June 28th, 2009 :: Reading Days
My stepdaughter and I circle round and round.
You see, I like the music loud, the speakers
throbbing, jam-packing the room with sound whether
Bach or rock and roll, the volume cranked up so
each bass note is like a hand smacking the gut.
But my stepdaughter disagrees. She is four
and likes the music decorous, pitched below
her own voice--that tenuous projection of self.
With music blasting, she feels she disappears,
is lost within the blare, which in fact I like.
But at four what she wants is self-location
and uses her voice as a porpoise uses
its sonar: to find herself in all this space.
If she had a sort of box with a peephole
and looked inside, what she'd like to see would be
herself standing there in her red pants, jacket,
yellow plastic lunch box: a proper subject
for serious study. But me, if I raised
the same box to my eye, I would wish to find
the ocean on one of those days when wind
and thick cloud make the water gray and restless
as if some creature brooded underneath,
a rocky coast with a road along the shore
where someone like me was walking and has gone.
Loud music does this, it wipes out the ego,
leaving turbulent water and winding road,
a landscape stripped of people and language--
how clear the air becomes, how sharp the colors.
June 21st, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
I am not exactly what you would call "cutting edge" when it comes to using technology. My husband and I have a long established pattern: he brings some form of new technology into our house without consulting me; I eye it suspiciously for weeks, before generally allowing it to slowly seep into our lives, mostly without my active participation. Often I am won over; sometimes not. I am afraid I am one of those people that has to remind herself to check her cell phone and see if anyone has called, sometimes realizing after several days that I am not even sure where my cell phone might be. This drives all my friends crazy. "The world might fall in and we wouldn't be able to get a hold of you," says one friend disgustedly. And it's true. Case in point: I went a good 10 days before I caught a reference to the recent airplane crash. This isn't terribly surprising, given that I see only the Sunday edition of The New York Times and never watch television. I'm no better at answering the home phone, considering the answering machine to be my personal butler who screens my calls. In fact, I don't even blink when it rings, causing guests sometimes to exclaim in alarm, "Amy, your phone is ringing!"
But I remain skeptical of all those gadgets that allow us to communicate with one another immediately. I think that they are fooling us into thinking we are more important than we actually are. I can't think of a single time someone really needed to contact me at a moment's notice, although we invent at least 25 of these circumstances every day. "What if you need to get in touch with your students at the last minute?" one friend asked me, trying to make an argument why my life would be better if I would just join Facebook. "Kids are always on Facebook, you could get a hold of them quickly that way."
I can't even begin to describe the problems I see in that theory. First of all, chances are that if I have a last minute "emergency" in my teaching life, then I haven't been doing my job well in their lessons. If I did my job, I shouldn't have to check in a dozen times during the week. I'm supposed to teach students not to need me, not to become completely dependent. What happened to that old proverb of teaching a man to fish?
Secondly, I don't want them to think even for one minute that I am available to them 24/7. I teach piano, for goodness sake; I am not a brain surgeon. I question seriously whether there are ever piano "emergencies." Given that I work from home, I have too few boundaries as it is. I can't have needy students on top of it all. My life (and my home) is already consumed with my teaching. If I give them much more of myself, my students might as well move in.
Finally, if there ever was a last minute thing I needed to communicate to a student, I can't imagine that the most efficient method to do so still isn't picking up the telephone. ("I'm surprised you don't advocate pony express," my friend said sarcastically.)
It may be important at this point to make a distinction between doing something worthwhile in the world, and doing something that involves real life emergencies. I absolutely believe that the arts mend people's lives and souls in real and tangible ways. I also believe strongly that there are very few "GET AMY!" moments in my work. The gift of music is that there are no emergencies; no one dies; no one is bleeding from the head. Sometimes we lose sight of this.
I think there is a great temptation with all of these communication devices to think that because we can be reached at a moment's notice, we therefore are important enough to need to be reached at a moment's notice. We have a default mode of having these gadgets at our side all the time. Although perhaps it is a radical idea, I would like to suggest that because I am important, I deserve to have a life that isn't attached at all times to a cell phone, a laptop, or a BlackBerry. And not only that, maybe the people I am with at any given time deserve the same attention from me. My students, friends, and family should be valued enough to have my non-electronic presence when we are together.
But the truth is these lines are getting harder and harder to draw. We hardly think it is rude anymore when someone takes a call or sends a text message in our presence. On the other hand, we are quite put out when people don't respond to our email or text messages within minutes. When did the rules change?
