November 29th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I am tired of 5-Finger Positions. I am also tired of doing supported half-moon pose using the wall and downward-facing dog while hanging in ropes. I want acrobatics and fancy techniques, both in my teaching and in my yoga practice. I want to be doing headstands, not working on my alignment in more basic poses. It's easy to grow impatient with teaching major and minor 5-Finger Positions when it seems more fun to work on challenging Czerny Etudes and harmonic minor scales in 3rd and 6ths.
Although everything in our society of immediate gratification rebels against this, it's risky to move too fast and be sloppy at the expense of good, thorough work. The secure knowledge of being able to play in all keys easily with a variety of patterns and techniques is too valuable and important to be hurried. It's altogether too attractive to jump into scales, but I've learned that rushing into poses on the yoga mat only gets me into trouble. I'm not sure that it isn't the same on the piano bench.
There's a trend in the food world called the Slow Food Movement. Proponents of this movement advocate dining with intention, embracing locally grown foods, and participating in a more ritualized and leisurely way of cooking and eating than our fast-food nation usually enjoys. This philosophy has led to offshoots in all kinds of areas. I love this idea, however contrary it is to my human nature to slow down. I suspect it would do me some good to adopt a "Slow Piano" attitude, especially when I am tempted to teach harder music or trickier techniques than any of us are ready for, just keep up with some faceless ideal of what "serious" piano teaching looks like.
If anything, a close look at our profession suggests quite the opposite of any Slow Movement. Even a cursory glance at most competitions reveals that younger and younger students are taking on harder and harder repertoire. While I move quite fast by nature, I have never been able to buy into the idea that an 8-year-old should be playing Liebestraume or tackling Bach Preludes and Fugues. "What's the hurry?" I often mutter to myself when faced with daunting repertoire lists. There is no guarantee that moving quickly into difficult music at a young age will lead to a career in music. In fact, too often the opposite occurs: after years of the pressures of competitions students burn out, and quit music lessons during high school. What's even more disturbing is the evidence that in spite of learning challenging, impressive repertoire, these same student lack basic musical skills, and have little ability to learn music independently. Are we training monkeys or are we nurturing lifelong musicians?
Of course, this endless striving and competing isn't limited to the piano world. Pre-schoolers are taught Mandarin to quiet parents anxieties that their children won't be able to keep up in today's global world. Red-shirting to improve the odds in sports has become fairly common among parents of kindergartners. For all the ways that the United States lags behind in education, there is an atmosphere of fearful reaching all around us.
There is plenty of time to teach Liszt, I remind myself when working with a talented child. As pianists, we have such a wealth of repertoire at all levels, we don't have to be in a hurry to take on the most difficult masterpieces of our instrument. Looking around at my professional colleagues, most of them claim not to have been particularly precocious at their instruments as children. They weren't necessarily on the competition circuit at a young age, and many talk of childhoods juggling many equally compelling activities and passions. This is good to remember, that in a time when we didn't need Slow Movements to force us to stop and be present in the moment, plenty of talented musicians emerged to become esteemed teachers and inspiring performers.
My yoga teacher reminds me that there are always multiple benefits for any single pose ranging from strength to flexibility, balance to focus. You don't have to master every aspect of a pose in order to receive the benefits, he tells me. Sometimes an abbreviated version of a difficult pose that requires me to be attentive and balance is enough. Is, in fact, more than enough. It's the same in the piano pedagogy world. Students don't have to be ripping through multiple octave scales to be challenged technically. Indeed, often reaching over our heads only means that we are sacrificing other equally important aspects to our work to get there. A good thorough knowledge of 5-Finger Positions is never wasted time, because there are so many ways to challenge and strengthen our technique even within this simple framework. Just yesterday, I was working with a younger sibling of a current student, and teaching her a simple 3-note rote song on black keys. I was accompanying this ditty with a I-V jaunty accompaniment in F-sharp major, when it occurred to me that older brother Joey sitting on the couch could do this just as easily. And it was true. After brief instructions from me ("F-sharp major, roots in the LH, chords in the RH, alternate I-V chords like this.....") the two kids (both under the age of 10) were off and running, much to the delight of the parents watching. It's thanks to hundreds of 5-Finger Positions that Joey was able to do this with his younger sister, not even blinking at the challenge of playing in F-sharp. What's the big deal about 6-sharps if you've been playing them forever in your technique work, and your hands understand the pattern intimately?
