March 25th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
I have completed a grand slam of
organizing lately. I do this when I am in-between jobs or
projects, suddenly inspired to clean out closets, drawers, the garage
and basement. As a result of all this clearing out of space, I
have gone to the tailor three times with various items, long in need
of repair. We have our taxes done, although far from filed or
paid. (Gulp. Self-employed folks hate tax time, don't
we?). The hall closet has been tamed and beaten into
submission. I actually have one empty drawer in the chest in
the sun-room, waiting to be filled with miscellaneous items. Life is
good, or at least organized.
I'm intentionally in-between musical projects. Earlier this year I had so many splits in
my fingers caused by dry skin (I do live in the desert, after all),
that during one recording session I was bleeding on the piano.
Not pretty, and extremely painful. Coupled with these ugly, raw
hands, I have been showing the early warning signs of carpal tunnel
problems: hands falling asleep at night, minor tingling on and
off during the day, etc. This comes as no great surprise given
what I do, but since I have a horrible tendency to ignore physical
pain (see migraines) I am trying to take stock of this now. All
said, I have had little choice but to impose a restricted piano
schedule on myself. In typical Amy fashion, this does not
actually mean no piano-time, but less. I went two
weeks with little to no practicing, and am now back to a couple hours
a day. I'm trying to be disciplined and take at least one day
completely away from the piano every week, sometimes more. I'm
not taking many gigs, trying to protect my time and my hands for
a while and also looking ahead to a gig I have with the
New Mexico Symphony Orchestra in May, playing Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals."
Everything about this more careful, cautious approach to my
music-making goes against my nature; I find myself fighting
it every time the phone rings with another potential gig. I suffer from the fear that I will
jeopardize future performing opportunities by saying no right
now. Crazily enough, I fear this more than the danger of
jeopardizing my performing future by hurting my hands. I know
all too well what it feels like to not have the phone ring, and not
to be on the short list for the great gigs. I also know that
work creates work, and that just doing a certain amount of work keeps
my name out there and active. Every day that the phone doesn't ring
I'm afraid its a sign that I will never work again. No, the
hard thing here isn't coping with the physical symptoms, it is coping
with the potential professional consequences of getting out of the
game, however temporarily.
I know what the antidote to all of
this is: I need to drown myself into some new creative projects
so I can stop tormenting myself with my insecurities and fears.
With enough time and attention elsewhere, my self-destructive
tendencies cannot take root. I know this. Just like work
begets work, energy begets energy. Positive energy stirring up
something--anything--will generate endorphins, if not the next great
thing. Experience has taught me that doing the work I need to
do to get ready for what may come next will often cause that
thing to appear as if by magic. Getting my business cards made
is the first step towards having someone request one. Reading
through intermediate literature makes
it more likely that I might get a call about a talented intermediate
student. Learning a new solo recital program makes it more
likely that I will be asked to play one in the near future. I
don't understand how this works exactly, but I trust in the process.
I also know that like everything else, these cycles of lack
of confidence and increased anxiety come and go--the physical break
from the piano hasn't brought them on, just revealed what is always
there under the surface, lurking in the dark. That I just might
be as insecure and fearful and scared as the next person isn't fun to
admit. Yet there it is: the truth, staring me in the
Around me, there are a thousand signs that the creative
burst of spring is taking hold. In my garden, I have the first
yellow and red tulips--their cheerful colorful faces braving the
elements yet again this year. The daffodils I planted last fall
are beginning to emerge. My rose bushes are sending out
hundreds of tiny new leaves, bursting into bud right before my very
eyes. There are a thousand chores to be done outside, if
I can dig out an hour or two. But lately, the wind
me indoors. We have had gusts as great as 50 mph over the last few days. My big happy red umbrella has been lying on the ground for weeks now, knocked senseless by the roaring winds. I
forget every year that spring in the desert means horrible winds.
I must repress this information because I find the wind utterly
life-sucking. I may be a girl from Kansas, but Dorothy I am
not. These winds do not bring out the adventurous side of me;
if anything they make me restless and irritable. ("That's
the vata in you," my physical therapist told me, "air
doesn't like wind." I'd question the underlying validity
of this statement, if it didn't ring so utterly true.) Just
last weekend, Matt and I were in Santa Fe; I had been invited to judge a competition in Los Alamos the next day, so we made a getaway of it. I needed a day-long Julia Cameron-inspired artist date puttering around the Plaza and Canyon Road, but
the wind--there were no words. Instead, we checked into our
hotel early and spent the afternoon watching college basketball.
Which, I suppose, is an afternoon outside the norm for me as artist
dates are intended to be, just not what I had planned.
today the winds are quiet.
