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.
January 24th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
We've been playing with rhythms lately in the studio. Beginning last month, when all my scale-playing students played descending scales to the rhythm of Joy to the World, I've been on a rhythm kick. I love using 5-Finger Positions to teach rhythms; it is not uncommon for my students first to play eighth-notes or dotted quarters here before they stumble upon them in their music. But lately I've been spending a lot of lesson time with these rhythmic patterns. First, I write them out in their notebooks, then I clap and chant the rhythm using generic "Ta" or "ti-ti" kind of language. The student imitates my example and then we improvise movement to the rhythm pattern using claps, snaps, foot stomps, patting our heads, and so on, each taking turns to make up a sequence. Following Richard Chronister's example that students should first improvise on new rhythmic patterns to help learn them, I then take the pattern to the piano and improvise something using the rhythm. The student does the same, and we take turns back and forth for a few minutes. Finally, after all these steps, we look at playing our 5-Finger Positions, which seem easy after all this preparatory work. While this takes up a great deal of lesson time, the benefits are huge. The students get some creative improvisation work both in the movement sequences and on the piano; the rhythmic patterns get internalized and becomes organic and natural; I have a chance to teach new rhythms and note values in a non-threatening way. Even after only a few weeks, my 5-Finger kids seem to look forward to this work in their lessons.
So here's a few basic rhythmic patterns that work in 5-Finger Positions. (I keep a list of possible rhythms handy that I can refer to in low inspiration moments, like the last lesson on a rainy Thursday afternoon.) When doing these, the basic note pattern is always:
Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do--only the rhythm changes. Teachers who like balanced meters may be dismayed to discover that these are assymetrical meters at best. I don't worry about that a lot, instead focusing on the pattern itself as a unit, not rather or not it fits into a 3/4 or 4/4 measure. Students can play these in major or minor keys, using different dynamics. I generally teach these as legato patterns, but different articulations could be used as well. I write these out in the student's notebooks using quarter notes and eighth notes and may write "Ta" or "Ti-Ti" under the notes values if needed for clarification. For lack of better options here, I am notating the patterns below in "Ta" and "Ti-Ti" language.
26. Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta
27. Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta
28. Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta
29. Ta Ti-Ti Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta
30. Ti-Ti Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta
January 7th, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
It's been a lovely holiday.
Truth is, holidays can go either way.
No matter how much I might profess to love the season between
Halloween and Christmas, it doesn't mean that it isn't without its
complications. Those two months are always too busy, there is
way too much sugar tempting us at every turn, I work too much, play
too much, sleep and exercise too little. On top of that, every
year the Christmas season reminds me of how too much of a good thing
is simply too much. I always end up feeling buried alive by
the sheer amount of gifts coming into the door, holiday decor
cluttering the house, and cookies filling my kitchen. No
matter how much I may enjoy all of those things, a little goes a long
ways. I can't remember a post-Christmas week where I haven't
resorted to blindly throwing away wrapping paper, ribbons, boxes,
food items, cards, and more in the hopes of digging us out. No wonder
that in January I inevitably find myself supporting the simplicity
And then there is the issue of
holiday travel. We've lived a long distance from our families
for many years now -- long enough that there are no expectations
about whether or not we will come home for the holidays. This
is a good thing, and allows us freedom to make our own plans.
Some years we head back to Missouri and spend the week on I-70 so we
can do Christmas with both Matt's Kansas City siblings, and my St.
Louis family. Stressful as it can be, it is always good to be
home, see family, catch up with friends, visit old haunts, and have some time away.
But this year, we stayed in New
Mexico for the holidays. As it turns out, this has been a
lovely place to keep Christmas.
After finishing my last lessons for
the semester, I crammed in last-minute Christmas shopping, wrote
our holiday letter, started wrapping gifts, finished my studio
newsletter. The Saturday night before Christmas we were
invited to Jerome and Neal's for a "Dutch dinner." Jerome is not only a flutist, but also a superb cook. He has been casually mentioning his Dutch dinner ever since I met
him. When pressed, he would say it was a winter meal, and then change the subject. Several weeks ago, I was at the house
to see his Christmas tree, and Jerome said that he had some Dutch
dinner leftovers in the refrigerator, did I want to try a bite?
