January 31st, 2010 :: Reading Days
It is sometimes said that the great teachers and mentors, the wise men and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, make of their charisma a kind of gift. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers....do something else. They don't mystify the work and offer themselves as a model of oracular authority, a practice that nearly always lapses into a history of acolytes and excommunications. The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model---they probably have to--but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance. The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. They make particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see. A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves. (p. 281)
-from Through the Children's Gate by Adam Gopnik
January 24th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
Last Friday I took the GRE.
This was one of those painful hurdles to jump as part of going back to graduate school. I had taken it once before, about 10 years ago, when I had last flirted with the idea of additional graduate work, but that GRE score was, in the words of my advisor, "Expired." (Apparently, so was my masters degree, which left me speechless. Was it like milk?) While I would like to make the argument that my intelligence hasn't actually changed in the last 10 years, the truth is when faced with the math (or "Quantitative" as the GRE deceptively calls it) questions, I had to admit that yes, I was not as smart.
Or at least as equipped to do even the simplest math equations. As I have explained in the last month to anyone who would listen, it have been 20 years since I have had a math class. That would be 20 years. Not less than or equal to 20 years, but 20 actual certifiable years. There was no way this was going to go well.
Ten years ago when I took the GRE, in addition to the math and verbal sections, there was a logic part to the exam. Surprising myself and everyone who knew me, I earned a perfect score on this portion. But of course, I had a lifetime of juggling hectic schedules and tasks, which was better practice than anything the test prep can design anyway. (If I can only teach M-Th from 3-8pm, and all my lessons are 45 or 60 minutes, and Jack can only come on Tuesdays at 4, but Sophie can come on Th at 5, then when does Marcie take a lesson if she needs to take it before or after Dan's lesson.....) But sometime in the last 10 years the test was rewritten and the logic portion removed in place of two analytical writing sections. This, I can assure you, isn't the same at all. Even with all my writing skills, I don't often use much logic in forming my opinions. So, long story short, my only real ace in the hole was gone.
Over Thanksgiving break I bought one of those GRE test prep books and began studying math. The first time I encountered a question involving slope I almost gave up. Why, I screamed to Matt, would I know anything about slope? Honestly, even in my math days, I was no stellar math student, which is just proof that the so-called evidence that says there is a link between math and music is not the whole story. When I encountered remainders for the first time in 5th grade, I cried. Numbers never made any intuitive sense to me. What I was was a stellar student. I could, and did, figure out how to get an "A" in nearly every class I took. But I never understood much about math and retained even less. In fact, my recurring nightmare as an adult is not that I am naked and on stage, but that it is the first day of school and I am sitting in a math class with another year of difficult equations ahead of me.
Our friend Katie was home from college for winter break. Katie is an engineering student, and a math whiz, and she agreed to tutor me. A typical session went something like this:
Katie: So, slope is y over x. Do you understand what that means?
Katie: OK. Is there anyway you can just memorize this?
It never got better. One practice exam asked me to figure the volume of a sphere and I almost came undone. Complaining later at a holiday party about my GRE woes, I mentioned this to a circle of Sandia engineers. "Four-thirds-pi-r-cubed" they all said simultaneously. "But" why would I know this?" I argued. "Why is this test or these random formulas any measure of my abilities at this point?
They aren't, but in spite of myself, I was fascinated with how the practice questions were written. From an educational point of view, these were brilliant. Although I will never be sure, I don't think the level of the work was higher than high school geometry, but the questions themselves were what I would call third-level questions. In other words, they demanded that you understood about three levels of information before you could even approach what the question was asking. A comparable musical question would be: Given a key signature of 4-flats, write a harmonic minor scale. This is easy if you know anything about music, but if your don't, there is no way to fake this. You must know how to figure major keys, relative minors, and then compute the notes for the scale. I am convinced the math questions were exactly like this, but I lacked even the first level of knowledge needed to begin.