Boredom, however, is never the goal, and the minute my mind begins to wander in yoga class I know I am missing the point. The more skilled students become at pentachords, the more challenging the exercise should be on any given week. The next two are significantly more difficult, but fun. I call these exercises 2 to 1. (While not wanting to get ahead of ourselves here, 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 are great exercises for multiple octave scales as well.) In #51 RH is playing eighth notes, the LH quarter notes. Although it is difficult to write out the spacing of notes here, hands will start and end together, with the RH playing twice as many notes as the LH. (Actually I lie, I can get the spacing perfectly on my screen, but somehow it loses placeholders in the dozens of translations it goes through to get to the web page.) Sometimes I coach this to young students by chanting "ice-cream ice cream" with hands playing together on every repetition of "ice". Obviously, the reverse (#52) works just as well, but it is the rare beginner who can tackle both the same week. These patterns work nicely in both major or minor keys. With a little imagination, you could almost hear these as early Czerny Etude.
51. RH: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
LH: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
52. RH Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
LH: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
November 22nd, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
My brother Bob loves apples. I mean, seriously, he LOVES apples. Although I don't know his current apple consumption as an adult, I can tell you that when we were kids he could eat an entire bag of apples in one day. Our house was littered with apple cores--- tucked behind cushions, set on bookshelves and counters, tossed into the fireplace or thrown under the sofa. That is, when Bob didn't just eat the entire thing, core and all.
I love apples too, although my daily consumption doesn't anywhere touch my brother's. More often than not, I eat an apple as I down my last gulp of coffee in the morning. Many days I get to lunchtime realizing that's all I have remembered to eat. A lack of apples in the house motivates me to go to the store immediately. Only the absence of cream in the refrigerator or coffee in the pantry provokes a similar sense of urgency. Last night after choir rehearsal Matt called. He said he was stopping at the store, did I need anything? Cream, I replied, and apples.
This morning I noticed he had bought Jonathans. My grandparents used to grow Jonathan apples on the farm, but I haven't eaten a Jonathan apple since they sold the farm some 20 years ago. However, a bowl of Jonathan apples may inspire a pie this weekend, just out of nostalgia for my grandmother and her delicious pies. Mine is a variation on the apple pie theme, introduced to me by my friend, Lora. This one uses a store-bought crust (something my grandma would never do, but then I haven't yet achieved her domestic goddess status), and frozen cranberries, giving the dessert a tartness that cries out for a good ice cream. I could say that I need to practice making my pie in preparation for the rounds of Thanksgiving courses we will be attending next Thursday, but that would be a lie. Although we will need lots of pies in hand as we progress from course to course, I don't need practice on this one. I could make this pie in my sleep.
But making pies is a small step towards entering the Thanksgiving season, something I desperately need to do. Honestly, it has been a tough couple of months, which have climaxed recently in an especially trying couple of weeks. Last weekend, in fact, could be renamed The Weekend to Try a Woman's Soul, and the entire few months should be called The Season of Our Discontent. There are a dozens of reasons for this, both personal and professional, but I am tired of whining about it. Truth is, it's past time to stop and count our blessings, of which we have hundreds.
Just for starters, we should stop and remember the dozens of friends and neighbors who have literally carried us through the past few weeks, when our 20-year old car finally shuddered to a complete stop. There was our neighbor Jay who dropped what he was doing and came and jumped the car, allowing me to drive it the final few yards home. There was Dan, who with his three boys, arrived at our door late one Saturday night with a battery charger, in hopes of getting us through a couple more days. There were the various parents of my students who called with car leads, and offers of rides. There was Patti, who loaned us her car so I could get to my fall studio recital, and Lora, who in her own stalling, dying vehicle drove me to a concert I was playing so I didn't have to ride my bicycle.
That's only the beginning of the Thanksgiving litany, for in various ways both Matt and I have needed a lot of support this fall. Friends and mentors have been there with compassionate ears and shoulders to cry on. Students and colleagues have forgiven us when we have failed; friends and family have offered their hands when we fell down. When the roof leaked for the 500th time this season, we discovered to our dismay that our roofer had broken up with us, and wouldn't return our calls. But thanks to a quick referral from a friend, we soon had a new roofer and a patched roof. We still have work that we love most days; we have a colorful home that is ours; we have two funny, quirky cats. We have each other, and a marriage that I believe in. While there may always be limited funds in our bank account and an ancient car in our driveway, we have more than enough, and people who love us.
And so, in one friend's words, it's time to start the festive season at the Greers'. Next Friday after the day-long progressive Thanksgiving dinner with various friends, we host our annual St. Cecelia party , our yearly toast to the patron of music. It's time to raise a glass, and be thankful.
