man who has a sign in her window: Piano Given. Teddy's surprise appearance this week, and my pretending that I don't actually teach as much as I do, only confirms this suspicion. A friend recently suggested I should embrace the "eccentric" label, as it would be an easy way out of so many traditional expectations of our profession. The way I see it, it is only amount of time before I will be known around town as the crazy piano teacher with the cats.
October 18th, 2009 :: Teaching Days
Recently our local MTNA organization held district level competitions. Like in many places, these are pretty competitive events. Students compete by age group, with first, second and third places awarded. Winners go on to the state competition, which takes place next month at the state convention.
Honestly, I am rather conflicted about the whole thing. On one hand, such events give students goals and force us to work more carefully and thoroughly than we might otherwise do. It is a chance to get what hopefully will be helpful, constructive feedback from judges, which can validate our work, and remind us what still needs our attention. This is all a good thing.
On the other hand, such events can be so arbitrary. Judges can be fantastic, thoughtful, and sharp or they can be thoughtless, harsh and hold a completely different set of values than we might practice in our teaching and music-making. Assuming that the level of playing is strong, which is often the case, than the picks for the winners can seem almost like a game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors." There are many years where I am very thankful not to be on the side of having to pick among good performances a single winner. I work hard to instill in my students a certain confidence in what they do, and to remind them repeatedly that ultimately we have no control over what a judge might be thinking. But I cannot guarantee that students completely understand this, which is the risk. Which students are psychologically and emotionally sure enough to handle such pressure? Which students will rise to the standard required, and be better for the experience? Which students will gain assurance knowing that they are part of a special group of talented, committed students, and that their presence at such a competition is a sign of their hard work and musicianship? It's a puzzle trying to figure these things out, and wakes me up at 3am, worried and anxious.
Even years like this one, when my students played well and were rewarded for their efforts by the judges, I question seriously whether it is worth the hours we spend in preparation, or the internal wrestling that is required to make sense of it all. Even with my best attempts at undervaluing the event, it is hard not to place a certain significance in what judges might decide, and to question my work as a teacher as a result. My husband reminds me that I get to filter this event for my students, and that their experience is somewhat subject to how I treat the whole thing. I know this, and I squirm under this pressure. I can handle this as a potentially important teaching moment, or I can make the whole thing mysterious and confusing to an 8-year-old who didn't place. My choice.
Here's a teaching moment I am faced with this year: how to handle contradictory comments from the two judges. This is somewhat delicate. Obviously, in our preparation over the last two month, my students have gotten my opinion about how these pieces should be played. But in my own teaching, I err on the side of letting kids do quirky things in their music-making rather than molding perfect but uniform little models of piano students. This means that in more than a few cases, my students were actually doing things I didn't love. I think that's OK. Several weeks ago, Dennis Alexander came and coached all the kids on their competition pieces, and we got his wise opinions about the music. As always, work with Dennis is enlightening and extremely helpful. He reinforced certain things I had been saying for weeks. He reminded us of some things I had been ignoring, hoping they would work themselves out. He pointed out things I had never thought of. It was wonderful to have his musical guidance, and we were all better for it.
But now I have to explain such opposing comments from the judges as: Great use of the pedal to accent beats. And then to the same student: You are using too much pedal. This should be played without pedal. Or: I loved your second movement. It was so lyrical. As opposed to: Your second movement is too romantic. You have missed the style completely. My head is spinning after reading such remarks. How does a 12-year-old make sense of this?
You could certainly argue (and I will) that this just proves that everyone has a different opinion about how music should sound. I have an opinion. Dennis has an opinion. These two judges also have differing opinions. But from the child's point of view, these judges had the power of awarding winners, which makes Dennis's and my opinions seems secondary in comparison. How are the judges' remarks (good, bad or neutral) not inherently worth more?
One year I was in such disagreement about the way the judges handled the comments, that I shredded the papers and never let the students see them. Interestingly, none of the kids even asked or seemed to care. I lost a teaching opportunity of having the judges reinforce things we had been working on, but it was worth the price of not exposing the students to some inappropriate and unconstructive comments. I would not want to make this action of tossing out judges' remarks a habit, but the kids were perfectly happy about their experiences that year without the judges' sheets. All of them wanted to participate again the following year, which says a lot. Well worth the loss of a few helpful suggestions.
In spite of how tempting that might be, I won't do that this year. Instead, we will wrestle with our own evaluations about how the day went, and the somewhat differing opinions of the judges. I saw one student yesterday, who placed last year, but not this time. I had worried that he might be devastated, but he wasn't, having moved on to the next thing. He has his winning composition for Hey Mozart! to get ready for his recital with New Mexico Symphony Orchestra players (which, just between you and me, is far more exciting anyway). One student, who did place in the competition, headed off that afternoon to his two weekend gigs -- one at a retirement community, and another at country club, where he earns several hundred dollars every Friday night. Another child had played in chapel at school last week, and still another had played service music at church a few weeks before. One student is working on an arrangement of one of his compositions for his school band that he has been asked to do. Two others are doing a set of four-hand duets on our fall studio recital, and were busy planning their rehearsals. I hang onto these tangible signs of how functional and versatile these young musicians are becoming. I never want to be a teacher that is teaching only to competitions. It is far more important--in spite of our success in the narrow competition arena---that they become flexible musicians, able and willing to play in a variety of styles and places.
Talking with friends later, I shared my struggles with the whole competition subject: my fear that by bowing out completely I won't be taken as seriously as a teacher; my need to prove through my students' success my worth as a teacher; my suspicion that I am being called not to step to the beat of the drum of the traditional esteemed teacher, but to foster a different way of being a teacher and a musician altogether. This brings up a host of conflicted feelings, which I have only begun to recognize, let alone sort out. But when talking this through with trusted friends, one commented, "Amy, it seems to me that your kids had a great experience doing this event. It is only you that is conflicted." It's true, and worth remembering. Just yesterday, Claire, who competed for the first time and did not place, came to her lesson. We talked about the competition and the judges' comments. "So," I asked her, "how do you feel about the whole thing?" "I think it was fun," she replied brightly, having clearly worked out the whole thing in her mind just fine. "Can I do it again next year?"
Later that day, out of the blue, one of my youngest students asked me, "Miss Amy, are there places you can go and play the piano and then someone wins?" Yes, I told her, wondering where she had gotten such an idea. "Cool," she responded, and, without missing a beat, turned back to her romping rendition of O Susanna.
It's altogether too easy to give a judge's opinions too much weight, and all too tempting to want to start teaching toward next year's competition now. I have to remind myself that I value the quirky, original kid in my studio. I have to tell myself that my kids out there making music in the real world is worth far more to me than having a winner in every age level. This is easier said than done, which, of course, is why I am wrestling with the whole issue. But there is something important here, if I can only sort it out, and worth struggling with in those dark 3am hours of the soul.
September 27th, 2009 :: Teaching Days
Because I don't require my students to do regular written theory work, I am always looking for ways to incorporate theory into the lesson. Technique work is an obvious place to begin, because Five-Finger Positions, scales, chord progressions and arpeggios not only work on finger dexterity; they also can be used to review and drill key signatures, to work on spelling scales and chords, and to reinforce relationships within the Circle of Fifths. But if I am truly going to claim that my students have a working knowledge of music theory, then I can't stop there. We must connect our technique and theory work to our music.
The longer I teach, the more I realize that I'm never going to get on top of the time issue. I will never have the luxury of extra time in lessons, so I have to use our time well. Intentionally using the assigned music to work on theory kills two birds at once: we practice our theory knowledge, yes, but perhaps more importantly, we gain a deeper understanding of the music at hand, which should make the learning process go quicker and more smoothly. In upper levels this is easy: we can analyze the form of our music, identify key centers and harmonies, mark phrases. It's the beginning levels where I have been rather haphazard about this work. Partly it is because beginning music is so simple (duh) that there is little to talk about. Sure, we can identify similar phrases or sections, but in two or three lines of music let's face it: this isn't going to be a long (or maybe even very enlightening) conversation.
One of the biggest challenges for beginning student is learning to read music. I have a variety of games and strategies using note-flashcards (I particularly like the ones Bastien sells. The notes are big and they print the whole grand staff on every card, something other brands don't do.), but students often struggle a bit making the link between the flashcards and the notes on the page. This has always been mysterious to me, but nevertheless it's a widespread bump in the process. And then there are the kids who seem to immediately to lose all their note-identification skills the minute they "graduate" from flashcards. I have long needed another way to firm up the connection between the knowledge of the notes on the flashcards and the notes on the page, and to drill note recognition after the students no longer have flashcards as part of their assignments.
One day, during a frustrating lesson with a stubborn 6-year-old, I stumbled upon a solution: I-Spy. This was a rather liberal adaption of the old car game, translated to the music lesson. "Let's play I-Spy," I said. "Follow my directions: Second page, third line, fourth measure, right hand first beat: what is the note?" This child (who had only moments before resisted all my attempts at correcting her wrong notes or even answering my impatient question, "What is this note?") suddenly became animated. "Wait! Say it again." I repeated the instructions, and she happily (and correctly as it turned out) identified the note in question. We continued this game for a while, the student becoming faster at following directions involving pages, lines, measures and beats (I quickly figured out that it is important always to prompt the line of questioning in the same order: page, line, measure, then beat). A tense moment was diffused. She got some good theory drilling of note-identification. In addition, she had to practice following verbal cues: Second page, second line, second measure, second beat... and so on, which will serve her well in any ensemble work later in life. Most importantly, I got that damn wrong note fixed in her playing.
Since that day, hardly an afternoon goes by without a game or two of I-Spy. I use it to correct wrong notes (it's less threatening than saying, "You played this note wrong. What it is supposed to be?") and to regularly drill theory concepts with my beginning students. Sometimes they identify notes, sometimes intervals, sometimes rhythmic things, but I always begin the same way: "Let's play I-Spy...."
As I explained to a young teacher recently, there are a thousand components to good teaching, but some of it is just having tricks to turn to. I-Spy is one of these a trick, but it has proven to be a valuable one. I wonder if it would work on my husband? "Let's play I-Spy. Marigold-colored study, purple chair, random pile of clothes. Whose are they and when are they going to be put away?"
July 12th, 2009 :: Teaching Days
I probably should go on record saying I don't think theory books are a waste of time. Some people, based on my previous rants , might think otherwise, but I actually think that most of theory books that are packaged with various methods are quite good. Life is full of hard choices, however, and choosing not to assign regular written theory work is one of the tough pedagogical decisions I make about how to use our time. But this summer, I decided to have some of my elementary students do some written work when they have less schoolwork in their lives. I purchased theory workbooks and started handing them out. On the first day, no fewer than 100% of the students squealed with delight as they grabbed the books from my hands, some even asking me, "Can I do extra pages if I want?" "Goody goody gumdrops!" one child exclaimed, a phrase one doesn't hear enough these days, much less in piano lessons.
