July 31st, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Eddie is a high school student and
quite a talented pianist. In the last year, he has evolved
from someone who practiced because a parent made him, to someone who
has decided he IS a pianist. It's a lovely shift indeed,
making my job all the easier. He is also a great tennis
player, and this summer he has been teaching tennis lessons to
young children. He tells me about these lessons, comparing
piano with tennis. Apparently, he has been incorporating piano ideas to these youngsters, telling them "You
may not like to practice, but you should stick with it!"
making me beam with pride that this good-looking kid has
adopted this view of the world and his music lessons already.
Just like my
teaching teaches me at least as much as it does any
of my students, I can see this happening with Eddie. He is
suddenly more interested in what I say, how I talk about practicing,
what the process of learning a new piece might be. "You
know, the little kids I teach love me," he told me the
other day, "but the 12 year-olds hate me because I make them
work hard." "Yeah," I agreed, "I have the
same problem with 12 year-olds. It's not about you; it's just
being 12," I reassured him.
Last week we were discussing his
Beethoven sonata before he began to play. "Should I play
it room temperature or performance tempo?" Eddie asked me, not
catching his slip of the tongue.
But I got it. I know exactly
what he means by "room temperature" playing. Room
temperature is the slower break-down practicing that we do. It is
the place where I have long coached him to spend most of his
practice time, instead of always racing through at top performance
tempo. "You will need to practice performing this piece at some
point, but not too much," I tell him frequently, "because
you know things unravel with too much performance tempo playing."
Room temperature. Performing
frequently this summer has meant a careful balance of room
temperature playing and performance tempos, the yin and yang of my
musical life. Every day I catch myself saying something really
smart to a student that I need to listen to, something that I would
do well to apply to my own work. Every day teaching teaches
me, if only I would take heed. Too many days, I practice the same way, falling into familiar and dangerous ruts of my own work
and habits. I could use more time with room temperature
playing, and less run-through performances. More breaking
apart, and less putting together until absolutely necessarily. I
know this. But saying some version of this to a student
reminds me once again. It's humbling to imagine that there is
still a gap between what I know and what I actually do, but there it
is. My students mirror my own frantic patterns all too well.
As I write this, I am quickly
approaching the end of my summer semester. I have a blessed
few weeks off before diving into the fall semester, the return of
monthly performance classes, the many recitals and competitions that
litter the next season. It's hard to believe that the summer
months of teaching are nearly behind me and that I might need to
start gearing up to the next round of learning. I have plenty of
homework over this break: music to read through, newsletters and
studio info to get out, a teaching schedule to put together and
finalize for what seems to be the 500th time. (If one more
parent calls me with the leading sentence, "Oh Amy! We
just found out about David's chess club practices and now can't do
Thursdays at 4pm." I will scream. The fact that I inexplicably got a perfect score on the logic potion of the GRE means that I should be able to easily handle all these
variables. True, I can. I just don't want to.)
It is also the time of the summer
when I hit my own seasonal wall. I have read that we
are best suited to the season that we are born in, but that couldn't
be less true for me. I may have an August birthday, but every
year about now I grow weary of the summer heat. I fight the cabin fever of too many weeks of staying inside
avoiding the sun. I get restless and depressed and
moody. I seem to be better suited to the season in which I was
conceived--that delicious fall season between Halloween and
Thanksgiving. It's then that my spirits really rise and soar,
sending positive endorphins throughout my body. These days
it's all I can do to keep from spinning off the planet and to continue acting normal and rational. Years and years of
this cycle makes me know it well: I can sense it coming; I
even know strategies for fighting the declining sprial. It
helps to keep my routines of work and play in place. Too much
time off right now is almost dangerous. It is good to get out
early enough on a daily basis to walk or ride my bike, or to garden
in the evenings so that I have some connection to the outdoors in
these hot months. But above all, it helps to just "observe,"
as my yoga teacher would say. To think, "oh yeah, that's
what's going on. I'm not losing my mind. I just have had
enough of summer."