For the harvests of the Spirit,
thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
for the truths that still confound us,
most of all that love has found us,
thanks be to God.
-Fred Pratt Green
November 15th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
I think my biggest problem these days is that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, I still think it is about July 15.
This might explain my reluctance to embrace the season. It also might help explain how easy it has been to deceive myself into not acknowledging that I am teaching more students than ever, five days a week, and that often I find myself in a two or three week stretch without a single day off. If my brain still thinks it is mid-July, than clearly I am living in a parallel universe.
Because several weeks ago it snowed. Yes, that's right: it snowed. As in big fluffy white flakes being dropped from the sky and sticking to the ground, causing one adult student to call from the highway to cancel her lesson and head back home. While I have no doubt this was not the first time New Mexico had seen snow before Halloween, it was the first time since we moved here that I have seen snow before Halloween. Indeed, last Thanksgiving Lora and I made one of many attempts at La Luz, something we would have never considered if there had been any snow on the mountain. For sure, this storm was odd.
In fact, I had just picked up Matt from the airport when the snow started coming down. He had been in upstate New York all week, where the temperatures were happily settled in the 50's. Ironically, he just missed getting delayed in Buffalo because of snow in Albuquerque.
But since my internal clock is convinced that it is July, I am having a hard time adjusting to most things this season, the snow being just one. Although I am generally on top of things and thinking far ahead, things like my fall studio recital are not just sneaking up on me, there are in danger of sprinting wildly past me if I don't wake up. I just this week realized that it is next weekend that I am to do a pedagogy workshop at the NM state convention, and play on Matt's Composers 101: Copland concert (aka: Copland for Dummies). On this performance, I am accompanying a singer doing several American folk songs, playing two of the four hands on The Promise of Living, and playing the Piano Variations. I think I am in fine shape on all of the above if I could just wrap my mind around the fact that all this takes place next weekend instead of several months away. Last night I woke up with a start, panicked, realizing that I had no real time to waste and that I had to get in performance mode soon. If it isn't July, then I have some serious mental and emotional catching up to do to get in the game.
So, while I have lagged behind in many ways, for months now I have been absolutely convinced that the time change happened this year on October 25, the Saturday night after we returned from our annual Taos getaway. The time change in the fall is an occasion to be marked and reason to celebrate, as far as I am concerned. We look forward to that extra hour in bed for months. It wasn't until 7pm on Saturday night the 24th, while talking to my mother, that my mistake was pointed out to me. I almost went to bed then, just to protest. In my defense, both of my calendars---not one but two--show the European time change, which apparently did indeed take place on October 25. While we might live in a global economy I don't really need that information, especially when it is likely only to confuse me.
I am not the only one confused. My garden, which had seen the most glorious fall due to the unseasonable warm weather, now stands limp and despondent. The cabbage roses are wilted and pitiful, the cosmos shriveled up out of fear. Even the courageous irises, stubbornly blooming in hope the last month, are now painful to behold. It's time for all of us to come to terms with the season: tulip and daffodil bulbs need to be planted, it's time to rake the millions of leaves on the ground, time to buy cranberries and yams, and remind ourselves how to cozy up for the winter to come.
November 1st, 2009 :: Reading Days
It's better to be a cat than to be a human.
Not because of their much-noted grace and beauty—
their beauty wins them no added pleasure, grace is
only a cat's way
of getting without fuss from one place to another—
but because they see things as they are. Cats never mistake a
saucer of milk for a declaration of passion
or the crook of your knees for
a permanent address. Observing two cats on a sunporch,
you might think of them as a pair of Florentine bravoes
awaiting through slitted eyes the least lapse of attention—
then slash! the stiletto
or alternately as a long-married couple, who hardly
notice each other but find it somehow a comfort
sharing the couch, the evening news, the cocoa.
Both these ideas
are wrong. Two cats together are like two strangers
cast up by different storms on the same desert island
who manage to guard, despite the utter absence
of privacy, chocolate,
useful domestic articles, reading material,
their separate solitudes. They would not dream of
telling each other their dreams, or the plots of old movies,
or inventing a bookful
of coconut recipes. Where we would long ago have
frantically shredded our underwear into signal
flags and be dancing obscenely about on the shore in
a desperate frenzy,
they merely shift on their haunches, calm as two stoics
weighing the probable odds of the soul's immortality,
as if to say, if a ship should happen along we'll
be rescued. If not, not.
by Katha Pollitt
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org