Now, one might take this response as an argument for using theory workbooks all the time, but instead I think it only strengthens my choice to limit their use in my studio. Because clearly, by doing so -- and through no real forethought or calculation on my part -- I have increased their value and appeal to my students. I can coast on their good attitude about this assignment, and get some dedicated written work out of them this summer. Hopefully, they won't do it long enough to begin dreading it, but surely even a few months will help to further secure some of basic concepts that the books will reinforce.
Life is all about making tough choices about how to spend our time. In and out of music lessons, these decisions have to be made, because if we don't make them, we end up doing too many things rather poorly, instead of a few things well. Theory books aren't the only thing in my studio I choose to do in the summer months that I wouldn't do during other times of the year. I've got a number of drop-in students this summer: extra adults, college students home for a few months, even former students interested in revisiting their piano skills for a few months. I don't have time for these students during the year, hanging on as I am by a thread most of the time, but in the summer, when my normal load is less predictable, I can take on extra lessons. I find myself teaching them differently: I'm more relaxed with these students, letting them call the shots about what they want to work on, not prescribing my usual doses of etudes and technique work. This has got me thinking, wondering if this attitude of: well, what do you want to do on the piano this summer? isn't a healthy change from my always dictating the learning schedule. I'm not suggesting this would be a good idea taken to an extreme, because I have lots of experience knowing the best way to get from Piano-Playing Point A to Piano-Playing Point B, and that's what I am being paid to do. But shifting my focus a bit away from my assumed "best" way to learn the piano, to a more open-minded: what would serve the student best here in the next few months and give them joy? isn't a bad way to think either.
Honestly, I could use a dose of that philosophy infused into my life at the moment; dragged down as I am these days with the heat and unfamiliar humidity. The New Mexico version of air-conditioning, the swamp cooler, which work fine in a dry heat, can't hold up when the air is retaining moisture. I swear some students are going to melt during one of their sweaty lessons, and leave a puddle on my piano bench. Asking the question "What would serve us all best here and even make us happy?" would be a helpful survival technique during these scorching days.
There are moments when the clearest answer to that question is "ice cream." However, if theory workbooks can make a child utter the words, "Goody goody gumdrops," then there's hope for all of us.
May 17th, 2009 :: Teaching Days
I think every recital could use a little personality. I love it when performers talk from the stage; I like good program notes that give a glimpse into the mind of both the composers and the performers; I like lecture recitals infused with humor and insightful anecdotes. My desire for some pizzazz quadruples when it comes to that potentially deadly event, the piano students' studio recital. So some time ago, I began working in what might be viewed by some as a "shtick" but what I prefer to think of as an antidote to death by boredom. It's not that I think my students are boring; quite the contrary -- they entertain me every day. But a piano recital should be an evening that everyone looks forward to, not an evening that we all have to endure.
One year I asked many of the parents in my studio, who happen to be professional musicians, to also perform. Another year, I had poems and short passages about music read by various parents in between the student performances. Still another year , the kids did performance maps of their recital pieces (either a drawing inspired by their piece, or in the case of the more intermediate to advanced students, a musical flowchart to assist memory) and we did a visual display in the performance space. It has gotten to the point where I feel a certain kind of pressure to have a shtick at my studio recitals, that there is a certain level of expectation about the program, that if families drag aunt and uncles and neighbors and grandparents to our recital, it had better be an entertaining evening.
As I was mulling over what to do this time, it occurred to me what I most wanted to do was to educate my audience (hopefully in an entertaining way) as to why it was we bothered with these recitals in the first place. Especially in this dicey economy, it seemed a good time to reaffirm why music matters. The following are my notes from last weekend's spring recital. In spite of the healthy amount of verbiage below, there really were fine student performances of great music as well. No one wants to hear me talk that much.
Another year, another recital. At some point is it fair to ask: why are we doing this? After all, we all have plenty we could be doing with our evening, and for that matter, with all the time devoted to the pursuit of music making. So why? When modern life pulls at us from five million directions all the time, why do we bother?
As a person who has decided to pursue music as a profession, one answer seems so obvious as not worth mentioning: that is, music itself is reason enough. This assumes that one buys into the idea that art matters, and music is important and worthwhile. "Without music," Neitzsche said, "life would be a mistake." But you all also must believe this, or you would not have prioritized music and music lessons in your life. Surely I must be preaching to the choir, standing before a group of people who don't have any trouble accepting that music in and of itself is reason to be here.
I mean, you must accept this premise on some level, as here you are with your cell phones and cameras turned off for the next hour. You've brought cookies and cleaned up your children quite remarkably. We are all dressed up and ready to go, so, let's just play some music, shall we?
But let's assume for a moment, that we needed more reason than just the inherent value of music itself to motivate us to spend the kind of time, money and energy it requires to take up a musical instrument, much less set aside a whole Saturday evening to attending a piano recital.
Here's the thing: if you have thought for even one moment that we what were doing in piano lessons was limited to learning notes and rhythms, then you have underestimated what music lessons can be. While music is my tool, and piano is my artistic medium, maybe the most important job of a good teacher is to nurture the transformation of self that happens through learning, through the growth process inherent in becoming a sensitive and compassionate human being. What I know is that, through music, I have the chance to teach life lessons: how to work, how to learn, how to think creatively and artistically. If I lose sight of the person on the bench in the worthwhile pursuit of music making, then I have missed the point. We aren't just developing musicians here, but creative, artistic, whole persons.
Another valuable reason to hold this musical celebration every semester is that it is the only time we all get together. Look around, folks: this is a community. Semester after semester, year after year, you become a unique group of people who take interest in one another and each other's children, you care about the progress of kids other than your own, you might sense that you have more in common in your struggles and battles to keep your children practicing and engaged than you might think on the surface. I watch you all pick up your kids from performance class every month and catch up with each other in my sun-room and driveway. Those of you who have helped in group classes know that that these kids have become friends, and that sometimes way too much fun happens in the shadow of my six-foot grand piano. In a world where we are losing important connections with one another and becoming more and more fragmented and scattered, this community matters. We are part of each other's lives. Thank goodness we get together like this twice a year.
Finally, I believe that it is in the pursuit of making art or in any all-consuming artistic passion, that we most easily lose ourselves and become part of the great creative process of the universe. I think we are born to create and that making music feeds part of our souls and spirits that otherwise hunger for nourishment and sustenance in this complicated world. It seems that in the act of making music, whether that be time spent on a piano bench or in a choir, playing in a garage band, or singing in the shower, or whatever musical act we might find ourselves engaged in, that in that process of losing ourselves, we most often find ourselves, and claim and connect to all the disparate parts of our minds, souls, spirits and hearts.
Vita Sackville-West wrote: "For the last 40 years of my life, I have broken my back, my fingernails, and sometimes my heart, in the practical pursuit of my favorite occupation." She was talking about gardening, but it applies pretty nicely to my life as a pianist, and even more to my life as a teacher. I started playing piano when I was four, and as the oldest of six kids, I have been teaching my whole life. I taught siblings to ride bikes, and read, play the piano, and sneak out of the house at night. I taught my first piano lesson for $5 to neighbor children when I was 14, and I have really never stopped. If my mother were here tonight she would be happy to tell you that I did not always practice without first throwing a tantrum, and that it was not always smooth sailing to get me here. It might make you feel better to know that, but I'm not sure it much matters, for what I can tell you as I tiptoe rapidly towards 40, is that most of the happiest moments of my life have been spent on a piano bench, or in some form or another teaching. I have that heady experience of losing myself everyday, both in my own music-making and immersing myself in the act of teaching, and really, there's no better way to spend a life. Whether or not your kids become professional musicians, you have given them the gift of being able to lose themselves in making music. There's no better gift.
If I were to end this evening with one thought it would be this, stolen from the book Searching for Bobby Fischer by Fred Waitzkin, "It's unsettling when you realize there are only so many things you can teach a child. And finally, they are who they are." Although music lesson may always be about more than just the piano, to imagine that any of us have much control over what happened here tonight is to deceive ourselves. It's unsettling, really, and very humbling, but they are who they are.
May 3rd, 2009 :: Teaching Days
Over Christmas break I cleaned out the refrigerator. This, I am embarrassed to admit, was a first both for the four-year-old refrigerator and for myself. I have, from time to time, gone through the refrigerator and emptied it of food that had begun to grow its own bacteria, and I have wiped out empty refrigerators when preparing to vacate an apartment. But to clean a refrigerator without the objective of trying to get a security deposit back . . . no, I had never done that before.
It was past time to do so, however, and one day having found some spare time due to The Break and the quietness of the days immediately following the holidays, I got inspired. I took everything out of the fridge, and set about removing shelves and drawers and spent the next hour scrubbing down four years worth of messes: clumps of jam, outside layers of onion skins, sauces and dressings that had spilled at some point and begun to form a permanent coating of grime on the inside surface. Afterwards, the appliance was sparkling; it gave me some kind of strange pleasure every time I opened it and gazed into the gleaming beauty. I almost became a convert to the joys of housekeeping.
But that's the thing: my real life doesn't allow for the kind of time to do more than basic housekeeping, much less the luxury of time to keep a sparkling refrigerator. I am suspicious that as far as housekeeping goes, survival mode is the only one at work around here. But the clean refrigerator got me thinking, because I realized that in too many areas of our lives survival mode is all we are managing. Looking around, I see colleagues and friends who regularly live in that maxed-out place of too much work, too many obligations, too much stress. They manage, but barely, one step away from a possible breakdown--if not of the catastrophic nature, then at least of the kind of minor meltdown we all have experienced at one time or another. My students are no better off: there is too much homework, rehearsals, activities, sports practices and very little unstructured time. I know that my best creative ideas bubble out of moments that almost look like boredom. I also know that its been forever since I allowed for the luxury of such unscheduled time, and that I have never conscientiously prioritized such empty spaces in my life. It isn't just our refrigerators that are messy, but our lives are stuffed and overflowing. We are so busy and stressed out that we have little hope but survival mode.
Both personally and professionally, this is a concern. Obviously, living one beat away from insanity is not desirable, but more than that, what I know is that when we are in survival mode we don't have any mental or emotional space for artistic, creative thinking. Not only do we fail to clean out our refrigerators of unwanted science projects, but huge areas of our lives get moldy and dusty. It's hard to think big idealistic thoughts when we are barely getting our basic needs met. Of course, this is psychology 101, the idea that we until our primary needs of food, shelter, and love are met, we are not capable of anything more complex. While we may be lucky enough not be primitively fighting for fundamentals, I wonder if there isn't a parallel somehow that says as long as our lives are completely full of pressing obligations and time restraints, artistic and creative thinking is but a faint probability.
