December 25th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
I was not the only one struggling with discerning the truth about life last month. Apparently, in one of the kindergarten classes at a nearby elementary school there has been much concerned discussion about the existence of Santa Claus. I know this because I have a student in this class, Annette. For weeks, as she played her Christmas tunes for me, Annette would puzzle out loud about how Santa Claus was going to get into my house. "Is your fireplace real?" she asked one day. When I responded that it was a fake fireplace, she assured me that "Santa could use the front door." Meanwhile her classmates have been trying out the theory that perhaps Santa is actually mom and dad. I hope not. I may need to find some space in my life, but I am not ready to give up the idea of Santa Claus.
Elizabeth is 7-years old and completely unpredictable. She has been working on Rudolph, which is rhythmically challenging for a little one. In fact, it has been rather touch and go, pedagogically, which is the often the case when we tackle Christmas tunes. Often, I view the playing of Christmas music as an opportunity to introduce certain rhythms, knowing that for the beginners these might be more advanced than they are ready to take on. Oh well, I usually think, come January we can put these behind us for awhile, no harm done one way or another. As far as Elizabeth goes, I suspect she has been picking out more notes by ear than actually reading the rhythms, but in the last lesson she had appeared to turn a corner. I complimented her on her hard work. She interrupted, her little face screwed up in disgust, "I know, but I don't like those 'mess-ups'."
This reminds me of another young kid with an already healthy respect for accurate performance practices. Last week Kyle stopped in the middle of his eight measure ditty and announced to me, "I am going to start over because that was just full of mistakes."
We are doing winter/Christmas compositions in the studio these days. Last Wednesday I assigned Luke to do a composition about bells. To start his creative thinking process I asked him, "What happens when a bell rings?"
"An angel gets his wings," he answered confidently.
Tuesday Julie came into her lesson just as Anthony was finishing playing his final piece for December, a rowdy version of "Jingle Bells." As he is leaving, slamming the door behind him, Julie turns to me, "Miss Amy, how come he got to play 'Jingle Bells' and I got stuck with 'Away in the Manger'?"
On Annette's last lesson before Christmas she lost her first tooth. "How will the tooth fairy get in your house?" I asked her, wondering if while working out Santa's escape routes she had considered the tooth fairy. It was clear by her expression that she had not. "Maybe flies in the window?" She suggested, thereby closing the door of that mystery for another day.
Maybe flies in the window. May Santa and the tooth fairy bless you, however they get in the house. May your holidays be mistake-free. May there be thousands of bells ringing, and angels singing.
Merry Christmas to all.....
December 18th, 2011 :: Reading Days
Oh the weather outside is frightful....
Winter is upon us, just in time for the holidays. This week we experienced both single digit temperatures and frigid wind chills. And that’s just inside the house. Last Thursday we had a windstorm that brought our city gusts up to 75 mph. The annual holiday street fair scheduled that night was a bust; we all stayed home and shivered instead. In our old drafty home, we struggle to stay warm. Last night we used the electric bed warmer all night long; the two cats are no longer enough to take the edge off the cold. Matt holes up in the study with a space heater and a pile of blankets while he drinks his coffee and reads. Today he announced, “The study is a toasty 67 degrees if you want to join me.”
It is not anywhere near a toasty 67 degrees out by the piano where I live and work.
Clearly, the universe is sending a message: time to hibernate.
In this spirit, I offer the following book recommendations for those cozy nights by the fire. *A Winter’s Tale by Robert Sabuda The Night Before Christmas by Robert Sabuda The Christmas Alphabet by Robert Sabuda The 12 Days of Christmas by Robert SabudaEvery year at this time I get out my Christmas pop-up books, and put my everyday supply of pop-up books in the basement. (“Keeping your wife in pop-up books must get expensive,” one of Matt’s youth choir kids once commented.) These books are devoured by my students. When I hear Ooohing and Ahhing in the sunroom while they wait for their lessons, I know they must have a pop-up book. But these books are timeless and ageless. I make it a point every December to sit down and enjoy the magical creativity of these books myself.
*Trail by David PelhamThis is another pop-up book, although not specifically a Christmas one. It is, however, beautiful and entirely done in white, which makes it rather winter-ish, don’t you think?
