June 24th, 2012 :: Traveling Days
Matt and I recently spent 10 days eating and drinking, swimming and hiking, and generally meandering our way down the California coast.
It was heaven.
This was one of those planned unplanned trips, where we pick dates and a destination and, upon arrival, simply let the days unfold at will.
This, we have discovered, makes a lot of people nervous.
In fact, one can learn a lot about how other people view the world and what their relationship is with control and structure by studying their reactions to our unplanned vacation.
“You do have places to stay, right? As in hotels, yes?” (No.)
“But you know where you will be, right? You know what you’ll be doing?” (Uh, no.)
And perhaps, my favorite response of all:
“That sounds like my idea of hell.”
This was the plan in a nutshell:
We were flying into Oakland and picking up a car at 10AM that morning. We had lunch reservations at Chez Panisse, and a hotel booked in Sonoma that night.
Ten days later we were flying out of Burbank.
That was the plan.
In lives that are as structured and over-scheduled as ours, to not have to be anywhere or answer to anyone for 10 days is truly a vacation, a real escape from reality. There is nothing more liberating than wondering where you might be the next night for dinner. Particularly when you couldn’t care less. There is nothing that blows open your mental ruts more than an open road and an empty day. There is nothing like the Pacific Coast Highway to encourage both introspective and expansive new thoughts.
The first day we had lunch at Chez Panisse and dinner that night at The Girl and The Fig in Sonoma.
The next day we hiked all over Pt. Reyes National Seashore, the windiest place on the Pacific Coast, much to my dismay--(“Wind disturbs Amy’s spirit,” Matt likes to joke)—and ate oysters for dinner.
We braved the crowds and the tour buses and went to Muir Woods.
We spent four days on Monterrey Peninsula: a morning in Carmel, a day hiking in Big Sur, another morning at the Monterrey Aquarium (Penguins and Otters and CHILDREN: Oh My!), an afternoon at the movies, and many hours weaving through the back roads of Carmel Valley.
We were in San Luis Obispo for 36 hours visiting a friend and eating good food.
We secured a hotel on the Santa Barbara beach, where we rented bicycles and cycled along the coast.
Finally, we made our way down the crowded last part of Highway 1 to LA. It took us two and a half hours to go the last 20 miles.
Over the course of the trip, we saw elephant seals….
And banana slugs…..
Ferns as big as me…..
And little seaside towns…..
And mile after mile….
After mile after mile…..
Of breathtaking ocean views.
We returned to a fire-ridden state, two annoyed cats, and three fish who couldn’t care less. We hit the ground running with work and school, lessons and comp exam studying. There was a garden to attend to and doors to paint. It’s all good, these habitual patterns of our lives, but the grooves are worn deep and the leisure options are few these days.
“How do you feel to be home?” I ask Matt.
He answers, half-smiling, “Wistful.”
June 17th, 2012 :: Practicing Days
Speaking of recitals…..
One of the many challenges to recital preparation is the memory work. Thanks to the precedent set by our over-achieving piano forefathers, pianists are routinely expected to memorize for performances.
My studio is no exception.
While there are many compelling arguments on both sides of the issue of memorization, the fact remains: memorizing music demands us to learn more thoroughly. We are forced to reconcile the discrepancies in what we may or may not really know. We have to understand patterns in the music on a deeper level, which makes for a richer encoding process within the brain. Cognitively speaking, these are good things.
But it requires us to practice differently. And it is to that subject that we turn.
There are a million strategies for memorizing, and many pedagogues have written extensively on the subject. But there has not been enough discussion, in my opinion, about how to test one’s memory work, aside from merely playing through the piece in question. This often is not the most definitive test of memorization, for as cognitive theorists will tell you, “state dependent learning” (hooking our memory to a specific place, situation, emotion, even a particular scent) is a powerful thing. We often can play our music just fine on our own pianos, in our own houses, during our regular practice hour. The question is whether we can do it anywhere else, at any other time. And that’s where good assessment of our memory work is crucial.
Today we are going to look at one test for memory, which as the case may be, provides us with yet another practice strategy for that growing list: ghosting.
When my kids are not answering every question I ask with “rhythms,” they respond to my question: “how should you practice this?” with “ghosting.” This proves only to be helpful about as often as the rhythm answer is; clearly, I still have work to do in teaching students to determine more accurately the best practice strategy needed in any particular case. At least, however, they know two methods of practicing. I must at least be doing some things right.
But back to ghosting.
Ghosting is first introduced in piano lessons when teaching the skill of balance—learning to play one hand louder than the other (which, admittedly is not balance at all, as students like to point out). Ghosting means playing silently on the surface of the keys—“ghosting” the physical gestures but not making a sound. It is great for teaching balance, (or “imbalance” as it should more rightly be called) because it demonstrates very quickly the difference in weight needed to produce two contrasting sounds: One hand is an elephant; the other is a feather, as I often tell students. Or, after the concept is understood, I resort to shorthand: “elephant/feather” I write in their notebooks as a reminder to listen for balance.