I have no doubt that from time to time Matt will sneak in new technology into my life, and I will huff and puff, and then resign myself to whatever magic it will bring me. But I'm trying not to lose sight of good old courtesies and rules of relationships that demand, quite simply, that the person I am with deserves my complete attention. I want dinners without the interruption of taking phone calls or reading text messages. I need evenings spent with a book and a glass of wine, not slaving over returning e-mail. I guard carefully those days every week when I don't check my phone or e-mail, giving the constant chatter that otherwise makes up my life time to quiet. I am not giving up my vacations to check voice mail. I refuse to hand over the keys to my autonomy to the gods of modern instant communication.
So I will probably miss a great deal. I will miss out on friends I could rediscover on Facebook. No doubt I will be last to learn of anything important. The world will have to miss out on hourly Twitter reports of what I am doing each minute of every day. It is bad enough that I write a blog.
We have covered the yellow walls of our sun-room with framed New Yorker covers. This collection began years ago when I, tired of storing ten years of magazines, told Matt they had to go. He whined, "But I love some of these covers." "Fine," I said, "we'll hang them up. But the magazines have to go." What started as twelve beloved covers now has become nearly 50. We can track not only the price increases over the years, we can also trace significant moments in history captured in cover art. There is the one after Princess Diana died, depicting a Buckingham Palace guard with a tear running down his face; or the many 9/11 anniversary covers, haunting with their drawings of New York without the World Trade Center; or the issue after Hurricane Katrina, where a lone saxophonist stands above a river of water. We already have a series of Obama covers gracing our walls, and more covers by the wonderful French artist Sempé than we can count. Matt has a favorite that he says reminds him of me. It is a beach scene with a crowd of people, each engaged in some form of technology. Several men are striding down the sand, talking into cell phones; nearby a woman is working on her laptop. In the middle of the illustration stands a little girl holding a sea shell up to her ear, listening intently. "That's my girl," Matt says.
It's true. Half the time I don't even know where my cell phone is. The world may be coming down around me, but I'll be the one holding a sea shell.
June 13th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
It occurs to me, not for the first time, that there are way too many numbers in this business.
I mean really, there are fingering numbers, counting numbers, and scale degree numbers, just to name a few. No wonder this whole business of learning to play the piano is bewildering to a 6 year-old student.
There are no substitution for learning fingering numbers, but almost every other use of numbers can be avoided at the beginning.
This is easier than it sounds, actually. Rhythm can almost completely be taught without the traditional number counting, using, instead, the wide-spread "Ta" for quarter notes, "ti-ti" for eighth-notes, chanting "half-note" for (duh) half-notes, and "hold-for-three" and "hold-for-four-beats" for dotted halves and whole notes. Or one can use the colorful rhythms of our own English language, substituting "ice cream" for eighth notes, "watermelon" for sixteenths and so on.
As far as scale degrees go, when teaching things like 5-Finger Positions and merrily composing new patterns every week, using solfege instead of numbered scale degrees is the easiest way to go. I'd love to claim that it was part of my calculated avoidance of too many numbers that led me to this system, but I can't take credit for such genius. Instead, I can blame a crazy parent.
This one came into my life years ago when I was teaching in Boston. Dominique was French, and knew nothing about music except that it should involve an active use of "Do-Re-Mi". After the first several lessons with her young daughters, she came to me and accused me of not teaching correctly because her girls were learning note names like "A-B-C" instead of "Do-Re-Mi." I was completely puzzled until I realized that she knew just enough to be dangerous, and that she was referencing her very limited knowledge of the French method of using solfege to name notes. "OK," I thought to myself, "I can fool her. I will simply start writing out her daughters' 5-Finger assignments in solfege and she will be satisfied." That's what I did, and Dominique was perfectly happy from that point on. But my little trick taught me something too, because I quickly discovered that solfege was a much easier way to write out 5-Finger patterns than my previous use of scale degrees. Furthermore, it was easier to sing the patterns and even to transpose them. Kids never questioned the solfege language, and later it worked equally well when learning whole scales. I should write and thank Dominique; although at the time I considered her to be quite the pain in la derriere, she unwittingly helped me discover a whole better way of teaching.
Here are a few new patterns to try. These test a student's knowledge of the positions "upside down," which can be harder than it seems like it should be; they force students to learn the pattern of notes backwards, and starting somewhere other than "Do." I have discovered through much trial and error that number 38 is a good first step into the real live "upside down" patterns.
38. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do--forte and legato
Sol Fa Mi Re Do--piano and staccato
39. Reverse dynamics and articulations and play above pattern
40. Upside down:
Sol Fa Mi Re Do Re Mi Fa Sol--Do
(Use various dynamics and articulations)
41. Repeat numbers 38-40 using minor positions
June 7th, 2009 :: Extraordinary Days
"I don't want a mistress. I don't want a sports car. All I want for my 40th birthday is a road trip by myself. And I want you at the end of it."
This was the announcement my husband gives me last summer, some months before his birthday. I have come to learn that I didn't respond to this wish exactly as Matt might have hoped. "Hmm..." I answered nonchalantly, and desperately changed the subject.
I hope it never is said that we don't support one another's hopes and dreams, and that we are each other's best advocate against the world, but I missed this one. Looking back, I think I hoped this plan would go the way of all good things. Or, at least, the way of most plans made after sharing a bottle of wine in the courtyard on a beautiful summer night.
Ah, the ways we fail each other. Matt was deadly serious about every part of that statement. He didn't want a mistress; he didn't want a sports car; he wanted a road trip and he wanted me at the end of it. "Boston, maybe," he said. "Or New York. I want to walk into a hotel bar and find you there."
And so over the last six months, Matt began making plans. He was granted a month's sabbatical at work. Road maps and travel books began littering the study. He booked a week long retreat at the Abbey of the Gethsemani in Kentucky. He reserved a rental car. Instead of me being at the end of the trip in a city we both love, I'd be at the beginning, for the trip would start in New York with my sister, Beth's, wedding. From there we'd take a bus to DC and visit Matt's sister, Mary. I'd fly home, Matt would pick up a car and start his adventure, which, by the end, even had a name: The Journey of Discovery.
I didn't like the name at all. ("What do you need to discover?! I feel threatened.") I also didn't love the idea that I'd be flying home to an empty house, to be alone for two weeks. It's not that I don't like to be alone -- after nearly 15 years of marriage, solitude can be a welcome change of pace -- I just wasn't at all sure I wanted or needed two weeks of it. After all, too much time left alone to my own thoughts is simply too much time. And, the way my teaching schedule fell, I was going to be not working for much of the time, leaving me plenty of time to fully experience the solitude. "Why can't you do this when I am working around the clock and won't notice you're gone? Or, even better, why don't you do your discovering on day trips, with Albuquerque as your home base?"
But in the end, Matt got his road trip, which he renamed A Journey of Non-Discovery with a Happy Reunion at the End. He is somewhere in Tennessee as I write this, perhaps taking in the sights at Graceland. Meanwhile, my friend Lora, usually a reliable source of both company and entertainment, is on her own journey: a six-day backpacking trip in Yosemite. She spontaneously signed up for this trip after a bad breakup last winter, and has regretted it ever since. On our hikes together, I am always the one saddled with the coffee and croissants and jam, with the flora and fauna guides, not to mention the water. (Just call me "Sherpa.") The fact that Lora would have to carry some 40 pounds on her back during multi-day hike made her panic. She began training by carrying hand weights in a backpack on our early morning strolls through the neighborhood. I fully anticipated her to cancel and consider the $500 non-refundable deposit a generous donation to the Sierra Club, but Thursday morning, with my husband lost somewhere in the deep south, I drove Lora to the airport so she could fly to California. On the way she announced, "You know, this is the first time I have left the house without make-up since I was 16." "Hmm," I responded. "I can't remember the last time I wore make-up." "I know. And it's just wrong." Lora said. "God invented make-up, and we should wear it."
The night before, when we were searching for supper in my refrigerator, she said, "I need a name for my trip. Matt has a name for his trip." "How about The Trek of Stupidity?" I responded. "I was thinking The Hike of Doom," She shot back. "The Trek of Stupidity. The Hike of Doom. For an adventure of your magnitude surely you need a double name," I suggested.
As it happened, I have ended up with a few discoveries of my own, most of which seem to be things I have learned before, but have failed to retain. The first is that, while I may not be teaching, I will always be busy. This never ceases to surprise me, that I manage to overfill even my vacation time. This time around I have been gardening for hours a day, reading at least eight books, practicing for a couple of upcoming recitals. I have had dinners with friends, taken extra yoga classes, done some much-needed planning. It hasn't been hard to roll out of bed at first light with the cats, and to hardly feel like I have had time to catch my breath for the next 14 hours. None of this should be a surprise. It certainly isn't to Matt, hearing about my days on our nightly phone calls. But for some mysterious reason, I always think time off will literally be "free time." It isn't; it's just filled differently.