*A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Lisbeth ZwergerI re-read this every year. The illustrations in this edition are lovely. *The Morville Hours by Katherine SwiftIt wouldn’t be winter if I wasn’t reading a gardening book and plotting the spring. This book is the story of making a garden in England, organized around the Book of Hours. In a world where our days and nights, seasons and traditions are blurred, this is a lovely reminder of another time and place. Especially as we head towards the winter’s solstice, I love the nudge to honor the seasons and to respect the natural boundaries of day and night. I love the idea of keeping feast days and watching the moon, of living by candlelight from time to time and turning off the overhead lights. (Around here, the moon has been large and luminous coming up over the mountain in the evenings. One morning as I left the pool after my pre-dawn swim, the full moon was hanging over the western horizon, blood-red orange. It was magical beginning to the day.) *Cutting for Stone by Abraham VergheseHands down the best novel I read this year. *State of Wonder by Ann PatchettThe second best novel I read this year. At least once on every page there was a sentence that made me sigh and think, “I wish I had written that.” *The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
This is a memoir about a woman who grew up in a poverty-stricken family that always verged on being homeless. That she survived this rough childhood is one thing, that she lived to write this remarkable book is quite another altogether. *A Strong West Wind by Gail CaldwellI recommended Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home last summer. This is her first book, a memoir about growing up in Texas. Her prose is breathtaking.*Journal of Solitude by May SartonSomething about winter makes me think about Sarton, and so nearly every year I reread something by this New England writer. The world she writes about seems a bit dated today (or perhaps a bit retro?), but so many of the themes are classic. In spite of the fact I have read her books dozens of times, something new always jumps out at me and makes me think. Journal of Solitude is my favorite of all her books.
Happy Winter Reading.
December 11th, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
It’s been awhile since we thought about chords.Last time I mentioned chords, I suggested that once the traditional I-IV-I-V-V7-I progression was learned, then students could begin to play it with all kinds of accompaniment patterns. But as the year winds down and the last lessons of the semester are before us, I am reminded once again that chord progressions are a great place to learn syncopated pedaling. I have been thinking about this lately, because so many of my little ones are playing simple Christmas arrangements with basic chords. While they have had limited pedaling experience in their normal piano life, a little pedal goes a long way with Silent Night. Just ask them. Even ask the beginning adult student last week who squealed---squealed, I tell you---”You mean I get to use the pedal?!” All this delight over the possibilities of the pedal has led me to introduce pedaling to our chord progressions. “Hands. Foot. Hands. Foot,” we chant as we play chord progressions. My kids are happy to tackle this technique, loving anything that involves the pedal. They love it even more when I then tell them that they can add the pedal to their Christmas carols. Even when it isn’t written in the score. We are breaking the rules right and left around here, rebels that we are. Suddenly, in spite of this season of busyness, the motivation to keep faithful to our piano practicing is stronger than ever.
December 4th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
My studio recital took place a few weeks ago. After the concert, while the kids were eating cookies and chasing each other as a way of releasing all the pent-up energy accumulated from having to sit quietly for an hour, one mother came up to me. “Amy,” she began, “I have to tell you what Jonah said this morning.”
Apparently, Jonah had woken up that morning and announced that he had to have “Amy’s email address.” “Why?” his mother had asked him. “What do you need to tell her?”
“I have to tell her that there is just NO WAY that I’m going to be able to play the dynamics tonight at the recital,” he quite earnestly told his mother. “I have to write her right now.”
Telling me this his mother laughed at her child’s seriousness about his anticipated performance. I laughed too, thinking that in spite of our careful work and preparation, there were plenty of kids that evening who must have decided that there was NO WAY they were going to be able to do the dynamics. Or for that matter, various other musical elements. Under stress, we all make compromises.
I understand completely. I have a long list these days of things that there is just NO WAY I can do. When Matt and I recognized several weeks ago that we couldn’t pull off another event, no matter how fabulous, I found myself taking stock internally. Faced with putting on evening clothes and heading out to play another concert of great music, I think longingly of a night curled up on the couch with my cats and a book. I relish a morning spent in the garden planting bulbs. I am happy puttering in my sun-filled house watering plants and doing laundry. Yesterday I baked a pie. It was heaven.
None of these are new revelations, or new insights, just a reminder of how precious the little inconsequential acts of daily life can be. Even when--or maybe especially when---compared with what appears to be a more glamorous fare: performances, receptions, sparkling shoes and dresses, loud parties, big audiences, thunderous applause.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that too, but for the next month or so, I’m content to lie low. I want long slow conversations with my husband over a bottle of wine. I want candlelit dinners with close friends and evenings spent cuddling in bed under pile of blankets watching an old movie. I want to listen to every one of my holiday recordings and to linger over hot chocolate on a cold afternoon.
There is just NO WAY I’m going to live life outside of the comfortable mezzo dynamic range. Those exciting fortes and intense pianos will have to wait.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org