December 19th, 2010 :: Reading Days
Art is for me the great integrater, and I understand Christianity as I understand art. I understand Christmas as I understand Bach's Sleepers Awake
or Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring;
as I understand Braque's clowns, Blake's poetry. And I understand it when I am able to pray with the mind in the heart, as Theophan the Recluse advised. When we pray with the mind in the heart, sunside and nightside are integrated, we begin to heal, and we come close to the kind of understanding which can accept an unacceptable Christianity. When I am able to pray with the mind in the heart, I am joyfully able to affirm the irrationality of Christmas.
The Irrational Season
December 12th, 2010 :: Performing Days
Last month, I went to concert given by a former student. I have to confess I had to bribe myself to get there. I had been doing back-to-back recitals and was in a string of late nights. I had been fighting a bad cold for weeks and was only starting to feel better. There were plenty of good reasons for me to stay home and skip this one. And honestly, I wanted to do just that.
I get way too cynical at times, and want to only bother with going to performances that I will get something out of, but this doesn’t represent the best side of me. I also get tired of music after long days of making and teaching it, and sometimes can’t stand the thought of having my ears subject to more sound. But lately, I have realized that the reason I need to be there probably has nothing to do with the level or the merit of the performance, and everything to do with the idea of supporting another person who is out there making music. After all, over the years, many, many people have supported me and countless others who now make their living performing. We all weren’t always so good at what we do. Many people supported us and sat through numerous bad recitals so we could be where we are. We owe it to the future of music, to the future of live performance, to do the same for other musicians. If we, as musicians, aren’t attending performances, how can we criticize the non-musicians of the world for not attending our events? We bemoan the lack of audiences at classical recitals, but we are not, in large numbers, supporting our own art form.
Even now, after a thousand recitals under my belt and countless ones ahead of me, it still means a great deal to have people I care about and respect come out and hear me play. I know that they must have better things to do, or that they may have heard me play a million times, or even that they probably own recordings of this music played better, but still their very presence in the audience means something. It means something every time. I never outgrow the boost I get when the people I know and love and work with come out to hear me perform.
My husband is far better at attending concerts than I am, modeling an example we should all aspire to follow. During one two-week period last Christmas he attended some eight performance by friends, colleagues, and students--a true grand slam of support. In comparison, too often, I am looking for any excuse to stay home. But on this particular evening last month, I knew it would be especially important to my student that I was there. As someone who once taught her piano lessons, my attendance at her recital was important sign of support. Besides, Diane deserves a celebration. She deserves support and a crowd; in the same way my best friend would expect me to be at her wedding, or at the funeral when her mother dies. We all need to hold each other’s hands more in this troubled world.
Last December I went to a Nutcracker performance. Now I like the Nutcracker just dandy, and enjoyed every minute of the sugar plum fairy and the Arabian dancers and the little girls wearing velveteen dresses sitting in the audience. But attending a Nutcracker performance is not necessary to make my Christmas. I went because I had a student who was dancing in the chorus and whose mother is the ballet mistress of the company. I knew that while I could easily forgo the Nutcracker that year, my presence that afternoon meant something to the student, and probably to his mother as well. In the future, it might make this kid think more about practicing the piano even in those extremely busy times, or give the family more incentive to make music lessons a higher priority. Or maybe not. In the end, it was enough that my attendance stood as evidence that I support this student performing in another, equally worthwhile art form. Because I do. And maybe by being there, I could demonstrate that I don’t think piano is the only important thing in my students’ lives.
What I too often forget is that I, as the piano teacher, become an important part of people’s lives. Sadly, I am often the only adult figure outside of family members who spends much time with a student in a one-on-one situation. I have a unique position of staying in people’s lives year after year, even sometimes after one of us has moved away or after a child has stopped piano lessons. Just this afternoon I was addressing a card to my high school piano teacher. As I did so, one of my favorite high school students came in the door for her lesson. “Look Kristy,” I said to her, “one day you will be writing cards to me and telling me about your adult life.” I was teasing her a little bit, but it’s true, as evidenced by the variety of communications I still receive from former students, that I might still have a place in their lives, long after weekly lessons have ended. Although I try to wear this idea lightly, I am reminded of this fact when I am asked to attend a performance of some kind by one of my students: it might be important to them that I am there.
