April 27th, 2007
My studio recitals can be a painfully revealing microcosm of everything I am doing badly as a teacher. My spring studio recital was last night, and once again I was blown away by how obvious the parade of students, one after another, playing their carefully prepared recital pieces, revealed what I needed to work on as a teacher. This wasn't the first time. One year I was stunned by the number of students who stood up while they were still holding the last note, eager as they were both to be finished with their performance and to demonstrate their bowing technique. Why did they do this? I pondered afterwards. They never stand up in their lessons during the last notes. Then it struck me, I am so quick to jump in with my comments about their playing, that I haven't taught them to listen through the last note and surround their playing with a circle of silence and space. Time is too precious in lessons, I have often thought, to allow even a second of wasted space. Of course, after that lesson of how my hurried behavior was negatively affecting a sense of performance, I have been more attentive to how and when I interrupt during lessons and I specifically teach students to punctuate their music with respectful space and appropriate silence.
Last night, no one stood up during the last note, but neither did they look out at the audience when they took their bows. Apparently, this, too, would need attention and coaching. Students who had painstakingly practiced contrasting dynamics sounded flat and dull. Our deliberate work with balancing melody and accompaniment figures went out the window when playing on an unfamiliar piano, exacerbated by performance nerves. Clearly we were going to have to address these things next. In the future, we would practice with the idea that we might have to overdo dynamics in performance situations to make them effective, and likewise work harder at listening for good balance between our melodies and accompaniments. We would need to learn that our work in these areas may need adjusting on a different piano, and that because we couldn't anticipate a piano's response, we must listen more carefully during performances. Of course, as a seasoned performer myself, I know all of this well, but somehow fail to pass along these skills to my students, caught up as I am in the job of teaching notes, rhythms, and phrasing on my piano. Somehow I forget that my conscientious work with students just might be undermined on an unfamiliar instrument in an unfamiliar space.
Of course, studio recitals can also reveal practices that are working. Last night, my students were consistently well prepared with their pieces. One after another played with no discernable slip-ups, or recovered beautifully from any minor hitches. No one panicked or became so overcome by nerves that they couldn't perform well. They listened respectfully to one another's performance, and although their bows lacked eye contact, everyone remembered to freeze on the last note, waited before standing up, and bowed nicely. All things to be proud of.
After every recital I make a list of observations, mistakes, triumphs: We need to work on bowing, Corrine plays better when she's placed at the beginning of the program, we need two tables for refreshments (bring two tablecloths, flower arrangements, buy punch bowl), how can I teach better listening for tone and sound in performance situations? changing the recital time to the evening was a good idea, and so on. But even when I know there will be important lessons to be learned, studio recitals are humbling, if for no other reason that they highlight what and where I need work as a teacher. Sending students to competition does the same. While I stand firmly on the side that music making shouldn't be an inherently competitive sport, I know that I become a better teacher every time I send a student to a competition, regardless of the outcome. I know that I teach better and listen more carefully when I know that someone else's critical ears will be listening to my student's music. I know that I am more accountable for making sure I am covering scales, chords, and arpeggios when my students are required to play them as part of a competition. Whatever happens, I become a better teacher because I force myself to put my students through certain paces.
I have heard the strong arguments against requiring recitals or putting students through the agony of competitions. I have heard teachers say that they aren't going to force students to perform who would rather not. I have heard teachers argue that they know what their students know or don't know and don't need a judge telling them what to do. I have heard teachers declare that their students don't need that kind of pressure. I have heard all of this and more. I'm not buying it. Somehow these excuses ring false. I'm afraid these statements are code for something else entirely: the teacher doesn't want that kind of pressure. The teacher fears having others find out what and where they may be lacking. The teacher has issues with performing and criticism. After all, whether we like it or not, our students reflect the messages–good, bad, or indifferent–that we send them. Our students learn the value systems–spoken or not–that we teach them.