But ghosting is also a brilliant device for checking memory. Ghosting subtracts the aural component of the music, but keeps the physical gesture, which messes with our brain. By divorcing the habitual muscle memory from the sound, we circumvent the automatic process, which is good for making us think more concretely about what we are doing. We have to use more conscious cognitive thinking instead of relying on automatized physical gestures. We are forced to internally “hear” what we are ghosting, which also tests our memory. Ghosting can be painfully humbling.
There are three ways to ghost: Both hands can ghost at the same time, or one hand or another can ghost while the other plays normally. The kids will tell you that the one they want to avoid is the RH ghost/LH play version. Because we often are accustomed to listening more closely to the melody, which is most often in the RH or top voice, it is disconcerting to suddenly have that half of the equation gone. Just because that’s how I roll, I can tell you that RH ghost/LH play is the one I most often “test” in lessons, much to the students’ chagrin.
Ghosting may not the answer to every question I ask, but in the weeks before a recital, it’s a pretty safe bet.
June 10th, 2012 :: Ordinary Days
The sunroom is the best place in the world to be these days.
Last summer we had an old-fashioned wooden screen built for the side door leading into the sunroom. We (I should say, I) painted it a deep eggplant purple. We (I should say our handyman) installed a ceiling fan in the sunroom. Suddenly there was air circulation in our old cottage, letting in the cool morning and evening desert air. The cats would sit for hours with their noses pressed to the screen staring out, watching the birds and feeling the breeze on their little faces. It was almost like they were outside. Almost. To quote Bruce Springsteen, The screen door slams, a most lovely sound.
In an old house, there is always a long list of things needing attention. Mostly, with lives that are already too full, our attention is elsewhere; it is amazing what we are willing to live with simply because we are too lazy and distracted to do anything about it. Somewhere on that list has been the item: Get new front doors. That item has sat on the list for 7 years.
But when you’re done, you’re done. One day, I decided that I couldn’t stand those awful useless front doors any longer. They were literally falling apart—an insult to my aesthetic senses and an invitation to anyone who wanted to break in and steal the piano. At the same time, ironically, it took a degree in engineering to open them. Lose-lose, I say.
One of the problems with the whole Getting Things Done idea around here is that it takes us a long time to decide to do anything. The potential new doors took some imagination, for sure: the old doorway had been built to accommodate the former strange-sized doors, which meant we were going to have to have new ones built. The doorframe had to be redesigned and restructured. Then there would have to be some painting of the lovely eggplant purple color. Inevitably, that would be my job. (I suggested to Matt that, in lots of households, the man would be the one doing all the priming, painting, scraping and so on, and the woman would pick out the color and nag. Matt paused and then responded, “Yeah, I think this is better. The job actually gets done. You don’t have to nag. And I don’t have to do it.” Ah, there in a nutshell is the world according to Matt Greer.)
But in spite of the fact that this was not going to be an easy project, I had decided that this was the top priority in a long list of top priorities. And deciding something needs to be done is the first critical step in getting anywhere. I found a wonderful local door company who came out and measured our wacky doorway. I determined that I wanted a tiny set of French doors each with five big windows. I also wanted---and here’s the kicker, which subjected me to many strange stares and looks of “What are you thinking lady?” from the construction guys---I wanted French screen doors as well. Basically, high from the success of the previous summer’s screen door installation and subsequent increase in air circulation, I was greedy: I wanted more air.
For someone who is, by all definitions, an “indoorsy” person, I like to blur the margins between the inside and outside as much as possible. This was a good idea, I kept telling my new friends at Pat’s Doors. We can do this. We should do this.
They were, to put it mildly, skeptical. These were door guys. They wanted a big oak front door, or as an allowance for my 1930’s style house, maybe a nice set of French doors, but with frosted glass. No one, they told me sternly, puts screen doors on the front of the house.
I do. What I lack in formality I make up for in creativity. We have, I told the door guys with equal conviction, a cottage. A cottage. A cottage needs screen doors.
Six weeks later, my good friends at Pat’s Doors call. My doors were done. Would I like to come see them? I would, in fact.
I arrived early one Thursday morning. “I’m here to see my doors,” I said. “Oh!” the woman behind the counter responded, “Are you the one with the cutest doors ever?”
That would be me.
For 10 minutes I was passed from one person to another. The handoff in every case was, “This is the woman for those really cute doors in the back.” I left smiling, validated.
I stopped smiling when, a few days later, I caught sight of the sledgehammers my buddies were using to break down the old doorway. I had no idea this was going to be a construction project. Plaster dust flew everywhere. My cats went into hiding. In retrospect, that was a good idea.
Our sunroom houses not only lovely breezes caught by the ceiling fan, but is home to about 300 books, my desk, chairs for waiting students, rugs, and a dozen orchids and cacti. Within minutes the entire room was covered in grit. Just about then, my housekeeper shows up. We were throwing an end-of-the-year party for Quintessence, and I had arranged for Ellen to come clean. I had not anticipated the construction project. “Uh,” I said to her as she unloaded her cleaning products and brooms, “I guess maybe concentrate on the back of the house?”