Before Christmas I had a new dream. This time I was taking the GRE, only instead of taking it on the computer, I had to answer the questions with colored pencils. I didn't like the colors assigned to me, so I was arguing with the proctor, only to realize that the exam had already begun and I was wasting my time. I crowded myself onto a table in a loud room and starting reading through the questions (all math of course). I didn't have a clue about how to do any of them. Not a clue. I was up to question 12 when my alarm rang waking me up to another day.
After six weeks of this nonsense, it was time to bite the bullet and just take the damn exam. I didn't know a frightening amount, but I resigned myself that it would be what it would be. I arrived at the testing center at 7:55AM to be met with pages of rules and regulations. It was as if we were entering a maximum security prison. We were searched, our pockets turned inside out. We had to lock up possessions, and weren't allowed water. We had to commit to wearing all the clothes we had on when we entered the room; no removing jackets or sweaters. We were photographed and then led to a computer.
At this point I must leave the narrative to give a few disclosures. In my school days, I was a good test-taker. I naturally did those things they teach you in test-taking seminars, like scanning the test and doing the easiest problems first. I was good at dividing up my time. I didn't have test anxiety and usually tested at whatever level I was generally prepared for. This was all about to change.
First of all, any of those tricks I might have automatically practiced would not be relevant because under a computer-based exam, there was no scanning the questions, answering easy ones first, or going back to difficult problems. You have to answer each question in turn in order to get a new question, and to rub salt in the wound, there would be no returning to questions once you answered them. You have one shot.
I know this going in. I don't like it but I know it. But still, I am pretty confident, if not in my actual abilities, at least in my ability to test at my skill level, or even, on the rare lucky occasion, above it. Entering the exam room, I know what strikes I have against me, but I don't think there are any outside circumstances that will undermine my efforts. I sit down at the computer, and immediately am subjected to a 30-minute non-optional tutorial about how to use the computer. This is only the beginning of the slow drain on my energy and quick wits. I then answer a number of questions about race and background, including several about my "undergraduate institution", which I brilliantly decide doesn't actually mean my undergraduate institution, but rather where I wanted my GRE scores sent. I entered Texas Tech, which makes no sense on any level, but it's too late to change anything.
I race through the two writing sections, (are there extra credit points for speed?) and decide to take a quick break. I sign out, use the restroom and get a drink at the drinking fountain. Re-entering the room, I am struck that it now seems rather warm, but too late. I am stuck with the layers I put on that morning when it was a chilly 30 degrees outside and I had to scrape the car windows. I return to my cubicle, and begin what appears to be a math section with a 45-minute time limit. I was expecting a verbal section next, but OK, I begin.
This sucks. I get a question about derivatives. W.T.F? There is a question about 14! and 15! What's with the exclamation marks? I have no idea. I am quickly running out of time trying to wade through questions that seem nothing like the test prep questions. Where did they find these questions? Where is something about y over x? I memorized that!
My ego and confidence now deflated, I finish the section. "Would you like to proceed to the next section?" the computer asks. Well no, what I'd like to do is go drown myself in a martini, but thinking I have a quick verbal portion to plow through and then I can escape, I answer, "Proceed." My practice verbal tests had typically taken me only 10 minutes. I am growing increasingly more hot and thirsty, but I can handle 10 minutes. Famous last words.
The verbal is hard. I don't know too much of the vocabulary, which shouldn't surprise me given the fact that my vocabulary development mysteriously stopped when I entered the 2nd grade. The reading comprehension passages are long, and due to the large font and the narrow columns on the screen, there are maybe one and a half words per line, making it impossible to follow the thread of the narrative. Besides, they are boring and badly written. I am growing dangerously close to not caring and blindly answering "B" on every question.
I finish, barely with any time to spare, but hey, its over. The computer asks, "Would you like to proceed to the next section?" Well, yes, I think. The next section is scoring, choosing institutions to send your scores, and then leaving. I would very much like to proceed. I hit "Proceed" and lo and behold! I enter another Quantitative section. (That would be math.) What?
And then I remember something I had conveniently chosen to forget. There might be an experimental section that wouldn't be scored, but the tester wouldn't know which section was experimental. Clearly, somewhere along the way, I am being subjected to a math experimental section. The thorn is that I don't know if the previous section was the experimental one, or this one. I actually have to try. I also have to go to the bathroom and my mouth is like sandpaper. And I am really, really hot; my wool sweater is starting to feel like an instrument of torture.