Make no mistake about it: recitals and competitions are only partly about the growth potentials for the students. I believe that these opportunities do help students grow, force some accountability for their work, build confidence and assurance if handled in a careful way. But above all, I know that by jumping through these challenges in my teaching, I emerge better, and ultimately more able to help the next student reach his or her potential. Like the results of my studio recital last night, I might not like everything I see, but if I look attentively enough, we can all learn from our mistakes.
April 12th, 2007
The birds are back. I know this because the cats spend most of every day sitting at the windows, making strange noises a them. Yun-Sun especially seems to consider this return a personal affront, as if her warnings last summer were not fierce enough to keep them away. The cats are driving me crazy with what is, I'm sure, only an instinctual seasonal response. But it causes them to bounce off the walls at all hours of the night. I am rarely successful in luring them downstairs, in spite of the trickery I have resorted to involving food and treats. They don't want to go downstairs when there are birds chirping outside, furniture to bounce on and two sleeping people to torture. Recently, while in the basement doing laundry I discovered more signs of their mischief: in between trips to the litter box and during their long nighttime stints in the basement, they have been systematically chewing the duct tape off the blanket that surrounds the hot-water heater. Little did I know that while in the basement they had a project to occupy themselves. I am sympathetic towards the desire to have a project, but after re-taping the blanket to the hot-water heater for the fourth time I am determined they are going to find another project.
Lately we have been visited by a neighborhood cat who acts as a feline Tony Soprano, going around gathering protection payments from the other cats in the hood. She is a big, black longhaired cat, gorgeous and regal and rather nasty if you get too close. It must frustrate her that my cats refuse to give her a dime, not because they couldn't be cowed or coerced, but because they haven't yet figured out exactly what this animal is doing outside our door. Without the knowledge of any cats other than one another, they lack the know-how to obey this mafia cat's demands and snarls. Instead they sit together on the rug and look out at the bully cat's hissing and growling as if it might be a TV set up just for their entertainment. The neighborhood cat certainly knows from cats and knows there are two cats in my house not paying up. And so the staredown continues, every night at ten.
Much to my astonishment, I have yellow, pink, and red tulips blooming in my backyard. Actually all of these signs of spring astonish me. I am both ready and wary–not yet convinced that winter has had its last fling, but also fearful that this early burst of spring will mean a long, hot summer. At any rate, this springtime activity has meant there are outdoor chores that cannot be avoided. Cooped up inside all winter, I was eager to get out there and dig in the dirt. Now faced with an arm length of tasks: bag leaves, prune plants, transplant plants, and above all–WATER–I am less than enthusiastic. Already, I am tired of watering and the season has just begun.
I am feeling sorry for myself, which is unattractive and stupid. It is spring break and our habit has always been to leave town the minute we are off work for any length of time. We had planned to go to Durango at the end of the week to spend a couple stolen days doing nothing, but due to a variety of reasons big and small, decided to save the money and the trip for another time. Although I am trying not to be, I am disappointed and feeling sorry for myself, "stuck" in Albuquerque for the week. I have to admit, that it's been a fine week. I have played two recitals, had some wonderful practice sessions, taught a few extra lessons, wrote every day, read a whole biography about George Gershwin, went on long walks, and worked outside nearly every evening. I have also fought a migraine cluster for the last week, which has left me exhausted and less than amused. After all the progress I have made towards conquering my little migraine habit, weeks like this feel like a setback and disappointment. I had begun to think such clusters might be behind me forever. Fortunately, I have an initial appointment with a recommended acupuncturist on Monday. This week is evidence that I still need more work, but I resent the reminder.