And then the plumber arrived. This is the time of year when the swamp cooler must be cleaned out and set up for the season. Last weekend Matt climbed on the roof, took one look (OK, maybe two) and announced that this year he was calling the plumber. Mr. Plumber got on the roof and started banging on something. The Door Guys are joyfully swinging sledgehammers in the sunroom. Ellen is scrubbing the bathroom. This is the worst day of the cats’ lives.
(Two days later, a 60-foot branch off our ancient elm tree breaks off and falls into the garden. “Matt!” I called. “We need some tree guys out here. NOW!” This involved three hours of working to the roar of a chainsaw. It was a week.)
With all the chaos, I almost forgot I had a rehearsal. My good friend and musical partner, Jacque and I were performing Barber’s Hermit Songs at a local venue that week, Sunday Chatter. We had set a rehearsal. As it turned out, we rehearsed in the midst of a circus. (“Do you think it will bother them?” Jacque asked, concerned. “Jacque, we don’t care if it bothers them. Although it may be hard to tell at the moment, this is MY house.”)
Ellen finished the bathroom and kitchen. The sledgehammers were replaced by nail guns (construction versus deconstruction). The plumber continued to bang on the swamp cooler on the roof. Ellen was literally driving down the street when Jacque and I hear a loud Whoosh! and six months of dust, leaves, sticks, seedpods, and grit falls through the vent into the hall. That would be hall in the back of the house. The one area of the house that Ellen just cleaned.
I began to renounce my former greediness and wish I had settled for a nice traditional oak door. Or better yet, had not broken my general inertia around house projects. We could have lived with those old doors a while longer. Forever, in fact.
The plumber, having successfully trashed the back of the house, left. Students began arriving for their lessons. They were thrilled with the excitement and chaos. I taught to the rhythm of a nail gun.
Some 8 hours—8 hours!!—later, the doors are done. They are, in a word, breathtaking. They are everything I dreamed and imagined. They are beautiful.
The next morning, I clean. And clean. And clean some more.
June 3rd, 2012 :: Teaching Days
A conversation heard outside our window:
A couple of guys were rewiring the air-conditioner next door. One says to the other, "Man, that woman sure does play the piano a long time."
The other responds, "She's a professional pianist. Like, she went to school for that."
"You can do that?"
These days that time at school seems a million years ago. I am weeks away from acquiring another useless master’s degree. I spent last semester in a mind-numbing measurement and assessment course, taught by someone who had the unfortunate habit of reversing numbers in his calculations. (“You know that’s how bridges collapse,” one friend said drily. Yes, but we are in the social sciences.) I spent the first month of class wondering why I never came up with same numbers as he did, and the next three months wondering which of the numbers might be reversed in the statistical equations I was struggling to understand. It was a long semester.
I turned in a final paper and the next day began studying for comps. Comprehensive exams in that last graduate degree 20 years ago (“Like, she went to school for that.”) consisted of memorizing long lists of opus numbers and keys. There was one time I knew the opus number of everything Beethoven wrote for the piano. And Chopin. I knew all the K numbers used to catalogue Mozart sonatas and concertos. I could tell you that Beethoven Opus 10 No 3 was in D major. That was a long time ago.
These days I am studying cognition theories and internal and external validity principles. I can tell you in great detail about the modal model of memory and talk to you for hours about Bandura’s social cognitive theory. I have nine hours of written comps and a morning of orals. During June, I have my last class in human development (due to unfortunate timing, I will have to write my human development comp questions the same week I am finishing the course. Not ideal.). The end is in sight.
Recently, a student of mine announced that she was “super excited” about her term paper because she was doing it on Bach and “you, Miss Amy, can be my primary source!” Research methods are not my strong suit, as anyone in the educational psychology program at the University of New Mexico will tell you, however, I am pretty sure I cannot be Corrine’s primary source on Bach.
Nonetheless, I was charmed, if not by her assertion of my primary connection to Bach, but because she was so psyched about doing an English term paper on a composer. For weeks she gave me updates, offered fun facts about what she was learning, asked to borrow books. Finally, one week Corrine declared that the paper was done. “Do you know what was the toughest part?” she asked me. “Tell me,” I responded, sensing somehow that piano practice might have taken a back seat the week the term paper was due.
“The toughest part was trying to explain musical things that I have been doing my whole life. Like ‘shaping’ or crescendo. My English teacher had no idea what I was talking about. He kept making me explain. It’s really hard to figure out how to talk about what we do.” In all my years with Corrine I have never seen her so serious. These days she is a teenager, flakey and distracted as often as she is earnest and intense. And yet, there she was, talking about being a musician (“…things I have been doing my whole life…”) as if it were a central part of how she viewed herself in the world, as if there was nothing more important than trying to make another person understand this very essence of her.
In the end, perhaps that is why I went back to school. I wanted to learn to talk more credibly about what it is that I do. I wanted to understand the theories behind how teaching and learning works. I wanted to be able to say with some conviction and authority what the educational psychology equivalent of crescendo might be. Maybe more than anything, I wanted to be able to explain to another person, “Hey! This is how I see the world.”
You can do that?
I certainly hope so.