May 19th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Last month in my youngest performance class which consists of kindergarten through third graders, we were reviewing performance etiquette. After many, many classes, my students are good at this, and they had plenty of suggestions: "You have to smile before you bow." "Put your hands in your lap between your songs." "The audience has to sit politely and not talk." "Clap when the music finish." "Don't wiggle." Then Audrey, my tiniest, youngest student raises her hand. "Silence all cell phones."
Silence all cell phones? It is all I could do to keep a straight face. Of course, she is right. We do want to silence all cell phones, and maybe I am assuming too much here, but I don't think cell phones are a problem in my K-3rd grade class.
But Audrey is quite serious, so I nod solemnly, "Yes. If anyone has a cell phone, please silence it." The other kids look at me intently. No one seems to think this an odd request. Clearly in their minds, we should smile and bow after we play. We should clap for one another. We should sit politely and not talk, and we should silence all cell phones.
I often say I may not be training future pianists, but I can certainly train future audience members. Obviously, I am doing my job here.
Recently Joshua, a squirmy first-grader, and I were having a conversation about composers. I asked if he could name a composer. He thought long and hard, coming up short. Never mind that in January my students had a class with composer Dennis Alexander in my living room. Joshua had nothing. "You remember a couple months ago when we had a class with a composer?" I prompted him. "Yeah, I thought of that," Joshua answered, "but I can't remember his name." (Before you criticize my teaching and the obvious holes that are there, bear in mind that this is a very wiggly six year-old with less than a year of lessons under his belt. Give us a break!) Just as I was about to help him out with a few names (Beethoven? Bach? Mozart? DENNIS ALEXANDER?!?) he exclaimed, "Wait! I've got one! John McCain!"
Last week was our spring recital. I have the most talented parents on the planet, including many professional musicians. So this time, I asked several of them to perform as well, breaking up the student performances with their musical offerings. It was a huge success, and helped the evening to feel more like a musical celebration and less like an obligatory student piano recital-- exactly what I was hoping for. I began the evening with the customary remarks, and used my littlest students with their performance etiquette wisdom (see above) to help me with the "Silence all cell phones" kinds of announcements. As I was sitting down, one small child called me over, "Amy," he whispered, pointing to the e.e. cummings ten thousand stars quote on the front of the program, "What is this? I don't understand any of this. What does this mean?" His voice was shaking in concern, as if he had just come across evidence that maybe in spite of the year of piano lessons, and all that he thought he was learning, he was, in fact, missing the whole point.
He might be. Honestly, we all might be. Too often I get obsessed with pushing for more rigidly perfect performances, instead of seeking out more moments of musical joy. "Can we talk about this later?" I shushed him, squashing one of those 10,000 stars right then and there.
Noticing a new hanging star outside my sunroom door, Sophie commented on her way out of her lesson, "Oh, yeah, this is the place of the million and one stars or something, isn't it?" "Ten thousand stars," her poet mother corrected.
Lately I have been considering the possibility that maybe I could write off any stars I purchase, given the name of my studio and all. "Probably up to ten thousand," my husband tells me sarcastically. My friend Lora, recently transplanted from Bethlehem, PA is the source of several of the most recent stars, both Bethlehem and Moravian stars being as cliché in her former hometown as wreaths of chile peppers are here. I visited her several years ago at Christmastime. Nestled in the Lehigh Valley, the city is charming in any season, but at Christmas it takes its name very seriously, and pulls out all the stops. Or all the stars, as the case may be.
Bethlehem and Moravian stars are different, I am told. Bethlehem stars have long pointed arms on the top and bottom. The arms on Moravian stars are all the same length, but there are more of them, forming almost a rounded shape. I love them both. I hung the biggest Bethlehem star outside the sun-room door, where everyone--students, friends, Matt and I--enter our house. Matt was concerned at first that it hung too low, and would stab someone, but we tested it out on our friend Brad, who, at 6'5", is the tallest person to regularly enter the house. The top of his head made it past the star unharmed, so I think we are safe.
In addition to more Moravian and Bethlehem stars, Lora brought me a string of stars that are embedded with tiny white lights, knocking off at least ten of the ten thousand stars right there. I probably should have waited to put it up at Christmas, but of course I didn't, instead immediately hanging it around one of the front windows. I really need a matching strand, so thankfully Lora has to go back next month to Pennsylvania and orchestrate the move of her stuff, thereby giving me an opportunity to get closer to the goal of filling this house with stars.
When Matt isn't currently annoyed with the whole ten thousand stars studio and all the ways it seems to conspire to make his home life difficult, he joins me in plotting how to incorporate more stars into the decor. "You could have them painted in the living room," he suggests one day, "Let's call William." William is a painter friend from former Texas days, we haven't been in touch in years, but I love idea of William's stars gracing my studio walls.
