December 25th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
It has been a wacky season around here.
Case in point: Several years
ago my mother gave us a nativity set. It is one of those
lovely hand-carved wooden ones she bought at a Beyond
Borders kind of market. I am happy to own it, and love to get
it out each December. However, every year there is drama around
this nativity scene.
When it first
arrived, I unpacked it and was setting it up when Yun-Sun (who
was then just a kitten) jumped up and grabbed a lamb and went
scampering off delightedly. All month it was a battle to keep
the little figures out of the cats' mouths. Another year, I
thought I had gotten it high enough to survive a season with the
felines, when we came home to find the scene in a disarray: sheep
toppled over, cows turned upside down, and Mary---the Queen of
Heaven---nowhere to be found. Since nothing else in our house
was touched, clearly we had not been robbed, this was simply another
case of a cat getting her paws where she didn't belong. "Godiva!"
I hollered, knowing it was probably her. Mary
didn't appear until the following summer when I was moving furniture
painting project. Instead,
for the remainder of the season, Jesus was watched over by Joseph and
a stray Shepherd, giving new meaning to the concept of a baby
having two daddies.
This year, the
nativity mischief continues. For days I have been walking by
the chest in the sun-room that houses the manger and
noticing all kinds of strange behavior: a cow sitting on a wise
man's head, a sheep standing in the cradle.
I have tried
blaming Matt, thinking he was playing games with me, but he has
denied any wrong doing. My students would be the next suspects,
except it isn't clear who, day after day, is doing this since I see
different kids every day of the week. The cats? While
they lack opposable thumbs, they have been known to
things. It is totally
possible. In the meantime, it is simply a mystery.
Truth is, Christmas season is always
a bit strange around our house. Like many musicians, my work
can crescendo this month due to numerous extra rehearsals, recitals,
juries and other odd gigs. But usually, about ten days before
Christmas my work falls off, suddenly--subito--leaving me with
unfamiliar gaps and holes in my schedule. Likewise, my teaching
grinds to a halt about the same time. The final week of the
teaching semester occurred mid-December and was followed by a much
less busy make-up week. (My students are never sick. I
appreciate this come make-up time, as I have few lessons to teach,
but I'm less fond of this mid-semester when I can go weeks, months
even, without a cancelled lesson).
My husband, on the other hand, makes
his living in church music, which means his life accelerates all the
way up to Christmas Eve. This means he has more rehearsals and
more performances to deal with in the ten days before Christmas, just
as my life is slowing down. Early on in our marriage, this
juxtaposition bothered me, as I was left alone to my own devices in
the days before Christmas. I remember one year in
particular when Matt, in typical procrastination fashion, spent
Christmas Eve working on his bulletins and I spent the day home
alone. At the time, I was upset that he couldn't have planned
better; today, I'd welcome the solitude--the gift of a day to myself.
This year the pattern continues. I
am done teaching my final lessons and have a blessed two weeks of
vacation ahead of me. Matt has been up to his ears in work,
most nights not coming home till 10pm or later after an evening of
choir rehearsals. I have welcomed these quiet nights more than ever, because for the last month I have been fighting one sickness after
another, clearly because I am exhausted. Of course, I have
been teaching through it all -- no doubt the root of the
problem -- but that is water under the bridge at this point.
Anyone looking back at the past would see a pattern of December
colds, flu, and general exhaustion in my life. I recognize
this is not the best way to keep Christmas.
But other yearly
rituals help counter these bad
tendencies. Besides the manger, the house is decorated in full
spirit---stockings hung; icicles dangled from windows and chandelier;
beads draped across the fireplace; crocheted angels, bells, and
strands of cranberries on the mantle. Of course, I have added
collections of stars wherever possible, turning our home into a
virtual galaxy of sorts. There is a star collection hanging above my
piano, another decorating a dining room corner, and in my latest
creative burst, I hung cookie cutter stars above my kitchen sink,
making a Milky Way of shadows on the wall. "Ooooo...."
said the 12-year-old girls from Matt's youth choir when they came for
cookies and cider after an evening of caroling. "That
looks soooooo cool." At least my decorating is a hit with
the pre-teen crowd.