Recently, this idea was brought home to me. I was traveling, doing a workshop for teachers about creative thinking in our studios. At the end of the talk was a discussion period. Although I liked to have thought that I shared lofty, cosmic ideas about teaching, the questions I got were basic survival kinds of things: What do you do when your students don't show up for lessons and don't call? How do you handle it when your students come to lessons without their music? What do you do about students who can't afford a full-size keyboard? "Wow," I found myself thinking. "Did you even hear me?" I dealt with the questions as kindly as I could feeling all the time a little like the Alice Waters of piano, proselytizing on the benefits of healthy, organic music-making and teaching, only to be asked how I prepare Hamburger Helper.
Although I may not deal regularly with the above problems, I think I get it. I get how teachers might be fighting so hard for such fundamentals like a committed student roster and regular paychecks that high level creative teaching never gets to be part of the equation. I understand that, for many classroom music teachers trying to manage in rooms without a piano, perhaps seeing a class of children once a week at most, that teaching complex harmonies might not be at the top of their agendas. I recognize that for every teacher who might get the privilege of teaching highly dedicated advanced students, there are dozens of other teachers working to keep music alive in our society no matter how basic the level. For people who actively have to fight for every meal, whether or not the food is organic is not really important. Yeah, I get that.
So what's the answer? On the one hand, I love big lofty ideas (Music in every home. A piano in every classroom....) and think that as a functioning artist and teacher, I need motivation as much as the next person. Obama resonated with voters because we were people in desperate need of inspiration. But taking a good look around our profession reminds me that we need both: we need encouragement and a motivating reason to do what we do and we need practical tangible solutions to the problems we face every day. While we can get by without clean refrigerators, that doesn't mean we should ignore the fact that our starving spirits need to survive too. Truth is, I know altogether too well what survival mode looks like. I face plenty of it in my life, and certainly it is not only my creativity or my refrigerator that suffers. The difference between surviving and thriving is relevant to us all.
March 22nd, 2009 :: Teaching Days
I am a huge fan of big blank
sketchbooks. At any given time, I have a half-dozen blank
notebooks in use: one contains teaching notes, another serves as my
practice journal, another holds recipes, and I carry still another everywhere to
capture miscellaneous thoughts and ideas. My husband, on the
other hand, likes the small moleskin notebooks to record all of his random
information, and he teases me about the size of my sketchbooks. "Why
do they have to be so big?" he asks, eyeing my pile of black
spiral-bound sketchbooks. "My ideas are too grand to be
contained on your tiny little pages," I retort, as he slips his admirably compact volume into his jacket pocket.
Not only do I swear by these big
sketchbooks in my personal life, but I require that my students own
and use theme for their practice assignments.
This is, admittedly, because I have a lot to say when writing down
assignments for students. I am fanatical about assigning specific
practice steps. For example, a beginner
working on a new piece might have the following assignment: play
RH 3x, LH 3x, BH line 3 5x, then whole song BH 3x.
Or something that looks like: tap
BH 1x, play RH 1x, LH 1x, BH 3x, repeat from beginning each step 1x.
An advanced student might have an
assignment such as: Practice each section of the piece a
different way every day: using metronome, hands separately, different rhythms, in phrases, etc.
This comes straight from my own
practice journal, full of ideas about what is working and what needs
to be done next. Keeping a journal reminds me of what I've already done, and
what I might have neglected. It is a place to catch those
brilliant, if infrequent, moments of insight while practicing, when
suddenly it is perfectly clear what might fix a particular problem;
it is a map of my learning process for every piece of music.
For years, I was convinced I remembered these moments of
enlightenment and the intentions I might have for the next day's
work, but after years of keeping a practice journal, I know I was
only fooling myself. It is amazing what I forget when I get up
from the piano bench. It is quite startling to realize how
painfully blank the slate might be every practice session if I don't
have a means to catch my progress.
So, I have become compulsive about
writing down Every-Specific-Practice-Step for students, and this
teaching habit borders on both the obsessive and the dogmatic. I know
this, of course, and find it a bit ironic given how laid-back I
generally am. Compulsive behavior isn't really a problem with
me; establishing and maintaining habits are more of a challenge. But because of this, perhaps, I am more conscious of how important it is for
students to have a plan when they sit down at the piano to practice.
Students with a set plan are more likely to feel a sense of
accomplishment when they work, and practice plans make the whole
ordeal more objective. Have you practiced all your
assignments carefully? Yes or No? Sometimes I
scribble this in the margins of student's assignment notebooks just to
see if they are reading their practice plans. Certainly in my
own life and work, I welcome anything that will make this nebulous
art form more black and white. If I have a practice plan and
complete it, I can, in good conscience, feel like my work is finished
for the day. I find the same to be true for my students.
But to counter this controlling tendency, I encourage students of all levels to think
about their own practice plans. "How should we practice
this?" I routinely ask students. "We don't have
time today for 'Waltz'. What should the practice plan be next
week?" This is good for all of us: it gives the
student more authority and ownership and requires them to think about
what constitutes a reasonable practice plan for a given piece.
Equally important is the fact that it starts to write my role
and absolute authority out of the equation. As a teacher, I
want this for my students: I want them to become independent
musicians, not dependent upon my holding their hands through the
learning process. But even on a more personal level I want
this: if I can give them ownership over their own music-making
the work gets easier for me as a teacher. It takes an enormous
amount of energy to push and prod students along; it is no small
thing to step back and just provide the healthy atmosphere for
music-making without all of the energy coming from me. If I can
allow them to make more of the decisions and make more of their own
learning discoveries, I am a far better teacher at the end of the
day. I'm also far less exhausted.
I was reminded of
this just this week. For three years, I have been pushing and prodding Jake
along. This has been necessary, or so I tell myself, in order to get this now 4th grader to the point where assignments are
being learned accurately and thoroughly. Suddenly, he is taking
off at a breathtaking speed, sailing through his pieces, where once
it took him weeks to master even the simplest skill. This is thrilling for me, as you can imagine, and as I watch this unfold in
front of me, I am deliberately trying to hand him the reins whenever
possible. "So how I am supposed to practice that?"
Jake asked me as I was writing down a new assignment this week.
"Hmmm....how about you use your own brain and figure it
out?" I suggested, "You write the practice plan and
follow it." "Oh, good." Jake responded. "I
like to use my brain. It makes me feel less like a robot."
If we accept for a moment that our
real job is teaching life skills, not just music skills, then using
one's own brain ought to be on the top of the list. Daily,
hourly, I have to remind myself of this and relinquish control: stop
jumping in to correct every small or large mistake, but allow
students to stumble through and discover their own process in my
presence. This doesn't mean I stop making my assignments
specific, but it does remind me that there is a line to between healthy, appropriate guidance, and putting
students more in charge of their work. These are contradictory
ideas, to be sure, but there's a balance to be found in the tension
between these practices, if we can only learn to embrace that grey area.
Occasionally, when I am faced with another big empty page to fill for a student, I feel a lot
like a robot filling in the blanks. But when I am doing my
best work, and being attentive to all the complex nuances built into
the art of teaching, its a far cry from anything mechanical.
January 31st, 2009 :: Teaching Days
In the last issue of American
Music Teacher, I wrote a column which dealt with some of the
issues around student competitions. Specifically, I talked
about Charlie, a young precocious student of mine, who, while having
plenty of problems certainly, is a delightfully spirited kid who
plays with great flair and enthusiasm. In fact, I argued, he
was exactly the kind of kid I like to put in competitions because he
performs with such drama and exuberance. He exemplifies what I
want to nurture in students: creative, passionate music-making.
But competitions are not typically
rich ground for such vitality. Indeed, many competitions seem
designed to suck all the life out of a room. Participants' playing is usually restrained and careful; judges are encouraged to reward
perfect reditions of big, ambitious pieces over tasty, spirited
playing of age-appropriate music. It becomes all about the
details, and as a result we drill every last marking on
the page into students, in hopes that we can prevent them from being
marked down for exhibiting any offbeat or unexpected personality. In
my column about Charlie, I even suggested that this debate could be enlarged to
include all the work we do every day in the studio: are we
developing unique, colorful artists, or generically boring and
I been overwhelmed by the response to
this column. People have written from all over the country,
echoing many of the same questions and concerns. "You
know, Amy, we all think this. You just had the courage to say
it out loud," one person from Houston told me. Many have written to ask what happened to Charlie
and his "Jungle" pieces, wanting an update or a follow-up column.
So here it is:
Charlie placed third in his age
group. I was thrilled. Given the competition that
afternoon, I was perfectly satisfied with third place; it felt like a
validation of what I was trying to do with all my students that
entered that day: give them permission to show some
personality, even maybe at the risk of showing less polish or
perfection. This didn't work in every age level, but my
students had a better showing this year than ever. One teacher
told me, "You know, across the board your students play with
personality. It's great to see." That comment alone was
worth the gamble. There is no predicting what a judge will
think, I never agree with everything judges say or do, but this felt
like evidence that I was on the right track. I'll be braver
about taking musical risks with my students in competitions in the
future; I can already tell a greater confidence in doing so, even in their weekly lessons.
And Charlie? I can assure you
he is still asserting his personality at every possible opportunity.
Yesterday, he had changed one
of the notes in Dennis Alexanders's Troubadour, insisting
that an F# in a couple of places in the left hand would sound better. I
compromised on that one, saying that as long we talked to Mr. Alexander
about it he could do whatever he wanted. Even though Dennis
lives minutes away from me and is a frequent guest in my studio, my
hedging will certainly buy some time. In that case, Charlie's F#
sounds pretty awful, but still every time he stubbornly played it, I
found myself thinking, "Isn't it something that he can embrace
this funky sound?" I can assure you, he is flagrantly breaking
all harmony rules when adding that F#, but still, give me Charlie any
day. We need each other, Charlie and me. He needs me
because I just might be unusual in my willingness not to get in his
way too much. I need him because he reminds me to embrace the
unexpected and to question the conventional. We don't always
win around here, but day after day, we continue to make our strange
funny little noises, trying to find our voices in this world. Most
days, you could even call it music.
December 15th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
I am a pretty decent sight-reader, and I have always prided myself that my students' reading is better than average. In the past, this has probably has made me lazy about doing specific sight-reading work on a weekly basis, both in lessons and in the students' assignments, but in the last few years I have mended my sorry ways.