It's strange to imagine that every
year I start the summer season full of hope at all its
possibilities, that summer this year could be full of lemonade and
long afternoons in a hammock on the porch. I don't have a
porch or a hammock, and when I get too hot I get a migraine.
Instead I have a courtyard full of baking in the sun. Summer
is not my best season.
Yet here I am almost mourning the
end of it. "There hasn't been any gelato all summer,"
I said to Matt. "That is a crime, considering our three-block proximity to gelato," he replied. The reality that next
week I will start my last break before the fall semester startles
me, even the first yellow leaves turning on the tree across the
street seems a bit bittersweet at the moment. Yet, as
conflicted as this seems I am ready for the room temperature of my
life to shift again--settling into a cooler cozier place of
sweaters, mugs of hot tea, our annual October weekend in Taos.
But all this push and pull of
emotions, the yin and yang of my struggles with time have me
thinking: I may need more practicing at room temperature, but
I need more living at performance tempos--the act of diving into
every potential blissful summer day we have left and squeezing every
last lemon needed for that elusive lemonade. "Should I
play it at room temperature or performance tempo?" Eddie asked
me. Let's try some performance tempos for a change, I tell myself, as
find I peace with yet another hot afternoon.
July 27th, 2008 :: Extraordinary Days
One Saturday morning last month at the bright hour of 5:30am, my friends, Anne and Lora, and I gathered in my sunroom to mark the beginning of the first ever Ladies Hike. Living near the mountains and genuine wilderness areas has whetted my appetite for hiking, something I had previously abandoned after a childhood spent dragging baloney sandwiches and tepid water up Colorado mountains with my family. Matt and I win no records for our hiking attempts, but we manage to get out to the Sandias every few months for an hour or two. We are pretty pathetic though, as can be seen in our inability to actually stay on a trail. We don't intend to rough it, we just find ourselves wandering through the brush and running into cacti, having lost the path completely. I thought it would be good to go hiking with someone who knows the trails and the mountains, and could therefore introduce me to places I would never manage to locate on my own. I had been talking about getting a group of women together to go hiking, and one evening at a dinner party mentioned it to our friend Kent, who is a serious hiker. "Would you consider taking a group of ladies on a hike sometime?" I asked him. "Sure," he replied and so plans began and a date was set.
I was certain I could collect a fun group of women, but when the day was finally decided and the start time of 6am determined, I was amazed at how many formally enthusiastic ladies were suddenly "very busy" at 6am. (And 6am was a compromise. Kent thinks all summer hikes should begin at dawn, avoiding heat and sun issues.) So in the end, it was only three decidedly girly women who embarked upon the Ladies Hike. Anne's first words that morning were, "Is the coffee on?" which I think says much about our lack of familiarity with that time of day. I was barely managing to get my shoes on; nothing as complicated as making coffee was happening. So caffeine-deprived and blurry-eyed, we drove to the trailhead to meet our fearless leader. Our first indication that this was not going to be quite the "stroll through nature" that we had imagined (picture ladies carrying parasols) was Kent getting out of his off-road vehicle a pair of what can only be described as serious hiking poles with grip-like things. Eyeing these suspiciously, I asked for clarification, "You said, 30 minutes in and 30 minutes out, right?" reminding him of our conversation earlier that week. After all, Anne was concerned about having enough time for pancakes, and Lora thought that if the hike time equalled the breakfast time to follow we were on the right track.
"Well," Kent admitted, "30 minutes would be really pushing it, but we should be able to get up there in 50 minutes." Keep that in mind, he said 50 MINUTES.
From there he took off on what can only be called a sprint through the foothills, the three of us panting to keep up with him. At one point, he turns around and graciously says, "Amy, why don't you lead so you can set the pace?" At which time he must have thought we had slowed down to a crawl, but Lora and Anne later assured me that I was still moving plenty fast enough.