This is my last week of teaching for the semester, my spring schedule coasting to a halt. I'm ready, I'm beyond ready, to have a break, not to have to arrange my days around my lesson schedule, to let days unfold as they might without the restrictions of my work life. Recently, I said to my husband, "At the end of the day, I don't feel like doing anything but curling up in front of a movie and not talking. Do you think this is a bad thing? Shouldn't I have a hobby or something? Isn't that what other people do at the end of their day, indulge in a hobby of some kind?" Matt reminded me that my schedule is unusual--I start working at 7am and often go until 8pm, with chunks of two and three hours open during the middle of the day. "Look at your life, you have plenty of projects," he said, "you just weave them into your day." Lora remarked last week when I saw her in the middle of a work day that I "used" my two-hour chunks well. "I'm afraid that I would just think, 'I only have two hours so I can't get anything done.' and thereby waste it all." Since my days are split up in small chunks of time, I have no choice but to learn to manage it this way, seeing two hours as enough to time to work through a lot of practicing, to put in a load of laundry and hang it out to dry, to return three phone calls and two e-mails. I recently challenged a busy high school student to look for tiny chunks of time in her busy life to find even a few minutes here and there to practice. "Really, Monica, you might surprise yourself with what you could get done in five minutes here or ten minutes there. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, and probably can't be, given your schedule right now." She nodded at me, probably trying just to shut me up, but I am convinced it's a real answer for her. True, short practice sessions won't a concert pianist make, but it could get her through this hectic time, until she is better able to return to real practicing.
In spite of my ability to basically use my time well, I want the luxury of wasting some time for a couple of weeks. Oh, my schedule isn't completely empty--I'm doing some coachings, playing for a voice class, I have a performance with the symphony on May 30, but still it is a remarkably easy schedule really. I've got plans--I always do. Friends I want to see, a couple of painting projects, (Matt and the cats are still in the dark about that one), some gardening that needs to be done. Last week I went to Jackalope and discovered the "Bargain Barn," which in spite of its name is not a barn at all, but a terrific dump of cracked pots and huge shards that they practically give away. Our yard is now littered with gorgeous pottery shards, making it look like an archaeological dig, according to Matt. I also now have several huge pots standing against the house and garage just begging for climbing roses, so I haven't seen the last of the nursery this season.
Often I find myself out at dusk watering, watching for the first stars to appear. "Choose something like a star," Robert Frost wrote. I'm needing some inspiration these days, worn out once again after months of recital and contest preparation. I need to be reminded why I do this, why I love it, why I just might be called to this life. "So when at times the mob is swayed/ To carry praise or blame to far/We may choose something like a star/To stay our minds on and be staid." In my little corner of the universe, I hang my stars, Frost's words scrolling through my brain. Choose something like a star....like a star....like a star.....
May 6th, 2008 :: Writing Days
These days I am writing a regular column for American Music Teacher
, a journal that I have regularly contributed to and to which I also serve on the editorial committee. My writing schedule forces me to work quite far ahead--my deadline for columns is several months ahead of the day it arrives in the local music teacher's mailbox. This means that sometimes when colleagues or strangers write or call to talk to me about something I have written, it may take me a moment to remember which column they might be referring to. For at any given moment, there is the column out there in the most current journal, there are the four or five I might be working on at any time, there is the latest one I have just proofed for the upcoming journal, and
there is the one I am finishing up for the next deadline.
Having said all of that, recently I ran across this quote that pertains quite specifically to the column that is in the April/May issue of AMT
about learning to work without being overly attached to the daily results. While it is written from the religious/spiritual view, it is yet another way of looking at the same issue we all struggle with: how to devote one's life to the work and not to the outcome, whatever our calling may be.
To keep one's eye on results is to detract markedly from the business
at hand. This is to be diverted from the task itself. It is to be
only partially available to demands at hand. Very often it causes one
to betray one's own inner sense of values because to hold fast to the
integrity of the act may create the kind of displeasure which in the
end will affect the results. However, if the results are left free to
form themselves in terms of the quality and character of the act, then
all of one's resources can be put at the disposal of the act itself.
are many forces over which the individual can exercise no control
whatsoever. A man plants a seed in the ground and the seed sprouts and
grows. The weather, the winds, the elements, cannot be controlled by
the farmer. The result is never a sure thing. So what does the
farmer do? He plants. Always he plants. Again and again he works at
it--the ultimate confidence and assurance that even though his seed
does not grow to fruition, seeds do grow and they do come to fruition.
The task of men who work for the Kingdom of God, is to Work
for the Kingdom of God. The result beyond this demand is not in their
hands. He who keeps his eyes on results cannot give himself
wholeheartedly to his task, however simple or complex that task may be.
--From The Inward Journey
by Howard Thurman
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org