This morning, while pedaling to the
tailor, I saw the neighborhood roadrunner sitting in someone's
birdbath, just hanging out as if he was pretending to be a duck.
Later, on my way home, I saw him again, wet and rumpled, acting as if
he there was no place in the world he needed to be at that moment.
For all I know, he took another dip with the sparrows before getting on with his day.
courtyard, I am trying to lure the birds to my feeders, at this point
to no avail. Free food! I feel like shouting to the
skies. If anyone knows why birds might be wary of certain
feeders in particular places, do let me know. At this point, I
can only blame the cats, sitting in the windows scaring them away.
Outside my laundry hangs on the clothes line, blowing in the sunshine
and the breeze. Inside, my house is ordered, for once blessed
with a real spring cleaning. That all this cleaning would stir
up debris within me is no great surprise, disheartening as it may
But like all seasons, this too shall pass, and the
next unknown chapter will unfold. Next week is spring break, a
blessed break from teaching. We are headed to Denver on
Wednesday for a couple of days away, then Matt will fly home and I
will stay for a convention. Recently, one of my students saw
the journal advertising the convention on my desk. "Are
you going to a convention, Amy?" she asked me. "Yep,"
I answered. "Is it a piano convention? At the end
will everyone gets snacks while someone plays the piano?"
I smile just thinking about her idea of a piano convention. As
I write this, my two cats are basking in the sun-room daring the
birds to just try to enjoy the birdseed scattered on the
courtyard walls. But just now, one brave bird with a reddish throat has made his way to the bird feeder. I could just shout
for joy, watching him.
March 11th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
I think most beginning method books wait too long before having students play with hands together. The delay is caused by the added complication of note-reading, but students can conquer this coordination milestone sooner by working on playing hands together in five-finger positions. By the time students have learned all the white key five-finger positions—C and G, D and A, and the more challenging ones of E, B and F--I think they should be playing hands together in parallel direction. Adult students or students with previous piano experience can do this immediately, while with some young children who have extremely underdeveloped hands it may take weeks or even months to perfect this skill. “But it is so hard!” a young student whines at me, trying to play C-position Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do hands together. “Yes, but you don’t want to be one of those one-handed pianists, do you?” I gently prod him.
As soon as students can play all the white-key major positions with hands together, I teach the five black-key positions. Some teachers never do this, adhering to the traditional rule of no thumbs on black keys, but in my work I have needed to use my thumb on plenty of black keys. Other teachers like to teach only the positions that students are currently facing in their music, which directly correlates the keys of the technique assignments with the keys of their literature. There is some sense to this certainly, as it relates technique to the music at hand. However, too often beginning literature only requires C and G major for months. I think if students wait too long before playing black notes and black positions they become intimidated by the prospect. Besides, I love the transposing possibilities that are immediately available if students can play any position. Students who play all twelve positions don’t know to be scared of G-flat or B major; they do not need to know that G-flat major has six flats in order to play a piece in a five-finger position. Above all, I get a secret thrill from the look of terror that comes over their parents’ faces when I say, “Hey! How about playing this piece in D-flat?”
Since beginning students may not possess yet the terminology of sharps and flats, I call all the black positions “flats”: D-flat, A-flat, E-flat, etc. Even the littlest student can understand this basic naming, if we do not confuse the issue. My decision to call the black keys “flats” versus naming them by “sharps” is somewhat arbitrary, based mostly on the fact that the positions (except for G-flat/F-sharp which can go either way) are more easily spelled as flats. Often we throw too much vocabulary at students, thereby confusing issues that really can be very simple. There is plenty of time later to introduce sharps and the difference between the two. The important thing at this point is to get the student playing all twelve major positions as soon as possible.
I encourage students to identify the notes of the black-key positions by using their ears as a guide, just as we did with the white-key positions. Students quickly discover many devices for remembering the patterns of white and black keys, “Look! E-flat has two white notes. It is the opposite of E position.” Or “D-flat and A-flat are ‘Oreo’ positions: black cookie, white filling, black cookie.” For many months, seven year-old Jack told me, “Amy, B-flat position tilts this way,” tilting his hand to the right, “and B position tilts this way.” tilting his hand to the left. “It’s a seesaw!” This is what I most desire, for students to find their own way through all these keys and relationships.
Weekly, I vary the patterns in the simplest of ways, still writing every assignment in students’ notebooks in solfege. First, I write out the solfege and sing the pattern, only demonstrating by playing it on the piano as a last resort. This isn’t rote-teaching, but ear-training, for with time students learn to translate the singing of the solfege patterns onto the keyboard and often will sing the patterns as they play them.