But I can't take a break, because now the clock is running and I have 28 more math problems to solve in the next 45 minutes. Slowly the will to live is leaving me.
I had smugly thought that there weren't circumstances that could cause me to take a bad test. But that was before the too hot room and the wool sweater, the three hours staring at the too large font, the lack of bathroom breaks and the absence of drinking water. My brain is now mush, and I no longer care. I don't care what my score is. I don't care if I can get into graduate school. I am willing to sign off my life and my unborn children. I will work at Starbucks or collect garbage, anything to make the math questions stop coming.
"C." I answer. Stands for Could not care less. I click on "D." Does not give a damn. "A." Actually, any answer would do.
Eventually, three and a half hours after I began, the torture is over. The test is scored; I choose institutions to receive my rather marginal scores. I stagger out, my brain foggy, nauseous from staring at a glowing screen for hours.
I understand that universities need a universal standard in which to assess student candidates, but there has to be a better way. For last Friday is not a fair or an accurate assessment of my intelligence, abilities, or potential success or failure as a student. This was just an exercise in jumping hurdles. High ones. For hour after hour. Wearing a wool sweater and being deprived of drink.
Bring on the next one.
January 17th, 2010 :: Recipes for Technique
There is a joke about a man who goes into a tailor and tries on a suit. It is lovely suit, but it doesn't fit exactly right. The man points out to the tailor that the pant legs are too long, to which the tailor responds, "But it will be fine, as long as you hold your knees like this," and demonstrates an awkward position of the thighs. Then the man suggests that the right shoulder doesn't hang in the correct place, but the tailor interrupts saying that it will be perfect if the man would just shrug his shoulder up to his ear. "See! Now it works!" the tailor exclaims. Finally, the man nervously hints that perhaps the left sleeve is too short only to be told that it would be ideal as long as the man pulls the sleeve down with his hand. Intimidated, the man buys the suit and leaves the shop, trying to maintain the funny affected posture necessary for the suit to fit well. Two women pass him on the sidewalk and one says, "Look at that poor crippled man." The other woman responds, "Yes, but what a beautiful suit!"
I fear that most books written about piano technique have this effect on me. By the time I have obeyed all the suggestions about my posture, where my elbows should hang in relationship to my shoulders, and what level my wrists should be, I end up feeling much like the man in the suit. The suit may look perfect, but I feel crippled and affected. There's a dissertation waiting to be written about the inherent problems with trying to write a one-size-fits-all approach to the keyboard, but I'm not taking on that sacred cow today. But this kind of thinking is a narrow view of what encompasses piano technique, for it can and should be more than just the mechanics of our work. Besides, as evidence of the amount of sheer verbiage out there on the subject, no two people can agree upon that anyway. A more holistic definition of good technique would be one that includes a pianist's authority over the geography of the keyboard itself and knowledge of every major and minor position. With specific work, one can "know" what B-flat major or F-sharp minor feels like, and become friendly with the hand shapes for every possible key signature and chord. Of course, this is exactly the purpose of all those piano proficiency and functional harmony classes required by most music majors. Ironically, the worst students in these classes are often the pianists, so ill-equipped as they often are to think about technique is such a basic and organic way.
In the end, this is why I bother with these posts , and why I have spent so much time developing a repertoire of patterns, because I am convinced that the more resources we have for creative ways to do this, the more easily we can concentrate on being physically relaxed during the warming-up process. Which, if you think about it, is the point of all those technique treaties in the first place. And while there are dozens of good, solid books of exercises out there waiting to be bought at our local music stores, I have come to believe that the kind of technique work that involves learning geography and hand shape is most effectively done using rote positions. While you and I may know that the written exercises we find in technique books are based on major and minor keys, somehow the black notes on the page distract most students from that basic truth. Furthermore, from a purely ergonomic point of view, there is no denying that a certain level of tension and strain creeps in any time our eyes, neck and head are reaching up towards the notes on the music rack. However we come down on the technique argument, I think we can all agree that this is the ill-fitting suit we are looking to avoid at all costs. There is something profound about teaching students that you don't have to always open up a music book in order to do good work at the piano, especially in the face of a musical tradition that has become almost completely dependent upon the written score. I want to encourage students to own their knowledge of the piano keyboard as much as possible, and that music isn't just something written on a page, but something we can design and create based on the patterns, shapes and sounds that we discover and learn.
