November 28th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
I have a pumpkin growing in my flower bed.
At least I think it is a pumpkin. Could be a watermelon. Or a squash. A really big one.
This startles me more than it does you, I'm sure. Maybe for most of the likes of you, growing pumpkins in your flower bed is an ordinary occurrence, nothing to take special note of or worth mentioning. But for me, this belongs right up there with the Ripley Believe It or Not! entry about the fat lady.
I shouldn't be so surprised at the emergence of a pumpkin-like thing in the midst of my irises and lavender. After all, for several years now, when it's time to get rid of the pumpkins and decorative squash (I do love my harvest mantle) I have simply thrown whole pumpkins into the compost pile. I don't even pretend to chop them up. I just toss them in and forget about them.
From the beginning, Matt has been reprimanding me about this behavior, declaring that those pumpkins would not decompose or whatever it is that we want them to do. But I have great faith in the 500 worms crawling around in the compost, and besides this time of year can't be bothered with chores like chopping up pumpkins. There are better ways to spend my time. Like baking pies.
Actually, the idea of baking pies is a pipe dream, right up there with managing compost piles (as opposed to just throwing things in there and crossing my fingers). Who has time for pies?
Once again, the refrain of a busy life is the tune we are singing these days. I have come to realize that this is simply the soundtrack of our lives and hardly deserves a headline. It isn't even, I have recently decided, a bad thing. It just is. We are busy people. We are also generally happy people. These two things can, in fact, co-exist merrily.
By all rights, we should have eased into this fall. What with that broken leg and all. ("I am a tough cookie," I said to my husband this summer after we learned I had been walking on a broken leg for 7 weeks. He looked at me amused, "Yeah, and for all these years I have thought you were basically a cupcake.") But it turns out I can limp at a record pace. There were concerts to give, a "world tour" to attend to, lessons to teach, rehearsals to play. I gave a workshop at the New Mexico state convention on teaching and thinking holistically. I swam my laps at the pool, and hobbled to yoga classes. I folded cranes.
In the moments in between, I moonlighted as a graduate student
. This semester I have been taking Motivational Theories and Intro to Statistics. Want to guess which one is motivating? Thanks to motivational theories, I have a hundred and one ways to talk intellectually about concepts I only intuitively understood before. On the other hand, I am a hundred and one standard deviation points away from buying into statistics. Apparently, as I look around at my classmates, I am the only one in the class who understands that these numbers are All Made Up. I will jump the hoops required to pass this class, performing the mathematical operations necessary to manipulate the numbers into strange and unusual shapes, but I haven't forgotten that these numbers represent an experimental world that doesn't actually exist. That this experiments and these statistics might be somewhat helpful in understanding the world, I'll accept. BUT I take it all with a big grain of salt. As far as I can see, we are lightyears away from reality. Nothing about these numbers has any bearing on Lucy and Linus when I am back in my studio trying to focus unruly 8 year-olds.
In October a college friend died of pancreatic cancer. Three weeks before she died, Debbie and her husband Dave traveled to New Mexico to visit. We were having dinner at our house, and I shared my frustrations with trying to juggle finishing a degree I am not completely sold on, with the day-to-day challenges of my musical life and career. "Well," Debbie said with the wisdom of someone who had been forced to wrestle with her own issues many, many times since being diagnosed with cancer, "you have to decide, is there any other way you'd rather be spending this time?"
I think of that, and her, a lot these days. The answer isn't simple. For all the days I think, yes, I can just shut up and jump these hoops and stop trying to wring meaning out of every step of this degree, there are at least as many days I think that there are 500 other things I'd rather be doing. I want to throw pots. I want to dive deeper into my yoga practice. I want to go on a silent retreat. I want time to hike in the Sandias. I want more time to write and practice, instead of trying to force these practices into the margins of my days. Richard Rohr writes that that wondering is standing inside the question itself. I am doing a lot of wondering these days.
In the meantime, my sister Beth in New York is having a baby. Beginnings and Endings. Life goes on. This is the first grandchild on my side of the family, which means every one's focus is pointed east. Around here, the "festive season at the Greers'" has begun, as our friend Jerome calls it. In the weeks ahead, we have a startling number of parties to host, beginning with the annual St Cecelia
night. The day after, I will wash a hundred wine glasses and throw out the pumpkins, changing over the house in time for the next round of Christmas parties.
