April 26th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I am convinced that playing staccato makes pianists nervous.
Unlike other instrumentalists, when pianists play staccato they lose contact with their instrument completely. Think about this. No wonder it makes us uncomfortable and anxious.
I am not sure that the antidote to this nervousness is to just play staccato so often that we get used to the idea. That might work to a certain degree, yes, but does feel a bit like a band-aid solution, for while it might get us friendly with playing staccato passages, it doesn't do much for the issue of becoming confident with leaving what I like to call the "air-space" of the piano. We might feel OK about the distance of one or two inches that most staccato playing requires, but to develop ease with the bigger drops and lifts out of the immediate air-space that lovely physical playing requires, well, that's another issue entirely.
I guess I've seen too many "helicopter" players. Pianists that, no matter what they were playing, hovered over the keys, barely ever losing contact with the surface. This is a perfect example where the physical action informs the mind, because such hovering not only looks, but actually is, rather nervous and insecure, and sends a corresponding anxious signal to our brains. (Quite on the opposite end of the spectrum is those extremely flamboyant pianists whose gestures are so big as to seem ridiculous. I was recently at a concert of such a pianist, whose playing I quite admire, but I couldn't really buy into the need to throw his hands OVER his head three times in the first five minutes. This was more than dramatic, it was unsightly.)
So today's 5-Finger Positions address the skills of lifting and dropping into the keyboard, and creating physical gestures that bubble up out of both musical phrases and natural, organic technique. I keep these positions simple, since the goal is the gesture, not the pattern. Obviously, these can be done in both major and minor positions, but the focus is on the shape and movement between octaves, not really the notes themselves.
34. Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Play hands alone the pattern one time in three ascending octaves.
Watch for beautiful "arc" between each octave which occurs from the lift out of the first pattern and the drop in to the second and so on.
35. Do Mi Sol
(Same instructions as above)
36. Sol Fa Mi Re Do
37. Sol Mi Do
Young students like these an awful lot, and they lead to all sorts of ease moving around the keyboard. This also sets us up nicely for those kind of rote pieces that have lots of moves up and down the piano. I have been told more than once that I play the piano like a dancer, that whatever my playing may lack in certain areas, it is beautiful to watch. It is true that I have sometimes cared more about how playing looks and feels than how it sounds, which may be screwed up on lots of levels, but working with these positions allows me to teach "dance" moves on the keyboard, making me at the very least, a content teacher.
April 19th, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
St. Patrick's Day Scarfing.....
Easter sunrise morning scarfing (albeit sans scarf) occurred at 6AM (something about the sunrise part makes the whole crime very Biblical we think). The question has arisen: what kind of bird is it? A raven? A crane? A falcon? Could it be the elusive Maltese Falcon with special magical powers?
If you "scarf" a bird, do you "duck" a pond?
During this scarfing, we discovered that underneath the St. Patrick's Day twirly headband someone had left a note:
I Love You!
Clearly, this is a message from the bird. We are reading this as encouragement to keep up our seasonal costume changes. Cinco de Mayo here we come!
April 11th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
Today I bought four roses: two climbers and two small bushes. They were 75% off
at my local Jackalope
because they were "mystery" roses, which means someone lost
the tags that should identity variety and color. Since the
whole art of growing roses is a mystery to me, I don't see the
"mystery" roses as particularly risky or threatening so I
gleefully bought them. Such a purchase is a gesture of hope, not
only that the winter storm we had this week is only a fluke and not a
return to cold weather, but also toward another whole year of gardening. I am ready--beyond ready--to reclaim
the garden for another season of outdoor living, turning our front
courtyard and back garden into "bonus rooms" to our house. In fact,
I have resorted to bribery to keep myself from hauling outside all
the geraniums and catci that have been wintering indoors in my
sunroom. My favorite weekend every spring is the one when I can
clear out the dozens of plants that fill the corners of my house for
a long six months every year, making our tiny living space that much
more crowded. I have decided Easter weekend is the chosen date
this year for this happy event, although every day I practically have
to tie my hands behind my back to prevent myself from carrying
outside even one little plant. Maybe it won't matter, I try to
persuade myself. Maybe this is the year we won't get a late
spring frost. I know this is futile wishing, because it is
simply too early to risk even the heartiest succulents. But hourly I
have this internal conversation with myself, counting the days till
Easter. In the meantime, I am trying to quiet my distructive
gardening urges by reading books by other gardeners. Lately, I
have been consuming Onward and Upward in the Garden, by
Katherine White, who was the wife of Charlotte's Web's own
E.B. White. Ms. White, as I feel sure she was called, wrote
about gardening for The New Yorker, and her astute
observations about everything from gardening catalogues to flower arranging make her a fine companion to my first cup of coffee in
the morning. Up to this point, she is even suppressing my urge to
do something in the garden that I will most likely regret later.
Recently, we have celebrated spring
break, both in the public schools in our city and in my studio.
I spent the much of the week throwing myself into domesticity, as I so often do whenever there
is a pause in my work schedule. I
planted my new mystery rose bushes, and spent many happy outside hours doing those early spring gardening chores. Inside, I
cleaned a bit, sorted through winter clothes in the first attempt at
turning over our closets for the season, organized files and piles.