After about 45 minutes of this sprint, we reached the first of the many rock-climbing passages in the canyon:
....which looks more innocent than it really was. In truth, it constituted 4th and 5th class moves. (See "Terminology" footnote for definitions of all technical hiking-related terms.) Lora began swearing in her charming colorful vocabulary, all of us abandoned any hope of pancakes in the next century. If we made it out alive we'd be doing good, we thought, as we started making bargains with the devil.
At this point, we have been hiking for 50 minutes. (See above: "50 minutes should do it.")
For the next two hours, the madness continued as three girly women tried to "scramble," "chimney," and "parallel bar" over rocks and up cliffs in an attempt to keep up with Kent. By this time I am convinced, this man is not a human being after all, but a mountain goat. "At what point this week," I said to him huffing and puffing, "did you think that this would be the ideal 'ladies' hike?" He smiled, motivated by the thought that he would never have to drag women up a mountain again.
Where were we headed anyway? To this point.....
Which looks like nothing, but constituted a 1300 foot gain in 1.75 miles, which is roughly one foot in elevation for every 2 feet forward. In other words, nothing to be scoffed at.
Kent called this the "Forbidden City" hike, which impressed me, until I realized that he made up the name. In fact, he made up the whole damn hike. Nowhere in one of those lovely guides to hiking in the Sandias were you going to find this hike. Nor would you be able to replicate it on your own. For although I had visions of learning new beautiful trails via Kent and his years of expertise, it has, in fact, been years since he actually has done a real trail as would be published in a Sandia Hiking Guide.
Two+ hours later, we made it to the top. During the last scramble across the rocks, Lora dropped her prescription sunglasses, leading her to express herself in more colorful language, and Kent, our intrepid leader, to chimney down in the crevices to rescue them. We three ladies were sunning ourselves on the pinnacle, taking in the view:
....when Lora turned around, now wearing the prescription sunglasses that Kent has retrieved, and said, "There's a snake."
Immediately behind us, not 6 inches away from Anne's butt, was a rattlesnake. (From this point forward referred to as a "rattler.")
At this point, I would love to show you a picture of the rattler, but I didn't stop long enough to take one. You'll have to do with the "I survived a rattler" (not to mention Kent's "Ladies Hike") photo:
From this moment on, having braved hanging out on a rock in the sun with a rattler, nothing could faze us. We happily traversed down the mountain chatting merrily of kitchen renovations and what food might be eaten in such a kitchen, and what food had been eaten in other kitchens in the last month, as well as what was planned to be eaten at breakfast that day and in the next month, all to Kent's amusement. We made no record speed, mind you, but considering the climb up, this "walk back" to the car flew by, allowing us to get back to the parking lot in a record slow finish time of 3 and a half hours. Yes, that would be 3 and a half hours. (See "30 minutes in, 30 minutes out").
So with the first ever ladies hike behind us, we are ready to plan the next one (sans rattlers). Who's in?
Later, over pancakes and scramblers (not to be confused with rattlers), we agreed that it had been an amazing morning (how quickly you forget the pain. Is this like childbirth?). Even though Anne and Lora admitted, "Amy, we thought we were going to die," given enough recovery time, we just might do it again. After all, being the opposite of Outward Bound types, none of us had ever had an experience like this before.
The next day talking over the hike with Kent's wife Jacque, she sympathized, "Amy, I thought you knew what you were getting into." Uh, no. (See the "30 minutes in, 30 minutes out" or "50 minutes should do it" quotes as to my state of mind and mental--not to mention physical--preparation.)
I spent the rest of the day on the couch. Jacque said Kent was worn out too. Apparently he reported to her that it was tough to go at that "slow pace." Whatever. "Amy, we thought we were going to die," is a better, more accurate description of this experience.
*For those brave enough to join the next Ladies Hike, here's some technical hiking terminology you should know:
PUTTING UP A ROUTE: This means that you are not actually following an actual trail from the Sandia Hiking Guide. Instead, you are forging your own path through the wilderness. (Think "Road Less Traveled"). While Kent acted like he knew where he was going, in all likelihood we were actually "putting up a route."