The second great lesson gets its own title. For some time now I have been interested in exploring meditation, perhaps in a Buddhist setting or community. I have tried meditating from time to time on my own, but have never been able to settle down with it at home. Quite simply, I am too distracted by the many competing forces on my time and attention within the walls of my own house. Maybe, I thought, if I found a committed meditation "sit" I would do better. So, last night I accompanied my friend Patti to the neighborhood community for a 40-minute "sit." "We can go later if you think that might be too long," she had offered earlier in the week. "No," I answered. "I want to try the whole thing." Later I regretted this almost as much as Lora regretted her impulsive decision to spend six nights in a tent. In fact, in the days before, I seriously panicked. "Well," said my friend Anne, "you better hope you are meditating for that length of time, because if you aren't you might just be going crazy." I needed a title for my meditation evening, I thought. Something that would appropriately express both my hopes and my fears. The Journey Within, With the Possibility of Crawling Out of My Own Skin seemed about right.
Miraculously, I was fine. Good, even. Now, I was plenty pleased when the 40 minutes were over, but I was not crawling out of my skin. I wasn't even itching. This proved what I had suspected, that this would be both a highly spiritual and grounding practice for me to do, and that my big lesson is to figure out how to manage it at least some of the time in my own living room, even with a thousand of pulls on my attention. I get that this might be the point, that I need to learn to center myself especially when the forces of life yank at me from many directions.
There seems to be one other lesson this month. This one isn't really a surprise either, although it's not a bad one to be reminded of every once in a while: I miss my husband. While the house is more orderly without Matt spreading out his stuff from one end to the other, it isn't home without him. My life might be less messy without him around, but it much less colorful. He makes me laugh. Without him, I lose sight of the ground. Busy as I might be in my own work and thoughts, there is some point every day when Matt makes me stop working. Without him I forget to eat, and lose track of the time. I didn't need to learn that I need the rock that Matt is in my life; I've known that for the last 17 years. He may be lost in Tennessee somewhere, but I'm lost at home without him.
It's the Happy Reunion I'm yearning for these days. I'll be at the end, my darling, waiting.
June 1st, 2009 :: Reading Days
...To write of Katharine simply as a gardener would be like writing of Ben Franklin simply as a printer. Gardening was indeed a part of her, but it was never her major interest, consuming all her thoughts and all her talents. She simply accepted the act of gardening as the natural thing to be occupied with in one's spare time, no matter where one was or how deeply involved in other affairs....
...Katharine never belonged to a garden club. I don't think she would have fitted in very well. In fact, had she joined, there is a good chance she would have been expelled for insubordination: she refused to pay any attention to the National Council with its dicta governing the acceptable arrangement of flowers in a container. Her garden was her clubhouse, where there were bugs but no rules...
...When Miss Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English woman who opened up a whole new vista of gardening for Victorian England, prepared herself to work in her gardens, she pulled on a pair of Army boots and tied on an apron fitted with great pockets for her tools. Unlike Miss Jekyll, my wife had no garden clothes and never dressed for gardening. When she paid a call on her perennial borders or her cutting bed or her rose garden, she was not dressed for the part--she was simply a spur-of-the-moment escapee from the house and, in her early years, from the job of editing manuscripts. Her Army boots were likely to be Ferragamo shoes, and she wore no apron. I seldom saw her prepare for gardening, she merely wandered out into the cold and the wet, into the sun and the warmth, wearing whatever she had put on that morning. Once she was drawn into the fray, once involved in transplanting or weeding or thinning or pulling deadheads, she forgot all else; her clothes had to take things as they came. I, who was the animal husbandryman on the place, in blue jeans and and old shirt, used to marvel at how unhesitatingly she would kneel in the dirt and begin grubbing about, garbed in a spotless cotton dress or a handsome tweed skirt and jacket. She simply refused to dress down to a garden; she moved in elegantly and walked among her flowers as she walked among her friends--nicely dressed, perfectly poised. If when she arrived back indoors the Ferragamos were encased in muck, she kicked them off. If the tweed suit was a mess, she sent it to the cleaner's.
The only moment in the year when she actually got herself up for gardening was on the day in fall that she had selected, in advanced, for the laying out of the spring bulb garden--a crucial operation, carefully charted and full of witchcraft...As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion--the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.
-taken from the Introduction by E. B. White to Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine S. White
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com