I wish on lots of stars these days,
sending my prayers for peace and happiness across the universe.
As we approach a new year, I am ever hopeful: I am hopeful
about this new administration coming to Washington. I am hopeful
that these enforced changes on our lives due to economy will usher in
a gentler, more authentic world, less driven by consumerism.
But still I wish, and still I pray, finding stars to direct my
thoughts. "I was out for stars . . ." Robert Frost
wrote. These days, so am I.
December 15th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
I am a pretty decent sight-reader, and I have always prided myself that my students' reading is better than average. In the past, this has probably has made me lazy about doing specific sight-reading work on a weekly basis, both in lessons and in the students' assignments, but in the last few years I have mended my sorry ways.
I am a big fan of Hannah Smith's Progressive Sight Reading Exercises for Piano, which has 534 examples of one- or two-line sight-reading exercises that progress in difficulty (at a glacial pace) throughout the book. This allows me to pick two or three examples at random to do during a lesson, or several pages if time allows. And because there are SO many examples in the book, we can jump around somewhat at will, and not worry about doing them all. Some of my kids love it when I say "OK, let's sight-read," (others groan loudly), but having this book on my shelves gives me an easy source for sight-reading material.
In addition, I have started a sight-reading library of music. (This has been an expensive thing to get going, involving me buying hundreds and hundreds of dollars of method books and pedagogical literature so that my library is big enough -- and the levels accessible and varied enough -- to be helpful.) Each week, all my students--with the exceptions of the very beginners--check out a sight-reading book. Their assignment is to play each piece in the book once and to bring it back the next week. Then I allow them to pick something that they liked from the collection to play for me, after which I choose something for them to play (thereby lessening the possibility that they actually only played at home the one piece that they then picked in the lesson). This whole ordeal takes a life-sucking amount of time. Me: "Did you play your sight-reading book?" Kid: "Yeah." Me: "Great. Pick something to play." Minutes go by while the kid picks something to play me. I try not to act impatient, fully realizing that just because I move at the speed of light, not everyone does. "I want to play, 'Frogs on a Log.'" "Fantastic." Kid plays. I then say, "OK. Now lets hear the first three lines of 'Minuet.'" Kid plays. Then the kid checks off his name from the sight-reading library sign-out sheet, signs the back of the book and then puts it away. More life-sucking minutes go by while the kid chooses a new book, usually verbally describing how he feels about each one as he browses through the basket. "Have I done this one? Oh, yeah, I signed the back already. But I don't remember it. I want to look at the music to make sure. OH! I loved this song. Could I just play it again really quick?..." Need I point out that this proves the kid likes to play the piano and has generally warm fuzzy feelings about the whole sight-reading process? I have the books labeled and organized by level to save time, although I laugh as I type that sentence because NOTHING about this process saves time. In fact, it is all I can do not to rip the book right out of the kid's hands, file it away myself and grab a new one.
So why do I bother with this waste of probably 8 minutes every lesson? Because although I can't begin to list them all, I think that all sorts of life skills are being developed and self-suffienciney encouraged when I let the kids do this whole sequence themselves. I see too many examples of parents doing things for kids to save time, and children as a result are more helpless than they need to be. So that's one reason I sacrifice lesson time. Another reason is that students are free to have uninfluenced opinions about this music with very few cues from me about whether or not they "should" like something. Because they read through an entire book every week (at least that's the goal), there's lots of music going through their lives and under their hands. Some books they love, and beg to be allowed to take home again. (Mostly I say no to this request, so that when I do agree, they think I am absolutely wonderful. I know, I know, cheap psychological trick.) Other books they hate, and are quick to tell me all about it. I think this is great in every way. Mostly I teach music I love and kids are quick to pick up on this fact. (Life is too short to not teach the music you love. Besides, as pianists, we are blessed by never being able to exhaust our repertoire so there is no reason to teach bad music.) I have an easy rapport with my students, so most of the time they wouldn't think they were hurting my feelings if they didn't like their assigned repertoire, but still that music has certain expectations that their sight-reading books just don't, so they are free to love or hate their sight-reading books at will. The final reason is simple and profound: since I began this six months ago, my students have leaped forward in their sight-reading skills. They read way above their levels, they learn their assigned music faster, they are more confident about starting new music and tackling new assignments on their own. This has been one of the biggest win-win pedagogical things I have ever done. The only drawback is the time involved, and honestly, that's just me and my own impatience.