I am a big fan of Hannah Smith's Progressive Sight Reading Exercises for Piano, which has 534 examples of one- or two-line sight-reading exercises that progress in difficulty (at a glacial pace) throughout the book. This allows me to pick two or three examples at random to do during a lesson, or several pages if time allows. And because there are SO many examples in the book, we can jump around somewhat at will, and not worry about doing them all. Some of my kids love it when I say "OK, let's sight-read," (others groan loudly), but having this book on my shelves gives me an easy source for sight-reading material.
In addition, I have started a sight-reading library of music. (This has been an expensive thing to get going, involving me buying hundreds and hundreds of dollars of method books and pedagogical literature so that my library is big enough -- and the levels accessible and varied enough -- to be helpful.) Each week, all my students--with the exceptions of the very beginners--check out a sight-reading book. Their assignment is to play each piece in the book once and to bring it back the next week. Then I allow them to pick something that they liked from the collection to play for me, after which I choose something for them to play (thereby lessening the possibility that they actually only played at home the one piece that they then picked in the lesson). This whole ordeal takes a life-sucking amount of time. Me: "Did you play your sight-reading book?" Kid: "Yeah." Me: "Great. Pick something to play." Minutes go by while the kid picks something to play me. I try not to act impatient, fully realizing that just because I move at the speed of light, not everyone does. "I want to play, 'Frogs on a Log.'" "Fantastic." Kid plays. I then say, "OK. Now lets hear the first three lines of 'Minuet.'" Kid plays. Then the kid checks off his name from the sight-reading library sign-out sheet, signs the back of the book and then puts it away. More life-sucking minutes go by while the kid chooses a new book, usually verbally describing how he feels about each one as he browses through the basket. "Have I done this one? Oh, yeah, I signed the back already. But I don't remember it. I want to look at the music to make sure. OH! I loved this song. Could I just play it again really quick?..." Need I point out that this proves the kid likes to play the piano and has generally warm fuzzy feelings about the whole sight-reading process? I have the books labeled and organized by level to save time, although I laugh as I type that sentence because NOTHING about this process saves time. In fact, it is all I can do not to rip the book right out of the kid's hands, file it away myself and grab a new one.
So why do I bother with this waste of probably 8 minutes every lesson? Because although I can't begin to list them all, I think that all sorts of life skills are being developed and self-suffienciney encouraged when I let the kids do this whole sequence themselves. I see too many examples of parents doing things for kids to save time, and children as a result are more helpless than they need to be. So that's one reason I sacrifice lesson time. Another reason is that students are free to have uninfluenced opinions about this music with very few cues from me about whether or not they "should" like something. Because they read through an entire book every week (at least that's the goal), there's lots of music going through their lives and under their hands. Some books they love, and beg to be allowed to take home again. (Mostly I say no to this request, so that when I do agree, they think I am absolutely wonderful. I know, I know, cheap psychological trick.) Other books they hate, and are quick to tell me all about it. I think this is great in every way. Mostly I teach music I love and kids are quick to pick up on this fact. (Life is too short to not teach the music you love. Besides, as pianists, we are blessed by never being able to exhaust our repertoire so there is no reason to teach bad music.) I have an easy rapport with my students, so most of the time they wouldn't think they were hurting my feelings if they didn't like their assigned repertoire, but still that music has certain expectations that their sight-reading books just don't, so they are free to love or hate their sight-reading books at will. The final reason is simple and profound: since I began this six months ago, my students have leaped forward in their sight-reading skills. They read way above their levels, they learn their assigned music faster, they are more confident about starting new music and tackling new assignments on their own. This has been one of the biggest win-win pedagogical things I have ever done. The only drawback is the time involved, and honestly, that's just me and my own impatience.
But the whole concept of sight-reading has, from time to time, led to some misunderstandings. There was the time with Yun-Sun (not my cat, but my cat's namesake). Yun-Sun was probably five at the time and a pretty precocious reader already. Her mother had a masters degree in piano performance, but English was her second language, and so occasionally we had communication issues when discussing practicing. For some time, I had been assigning Yun-Sun to "sight-read" through such and such pages, and then one day in the lesson discovered that she and her mother had taken this to mean that Yun-Sun should say out-loud every note on the page. No actual piano playing was happening, jsut verbatim "sight-reading." More recently, I have discovered that even kids who have been speaking English since birth misunderstand "sight-reading". I had been writing "Play your SR book" in their assignment notebooks only to find out that some of the kids thought this meant "Play your silent reading book". (How they were translating this assignment to piano playing I have no idea, but those kids are nothing if not flexible and creative.) Last week, I stumbled upon Richard Chronister's term for sight-reading: sight-playing, which is wonderful and accurate in every way. However, I tried renaming the assignment with one kid only to have him whine, "But I like sight-reading. I'm used to that." You can't win.
October 2nd, 2008 :: Teaching Days
and Ethel were the wacky neighbors in I Love Lucy,” my husband Matt explains to me for the hundredth time. “What were you
doing as a kid anyway? Playing the piano?”
because of this general ignorance regarding all things involving
popular culture, I was particularly taken aback one Sunday when a New
York Times headline caught my eye. As kids log 6 1/2 hours a
day of screen time… Six and a half hours! I
nearly gasped out loud. As someone who only
uses the internet when I exhaust other options and whose knowledge of
television culture would loosely be considered to be non-existent, I
realize I am an anomaly. However, six and a half hours? There
has to be a middle ground.
But there doesn’t seem to be much
of a middle ground that I can see. Even in my circle of
musicians, cell phones regularly go off during concerts;
conversations before and after student recitals concern what software
we are employing in our studios. Everyone seems to have seen
last weeks’ episode of "Desperate Housewives," but
the recital of a local pianist was scantily attended. I rarely have
face-to-face conversations with friends anymore: instead we
e-mail to schedule phone dates. I can’t remember the last
handwritten letter I received.
There is no inherent
problem with technology—cell phones make our lives more
convenient, the internet provides us with easy access to endless
information, software programs that teach theory and music history
save valuable time in lessons. The problem is that as artists
we are supposed to be counter-cultural and the cultural norm of
technology is ruling our lives and our work. Matt, who is a
choral conductor, maintains that choirs by their very definition are
counter-cultural. In this world of high tech, individualized everything, where
the ease of plugging in programmed music generally wins, working with
groups of people to produce a specific sound using only their voices is radical. Indeed, this almost makes my work with the complicated mechanics of a grand piano look positively progressive. But even so, in our world today, the painstaking work of teaching individual students musical values and skills is
inherently counter-cultural and old-fashioned, and in a world ruled
by technology, scarce and precious.
It seems to me that our
jobs as creative teachers and artists may be to actively embrace what
is counter-cultural, both in the way we teach and in how we program
our lives. However, there is a raging debate in the pedagogy world about
embracing technology, about not resisting the seemingly inevitable
decline of traditional lessons:
one teacher, one student. According to some, we should all teach group lessons, we should all incorporate the competitive sports terminology of winning and losing into our vocabulary, we should all become more understanding with students having only limited time to
devote to preparing their assignments. I’m rebelling.
Yes, I can be a flexible and forward-thinking, but I wonder at
At some point along the way, I made the decision
not to let technology creep into my teaching. I have no
electronic keyboard in my studio, just a six-foot grand piano.
I do not program computer time to learn theory or history; if I can’t
teach it in lessons, then I have to reprioritize my teaching time and
goals. We use flash cards and magnetic staff boards to learn
note names; we use movement, balls, scarves, and percussion instruments
to internalize pulse and rhythm. My students know that their
time with me is all theirs—I don’t answer the phone, I
don’t check e-mail. Based on that newspaper
headline, this kind of live focused human contact may be rare in my
There is no single answer here. My
lack of technology may be too conservative for some teachers; certainly technology is here to stay, and teachers who use it creatively prepare students
in ways that I do not. My high expectations scare some students
away, and teachers who teach shorter lessons to students with lower levels of commitment touch lives that I do not. But as artists, I wonder if it isn't our job to resist the urge to follow blindly in the way of the rest of society. Perhaps it is
our job to consciously decide how far we are willing to go in
allowing technology in our music, teaching, and work.
Maybe it is our job to be counter-cultural and radical and to value
real experiences of music making and human contact over virtual
experiences—no matter how “educational” the
packaging. Is it possible that the more traditional path might be the more original one?
A couple of years ago, the church where my husband works
built a new pipe organ. In an age where organists are a dying
breed and organs are being replaced with rock bands, this act in
itself was radical. One month for performance class I took my
students to the church to play the new organ. They got a
mini-lesson in how the instrument worked, complete with a backstage
tour of the pipes. Afterwards, they played their prepared
pieces on the organ and we experimented with using different stops,
different manuals, adding simple pedals. Parents who usually
rushed off during performance class lingered to watch and listen.
Even the littlest four-year old student was hoisted up to the
bench and allowed to try out the instrument. The next week the
students’ reviews of their experience were glowing. All
this excitement, and yet the common assumption is that no one under
the age of 50 is supposed to like pipe organs. “Can we
have performance class every month on the organ?” seven year-old Jake asked. No, I responded. “Well,”
he bargained, “could we at least have our recital on the
We are selling our students short
if we insist that they need gimmicks and technological tricks to like
music and the arts and to win them over. We are lowering the
value of what we do if we assume that we must teach only short,
high-energy lessons that further feed the attention deficient
disorder in our society in order to keep students engaged.
Children and teenagers are the most open-minded among us; it is we who have become cynical and closed-minded, thinking that we can’t get them to practice unless we teach only Disney songs. It
isn’t our students who need the slick and well-packaged.
They aren’t looking for piano lessons to be more of what they
already have too much of in their lives: screen time, technological
gadgets, or recorded music. Instead, they want real live music,
real live time with an interested adult, real live engagement with
something and someone that responds to their attention and efforts.
If I assume that I must
look, act, and adopt the attitudes and behaviors of the rest of
society in order to make music lessons palatable, I have sold us all out.
I need this reminder
as much as the next person. For every battle I have won in
controlling the amount of technology in my life, there are plenty of times that I cave in. I am plenty guilty of tuning
out in front of a brainless movie and letting the pile of books next
to my bedside go unread. While I am good at turning off cell
phones and ignoring e-mail, a recent vacation reminded me that it makes me nervous and anxious to be cut off for too
long. I too often distract myself with checking and answering
emails when I should be practicing. I know that I am a more centered
and grounded teacher, musician, writer, friend and wife when I remove
myself not only from technology’s grasp, but from the demands
and expectations of everyday society and follow the beat of my
Yes, Fred and Ethel were the wacky neighbors,
but we can choose carefully when to let them in. Jake,
for one, doesn’t need the distractions. He is busy
preparing for his next chance to play the organ.
September 22nd, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Fall has blown into New Mexico.