Here are a few more patterns to get your brain and fingers moving on one of these chilly winter mornings. I first learned a version of these finger-independence exercises from Jane Allen, and since then have run across endless variations on that theme along the way. I always teach these exercises in this order---holding first Do, and then Sol and proceeding from there. It is easier to hold down one end of the hand and anchor, than to hold down an interior finger and jump around the held note. I suggest doing these hands alone so one hand can't "cover" for the other, perhaps weaker, hand.
53. Hold Do and play forte and staccato:
Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
54. Hold Sol and play forte and staccato:
Do Re Mi Fa Mi Re Do
55. Hold Re and play forte and staccato:
Do Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Do
56. Hold Mi and play forte and staccato:
Do Re Fa Sol Fa Re Do
57. Hold Fa and play forte and staccato:
Do Re Mi Sol Mi Re Do
58. Hold Do and Sol and play forte and staccato:
Re Mi Fa Mi Re
January 10th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
On Christmas Eve I walked home along the luminaria-lined streets after a service I played in a neighborhood church. Sitting on my doorstep when I arrived was a festive holiday bag. I went inside, opened the card which read, "I found this in a second-hand shop and thought of you." The card was signed by a colleague. I reached into the bag and pulled out a knick-knack. It was one of those awful tchotchkes involving cats and pianos and treble clefs that I usually avoid at all costs. But this particular item was distinct for two reasons--first, because it had a particularly horrendous paint job, and second, because I once owned this very knick-knack. It was made and given to me by a student some years ago. When the student moved away, I gleefully gave it to Goodwill. Now it was back, and sitting on my counter.
Due to the gods of the public school schedule, this year I had the longest winter break in history. By the 18th of December I was having lunches with friends, meeting colleagues for coffee, and attending Christmas services and concerts. I finished my Christmas shopping and spent entire afternoons on the couch with a stack of novels. My mother arrived on Christmas Day for a visit. We had a Boxing Day party with friends, and spent a day in Santa Fe roaming the plaza. There was no snow, but we had freezing temperatures for days, reminding us that winter had snuck in when we weren't looking.
Other things have snuck in as well, for as it turned out, this Christmas has been full of unexpected gifts and guests. It appears that we have a mouse in the kitchen. I say "mouse" ever hopeful that it is only one. Surely this isn't unrealistic given the fact we have two cats who have gone on high alert the last few weeks. Yun-Sun and Godiva now spend hours a day crouched on the kitchen floor staring at the baseboards or under the stove. They even take shifts; one napping while the other stands guard. This mouse must rue the day it chose our house to enter. We think the cats have actually laid eyes on the creature, but Matt and I have only seen evidence of where it has been. This is not a welcomed visitor on any level, for you must understand that I don't have a great history with mice.
One summer, I saw a mouse scamper across the floor of our Fort Worth kitchen and nearly had a mental breakdown. In fact, I moved in with a friend for several days until the problem could be eradicated. Then some years later when we were living in Boston, I was rummaging under the kitchen sink for a rag and stumbled upon a box of rodent poison. “Matt, darling,” I said to my husband, “why do we have mouse poison?” A look of love and earnestness came over his face. “I didn’t want you to know, but one night I saw a mouse.”
Upon questioning, my husband then admitted that he had been living this lie of mouse cohabitation for over a month. He had assured me that he kept this secret out of concern for my well-being, thinking I had enough stress already in my life. I suspected that he kept this secret out of concern for his own well-being, fearful of living with me and my rodent knowledge. The mouse was tiny and rather cute, he reassured me, and he hadn’t seen him in weeks. Considering my past reactions to such visitors, I remained remarkably calm. I didn't start packing my bags and moving out. Instead, we simply named the creature Stuart, and every day put out a large treat of poison for him.