Never one to turn down food of any sorts, in short order Jerome
placed in front of me a bowl of steaming hot mashed potatoes with
slices of ham in it. I almost swooned. "It's not
much," Jerome kept saying, "just ham cooked in butter with
mashed potatoes." Oh. Oh. Oh. I
kept repeating over and over again. Oh....
I must have convinced him that this
was a special meal indeed, for although Jerome seemed almost
apologetic to serve us such a "simple dinner," upon hearing
that Matt's sister Mary was to be in town for the holidays, he
invited us up for Dutch food. Mary, for her part, was sceptical
at best. After all, she had lived in Holland and had nothing
good to say about the food. But she was eager to meet Jerome
and Neal, and so willingly arranged her plans to be here Saturday
night in time for dinner.
Served up to all its glory, the
"simple dinner" went something like this: Jerome
scooped a mound of buttery mashed potatoes in the middle of each
plate. On the potatoes he laid three strips of rolled ham,
which I had seen simmering in about 6 inches of butter on the stove.
In between each slice of ham, he gently set spears of white
asparagus, and then topped the whole artery-clogging pile with a
sliced boiled egg. This dinner could give you a heart attack,
if you didn't die first of happiness. Matt took one bite and
was transported to his happy place. Mary was completely won
over to Dutch cuisine. I was convinced this was comfort food
of the highest order. Jerome wouldn't stop apologizing for the
simplicity of it all.
Having lived through the cholesterol-soaring dinner of the previous evening, the next day were Matt's
Lessons and Carols services. As a church musician, this is both
one of the highlights of his year and the cause of the most stress
and anxiety. He was coasting a bit this year, it seemed to me.
I remarked upon this, saying that he seemed less stressed this
month than in the past. "What gives?" I asked him.
"Is it that you've just done it now about a dozen times? Or
that the choirs are in better shape this year? Why are you so
calm?" "Probably it's all of those things,"
Matt said. "I"m just thinking that this is going to be
a lot of fun. I get to conduct 115 singers and a 30-piece
orchestra doing great music. What's not to love?"
Mary, on the other hand, woke up
Sunday morning with two goals. She needed to get a new camera
so she could take pictures during the service ("Strictly
forbidden," Matt reminded her, but then remembered this was his big sister, who has attended every big event of his since his 2nd grade choir concert with a camera in hand.). In addition to the camera,
Mary wanted a Christmas sweater to wear, as the one she had brought
she had been wearing since the early 1980's. Apparently, before
she left DC, a friend took Mary into her office, shut the door and gently told her that the sweater was no longer fit to be
worn in public. I am one of those people who feel strongly
that no one needs a Christmas sweater, but Mary was to be a reader
during the 6:00 service and wanted one to wear.
Faced with this information as I am drinking my first cup of coffee,
my mind starts racing to see how I can get out of stepping into a
store that might sell holiday attire. "Listen," I
told her, "someone just gave me a Christmas sweater. Maybe
you could wear it? And if you like it you could keep it."
It was true. Not two weeks
before, our friend Carolyn had called to say
she was dropping off a sweater that I could have or could pass along
as I wanted, but that no one in her family could wear it and it
needed a new home. Apparently she had given this sweater to her
mother-in-law the previous Christmas, who happened to be my size.
The mother-in-law was in her 90's and died last January,
leaving an unworn Christmas sweater, which was now in my
possession. Mary, I reasoned, could have the 90-year-old woman's sweater.
Amazingly, she agreed, which solved
two problems at once: the immediate issue of the Christmas
sweater needed that day, and the long-term problem of finding this
sweater a loving home. So, with Mary attired in her new bright red
Christmas sweater, we went to both services, which were
indeed lovely. I persuaded Mary to only take photos while Matt
wasn't looking, and to her credit, she kept the flash turned off.
Afterwards, we went to dinner and began plotting the next event on
the week's agenda.
In two days, Matt was turning 40.