Quite literally. Last week the wind ripped and raged
every night, which is nothing compared to what it did to our friends
in Texas, but enough to cause one to take notice. With this
wind has come every sign autumn is coming: the nights and
mornings are positively cool; days are gorgeous beyond description;
leaves are turning the brilliant yellows and golds that
characterize this part of the world; the smell of roasted green chile
is everywhere; and the state fair has been going strong. Today
is the day that Matt works at the pie cafe at the state fair: an
annual tradition in his church office, with all the proceeds going to Albuquerque charities. This means that, for the third year in a row, my student
Kristy and I will get pie delivered during our evening piano lesson, now a yearly event we look forward to. "Next week is
pie day!" we reminded each other last Monday night.
With all these seasonal marks comes
the normal push and pull of full schedules, long days, taxing
routines. I work the next four weekends doing piano teacher
kind of things: recitals for my students, competitions and
master classes, performance classes and extra lessons. It's
all good, as the kids would say, but I resent it a bit. I
wonder what will happen to the almost habitual Friday morning hikes
Lora and I have been doing. We are hoping to squeeze in a
morning to go horseback riding; I would love to get to one of
the art shows around town in the next month. When a colleague
asks me to play another rehearsal, I nearly fall apart and weep at
her feet. It should have been no big deal, but at that moment
it was more than I could take on. I'm saying no almost
protectively these days, without even consulting my calendar first.
I know I am teaching more than I should be. I have
several upcoming performances and the corresponding rehearsals to
play. And then there are the next four weekends; my
next two-day stretch with no obligations is a month away. I
swallow hard even writing that sentence.
Short of pulling out her hair, what's
a girl to do? Actually, the hair point is no small one, as
yesterday I realized getting out of the shower that I had forgot to
wash my hair for the fourth day in a row. Yep, that's right.
That illustration speaks volumes I'm afraid.
But unless I lead you to conclude
that all is spiraling out of control in my life, let me tell you
about last Friday night. New Mexico has a program for young
student composers called Hey, Mozart! The program was founded in New York some years ago by a composer named Alejandro Rutty, and three
years ago it came to New Mexico. Students under the age of 12 are
invited to submit original melodies (or fully worked-out
compositions) and 16 winners are chosen. These compositions are
then orchestrated by composers/arrangers from all over the country,
recorded by the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, and then presented by them in a
concert. Last Friday was the concert, and one of my students
won for the second year in a row. Now, I would like to take lots
of credit for Henry's work, but the truth is, he was totally on his
own for this. I encourage compositions and improvisations in my
studio, make creative thinking a priority, and will even offer
advice and suggestions on kids' inspirations, but beyond that he got
no help from me. Last year I went to the concert dragging my
feet. It had been the end of a long week and I wanted to stay
home and drink wine with my husband. But it ended up being one
of the highlights of my year. The program is constructed so
that each child plays their original composition on the instrument of
their choice, and then the orchestra (the New Mexico Symphony
Orchestra, no less) plays the orchestrated version. Neither the
students nor the orchestra players have heard the other until the
concert. Watching both the students' amazement at their pieces coming to life in all the colors and timbres of the orchestra, and the jaded, cynical professional orchestra players looking at
these young kids -- and perhaps remembering, "Oh yeah, that's why I got
into music. I used to be like that." -- was nothing short of
This year was no exception. We
had a cheering section for Henry, and his composition ("Turmoil") was
played right before intermission. At the break I spoke to the
founder of the program, who was in town for the event. "I thought that in
five years I'd be rich on Hey, Mozart!" he told
me, laughing. "I wish you were." I responded. "This
is exactly how music education could and should be."
And so diving into our fall semester,
we are riding on big and little triumphs, and trying to keep some
healthy perspective on it all. There are dawn-to-dusk workings
days, and then there's pie. There are students and situations
that make me want to pull out my hair, and then there are programs
like Hey, Mozart! that motivate me to keep on. There
are twenty yellow leaves on the tree across the street; the first
green chile sauce of the season is simmering on the stove. It's
September 14th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
At the risk that
ten thousand stars will become a blog all about teaching piano -- when really I am just a pianist and teacher who
writes a blog -- this is another post about with some theories on
teaching. Specifically on teaching music theory, which makes for a
bit of a word twister indeed. But recently, a reader recently wrote
and asked that should the muse strike, she'd be interested in
hearing what I might have to say about teaching music theory--how to make
time for it, ideas for teaching it away from the piano bench, and so
on. "Uh-oh," was my first thought. No one is
going to like what I have to say about teaching theory, because I
simply don't toe the party line on this one.
Over the years, music theory has been
given center stage in music lessons, or specifically in piano
lessons (I do not see this same trend among our friends teaching
other instruments.). Nowadays, every
self-respecting piano method has a set of corresponding theory books. There are competitions out there for theory geeks, and
students who keep up with theory throughout their piano
lessons are told that they might be able to "skip" the
first year of theory in college.
First of all, there is an assumption here that I don't
buy. That assumption is that we are teaching as if college
theory was even a goal in sight. as if our reality was that the majority of our students would someday be sitting in a college music theory course. This implies that teaching a lot of theory is a worthwhile goal because it knocks off hurdle kids will someday have to jump. This assumption is way off base in my book. This is right up there with another trend I
see throughout our educational system, which is to speed up the pace
that we teach everything. College-bound students now routinely
take algebra and geometry in junior high, and sometimes have several
years of calculus before they hit a college campus. I have a
student who is a junior in high school in French VI. Yes, that
would be French VI! I spend a lot of time bemoaning the
failures of our educational system (My top complaint as of late is
that no one teaching problem-solving skills or creative
thinking---see the Aug/Sept Marking Time column all you
American Music Teacher readers out there.), but I think that
we have lost sight of the fact that there are plenty of successful
adults that never took math beyond Algebra II, that might
not have bothered with physics, that managed their pre-med
requirements just fine starting their freshman year of college.
Sometimes I look back at my high school years with a shudder;
as a top student, I was pushed into a lot of math and science
classes ("You'll want these on your transcript."), and
steered away from what I really was interested in: drama, art,
music, and writing. I hated every minute of math and science; in no alternative universe was I ever going to do anything that
needed the square root of pi. I even took calculus in college
to fulfill some general requirement; I got an "A"--that's
not the point here. The point is that even if I would have
decided to major in mathematics, I could have chosen to do so at
that time--even without having taken the pre-requisite calculus in
high school. Now I am not arguing that we should start
systematically slowing down the accelerated pace we teaching the
basics, nor am I interested in lowering the bar, but maybe we need
to remember that we have a lot more time to teach some things than
we act like we do.
Which brings me back to the theory
argument. Because I was taking math and science in high school
on some career track of my guidance counsellors' making, and because
my piano education up until college was rather non-traditional, I
went to college without knowing what a V-chord was. (I can
sense the piano teachers across America shuddering at this
statement.) Now, I should qualify that I had been accompanying
choirs and soloists of various kinds for years; I could sight-read
anything; I gave a full-length senior recital right before high
school graduation that included the Chopin double-thirds etude. In
other words, I was no slouch. But not one of my teachers had
bothered with theory. I could, and did, zip through all my
scales--major and minor--in octaves, thirds, sixths, and tenths; if
pressed, I probably could tell you what the key signature was of any
piece I was playing, but that is about it. In other words, for
an advanced pianist, I was a totally beginning theory student.
It worked out fine. Now I
think my story is unusual, and not necessarily to be imitated.
However, theory was easy (especially after all that math). I
whizzed through it all with no trouble, and, as a result, have taken
a much more relaxed approach to theory in the private lessons of
pre-college students, than the average teacher.
Specifically, here is what I do: I
teach theory in conjunction with technique. In the beginning,
this consists of the technique of 5-finger major and minor
positions; primary (I-IV-I-V-V7-I) chord progressions and
inversions. Later this will be key signatures of major and
minor scales and more advanced chord progressions and harmonies. We
talk a lot from the very beginning about what "position"
we might be playing our pieces in: G major, D minor, A major
in the right hand, E minor in the left, and so on. We identify
chord positions in our music: "that's a IV chord in D
position," or "a I chord in B-flat," which may or may
not be related to what key the music is actually in. I don't
think it much matters to an 8-year old. If I could rewrite my
own history, I wish I would have had naming information earlier so
that I would have had a way to identify what was going on in my
hands. But the now-emphasized skills that include lots of
writing: part-writing, writing intervals, spelling out scales
or chord progressions seems to me to be unnecessary for the average
student taking piano lessons. Having some verbal
identification of what they are doing is a good idea, and one that I
wished I would have had earlier. Needing to be able to explain
how a V chord functions seems less vital somehow.
I also get some theory in edgewise
through my ear-training work. I use the Suzuki Piano Book One
for ear tunes, because almost every one of the pieces harmonizes
with basic I, IV, V chords. This gives solid ear-training and
harmonic work at a very early stage. I do a million things
with these tunes that would make the more strict Suzuki teachers
among us cringe. My students write out melodic rhythms of
their Suzuki tunes, transpose them with different accompaniment
figures (blocked chords, Alberti bass, waltz, broken chords),
improvise variations on the melodies, and later make up two-hand
accompaniments that they can use to accompany a soloist on another
instrument. They have then gone on to accompany violin-playing
friends, or flute-playing siblings with their accompaniments of
"Lightly Row" or "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" in
recitals or talent shows.
All this is to
say that my students don't, by any traditional definition, do
written theory work. Occasionally, I will find a great
worksheet that I will copy and use in my group performance classes (I have
discovered that having a written activity at the beginning of class
is a great way to start when kids are straggling in). Some
beginning students who need more work with note-reading besides my
exercises with flashcards are sometimes assigned to download a free
note-reading game on-line (www.teoria.com/exercises/reading.htm is a
good one) and use it daily for 5 minutes or something. Having
said all of this, my students have proven (if I could brag a moment) to be really functional pianists in all sorts of settings. (In
another post, I'd be happy to list all the problems my students
have. Trust me, there's plenty.) Not only can they
write their own boom-chick kind of accompaniment patterns in any key
with simple harmonies, they have gone on to play in high school jazz
bands and orchestras because they had working knowledge of chords
and keys. I realize as I write this that this is theory in a
nut-shell, but my students would be the first to tell you that they
"don't have to do theory" with their piano teacher. They
will tell you this as an example of a benefit of taking lessons from
me. (Many of them might say this is the only good thing about
taking lessons with me.)
Like I said, I wouldn't wish my lack
of theoretical knowledge before the age of 18 on any piano student.
