March 27th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
I’ve been thinking lately about Selma.
Selma is a sheep, a animal character in Jutta Bauer’s children book by the same name. I love this book, and give it to everyone I know. Once in an American Music Teacher column I referenced this charming story in an illustration about learning to love the life you have.
That seems a good lesson to return to these days.
I was propelled into beginning this Educational Psychology degree for many reasons. I have long been fascinated with the psychology of teaching and learning and the intersection of music as a subject. In the last few years, I have grown increasingly more dissatisfied with the assumptions and values of the music teaching profession, with its emphasis on performance practices rather than on the possible transformation of the person sitting on the bench.
But when I am completely honest with myself, I also know that I feared the answer to the question, “Is this enough?” Is my current life--teaching and performing, reading and writing, yoga and hiking, gardening and entertaining--enough for the next 40 years? More than anything, it was the sense of not being sure of the answer that sent me racing after another degree. I want options, I’ve told myself over and over again. I don’t only want the scholarship and knowledge I will gain in this degree program, but I also want the open doors such credentials might provide me. I want options.
Now waist-deep in this program, I am no more sure than I ever was. Which brings me back to Selma. For you see, Selma is a sheep who is content with her life of eating grass, playing with her children, exercising, and having her daily chat with her friend Mrs. Miller. In fact, when asked what she would do if she had more time or won a million dollars, she responds that she would, in fact, like to eat some grass, play with her children, exercise, and every night have a chat with Mrs Miller before falling fast asleep. This, we are told, is the secret to happiness.
I think about Selma almost every day. I think about Selma when I am overwhelmed with school projects, when faced with hours of lessons, when sitting down to a long rehearsal with a colleague, when staring at the computer willing an essay into shape. What would I do if I had more time? Well, I’d teach some students, practice the piano, rehearse with my friends and colleagues, write a little and at night have a chat with my husband before falling fast asleep. What would I do if I won a million dollars? Well, I’d teach some students, practice the piano, rehearse with my friends and colleagues, write a little and at night have a chat with my husband before falling fast asleep.
I don’t know, and to dwell too much on that question may be borrowing trouble from the future. Today it is enough. Today I’m a contented enough student, enjoying my classes this semester, how far I’ll make it in this degree program I don’t know. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Today I am a happy teacher, fascinated by the tiny almost imperceptible moments of learning and transformation that takes place in the piano lesson, and the ever present challenge of teaching kids to think. I am a satisfied pianist, content with my practice schedule and my performing projects, grateful to have such talented and inspirational musical colleagues with whom to make music. I have writing projects that motivate me, and a garden to plan and plant. And at night, after a long day of work and play, I have a husband waiting with a glass of wine.
It is enough.
March 20th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
Last night was my “Chopin” performance class. The Chopin group consists of mid-high and senior high kids, and they take their name from birthday party
that several of the girls decided to throw for Chopin last February. That evening they brought cupcakes and I served sparkling cider in champagne flutes. Last night there were no cupcakes.
There was, however, a bonanza of “5 Fun Facts.” This practice came about because of my insistence that the kids arrive to performance classes with at least five facts about the composer or piece they are performing. At some point, there began a kind of competition among them to see who could find the most outrageous facts. “This one is really fun,” Kari would prime us, before telling us about how such and such obscure composer died when falling through the ice while skating. Now, although the original students behind the 5 Fun Facts have left us for adventures in colleges around the country, the practice continues.
Last night’s class was structured around an article written by Anthony Tommasini
for The New York Times
in January. In it, he took on the task of deciding who were the top 10 composers in western music and then ranking them in order. His one rule was that no living composers could be considered, but otherwise anyone was fair game.
There are 10 of us in the Chopin class, so during the last several weeks I let kids choose their composers from Tommasini’s list. The kids had plenty of opinions about his picks. “OK. Where’s Chopin?” several of them asked, annoyed that the namesake of their class didn’t make the cut. “And Schumann? What about Kabalevsky?” (They are a rather piano-centric bunch, to be sure.) Mostly I just listened to them chatter, thrilled that they knew enough to have opinions. “I’d put on Copland,” said one student. “Shouldn’t Joplin be on this list?” asked another.
Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms were quickly grabbed up. “Bartok! Ugh! I hate Bartok. What is he doing here?” a number of them complained. To be fair, they hardly have a holistic view of Bartok, familiar as they are primarily with the Mikrokomos books. I use these volumes for technique work and, across the board, the kids hate them. These exercises are fabulous for teaching how to organize the physical gestures of phrasing between the hands. There is nothing like them for getting straight to the heart of the coordination challenges of counterpoint. And the tonality is so wacky that they inadvertently provide great sight-reading because kids learn quickly they can’t trust their ears. But the Mikrokosmos are certainly a microscopic view of Bartok and his compositional range, and exposed primarily to this limited knowledge of Bartok, the kids do not think highly of him. In fact, most of my students now form a group we have named the “Bartok Club.” The Bartok Club is full of students who so hate playing the Mikrokosmos that this assignment has become a battleground between us. My compromise is that for every week they successfully play their Bartok ditty, they get the next week off Bartok completely, letting us all feel like we’ve won. I was curious to see which kid would choose Bartok for their 5 Fun Facts. Finally, late in the process someone rose to the occasion. “Well, I’ll take Bartok,” said Simone, resigning herself to the chore. “I want to know what is so great about him.”
Last night we took on the composers in order, each student sharing their 5 Fun Facts. As usual, the kids got straight to the non-essential information, quickly diving into Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Schubert’s supposed syphilis. And who knew Bartok suffered from painful childhood eczema? Now we do.
“Are you going to feel better about Bartok now that you know he had eczema?” I asked them. Some of them reluctantly shrugged, “Maybe.” I’ll take it. I’m not above using painful medical conditions to help generate good will and respect.
After we finished laying out postcards with the 10 composers into their appropriate musical periods on the floor in front of us, Jake looked at the cards and announced, “Miss Amy, these are all dead white European men.” I was pretty impressed with this categorization, since I’m fairly sure he has never heard the phrase “Dead White Men” when referring to composers of western music. Of course, he was right. There isn’t a non-Anglo or woman in the group, but that is hardly a surprise.
Still arguing, the kids trooped out into the evening, another performance class behind us. I wonder, not for the first time, what they will remember about these evenings together. Schubert’s syphilis? Their own performances? The occasional cupcakes? It hardly matters. What I most want is for them to feel a part of a community of musicians and to take this identity with them as they grow up and away from us.
Bartok’s eczema? Now that’s a bonus.
Tommasini’s Top 10 Composers:
March 6th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
In the studio, many of my students are learning a stack of Dennis Alexander's new and still unpublished pieces. "You mean I get to play this before anyone else in the whole wide world?" one little guy asked me. "Yep." I replied, "and Mr Alexander wants to know what we think." Josh is going to play one of these pieces on an upcoming recital, and I suggested that he write Dennis and invite him to come. His note read:
Dear Mr Alexander:
I am playing Capriccio in G Minor on a city recital. I hope that you can come! I think that Capriccio in G Minor is a good piece but there are some changes I would like to ask you about.
I am a bit uncomfortable with this kid's spunk. Secretly, I am afraid I no longer have this kind of confidence in my own opinions. “What changes?” I asked him. “You know,” he shrugged, “important stuff. Like dynamics."
"It's unsettling when you realize there are only so many things you can teach a child," wrote Fred Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer. "And, finally, they are who they are."
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org