Days passed and Stuart never touched the rat poison. He did, however, eat every crumb of the tortilla chips we mixed in to tempt him, which only proved that Boston city mice really were smarter than country mice. Just to show Stuart that we meant business, any time I was in the apartment I took to shouting randomly in the direction of the kitchen, only really demonstrating that I was still borderline mental when it came to rodent cohabitation.
But that was years ago. This time around I am ever more rational and mature. No more yelling aimlessly at appliances. This time I have two bored, indoor felines who have been in training for years for such excitement. "There is an enemy in the house," I solemnly explain to them. "Time to do your job."
And so they do, spending hour after hour guarding the kitchen. We think this mostly acts as a deterrent to the mouse, as we don't have a lot of faith in the cats ability to successfully hunt and kill anything. "Should we name the critter this time?" Matt asks me, and taunts both me and the mouse by walking around the house singing Somewhere out there....Beneath the pale moonlight....
New Years Eve arrived with a myriad of invitations to dinners, parties and so on. A few days before our friend Patti called. "What are you doing New Years Eve?" "Oh, this and that," I responded. "Can you make me a better offer?" "Well, I might," she answered and began telling me of plans to go snow shoeing on the crest. "It's a full moon, and a blue one at that. There hasn't been a full moon on New Year's since 1971. Afterwards, everyone is having dinner back at my place."
I wasn't alive the last time the stars and moon were so aligned, so it felt like a sign of what I should do. Matt opted to make the rounds of other events, (Divide and conquer, we decided.). On December 30, the Sandias got another 14 inches of snow, so clearly God was siding with the snowshoers. At sunset a group of eight of us drove around the back of the mountains and up past the ski area to the crest. We were the only ones up there. The temperature was in the single digits. I could read a book by the full moon rising behind the mountains. The snow drifts reached my knees. We made our way along the crest trail to the cabin that overlooked the twinkling lights of the city below. It and my real life seemed far away; it was as if I had somehow been transported to the moon itself and was literally viewing my world from a new perspective. Which, I suppose, I was.
We spiral back around our lives and patterns, over and over again, gaining altitude and new perspectives on the same subjects, issues, and attitudes. Gifts come back into our lives, unwelcomed or not, and we can either rejoice over the distance gained or we can blindly settle back into the same old ruts. Gearing up to begin another semester, I have to brace myself against thinking "Here we go again," and expecting that everything---good or bad--will be the same. In the next few months, I have my usual daunting roster of students, recitals to prepare for, deadlines to meet. I am taking six graduate hours in Ed. Psych. I have workshops to give this spring, and other professional obligations to attend to. I've been here before, I can all too easily find myself thinking. It's better not to drag the baggage of the past into a new year, but rather, to expect that any day could bring a surprise---an ironic gift left on my doorstep, a curious visitor scampering through the kitchen, a new way of seeing my world and my life. It's all new.
In the meantime, there is the tchotchke to make peace with once and for all. "Its like a boomerang," Lora said when I told her the story. "Maybe you could send it back home with your mother. If you get it out of the time zone do you think you're safe?"
Maybe, although I'm tempted this time to hang onto it, just for the reminder. One way or another, we will continue to revisit the stories of our lives, while at the same time we step forward into new territory with every hour, and every day, and every year. This paradox is a good one to hang onto as we enter a new semester and a new decade, fresh and familiar all at once.
January 3rd, 2010 :: Reading Days
I check the locks on the front door
and the side door,
make sure the windows are closed
and the heat dialed down.
I switch off the computer,
turn off the living room lights.
I let in the cats.
Reverently, I unplug the Christmas tree,
leaving Christ and the little animals
in the dark.
The last thing I do
is step out to the back yard
for a quick look at the Milky Way.
The stars are halogen-blue.
The constellations, whose names
I have long since forgotten,
look down anonymously,
and the whole galaxy
is cartwheeling in silence through the night.
Everything seems to be ok.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com