We refinanced our house, finished the last of the tax details for the
year, and shredded twelve months worth of random papers. It
felt good, this sifting and sorting, filing and fussing around the
house. Undoubtedly, it will make it easier to work in the weeks
to come because I am simply more organized, but more than that, this
kind of cleaning seems to open up space in my brain and my life,
rearranging tired old patterns and behaviors, and dusting off
abandoned but valuable ideas and habits. It's a good thing,
this spring cleaning of the soul; I feel sorted out and polished up,
and almost---almost--ready to tackle the next daunting,
full-to-the-brim, six weeks.
In between bursts of spring weather and cleaning was a
trip to Lubbock for lessons with my coach, Bill
Westney . This time I
traveled with a musical colleague, Jerome
, and my always-up-for-anything-kind-of-friend, Lora
. ("Lubbock Funfest Spring Break 2009," as Lora took
to calling it.) Twelve hours in the car, four hours of lessons,
one pair of snake-skin cowboy boots purchased, a visit to the grave of Billy the Kid, and a cooler of Blue
Bell ice cream smuggled over the border will be the lasting memories
from Funfest 2009. The following week, Matt and I did an overnight in Santa Fe that produced a great black wrappy thing bought
in a boutique, but was mostly colored by the stomach flu I fought all
week. I played a New Mexico Symphony concerto competition with
a symphony-playing colleague (she--we--won!) and
finished up a recording project with a singer. I read a lot,
fell asleep every night to old Quincy episodes, saw friends for drinks, coffee and dinners. It was,
in spite of the stomach flu, a great week.
In a front yard halfway between Lora's
house and mine sits a funny bird statue. Last fall, during one
of our early morning walks past the house, Lora decided that the bird looked cold, and needed a scarf to get through the winter. "I
am going to scarf that bird," Lora announced, and proceeded to
knit a bird-size scarf. The evening of January 1, after
several glasses of wine, Lora and I snuck over to our nameless
neighbors and "scarfed the bird." I thought the
mischief was over, but as the scarf remained on the bird seeing (the neighbors apparently liked it), Lora began making further plans. These involved costumes and accessories fitting every major holiday.
For Valentine's Day there would be a new bright red scarf with
fringe. (The fringe part made me nervous, because I knew Lora
can't fringe. That could only mean I would fringing the bird
scarf, further implicating me in this crime.) On February 13, I finished Lora's knitting and fringed both ends; Lora bought
glittery heart-shaped stakes to stick in the ground below the bird,
and "Scarfing the Bird, Take Two" was accomplished,
documented by our friend Katie, home from college. (We really
ought to know better than to get underaged people involved in our criminal behavior.)
Since then, there has been a St. Patty's Day costume: a green scarf, and a headband decked with
twirly shamrocks which sits jauntily on the poor statue's head, and large shamrocks on posts driven into the ground in front. The men who live there clearly
don't care, and also don't appreciate the stealthiness in which we
are managing the change of costumes. The morning of St. Patrick's Day we got the changeover down to about 15 seconds. There
is a pink bow in the works for Easter (with rabbit ears and rubber ducks to float in the Zen pond nearby), a sombrero and
poncho for Cinco de Mayo, something white and wedding-like for June, and so on down the calendar year.
It is always a good idea to have a
back-up career ready to go, and perfecting my stealthy
scarfing the bird routine is a good place to start in case the music
thing doesn't work out. Meanwhile, I have my own mysteries
right here in my little patch of the planet, what with the four new roses and all, and plenty of musical and pedagogical work to
keep me out of trouble for a while, as I take a deep breath and plunge
into the next marathon month.
April 4th, 2009 :: Reading Days
...Could teachers gather around the great thing called "teaching and learning" and explore its mysteries with the same respect we accord any subject worth knowing?
We need to learn how to do so, for such a gathering is one of the few means we have to become better teachers. There are no formulas for good teaching, and the advice of experts has but marginal utility. If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft.
If I want to teach well, it is essential that I explore my inner terrain. But I can get lost in there, practicing self-delusion and running in self-serving circles. So I need the guidance that a community of collegial discourse provides--to say nothing of the support such a community can offer to sustain me in the trials of teaching and the cumulative and collective wisdom about this craft that can be found in every faculty worth its salt.
Resources that could help us teach better are available from each other--if we could get access to them. But there, of course, is the rub. Academic culture builds barriers between colleagues even higher and wider than those between us and our students. These barriers come partly from the competition that keeps us fragmented by fear. But they also come from the fact that teaching is perhaps the most privatized of all the public professions.
Though we teach in front of students, we almost always teach solo, out of collegial sight--as contrasted with surgeons or trial lawyers, who work in the presence of others who know their craft well. Lawyers argue cases in front of other lawyers, where gaps in their skill and knowledge are clear for all to see. Surgeons operate under the gaze of specialists who notice if a hand trembles, making malpractice less likely. But teachers can lose sponges or amputate the wrong limb with no witnesses except the victims. (Italics mine; p. 141-142)
-from Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com