However, I still think music lessons should be about the art
of making music, and that too much paper work or computer time
distracts from this. I have also seen too many theory whizzes
that couldn't translate this paper knowledge to the keyboard, making
me wonder why we bothered in the first place. There is a real
danger, and I'll be the first to admit it, that my students couldn't
translate their piano-theory knowledge to paper, but I'll take that
risk. When and if they major in music, they can get that fast
July 31st, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Eddie is a high school student and
quite a talented pianist. In the last year, he has evolved
from someone who practiced because a parent made him, to someone who
has decided he IS a pianist. It's a lovely shift indeed,
making my job all the easier. He is also a great tennis
player, and this summer he has been teaching tennis lessons to
young children. He tells me about these lessons, comparing
piano with tennis. Apparently, he has been incorporating piano ideas to these youngsters, telling them "You
may not like to practice, but you should stick with it!"
making me beam with pride that this good-looking kid has
adopted this view of the world and his music lessons already.
Just like my
teaching teaches me at least as much as it does any
of my students, I can see this happening with Eddie. He is
suddenly more interested in what I say, how I talk about practicing,
what the process of learning a new piece might be. "You
know, the little kids I teach love me," he told me the
other day, "but the 12 year-olds hate me because I make them
work hard." "Yeah," I agreed, "I have the
same problem with 12 year-olds. It's not about you; it's just
being 12," I reassured him.
Last week we were discussing his
Beethoven sonata before he began to play. "Should I play
it room temperature or performance tempo?" Eddie asked me, not
catching his slip of the tongue.
But I got it. I know exactly
what he means by "room temperature" playing. Room
temperature is the slower break-down practicing that we do. It is
the place where I have long coached him to spend most of his
practice time, instead of always racing through at top performance
tempo. "You will need to practice performing this piece at some
point, but not too much," I tell him frequently, "because
you know things unravel with too much performance tempo playing."
Room temperature. Performing
frequently this summer has meant a careful balance of room
temperature playing and performance tempos, the yin and yang of my
musical life. Every day I catch myself saying something really
smart to a student that I need to listen to, something that I would
do well to apply to my own work. Every day teaching teaches
me, if only I would take heed. Too many days, I practice the same way, falling into familiar and dangerous ruts of my own work
and habits. I could use more time with room temperature
playing, and less run-through performances. More breaking
apart, and less putting together until absolutely necessarily. I
know this. But saying some version of this to a student
reminds me once again. It's humbling to imagine that there is
still a gap between what I know and what I actually do, but there it
is. My students mirror my own frantic patterns all too well.
As I write this, I am quickly
approaching the end of my summer semester. I have a blessed
few weeks off before diving into the fall semester, the return of
monthly performance classes, the many recitals and competitions that
litter the next season. It's hard to believe that the summer
months of teaching are nearly behind me and that I might need to
start gearing up to the next round of learning. I have plenty of
homework over this break: music to read through, newsletters and
studio info to get out, a teaching schedule to put together and
finalize for what seems to be the 500th time. (If one more
parent calls me with the leading sentence, "Oh Amy! We
just found out about David's chess club practices and now can't do
Thursdays at 4pm." I will scream. The fact that I inexplicably got a perfect score on the logic potion of the GRE means that I should be able to easily handle all these
variables. True, I can. I just don't want to.)
It is also the time of the summer
when I hit my own seasonal wall. I have read that we
are best suited to the season that we are born in, but that couldn't
be less true for me. I may have an August birthday, but every
year about now I grow weary of the summer heat. I fight the cabin fever of too many weeks of staying inside
avoiding the sun. I get restless and depressed and
moody. I seem to be better suited to the season in which I was
conceived--that delicious fall season between Halloween and
Thanksgiving. It's then that my spirits really rise and soar,
sending positive endorphins throughout my body. These days
it's all I can do to keep from spinning off the planet and to continue acting normal and rational. Years and years of
this cycle makes me know it well: I can sense it coming; I
even know strategies for fighting the declining sprial. It
helps to keep my routines of work and play in place. Too much
time off right now is almost dangerous. It is good to get out
early enough on a daily basis to walk or ride my bike, or to garden
in the evenings so that I have some connection to the outdoors in
these hot months. But above all, it helps to just "observe,"
as my yoga teacher would say. To think, "oh yeah, that's
what's going on. I'm not losing my mind. I just have had
enough of summer."
It's strange to imagine that every
year I start the summer season full of hope at all its
possibilities, that summer this year could be full of lemonade and
long afternoons in a hammock on the porch. I don't have a
porch or a hammock, and when I get too hot I get a migraine.
Instead I have a courtyard full of baking in the sun. Summer
is not my best season.
Yet here I am almost mourning the
end of it. "There hasn't been any gelato all summer,"
I said to Matt. "That is a crime, considering our three-block proximity to gelato," he replied. The reality that next
week I will start my last break before the fall semester startles
me, even the first yellow leaves turning on the tree across the
street seems a bit bittersweet at the moment. Yet, as
conflicted as this seems I am ready for the room temperature of my
life to shift again--settling into a cooler cozier place of
sweaters, mugs of hot tea, our annual October weekend in Taos.
But all this push and pull of
emotions, the yin and yang of my struggles with time have me
thinking: I may need more practicing at room temperature, but
I need more living at performance tempos--the act of diving into
every potential blissful summer day we have left and squeezing every
last lemon needed for that elusive lemonade. "Should I
play it at room temperature or performance tempo?" Eddie asked
me. Let's try some performance tempos for a change, I tell myself, as
find I peace with yet another hot afternoon.
May 19th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Last month in my youngest performance class which consists of kindergarten through third graders, we were reviewing performance etiquette. After many, many classes, my students are good at this, and they had plenty of suggestions: "You have to smile before you bow." "Put your hands in your lap between your songs." "The audience has to sit politely and not talk." "Clap when the music finish." "Don't wiggle." Then Audrey, my tiniest, youngest student raises her hand. "Silence all cell phones."
Silence all cell phones? It is all I could do to keep a straight face. Of course, she is right. We do want to silence all cell phones, and maybe I am assuming too much here, but I don't think cell phones are a problem in my K-3rd grade class.
But Audrey is quite serious, so I nod solemnly, "Yes. If anyone has a cell phone, please silence it." The other kids look at me intently. No one seems to think this an odd request. Clearly in their minds, we should smile and bow after we play. We should clap for one another. We should sit politely and not talk, and we should silence all cell phones.
I often say I may not be training future pianists, but I can certainly train future audience members. Obviously, I am doing my job here.
Recently Joshua, a squirmy first-grader, and I were having a conversation about composers. I asked if he could name a composer. He thought long and hard, coming up short. Never mind that in January my students had a class with composer Dennis Alexander in my living room. Joshua had nothing. "You remember a couple months ago when we had a class with a composer?" I prompted him. "Yeah, I thought of that," Joshua answered, "but I can't remember his name." (Before you criticize my teaching and the obvious holes that are there, bear in mind that this is a very wiggly six year-old with less than a year of lessons under his belt. Give us a break!) Just as I was about to help him out with a few names (Beethoven? Bach? Mozart? DENNIS ALEXANDER?!?) he exclaimed, "Wait! I've got one! John McCain!"
Last week was our spring recital. I have the most talented parents on the planet, including many professional musicians. So this time, I asked several of them to perform as well, breaking up the student performances with their musical offerings. It was a huge success, and helped the evening to feel more like a musical celebration and less like an obligatory student piano recital-- exactly what I was hoping for. I began the evening with the customary remarks, and used my littlest students with their performance etiquette wisdom (see above) to help me with the "Silence all cell phones" kinds of announcements. As I was sitting down, one small child called me over, "Amy," he whispered, pointing to the e.e. cummings ten thousand stars quote on the front of the program, "What is this? I don't understand any of this. What does this mean?" His voice was shaking in concern, as if he had just come across evidence that maybe in spite of the year of piano lessons, and all that he thought he was learning, he was, in fact, missing the whole point.
He might be. Honestly, we all might be. Too often I get obsessed with pushing for more rigidly perfect performances, instead of seeking out more moments of musical joy. "Can we talk about this later?" I shushed him, squashing one of those 10,000 stars right then and there.
Noticing a new hanging star outside my sunroom door, Sophie commented on her way out of her lesson, "Oh, yeah, this is the place of the million and one stars or something, isn't it?" "Ten thousand stars," her poet mother corrected.
Lately I have been considering the possibility that maybe I could write off any stars I purchase, given the name of my studio and all. "Probably up to ten thousand," my husband tells me sarcastically. My friend Lora, recently transplanted from Bethlehem, PA is the source of several of the most recent stars, both Bethlehem and Moravian stars being as cliché in her former hometown as wreaths of chile peppers are here. I visited her several years ago at Christmastime. Nestled in the Lehigh Valley, the city is charming in any season, but at Christmas it takes its name very seriously, and pulls out all the stops. Or all the stars, as the case may be.
Bethlehem and Moravian stars are different, I am told. Bethlehem stars have long pointed arms on the top and bottom. The arms on Moravian stars are all the same length, but there are more of them, forming almost a rounded shape. I love them both. I hung the biggest Bethlehem star outside the sun-room door, where everyone--students, friends, Matt and I--enter our house. Matt was concerned at first that it hung too low, and would stab someone, but we tested it out on our friend Brad, who, at 6'5", is the tallest person to regularly enter the house. The top of his head made it past the star unharmed, so I think we are safe.
In addition to more Moravian and Bethlehem stars, Lora brought me a string of stars that are embedded with tiny white lights, knocking off at least ten of the ten thousand stars right there. I probably should have waited to put it up at Christmas, but of course I didn't, instead immediately hanging it around one of the front windows. I really need a matching strand, so thankfully Lora has to go back next month to Pennsylvania and orchestrate the move of her stuff, thereby giving me an opportunity to get closer to the goal of filling this house with stars.
When Matt isn't currently annoyed with the whole ten thousand stars studio and all the ways it seems to conspire to make his home life difficult, he joins me in plotting how to incorporate more stars into the decor. "You could have them painted in the living room," he suggests one day, "Let's call William." William is a painter friend from former Texas days, we haven't been in touch in years, but I love idea of William's stars gracing my studio walls.
This is my last week of teaching for the semester, my spring schedule coasting to a halt. I'm ready, I'm beyond ready, to have a break, not to have to arrange my days around my lesson schedule, to let days unfold as they might without the restrictions of my work life. Recently, I said to my husband, "At the end of the day, I don't feel like doing anything but curling up in front of a movie and not talking. Do you think this is a bad thing? Shouldn't I have a hobby or something? Isn't that what other people do at the end of their day, indulge in a hobby of some kind?" Matt reminded me that my schedule is unusual--I start working at 7am and often go until 8pm, with chunks of two and three hours open during the middle of the day. "Look at your life, you have plenty of projects," he said, "you just weave them into your day." Lora remarked last week when I saw her in the middle of a work day that I "used" my two-hour chunks well. "I'm afraid that I would just think, 'I only have two hours so I can't get anything done.' and thereby waste it all." Since my days are split up in small chunks of time, I have no choice but to learn to manage it this way, seeing two hours as enough to time to work through a lot of practicing, to put in a load of laundry and hang it out to dry, to return three phone calls and two e-mails. I recently challenged a busy high school student to look for tiny chunks of time in her busy life to find even a few minutes here and there to practice. "Really, Monica, you might surprise yourself with what you could get done in five minutes here or ten minutes there. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, and probably can't be, given your schedule right now." She nodded at me, probably trying just to shut me up, but I am convinced it's a real answer for her. True, short practice sessions won't a concert pianist make, but it could get her through this hectic time, until she is better able to return to real practicing.
