June 20th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
Fa Mi Re
Mi Re Do
This pattern has been in hundreds of technique books in some form or fashion, but it is also the one
that Dylan "made up" last week and brought in to his
lesson. His version has a jaunty rhythm of quarter notes (Do-Sol) then triplets (Fa Mi Re...). He was quite proud of his creation, having
only taken lessons for a few months, and even more proud when I asked to
"borrow it," for which he gladly gave his permission.
this is where the whole thing gets sticky, for while it is true that
I don't use a traditional technique book or method, it is also the
case that I can't claim to have really made up any of these
patterns. They have existed forever in technique books and in repertoire, and are so much a part of our technique vocabulary
that I can come up with any number of these without blinking. If you experiment with five-finger positions for just a
few weeks with students, using them systematically and intentionally
as part of their warm-up exercises, then you'll see what I mean; literally dozens of ideas will pour out of your hands. It is
this deliberate use of five-finger positions with beginning students
as part of every practice session, and as part of every lesson, that
makes the difference. It would be easy to assume that you could rely on the default knowledge
students gain of five-finger positions by working through the many popular method books that use these, but that isn't enough. Most books stay in only a few positions for book after book. Students learn C position, but B-flat? No way.
I feel like I have mastered the art of teaching and reinforcing these positions in a
million different ways, I can be faulted for assuming that students
then know them away from the piano. They don't,
necessarily, which puzzles me every time I am faced with little Sally
who can't spell a position without first going to the piano and
nervously fingering it. Nor could she "color" the position
on a favorite worksheet I use, which asks students to indicate on
a drawing of a piano keyboard, what a F major or C# minor five-finger
position would be. This throws them completely for a loss more often than not, which does remind me that playing something is one form
of knowing it, but not the only one for sure.
Of course, if I think
this through, this is no different then the student who can play a
piece by memory in a tactile sense, but whose brain knows no real
information about the piece in a concrete way: doesn't know the
starting pitches, doesn't know the structure, what key it might be
in, can't play the piece starting in different sections or with hands
alone. I know that this step of memory work has to be
intentionally and concretely addressed: so does understanding
five-finger positions aside from playing them.
today I leave you with Dylan's pattern and the thought that
after all this emphasis on the benefits in terms of coordination and
muscle training and musicality, there might just be some need to work
these patterns away from the piano as well. Spell them.
Ask questions about the number of black and white notes or which
positions are most similar or most opposite. Sneak some theory
work into the technique knowledge (my favorite way to address
theory!). Find out what your students might actually know or
not know about the positions they are mastering and playing
every day. The answers may surprise you.
June 7th, 2008 :: Extraordinary Days
We have had the windiest spring
ever. Day after day, the gusts knock us senseless, rendering gardening and bicycling impossible. The season itself seems confused, the normal schedule of blooms following no particular pattern this year. Some flowers were super early, others very late. The forsythia bloomed before Valentine's Day, but the poppies (usually a spring break fiesta) only started appearing recently. This has been both wonderful and disconcerting at the same time. On one hand, having the season unfold in slow motion has allowed me to really enjoy every stage. On the other hand, I find myself wondering what is going on, missing the predictable arrival of poppies in March, tulips in April, roses in May. One week the temperature shot up giving us days of 80 degrees, then unexpectedly the temperature plummeted and the next morning we woke up to snow on the mountains. The next week the same thing happened: we had record high in the mid-90's; but then it rained and overnight the mountain peaks had a new fresh layer of white. Unbelievable.
Maybe every year is unpredictable and I just haven't noticed before. Or maybe it is just another sign of the rootedness I am beginning to feel here, that I might think I know how a season should unfold in this landscape. I am having an unexpected love affair with New Mexico at the moment, brought on, I imagine, by seeing this state through a newcomer's eyes. With my friend Lora moving around the corner, I find myself introducing to her (and to myself with delicious freshness) the wonders of living here. She calls with questions about hardware stores and restaurants, dry-cleaners and nurseries, and I discover in answering her that I know this city well--my affection for neighborhoods and businesses and people coming through. This summer we pass the five-year anniversary of living here--a monumental landmark
for us. Already I see the difference: in various ways I have loved every place we lived, but moving every few years meant that most of my energy was spent on the act of creation: creating a life, creating a reputation, building a studio, establishing rewarding playing gigs. While a certain amount of recreating and tweaking will always be necessary, my efforts these days are different. For the first time, I have the pleasure of teaching students for the long haul--seeing their progress over many years and watching them develop into fine young musicians, versus starting a group of enthusiastic youngsters and then handing them to another teacher just when they might take off . I now have musical partners with whom I have played multiple concerts and recitals, our collaborations reaching new depths and comfort. At home, I am beginning to sense the danger of not moving, for it forces me to clean out every drawer and closet. Already the basement is turning into a default "Oh, just put that downstairs," black hole. Yet at the same time, the house and garden are assuming a gentle grace of living that reflects our lives: the Adirondack chairs in the backyard becoming part of our summer evening landscapes, the canisters of dried beans, nuts and fruits living on the kitchen windowsill, the herbs in the courtyard an easy step away when cooking.
Even events have found a certain ease and routine: the night Matt takes his youth choir to the Santa Fe Opera every summer, the dinner we hold for the high school seniors in the choir every fall, the twice-yearly studio recitals, the annual get-away to Taos in October, the big St. Cecelia party the Friday night before Thanksgiving. Since when were these things we "always" did, I wonder? And yet here we are, expecting these occasions every year. I look forward to the beginning of the downtown farmers market every June, wait with anticipation for the first whiff of roasting green chile every August, count the days until we can do our trip to Santa Fe to take in the holiday decor every December.