Sometimes it is equally important for my life that I get out of my little protected world and witness live music. I always leave with something—some new idea about how to conquer the performing monster, some moment of sheer beauty or joy within the music, some new understanding of the performer or the music. I never regret having gone. And in a world that is overrun by our easy ability to download perfect renditions of any piece of music, it feels almost counter-cultural to go listen to live music. My husband reminds me that while his house has live music in it every day, not every home is so blessed. (Admittedly, I think he is somewhat sarcastic when he mentions this, thinking of the hours of practicing and lessons he endures listening to.) But in a world gone techno, it is almost rebellious to spend my time going to concerts when I could just as easily plug in my iPod.
I know that I won’t ever get to enough recitals, I’ll miss plenty I should have made, and I am sure many a cynical night will have me staying home listening to Over the Rhine instead. But the upcoming weeks give me plenty of opportunities to make up for my less than admirable attitudes. Santa, don't cross me off your list just yet.
December 5th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
Although I might be getting ahead of myself here, let's talk about scales
Because tis' the season for holiday-themed scales, or so my kids think. If I forget, they will remind me. Actually, with the fall recital over and done with, there's a lot of "Jingle Bells" being played around here. My students know my rule---no Christmas music until after Halloween. Once the pumpkins are thrown in the compost pile
for the season, all the Christmas sight-reading books are brought out of the basement and the fun begins. Kids squeal with excitement---if you can only imagine---at the idea of getting a Christmas
sight-reading book. Suddenly this task
takes on a whole new light. And with recital music behind us, kids are welcome to bring Christmas music to their lessons. Sprinkling a bit of holiday sparkle in between their sonatinas keeps them practicing merrily this month. Win-win, I always say.
I love these well-established patterns of our lives, and this season
brings many such rituals. The weekend after our annual St Cecelia party
, I wash 100 wine glasses, put the house back together and get out the strands of cranberries, crochets angels, and stockings to decorate the fireplace. Christmas CDs and books fill the shelves, the dried berry wreath is hung on the door. "I'm taking the simple route," I told my friend Lora. "Too late," she said dryly, surveying the house.
The manger is assembled on the floor in front of our fireplace. "Are you going to move all those things so Santa can get down the chimney?" one student solemnly asked looking at the fireplace full of candles and the piles of books and pottery that are stacked precariously in Santa's way. Many years the manger is the scene of mysterious, unexplained events
. One year Mary disappeared completely, leaving us no choice but to give Jesus two daddies, which is a modern twist on the story indeed. Another year, I found the animals taking center stage, and day after day I would discover sheep and cows perched in the manger on top of baby Jesus. This week I went to light the candles in the fireplace only to find a mouse plopped down in the middle of the manger. Thankfully, this wasn't a real mouse
, but one of the cats' toys. Clearly, some feline in this house is taking seriously the charge to Come Let Us Adore Him.
Or maybe they are onto something. I suspect there just might have been a mouse or two in that long ago manger.
But I was talking about scales, and holiday ones at that. What two Christmas carols contain intact scales? is my annual question. The older kids know this answer cold by now---Joy to the World and The First Noel. This is all an excuse to play the scale-passages in the carols as our scale practices this month. I like what this does to their brains as they have to think through descending scales for the first carol, and how to set up their fingering correctly to start and end the first line of The First Noel. (mi-re-do...re-mi-fa-sol...la-ti-do-ti-la-sol). It makes them stop and think to begin scales on "mi", and end them, not on the customary "do", but rather on "sol." If the fingering doesn't match the assigned scale, it doesn't count. The older kids even do the carols using harmonic and melodic scales, something just counter-cultural enough to thrill them. "You know, Amy," said one kid, "The major one is the Christian one. The harmonic one is the Egyptian one. And the melodic one is just weird. But I like it."
Counter-cultural though it might be, we're playing a lot of scales, doing a lot of sight-reading, and mostly calling it good. After all, I'm keeping it simple this month.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com