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.
October 11th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
Today is pie day around here, which has become a deeply held September tradition in the Greer household. The New Mexico state fair is under way, and the Methodist churches in town have a infamous "Pie Cafe". For months, good Methodists around Albuquerque bake pies and freeze them to be sold at the Pie Cafe, and every Methodist church staff takes a shift or two running the cafe. Today is Matt's shift, which means that today is pie day. He will bring home pie not only for the two of us, but for my long-standing Monday night student, who happens to be the daughter of some of our best friends. Celia's dad and Matt spend most every Monday night having a "Man Date" (which is mostly an excuse to sit in the backyard and drink wine), while Celia and I have our lesson. Tonight the lesson will end with pie. We look forward to this every year. Celia is a senior, so sadly this will be our last pie day together. But in one form or another, pie day will surely go on, some other lucky Monday evening student getting the perk next September.
It is rituals like these that keep our lives ticking along. As I write this we are already knee-deep in another fall semester. Another fall semester, I think, and almost weep. It's not because I find that depressing. Quite the contrary, I love fall and all its seasonal gifts: big pumpkins to pile by my doorway; the changing leaves that around here include the most joyful color of yellow; the shorter, crisper days and cool nights where an extra blanket on the bed starts to seem like a good idea; pots of soup simmering on the stove; the smell of green chile roasting all over New Mexico; our annual October get-away to Taos. No, fall doesn't make me blue, but I feel bittersweet about the idea that yet another school year is here. This will be our seventh fall in Albuquerque and I have never lived anywhere so long in my life. The years and seasons are starting to run together, which frightens me. I am afraid at this rate I will wake up one day and find myself 80. "I still feel 16 inside," my grandmother used to say and shake her head. I am starting to understand this.
Indeed, just this morning I was at the grocery store where I saw the first pumpkins for sale. Back at home I remarked to Matt, "So this weekend we have got to get all our fall stuff: pumpkins, green chile, and pansies." (Matt responded, "Excuse me. Pansies?") Participating the rituals of putting up green chile, planting pansies, and filling my courtyard with pumpkins makes me look forward to the weekend, which is otherwise crammed full of performance classes. We are quickly approaching the first fall competitions, students recitals, state conventions. If I blink I might miss something.
This fall is especially significant because I am going back to school. I hesitate to write that sentence, because I am not yet sure what that will mean long-term. At this point it is all an exploration, but I am taking a graduate course in Educational Psychology with my eye on an advanced degree. (Hmmm...."Ph.D" has a nice ring to it, don't you think?) While this might seem a strange detour in my professional life, it makes perfect sense if you know me well. What I have long cared about in teaching was never simply the notes on the page, but the transformation of human potential that can happen for both the student and the teacher through the learning and teaching processes. I am not looking to get out of music, and in fact have the freedom of knowing that if my life looks exactly like it does now at the end of this possible degree, that would be just fine. However, I am interested in exploring further the psychology of what it means to teach and to learn, and to think about this subject specifically under the umbrella of the private music lesson. More and more, I realize that we private studio teachers are very powerful creatures. We work individually with a students, often for years, with frequently very little thought about how strong our influence might be. We are in a strange position of being "experts" at our subjects, and completely untrained in the art of teaching itself. This makes for a dangerous combination, as anyone who as ever suffered under a brilliant but ego-driven teacher can tell you. Examining this work from an Ed. Psych. angle is different than straight piano pedagogy, because it isn't driven by the technicalities or the body of pedagogical literature of our instrument. It may be uncharted territory to link the art of teaching and the psychology of learning with the private music lesson, and at the moment it feels like a thrilling journey to begin.
But deciding to actually jump in and do this, has been a long time coming. After all, I rather like my life as it is, and taking even one three-hour course this semester has turned it upside down. Besides, I am one of those people whose recurring nightmare is not that I am on stage naked, but that it is the first day of school. I don't love school, and never have. It comes easy enough for me, that's not the issue. I just don't like having someone else dictate my learning process, even for a few months. So going back to school is going to take some adjustments; I fully expect there will be some growing pains along the way, but underneath it all, I'm excited to begin this adventure.