As I write this, I am back to teaching, my between-semesters break before the summer session behind me. It seems I have "always" had this break, although really this is a custom of the past few years, born out of necessity due to travel schedules. But my families now expect this break, and this year especially I am happy to oblige. We all needed a rest before buckling down to the business of summer lessons and schedules. For my part, I needed time to get a few pleasurable summer pursuits in place. The last two weeks I dipped into a pile of guilt-free, no-work reading for the first time. I put on five coats of bright weatherproof yellow paint on an outdoor table and giddily spray-painted five folding-chairs loud happy colors. I put in the last of the season's plants and got a basil plant going outside my sun-room door. I re-potted the kitchen cacti and set outside for the summer. I planted a gorgeous yellow climbing rose ("Golden Showers") outside the French doors into my courtyard, and dug up some baby agave cacti pups that had sprouted up around their mothers. These I potted in big ceramic pots to set in the courtyard, hoping to convince them to fill out their new homes.
As always after a long semester, the first thing my body did was rebel and sleep. Ten-hour nights weren't long enough, I still found myself dozing on the couch in the afternoon, my system crashing after months of being "on." Suddenly, my highly efficient routines went out the window; it took me all day to practice a few hours. My e-mails went unanswered; I forgot to return phone calls. One weekend I hardly dressed, puttering around the house all day in my pajamas. Wearing sunglasses and sloppy gardening clothes, I went to Frontier to buy tortillas incognito, hiding behind my grubbiness, my blissfulness at not having to obey regular rituals of bathing or doing my hair.
This has been the first time in recent history that a break from working didn't involve traveling. It couldn't this time, as both Matt and I had performances over the weekend, but it was still a pleasant shock to realize how much this time felt like a vacation nonetheless. I spent a morning puttering around Old Town looking for something to wear for my performance with the symphony. It had been years--literally--since I had made time to go to Old Town, real life and demanding schedules taking precedence. I had forgotten how charming it is--the old adobe buildings and winding courtyards with their tiny low-ceiling shops. It may be a ten-minute bus ride away, but it feels like a whole new city to explore: even the vegetation is different than my neighborhood: big old cottonwoods cover the square, the ruffled hollyhocks were already blooming--growing up through every crack in the bricks and patios. One Saturday morning, Matt woke me up before six to go hiking. We were on the east side of the mountains by 6:45am and climbed for an hour without seeing a soul. Another night Matt and I went to Betty's Bath and Spa in the North Valley--another part of the city I rarely visit-- to spend an hour in a private hot tub, and then afterwards dine at Los Mananitas, a New Mexican restaurant nearby. On this particular night, the place was empty, the old building crumbling around us, a cat sleeping in a chair nearby as we feasted on posole and fajitas. The place is said to be haunted--I'm buying it, both charmed and spooked by its eeriness. "We could be in Taos," I said to Matt. "It has that old runned-down feel." Later, making our way back to our neighborhood, we were astonished to notice that we were only 15 minutes from home. It felt like another country, which only goes to remind us that we don't have to go far around here to have an adventure.
I need more adventures like that--more small escapes that remind me anew why I might just be in love with this city and this landscape.† The longer I live here, the more I need to infuse my daily routines with newness and novelty if I am going to be able to balance the boredom of familiar routines with the security of deep roots.† As it turns out, the last two weeks proved to be the best vacation ever, juggling a few hours work with a lot of play every day.† It was also the easiest vacation to recover from--because we continued to work throughout, it took less effort to overcome the inertia of laziness to pick up our normal routines again.
Actually there has been nothing normal about the last week.† On Friday, I picked up my mother at the airport.† Friday night I was one of the pianists for the†Saint-SaŽns Carnival of the Animals with the New Mexico Symphony.† The performance was at the zoo,†their final concert of the season.† Some 3,400 people were in the audience, which is stunning considering I have lived in towns smaller than that.† On Sunday afternoon Matt's choir, joined by choirs directed by our friends Brad Ellingboe and Sid Davis, performed the choral work The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins with orchestra.† The work is a Mass for Peace with texts from the traditional Mass interspersed by poetry about war.† It is a powerful piece, and the two performances Sunday were stunning.† But needless to say, all this made for a stressful, highly social weekend (as rehearsals were interspersed with dinner parties and evenings out).† Monday morning I†participated in†a Dalcroze workshop with Dr. Julia Black from Seattle.† Tuesday night I hosted a dinner party for Julia and friends--drinks in the backyard, dinner in the courtyard under the stars.† All week I skipped and pranced ("How are the eighth-notes going in your feet?" Matt loves to ask.), and then rushed home to several hours of teaching.† Last night I saw my last lesson end at nine.† I would hardly recognize normal life if it came and hit me in the face.
As fun as it all has been, I'm ready to get back to my boring little existence.† Even the task of putting laundry out on the line sounds satisfying at the moment, ready as I am to dive into the essence of summering.† There's a watermelon in the fridge and a friend coming over tonight for drinks.† "Champagne and†hors d'oeuvres†in the garden, what could be better?"† another friend wrote after an evening together recently.† She's right.† And we have a whole summer--a whole summer--ahead of us.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com