In spite of my ability to basically use my time well, I want the luxury of wasting some time for a couple of weeks. Oh, my schedule isn't completely empty--I'm doing some coachings, playing for a voice class, I have a performance with the symphony on May 30, but still it is a remarkably easy schedule really. I've got plans--I always do. Friends I want to see, a couple of painting projects, (Matt and the cats are still in the dark about that one), some gardening that needs to be done. Last week I went to Jackalope and discovered the "Bargain Barn," which in spite of its name is not a barn at all, but a terrific dump of cracked pots and huge shards that they practically give away. Our yard is now littered with gorgeous pottery shards, making it look like an archaeological dig, according to Matt. I also now have several huge pots standing against the house and garage just begging for climbing roses, so I haven't seen the last of the nursery this season.
Often I find myself out at dusk watering, watching for the first stars to appear. "Choose something like a star," Robert Frost wrote. I'm needing some inspiration these days, worn out once again after months of recital and contest preparation. I need to be reminded why I do this, why I love it, why I just might be called to this life. "So when at times the mob is swayed/ To carry praise or blame to far/We may choose something like a star/To stay our minds on and be staid." In my little corner of the universe, I hang my stars, Frost's words scrolling through my brain. Choose something like a star....like a star....like a star.....
April 5th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Recently I spent a day judging a piano competition in Los Alamos. This was the kind of contest where the students aren't actually pitted against each other; instead they play for a rating and comments from a judge. In this particular event, there are some guidelines: students must play three contrasting pieces from three different styles or periods, and must prepare technique work (i.e. scales, chord progressions, arpeggios) in the key of each piece. It was a long day, but a good one. Matt and I spent the previous night in Santa Fe--ate a couple of good meals, hung out in the hotel room, generally wound down from another long week. Saturday morning I was up early, had breakfast in the French cafe on the plaza, and then drove up through the mountains to White Rock, where my judging site was located.
The organizer of the event had done a good job with the scheduling: the students weren't so closely packed together that I didn't have time to write thorough comments, and she had scheduled 15-minute breaks every few hours. Enough time for me to stretch my legs and take a walk around the block, or go to the bathroom. When judging, I never lack for things to say or comment on. Indeed the only challenge is not writing a full page just about the first scale I hear. I don't want to make a career out of judging, but I want these kinds of opportunities available to my students, so I am happy to take my turn when the time comes. Aside from an aching hand from writing so much, I was a pretty contented judge.
But as I watched the parade of students marching in to play for me, I was struck by several things. First of all, as someone who take a very holistic approach to teaching theory and technique, I was alarmed by the students I saw who seemed to have only learned scales and chords for this particular contest. The technique work was sometimes in the wrong key. This was not out of any attempt to be sneaky, I think, but rather simply that the student might have been confused about which scale went with which piece, so unrelated the two things seemed to be in their minds. The technique work was sometimes at a very different level than the pieces. Maybe the student was playing mid-elementary level pieces but trying to get through--unsuccessfully I might add--two-octave hands-together harmonic minor scales. This was unsettling, indeed, and a pretty good indication that these scales must have been learned just for this particular event. "Teaching to the test" is what I would call it.
Oh, I do it too sometimes, when faced with requirements that don't necessarily match up with how I teach on a weekly basis. I think technique requirements are a good thing generally, but wonder if there isn't a way to make it both more specific and less constricted at the same time. Wouldn't it be possible to set the general requirements for technique at every level in very specific ways-- for example: level one, hands alone five-finger patterns; level eight: four-octave scales hands together--but leave open how the technique had to be played. I would have loved to see some interesting new ways to practice and play scales and arpeggios; after all, I assign these things in a million various ways every week. As a teacher, I would love to be able to send my students to such events with a more natural example of how they were currently practicing their scales, instead of having the method dictated to us. Requiring the technique work and the literature to be at the same level would solve the problem I saw of students playing technique work that was too hard (or too easy). Students in early literature should be playing a ton of five-finger positions, and later, full octave scales with hands together. Forcing that the level of the technique and the literature be the same would be better for the students and the teachers. Allowing the technique to be played in any number of ways (staccato, legato, crescendo-decrescendo, eighth-notes, triplets, one octave, three octaves, or whatever ever creative approach used in the studio), would make things more interesting for the judge.
In spite of my speed and ease in writing lots of comments, it struck me that three pieces and all of the corresponding technique work was a lot to deal with when crammed into eight minutes. I stopped making comments when I ran out of room on the judging sheet (sometimes even after I had only heard half of what was prepared), and I am sure it was plenty for the students and their teachers to think about and wrestle with. Some kids raced through their playing: writing furiously, I often had no idea what piece they were doing or what was coming next. My confusion wasn't a problem in terms of having something to say, but did make the whole thing rather frantic. I know as a teacher that these kinds of competitions are culminating events, and the the real growth is in the preparation, not in the eight minutes with the judge. However, I wondered if there wasn't a way of making the whole thing a little more engaging for everyone. Because I knew I had 35 kids to listen to that day and because I didn't want to make the students (and teachers!) nervous with my questions, I hesitated to go much beyond the cheerful pleasantries of conversation, but I would have loved to have been able to freely ask students about their pieces, the styles they represent, the key signatures of the technique work. In other words, to check in and make sure the learning was really thorough and more than just notes and rhythms. As a teacher, I am always aiming for my students to be able to converse comfortably about anything prepared for a performance; I would be thrilled to have my students given the chance to have these conversations with an interested judge. Of course, this requires more in terms of preparation, but if we are already going to this level of effort, it is only a good thing if students can explain the structure and style of their music, and give their opinions (and even their struggles and triumphs!) about their process. This would also take more time, something always in short supply, but I believe it would result in a more thorough, organic experience for the students. It would also require the teachers to work differently, and perhaps more holistically. A good judge would be able to balance the need to have students play their entire prepared work, with the time reserved to talk specifically about one or two things. I can imagine it might go something like this:
"Hi Susan. What do you have to play for me today?"
"I am going to play 'Minuet' by Bach, 'Sonatina' by Clementi, and 'Rhythm Roulette' by Dennis Alexander."
"Wonderful. What key is the Sonatina in and which movement are you playing?"
"I am playing the third movement in the key of G major."
"Could I hear a G major scale then?"
"'Rhythm Roulette' is one of my favorite pieces. Do you know Dennis Alexander lives in Albuquerque?"
...and so on. This wouldn't have to take a great deal of time, but ideally would make students more learned and more engaged in every part of their work.
Finally, I know that I participate in these kinds of events because they make me better as a teacher. I always learn things from thoughtful judges' comments. I am sometimes taken aback by the same comment on multiple judging sheets, realizing that this must be something I need to work on as a teacher, as it is showing up repeatedly in my students' work. Requiring multiple styles and music from different musical periods means that I have to work more carefully, making sure my students don't fall into easy ruts of playing all 20th century music, or all sonatinas. But this very point has got me thinking. I wonder if we haven't fallen unexpectedly into a new period of piano pedagogy. In the last 20 years, there has been such an explosion of pedagogical literature (and good music, that kids love and respond to) that I think we have a new category to work with: modern/contemporary pedagogical pieces. These would be the Martha Mier, Dennis Alexander, Robert Vandall standards that we all teach and that our students want to play. Of course, these are in a variety of styles: neo-classical, neo-romantic, etc. but nevertheless seems to fall into a specific general category of their own. I wouldn't want to send an intermediate level student into a contest with three of these kinds of pieces, any more than I would want to send them in with three Schumann or Kabalevsky pieces, but teaching this good literature is not only practical, it is important. It supports living, working composers, and counters the popular notion that "classical" music training is all about dead white guys. After all, the history of pedagogical composition is a long one, and there is a good chance that some of this current music on our teaching shelves will make its way into the standard literature in time. But until then, let's acknowledge and celebrate it by giving it a category of its own, and not lumping it into 20th-century literature. I don't want to be penalized for teaching Bartok and Alexander, that seems insane and certainly misses the point of using this engaging music. But under our current system, even though the 20th century has been over for seven years, we classify both Bartok and Alexander as simply "20th century" or "Modern". I think this group of pedagogical music is different, refreshingly so. Some of it may make it into standard piano literature, some won't, but for now, I'd like to see it given its own specific and recognized category.
As always, there is little doubt that I learned more than any of the students I heard. As I prepare my students over the next few weeks for the same event in our local chapter, I think I'll be braver about not following the rules, about not teaching to the test, about using less familiar, but charming, literature instead of the old war-horses. I'm still a young teacher, quick to want to obey the system, especially in a new place with unfamiliar rules. However, events that make us more thorough teachers help all of us, and I know it has to begin in my own studio in the next month. Just today I told a student that I had decided he could play his favorite Dennis Alexander piece and the Persichetti piece for our upcoming contest next month. "Yeah!" he told me, eyes glowing, "You know, I love them both!!"
That's the point, isn't it?
February 24th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Just today a student I have taught for over two years discovered the large stack of Harry Potter books in my sun- room, where she waits every week for her dad to pick her up after her lesson. I say "just discovered" because Tuesday was her ninth birthday, and she received the entire set of Harry Potter books, which has made her hyper-aware of anything having to do with the magical boy. "I just started this week, and look how far I am!" she exclaimed to me as she picked up my copy of the first volume, found her place and began reading. I smile thinking about it, remembering a favorite student of years ago who first introduced me to the series.
We teachers take out memories of old students, like favorite books on a shelf, and browse our recollections fondly. I taught Kathryn and her sister Elizabeth for a couple of years while I was living in Texas. Then I moved to Boston, after which I got long rambling letters from Kathryn for several years. I haven't heard from her in a long time, and she must be, by my shoddy arithmetic, either a senior in high school or maybe even in college. Back when I knew her, Kathryn was a great reader, and we often talked about favorite books. One summer her family traveled to England and she brought home the first three Harry Potter books--the English versions, as they had yet to hit the states. "You have to read them, Miss Amy," she told me, her eyes wide and shining. "They are so good!" I did read them, at first just to appease her, but then because she was right, they were so good. The summer I left for Boston, the fourth book came out. She stood in line late at night to get her copy and then brought it to me the next day. "You read it first," she told me earnestly. "You are moving." Now that's love.