In the grand scheme of things, going back to school is just one more marker of the season. I hung my wreath of red chile peppers on the front window and made my first pot of soup last Saturday night. The Boston Red Sox have made the playoffs, which means the neighborhood bird is now "scarfed" with a jaunty Red Sox cap. My friend and musical colleague Jerome Jim appeared this week on the NPR show Native American Calling , where he was interviewed and excerpts were played from our new CD. Like any self-conscious musician, I hated every second of my playing, which was recorded several years ago and seemed on this recent hearing to fall several yards short of my intentions. I feel like a different pianist today than I did last week, much less two years ago. I cringe at all my shortcomings, but hearing them (however painful) is yet another marker---this time of my tangible growth as a musician. My favorite part of the interview was when Jerome said that I "terrified" him the first time we met, evidently because I was all business, no nonsense and knew my stuff. I think that's all part of the protective armor professional pianists put on when faced with another possible collaborator. I don't know yet if I am going to invest in this, we think to ourselves, I'll decide after we've worked together a bit. This could be just another gig, or it could turn into something wonderful. Or my aloofness very well might be due to the fact that he had called ahead of our first rehearsal and asked if he could bring his two chihuahua puppies. Uh, NO! Lucky for me, our work together has become one of the great musical collaborations of my professional life. But I wonder if I could cultivate this characteristic of terrorizing others a little more. It would be helpful to be able to put the fear of God in my students from time to time, something I sadly am completely unable to do. Especially this month, as we head toward Halloween, not to mention our fall studio recital, terrorizing might just come in handy.
In the meantime, my best friend Lora has put an offer on a house a mere 12-minute walk from my corner. Although this is farther than the current 2-minute walk between houses we now enjoy, it's close enough to continue to share wardrobes, and just far enough to increase my daily exercise minutes just a bit. "There's a lot you are going to be able to do with this yard," she tells me when we spoke this morning. Somehow I have become the resident gardener among my friends. (In fact, just yesterday Jerome randomly remarked, "If Lora, you and I were stranded on a desert island, this is what would happen. You would grow the food, I would cook the food, and Lora would complain about the food." Yeah, that's about right on all counts.) At the moment, my garden is aflame with scarlet autumn sage and dozens of roses. Even a few courageous irises have dared to bloom in our Indian Summer. The mums are on their second round of buds, and the cosmos are in full adorable glory. (Is there anything in the world more cheerful than cosmos?) It's a short run of flowers now; the first frost will come anytime. I'm hedging bets about when I'll have to bring in the dozen huge geraniums that need to winter in the sun-room. Blink and you might miss something.
October 4th, 2009 :: Reading Days
In the typical urban landscape which is home to most advanced students of music, their physical and metaphysical companions are for the most part noise, grime, traffic, the behemoth skyscrapers which dominate sunless streets, beggars, bag ladies, the homeless, the whole panoply of driven and derelict society, hypocrisy, and injustice. What is comfortable, elegant, and fashionable lies beyond the student's price range, and often beyond the bounds of good taste (atriums and malls). There is solace in the hot-dog vendor, the boutiques for cheese and sushi, jeans and shades, the neurotic squirrels hustling the curbs, the crummy theaters showing old movies. There is solace in the museums, parks, and libraries. There is solace in each other, struggling and hoping, trying to figure out the game, waiting for reinforcements to prop up old and frayed ideals. And there is solace in music, despite its illusory path as the ladder to success (but mostly to failure).
From this environment, better or worse according to one's quota of resiliency, must grow the Elysian fields of musical majesty and expression. It works best if you believe that sensory deprivation stimulates the senses. (p. 109)
- from Piano Pieces by Russell Sherman
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org