But the whole concept of sight-reading has, from time to time, led to some misunderstandings. There was the time with Yun-Sun (not my cat, but my cat's namesake). Yun-Sun was probably five at the time and a pretty precocious reader already. Her mother had a masters degree in piano performance, but English was her second language, and so occasionally we had communication issues when discussing practicing. For some time, I had been assigning Yun-Sun to "sight-read" through such and such pages, and then one day in the lesson discovered that she and her mother had taken this to mean that Yun-Sun should say out-loud every note on the page. No actual piano playing was happening, jsut verbatim "sight-reading." More recently, I have discovered that even kids who have been speaking English since birth misunderstand "sight-reading". I had been writing "Play your SR book" in their assignment notebooks only to find out that some of the kids thought this meant "Play your silent reading book". (How they were translating this assignment to piano playing I have no idea, but those kids are nothing if not flexible and creative.) Last week, I stumbled upon Richard Chronister's term for sight-reading: sight-playing, which is wonderful and accurate in every way. However, I tried renaming the assignment with one kid only to have him whine, "But I like sight-reading. I'm used to that." You can't win.
December 5th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
Several weeks ago (or was it longer?
I am completely losing track of time around here), I
wrote about a new 5-Finger Position idea that was inspired
both by an Alfred little ditty and the rain that we had been
receiving in the desert. It hasn't rained since, which
probably has to do with the fact that we had part of the roof
repaired---nothing like a nice roofing bill to ensure that it will
never rain again. There has, however, been plenty--and I mean
plenty---of raindrop-inspired 5-Finger Positions around here.
I only have a few students playing 5-Finger Positions these days, most of my students having moved on to
scales and arpeggios and such things. (And yes, I have as many
ways for playing scales as I do for pentachords, much to my
students' dismay.) But the ones that are in the 5-Finger
Position world are struggling mightily with these damn raindrops.
It's an interesting thing to watch and think about pedagogically,
for some of the kids who are having the most trouble are the ones who
have successfully been playing these patterns for a while now.
But what I notice is that the act of alternating hands makes all the gaps in their skills show up. Just this morning little Annie
was demonstrating her positions in her lessons. When she
started playing I was writing in her assignment notebook and not
watching her, and they sounded fine---notes jauntily sharp and
staccato, all the notes of every major key correct. But
when I looked up and watched her, she was sliding her fingers all
around the keys, not adhereing to the correct fingers on each note,
but instead skipping over weak fingers and using 2 and 3 of each hand
whenever possible. Now, Annie knows better than this, but
clearly the challenge of managing this pattern was enough to make all of her good habits go out the window. (Ah! I can sympathize with
this in a million areas of my life--the idea that under stress
we fall apart and all our good behaviors disappear.)
And so, we continue to tackle our
raindrops, being vigilant about not letting the notes slide into one
another, not letting our fingers slip out of position, and making
sure the staccatos are nice and pointed. Although it is
hardly worth saying, the original Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do pattern
would not be the only option. We are also doing some "doubles"
where each hand plays the same note twice: LH Do-Do, RH
Do-Do, LH Re-Re....etc. (and, of course, the reverse
with the right hand leading). After mastering the singles and
the doubles, lots of other patterns in both major and minor keys could be used (see Recipes for Technique for more ideas).
It is the driest part of the year
around here, humidity levels dipping into the single digits. The
pitch on all of the pianos in this state is falling as I write this. We
could easily not see rain again for months. But, roof intact, we are playing up a storm around here.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com