I have read all the subsequent Harry Potter adventures as they came out, but somewhere along the way lost the thread of the story. Or maybe it just wasn't the same without Kathryn. Last summer, however, I joined millions others and reread the whole series to the final chapter, reliving the tale and recapturing the excitement I had back when Kathryn and I first read the English versions. As a kid, I was an avid reader, and I bond easily with students who love to read. This month I have a review published in American Music Teacher of a pre-teen book. I asked a current student of mine to read it as well, and help me review. Grace's opinion and ideas were helpful, softening my perhaps otherwise harsh judgement of the story.
My sun-room is overflowing with books -- both for students and for their parents to read as they wait. And read they do, students reading and reading again the Olivia stories and all the Harry Potter books, Stellaluna and favorite Dr. Seuss tales. Parents read and frequently borrow volumes of poetry and travel books, and laugh over The Gashlycrumb Tinies. A mother of one of my students is a poet; I have several other studio parents whom I talk books on an almost weekly basis, as others might talk about the weather. Students routinely ask parents to wait for them as they finish some book. Most do, good-naturedly.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be interested in watching my newest Harry Potter fan as she dives into volumes of the story while waiting to be picked up from piano lessons. And somewhere out there, I hope Kathryn is well and happy, playing the piano certainly, but more importantly, still reading.
Throughout the years I have carefully built up my studio library of books. Longtime favorites include:
*All the Olivia books by Ian Falconer. If you don't know the Olivia books, you should. These are hands down the favorite books for early elementary. My husband is convinced based on my stubborn, feisty attitude that I could have been Olivia in another life.
*You Can't Take a Balloon Into...Three picture books about taking a balloon into the National Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum created by two sisters: Jacquerline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser. These are wonderful picture books, simultaneously telling the adventure of the balloon outside and the museum visitors inside through clever reproductions of how art mirrors life.
*365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental and Joelle Jolivet. Matt got me this book last year for Christmas. My students gravitate towards it first because it is physically larger than the rest, but then they go back to it because it tells the charming story of a family trying to save penguins in danger due to global warming.
*Stellaluna by Janell Cannon. A classic.
*Oh, the Places You'll Go! and The Butter Battle Book both by Dr. Seuss. The first has become a standard gift in life tranistions; the second, written during the cold war, is a thought-provoking tale of an escalating fight between two disparate groups, warring for nonsensical reasons. Hmmm... Sound familiar?
*The Big Box by Toni Morrison. This is really a children's book for adults. Every teacher should read it.
*The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. A picture book for adults in which riduculously horrible things happen to children. ("N is for Neville who died of ennui....") I shouldn't like it, but I do. Some days more than others.
*Blue 2 and 600 Black Spots by David A. Carter. Fabulous pop-up books. Like tiny little sculptures. Last week one of my high schoolers was looking at these books and I could hardly drag her to the piano bench. "Amy," she said, "these books rock my world." Mine too.
Do you have favorite books in your studio? I'd love to hear about them.
January 27th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Recently my 13-year old nephew came to visit. Sam doesn't play a
musical instrument; he plays football. He must have been told not to
touch "Amy's piano" before he arrived, because he although he eyed it
from across the room, he maintained a wide berth of space around it.
Noticing this, I assured him that nothing he could do would break it,
and that he was welcome to play the piano as long as he didn't bring
food or drink near it. In fact, I told him, I'll teach you to play
So later, after Sam had fiddled around on the keys
for awhile on his own, I showed him a simple black-key rote piece that
I teach during many first and second lessons. I played it once, then
broke it down in small enough segments that he could emulate. Hovering
nearby were my husband and my brother-in-law, eager to witness this
exchange. Not only were they curious, but quick to jump in
with a correction when Sam made a mistake. It was cute really,
although not a great pedagogical example, for I am a firm believer in
allowing kids to make mistakes as they learn something new. I
worry about the attitude that maintains that students who make
mistakes will needlessly cement these mistakes into the learning
process. Sure, maybe they'd learn faster without the detours, but the
discovery process is important too. They aren't playing with bombs
after all, nothing they do on the piano will hurt them. It's not only
OK, but a good thing, to let students struggle a little without
constant feedback from me. It gives me a break from constant
monitoring, and them some freedom to explore a safely. As I said, we
aren't talking bombs here.
Sam, in spite
of being under the microscopic lens of his uncles, soon mastered the
short piece and proceeded to play it over and over again, without
pause. As someone without children, I don't often get an inside view of
how a student might behave outside of lessons after having learned
something new. Listening to Sam play the same ditty 500 hundred times,
I had new respect for parents at the mercy of listening to the same
music played ad nauseam.
I thought Sam's interest might be
short lived. He played it over and over again before dinner and then
after eating got up from the table and announced, "I'm gonna go rock on
the piano for you," and proceeded to play it another 500 times. He
played it not only the way I taught him, but began to change it
up--playing it down instead of up, playing the patterns backwards, upside down and inside out. I confess I have little tolerance for background sound,
so it tested me to see if I could endure this constant fiddling on
the piano and not go nuts. But aside from that, as a teacher, I was
thrilled to get a glimpse of what just might be happening in my
students' houses behind my back.
The next day I taught him a different rote piece, and the following day yet one more. When Sam left that
week he had three short pieces he could sit down and play. I had new
insights to what kids do with the music I routinely teach, and deeper
sympathy for the parents who live with it.
I teach rote songs to
beginner students on a regular basis, using them to supplement and
stimulate their assignments until the student is comfortably reading
for himself. They also are lovely first recital songs. They often
sound harder than they are and beat the dinky two-note kinds of pieces
beginning students are otherwise subject to. There are thousands of
possible rote pieces out there. You can find good rote pieces in many
method books or use books of solos with music that is heavily
patterned. Some of my favorite pieces and sources are:
from Francis Clark's Keyboard Musician
: Night Visions; Bridle Path; Rainforest
from Lynn Freeman Olson's Music Pathways Piano Solos Book A
from Francis Clark's Music Tree Lesson Book 1
: Grand Entrance
from Linda Niamath's Marching Mice
: Picnic Time; Squirrels; Snowflakes; Robots; Funny Bunnies
from Lynn Freeman Olson's Music Pathways Piano Discoveries Book B
: Drifting in Outer Space
other good folk tunes to teach by rote in the first few lessons: Mary Had a Little Lamb; Old McDonald; Engine, Engine No. 9
(all on black notes only)
evidenced by Sam's behavior, students of all ages love rote pieces that
move around the piano. They sound big and expansive and are physically
fun to play. I have even successfully taught these to adults (Francis
Clark's Keyboard Musician
is a book for adult
beginners, so those rote pieces were intended for adult students.) And
if Sam's playing is any proof, these pieces lend themselves well to
students improvising and changing them up at will--another plus.
Photo by Jerome Jim
January 5th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
George is a teenage piano student in my studio. He and his sisters came to me a year ago, transfers from a teacher who was moving out of state. He is a good kid, although he doesn’t practice much, dabbling a bit at his assignments a couple times a week at home. I like him, though. We have a fun, easy rapport.
One day in his lesson, George was playing a theme from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, which led to a long tangent on what movies I had or had not seen. It quickly became apparent that in his opinion I had not seen anything. So the next week he made me a list of movies that he thought were important: lots of Superman and Spiderman and various other teenage-boy testosterone kinds of flicks. For several weeks afterwards he asked, “Amy, have you seen any of the movies?” When I admitted that I had not, whining about how busy I was, he would sternly scold me, “Amy, I am busy too. But I still managed to see three movies this week.” (I think there is something inherently wrong with that sentence, and if I look closely it may reveal something about his attitude and progress about piano practice.)
“Amy, are you going to try to see a movie this week?” George began asking me at the end of every lesson. “Are you going to try really hard?” I would promise to try really hard and wondered if there wasn’t something in this exchange that I couldn’t use to make him try really hard to practice more.
One week I had some movie watching progress to report. I hadn’t actually watched any of the movies, but at least I had one of them one the Netflix queue. “This is a step forward don’t you think?” I asked him eagerly. “Not just a step, Amy, but a gigantic Olympic LEAP forward!” He enthusiastically told me.
Don’t call me this weekend. I’ll be busy watching movies.
December 13th, 2007 :: Teaching Days
For a man whose home is also his wife’s place of business, my husband is generally good-humored. Although our house is not large enough to have a separate studio, the front part of the house opens into a sunroom, where students can wait before their lessons begin. The piano is situated in the front corner of the living room at the opposite end of the house from the television. After work, Matt can come into the house through the back door, start dinner, watch the news, or work on the computer and read while I finish up my evening lessons. Most of the time it works just fine.
And then there are other times, such as a weekend earlier this fall. Several times each semester I hold group performance classes, teaching on Friday afternoon and all morning on Saturday. These group sessions are chaotic at best, sending Matt screaming to the coffeehouse down the street. Once a month, I host a book group of local music teachers that meets on Friday mornings. “Does the book group ever travel?” Matt asks me sarcastically. It’s not that he minds the book group or the performance classes in theory, but Fridays and Saturdays are his days off. He likes to be at home, without other people, just he and I and the cats. He is, after all, an introvert.
To top off this rather full weekend, on this particular Sunday afternoon I scheduled a photo session at our house so I could finally get the pictures taken for my website. Matt has a very intense day on Sundays; services in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon. In between he likes to come home, have lunch, drink coffee, read the paper, take a nap, and enjoy the quiet. It was on hearing of the upcoming photography session that Matt really lost it. “You mean, when I get home from church,” (i.e. this would be also called “work” for a full-time church musician), “there are going to be kids here and a photographer?
” “Uh-huh,” I responded sheepishly. “But you can still take a nap and read the paper. You just have to do it in the bedroom.” He was not pleased. He was so not pleased that I began plotting ways I was going to have to make it up to him.
Sunday afternoon arrived. My friend Jerome, a flutist I work with regularly and a terrific photographer, arrived with cameras, umbrellas, and lights. He began moving furniture, and taking pictures off the wall. When Matt got home from church, there were a dozen kids and their parents in the living-room-turned-photo-studio. I saw him come in the door, watched his eyes grow big in disbelief and then to my relief, he began laughing. “When I saw a damn photo shoot happening in the living room, the thing was so over the top it became hysterical,” he later told me. Bless him. Although I will schedule more carefully from this time forward, taking better care to avoid multiple activities in the house on the weekends, we survived with most of our good humor intact. God bless that man.
And the photos—Oh! the photos. Even Matt says they were worth it.
Photos 2 and 3 by Jerome Jim
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com