When I think things through, (which I am reluctant to do, preferring to over-dramatize my situation), I realize that I don't really need the escape, that it is just a habit we have acquired and maintained, convincing ourselves that we "need" the periodic retreats from our regular life. At times we all need a break from normal routines, but I have that built-in to a week of not teaching, I shouldn't need the further escape from the trappings of my world to enjoy my week. And truth be told, what I really need is the practice of learning to infuse my regular life with a sense of adventure without actually leaving town. I need practice in learning to take mini-vacations: a morning with a book and a cappuccino, a mid-day hike up in the Sandia mountains (just a fifteen minute drive from our house), an evening listening to music and quietly knitting instead of mindlessly tuning out in front of a video. If I look closely at the situation, I know there is nothing inherent in the imaginary hotel room in Durango that I couldn't enjoy in the comfort of my little home here.
It is more fun to escape, for even a few days, and there is no chance that I am going to give up that practice for the long term. However, while it has been tougher to dig in and find my fun here, this week has been a good lesson in blooming where I am planted instead of always assuming the grass is greener (and more fertilized) on the other side of the fence. Lately, this restlessness that is showing its ugly face not just in these occasional empty weeks, but also in my daily attitudes. On closer examination, I think I know why. I think my internal clock is thinking it is time to move again, that in spite of all my declarations about intending to stay in New Mexico for the long haul, the truth is that I have no experience living anywhere longer than three years. As we quickly approach the fourth anniversary of our move here, my internal clock is ticking wildly, distractedly, moodily. Surely, it is time to move along. Surely there is a greater challenge somewhere, anywhere else. I don't want to behave this way, I want to learn to stay for the long haul, I don't want to run away quickly just because things are getting simultaneously both boring and difficult. I'm mildly bored because work is sailing along entirely too smoothly. After three years of fighting the battles of building a reputation and studio from scratch, I have a studio of students that are on my page and toeing the line. All the programs and systems needed to run a studio and train musicians are in place and running smoothly. I think I could leave for a month and no one would notice, they would keep on just fine without me.
But it is also a particularly difficult time, because all the discomforts, all the little annoyances, all the hard truths that I don't want to deal with or face: the people I just can't make myself like, the particular kind of work that just doesn't seem to be coming my way, the assumptions and labeling that others have put upon me, are firmly in place. In the past, I could leave and start again just at this point in the process. While it looks like I am here for the duration, there are days I'd prefer to start again somewhere else, rather than stay here and fight these battles to their finish.
If the birds are back, so are the white butterflies that played and flirted all fall through our yard. When I should be working I find myself drawn to the window to watch their antics. I can almost hear them saying, "The sunshine is magnificent. Come out and play."
I want to play. I want to infuse my days with a sense of the playful, the adventurous, the spontaneous. These are hardly new desires, but reawakened to be sure with the signs of nature playing all around me. Wouldn't it be fun to…..I ask myself twenty times a day, searching for new ideas, trying to stimulate fresh thoughts, anticipating the next dream. Wouldn't it be fun to learn to salsa? Take voice lessons. Throw pots. Grow red climbing roses up the side of my house. Make guacamole. Mix margaritas. Put a birdbath in the courtyard. Use more children's folk songs in my teaching. Lie in a hammock.
I may want to simply escape this week, but I know that this sentiment runs deeper in my life: a desire to escape the whole thing. The appeal of starting over and running from all my imagined or actual mistakes is all too real these days. This week I practiced facing down my demons and finding new challenges in old patterns. Here's what I know from years of practicing the piano: over time, daily practice starts to look like the real thing–the real music making, the real organic behaviors and habits--instead of self-imposed ones. That's a hope I'm gripping onto these days.
The season is new, the possibilities seem endless. The cats are pining for birds, staring at the window with deep longing. If I can't have a bird, could I just have a butterfly? I can almost hear them asking me, desperate as they must be for some winged creature to chase and hunt. I have my own hunting to do. I must hunt for reasons to stay put, to hang in for the long haul. I must hunt for my own adventures close to home. I must hunt for small escapes that infuse my life and attitudes with the sense of possibilities without needing the grand gesture of a completely new life to build.
I take a deep breath, willing myself to slow down. The cats are taking a nap, a rest after a morning of chasing an errant fly indoors. As I watch them sleep, two butterflies dance outside my window, teasing me into a smile.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com