This, more than anything, was the reason for Mary's trip to New
Mexico this year. Aided by plenty of other people, I had been
scheming for months about how to celebrate Matt's big birthday
appropriately. At one point, one friend had written on her calendar,
"Top Secret Mission" to mark a possible surprise party
date. This was just in case Matt ever saw her calendar. Certainly, "Top Secret Mission" would not arouse
suspicions. But in the end, the party was not a surprise after
all. Instead, between about the seventh and eighth party of the season
at our house, I exhaustedly said, "Baby, I'll throw you a party.
When do you want it?"
Monday morning began with a hike, followed by breakfast and a huge grocery shopping trip.
And then the fun began. I pointed in the direction of
lights and luminaries, and Mary and our friend Katie went to work, while I baked
a triple layer chocolate cake, cleaned house, iced champagne,
gathered cards and letters into a basket, and so on. That night
our home was filled with friends ready to toast the completion of my husband's fourth decade. The cake became my domestic goddess moment of the year.
There were speeches given, toasts made, songs sung, many bottles of
champagne drunk. Katie and her mother must have washed dozens
of dishes and glasses, for when I made my way to the kitchen at one
point in the evening, there were piles of neatly stacked plates
washed and dried and ready to put away. At about 11:30pm, Anne and I made pasta carbonara for the late crowd, and the final bottle of champagne was opened at midnight. Matt's
brother Mark phoned from England a few minutes later to be the first
sibling calling to wish Matt a happy birthday. All in all,
it was a wonderful night, a perfect final party of 2008.
The next day--Matt's actual
birthday--Mary, Matt and I went to Santa Fe. Mary had a friend
who had offered her condo while she was away. "How is it that
Mary has these friends with empty condos in Santa Fe, and we don't?" we asked one another. We spent
the day wandering around the plaza, eating nachos in the St. Francis
Hotel, having a late dinner at Cafe Pasqual's. The next morning
I took a soul-feeding solitary walk down Canyon Road (My nomination for the
happiest place on earth. Forget Disneyland -- I'll take
Canyon Road any day.), and then we headed home so that Matt
could get ready for Christmas Eve services. Matt went to
church, Mary and I put out luminaries once again, keeping that
delightful New Mexico tradition. Mary went off to church, I
stayed home, unpacked, tried to put the house in order, and made a
Christmas Eve dinner of roast beef with cranberries and two kinds of
potatoes, which we ate between services. We all went to the 11
o'clock service, and then home for dessert and drinks at midnight.
After a holiday like this one,
crashing was inevitable, and crash we have. We thought we'd
rent a car and go on an unplanned adventure, but the couch has had
too much appeal. Having not slept past dawn for month, we've
been sleeping late, easily getting 10 hours of sleep every night.
We've been reading and watching movies, going on walks, and eating
our way though the huge quantity of sugar that we have accumulated in the
last month. I have been gardening, working through the late
outdoor projects of gathering leaves for the compost pile and cutting
back perennials. Slowly, now that 2009 has arrived, I am in
the process of de-Christmasizing the house: taking a load of ribbons
and bells, cranberry strands and candles every time I go downstairs.
This always takes longer than I think it should; inevitably in mid-January I will still be finding miscellaneous Christmas
items--CDs, books, angels--that I have overlooked. We are
down to the last of the peanut brittle and chocolate. I have
read through at least half of the pile of books on the coffee table.
Here's the lesson of this holiday
season: by bowing out of certain expectations, practicing the
act of saying "no" a bit more often, and experimenting with
not having every minute pre-planned and over-scheduled, we have found
a bit of heaven the last two weeks. If there is anything I need
to infuse into my breathless life this year, it is the practice of
quietness, stillness, centering and breathing. Sitting in a
courtyard behind a gallery on Canyon Road, listening to a fountain
bubble behind me, it hits me, not for the first time, that what I
need in 2009 is not more of anything, except for moments like this.
Oh, I have no doubt that my high speed multi-tasking personality will
still function at a frantic pace, but what would happen to my
life--my physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological health--if
there was more nothing, more space, more breathing room in my world?
"I am replacing the desire to be
good with the desire for authenticity," artist Tinka Tarvers
said. "I am replacing the desire for perfection with the desire
for wholeness." Yes, I whispered upon reading
this, and something inside of me quietly, slowly exhales.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org