The following are more easy patterns to use as you are continuing to teach through the twelve positions. As soon as possible, I require students to be playing the positions by moving chromatically through the keys. Remember that this is not a prescribed course for teaching technique. No student of mine has ever done all these variations; instead I pick and choose based on students’ needs. Some adult or older students, after learning the twelve positions, only need to do the most challenging of the five-finger patterns, and then they move on to scales, chord progressions, and arpeggios. Young children often need months and months of staying in the five-finger world to develop muscles and coordination and all kinds of musical skills before we approach more difficult technique.
6. Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Sol Fa Mi
Sol Fa Mi
Sol Fa Mi Re Do...
7. Do Re Mi Re Do
Do Re Mi Re Do
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do...
8. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Sol Do...
9. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Mi Do...
10. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Mi Sol Mi Do
The last variation begins to outline a chord. Students don’t necessarily need to know this to play the pattern. You can discuss how Do-Mi-Sol builds a chord, or just talk about steps and skips to teach. In all of these, layer away dynamics and articulations as appropriate and helpful. With students who have some piano experience, this makes sense to do early on--as the challenge of the five-finger positions alone may not be enough to keep them engaged. With young beginning students, often just making those tiny fingers move in these prescribed patterns is enough for awhile. You can always return to these same patterns later and assign more layers: one hand staccato, the other legato, both hands legato, then both hands staccato, and so on. Again, the possibilities are endless.
March 2nd, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
The other day after performance class I overheard two eight-year-olds talking. “Can you come over and play?” Bobby asked Jason. “No. There is no way. Right now I have to go to gymnastics and then I have a play date with David,” Jason answered. This conversation took my breath away. After all, these boys were second-graders, not CEOs with important and busy schedules to maintain. And yet, Jason sounded just like me, dismissing yet one more thing with a “No. There is no way. I’ve got to…and then I have to.….”
I’m nursing a funk at the moment, which is a direct consequence of working every weekend since the first of the year. Saturday I am playing for an all day NATS competition. Sunday afternoon and evening I have rehearsals and lessons to teach. In the next month I am doing extra rehearsals, judging a piano competition, attending a conference in Denver. It would be altogether too easy to make the answer to every question thrown my way, “No. There is no way….”
I resent this, even though I must take the blame for my own crazy schedule. I’m tired and cranky, lashing out at my husband and my students. Last night while rehearsing the prima donna song, “Art is Calling Me” in the ninth hour of a deadly long work day, I found myself thinking, “If there is anything that isn’t calling me at the moment, it would be art. Or this song. For the love of Pete, will this day ever end?”
Exhaustion is hardly attractive, I remind myself as I hurl through another day. I’ve temporarily lost the ability to dwell blissfully in the present, or to slide gracefully from one thing to another. Tomorrow is Leap Day, which should be a cause to celebrate: a gift of an extra day. I love the concept, but I’m too tired to decide how to spend any extra time, buried as I am at the moment under a daunting list of demands on my attention.
I’m not the only one that is living a Charlie Ravioli
existence, nor is it just my eight-year olds that feel the pinch. My students, in general, are simply too busy, frayed and frazzled at ages where their lives ought to be able to handle any spontaneous play date invitation. My high school students are driving me crazy right now with their constant conflicts with performance classes and even weekly lessons, and these are kids I like and want to help keep in music lessons. Every activity is closing in on them with multiple demands, and we are all losing as a result. Because my patience is short at the moment, I am more frustrated than usual, struggling to know when to gracefully bend my policies for favorite students and when to send them packing. When I allow myself to indulge in a pathetic pity party, I imagine that all these conflicts are evidence that everything comes before piano, but I know that is not the real truth, for at times they must also go to the tennis coach or the study group with piano lesson conflicts. The problem is that there are just too many conflicts. Either I bend with them if I can without breaking in two, or I get awfully angry in the meantime.
Certainly, there are too many conflicts in my own life, which is no less busy than my eight-year-olds or my eighteen-year-olds. I’ve been trying to reach my two sisters in New York for a month, the two-hour time difference and our hectic schedules making it impossible ever to connect. “What I need is an extra day in every week,” I tell Kara, a smart and witty 15-year old student. “No. If you had an extra day in every week, other people would just fill it with more work. What you need is a secret extra day that no one knows about.” She’s right, as usual. What I need is a secret
We all do, as I stare Leap Day in the face, wondering if by its very nature this isn’t the extra day of my dreams. Writing this, I wonder what it would take to rewrite the script of my life so that my default response was not, "No. There is no way...." but rather, "Why not?" After all, if there can be a legal day just inserted into the calendar every four years, then it seems anything might be possible. "Why not?" I practice saying to myself. Why not?
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com