Which, of course, brings us full circle back to the mysterious pumpkin. I have no question how it ended up in my flower bed, for in spite of Matt's dire warnings, every year even the biggest pumpkins I toss in disappear completely. The worms are doing an admirable job. Apparently, the compost that then ended up in the flower bed had a pumpkin seed ready to take root, and so here we are.
"Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?' poet Mary Oliver wrote. In painful, specific ways, we have been forced to look life and death in the face this fall, reconciling our own beginnings and endings. As the festive season begins, we raise our glass once again to the saint of music, celebrating life.
November 21st, 2010 :: Reading Days
After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
"We do not surrender. But want peace."
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
November 14th, 2010 :: Ordinary Days
I get migraines. Frequently.
I am reluctant to admit this, because I am fearful this will jinx any progress I have made on the migraine front. You see, I have been getting migraines since I was 10 years old. Doing the math, that means I have been getting migraines with some regularity for almost 30 years. During one particularly bad 10 year period in my adult life, I could honestly claim to have a migraine about 75% of the time. Now I have migraines about 25% of the time, which, as you can see, is improvement. You don't even have to be in statistics to recognize this analysis.
This is why I am hesitant to come out and even give voice to the migraine problem. My favorite way of dealing with migraines is to ignore them. I have been doing this with some degree of success for decades now. But if I am honest, I have to acknowledge their existence, and how, in little, subtle, underhanded ways, they handicap my life.
Migraines, for me, always come in clusters. I never have an isolated migraine, here today gone tomorrow. Instead it is always, here today gone maybe in 2 weeks. Many clusters I can more or less work through successfully. I take my drugs, I watch my diet like a hawk, I suffer through. And then there are the five alarm headaches.
I had one of those this last week. I had gotten to what I hoped was the end of a stretch of migraines. I was so optimistic about this, in fact, that I had a small glass of wine with dinner, something I would never do in the midst of a cluster. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was just the luck of the game, but I woke up in the night with that old familiar pressure in my head. I thought perhaps that I should take something, but decided to risk it and see if I could sleep it off. At 5:45am when Matt came in to wake me up, I begged for more sleep. "Give me till 6:30," I bargained, thinking that I could still squeeze in my laps at the pool even with this compromised morning schedule. At 6:30 I didn't even negotiate. After all, I was in the middle of a dream. Monkeys had appeared in our backyard and were wreaking havoc. Then lion cubs sprang out of nowhere. I had to see where this dream was going. My cat was curled up next to my head. There was no real conscious thought about the headache pain, just that sleep was my only viable option.
At 8am, I finally crawled out of bed. There would be no swimming. I could barely stumble to the shower.
The day became one of my "Bare Minimum" days.
Sometimes I wonder if these days aren't thrust upon me as a way of slowing me down, forcing me to relinquish my rigid schedule and my ambitious to-do lists. They certainly force me to be creative and resourceful. I teach, usually, and last week also went to class--these being my "bare minimum" tasks for the day. But I don't practice, and make the couch the center of my universe. Last week I read two research articles and a fashion magazine. I ate toast and boiled eggs. I did the dishes and made the bed. If I don't do at least my bare minimum I can quickly spiral downward into an attack of despondency. A few activities to order my day is the compromise, my own bargain with the migraine devil.
I suppose that it is the attitude of compromise, of saying, "OK. So what can I do today?" that, in the end, makes the migraine problem bearable. If I feel like I don't have to lose an entire day to the battle, I can feel some level of control, some feeling of triumph. This fall I am taking a class on motivational theories, which, as I anyone might imagine, is right up my alley. I have a 101 ways to think about motivation; my entire life is some sort of motivational game, which is why, I suspect, I understand so well the brain of my 8-year-old students.
Just this week, one child and I struck up a new compromise on the practicing front. She is (like all my students) expected to do 5 days of practicing a week, but on tough days, on busy days, on low motivation days, on migraine days, she is allowed to have a "short-cut day". This is her own version of my "bare minimum" days, although I like the jaunty name "short-cut day" better. This is a day where she chooses what might be most important to practice, and does only these things. Her only requirement is that she has to indicate on her practice chart if she opted for a "short-cut day" at any point in the week.
Too much of life is presented to us as if it is black or white, when my experience falls squarely in the grey. Truth is "short-cut days" are a reasonable approach to reality and our busy modern lives, and give us options that are not all or nothing. And what I know from my motivational readings, is that the first battle is just getting to the dreaded task at hand. Often times once we are there---in the pool swimming laps, sitting down at the piano bench----we find our rhythm and our resistance melts away.
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.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com