WATER-POLISHED ROCKS: rocks so smooth that we will certainly slide right off of them onto our butts.
SCRAMBLING, CHIMNEYING, PARALLEL BARRING: These terms pertain to the actual climbing of rock cliffs. Lora, in particular, was quite gifted at chimneying, which involves going up on your butt. Several times, Kent recommended that Anne "parallel bar" between two big rocks, which given her long legs was the best option. My technique involved a lot of falling back on yoga-trained flexibility and putting myself in the zen place of "maybe if I imagine I am not doing this, it will go away."
3RD, 4TH, AND 5TH CLASS MOVES: Also, rock climbing terms, 5th class being the most difficult moves. Make no mistake about it, we did 5th class moves.
TRAVERSE: This is what you do to come back down the mountain post rattler.
FORBIDDEN CITY, TOILET BOWL CANYON, HAPPY FACE CANYON, LITTLE MAN TRAIL: These are all made-up names and routes forged by Kent and his buddies. None of these constitute a "ladies" hike.
PINNACLE: highest point in the rock climb, where rattlers hide out.
(A million thanks to Kent for braving the first ever ladies hike and for putting up with our tortoise-like pace, not to mention Lora's language. And for finding Lora's sunglasses, which contributed to Lora sighting the rattler. We're ready to take on your hikes again. Next time we'll make t-shirts to mark the achievement.)
July 21st, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
I was talking to a friend who is also a piano teacher. We were
talking about the need to have students spell five-finger positions,
scales and chords, and how amazing it is that this is often an
unexpected challenge. "Of course," I said at one
point, "in the very beginning I wouldn't have them spell
anything, because they don't really know the correct spelling for
many positions since they only know flat names, no sharps."
Anne was shocked, "What do you mean they don't know sharps? What
about D major position?"
OK. I must confess
that in the beginning weeks of piano lessons I only teach the white
note names and even then use my made-up piano town:
a piano town. There are big houses with three windows and dog
houses. The big houses have
a front door and a back door. Who do you think
lives in the dog house?
You got it. But this is a very strange town
because the dog house
is guarded by a cat and
giggling at this point.
And guess who lives in the big
house? Miss Amy
who always comes in the back door, and her cat
always sits in the front window.
is silly, yes, but it works. The kids know each note
specifically, instead of counting up from middle C. (If I could
have a dollar for every time I have seen a transfer student in their
second or third level method book, who, when asked what a specific
note is on the piano counts up from middle C, I could stop
But there is no room in the piano town brain of a
beginning student for sharps and flats, so I don't confuse the
issue. When a student learns D major position, it is just "D
position with a black note in the middle." The black note
doesn't have a name, and little kids are fine with that. (Of
course, older students can handle all the naming immediately, as can
a student of any age curious enough to ask, "So what do you call
the black notes?" But if they don't ask, I don't tell.)
When it is time to learn the black positions, we call them flats:
D-flat, A-flat, etc. and don't bother with sharps just yet.
After all, there is so much to learn in the first few months that I
feel successful if students are nailing other more basic info:
right and left hands, finger numbers, white key names, quarter and
half-notes, treble and bass clefs.
So the dark secret is out.
In spite of my work in teaching students to spell positions (and then
later scales and chords), we don't do this in the beginning.
Besides, students will be happy to make up their own names. Just
last week when I asked Luke to play his assigned pattern in B-flat,
he looks at me and says, "B-flat is the devil position."
I laughed. I don't love B-flat either.
or not, here are a few more early patterns to explore:
I like mixing and
matching legato and staccato articulations throughout
all of these patterns to shake things up a bit. Various
rhythms work here (or no rhythms at all--I know some of you cringe
at that, but sometimes our practicing can be without rhythm and be
very effective at securing technical problems. Sometimes
B-flat position needs some work negotiating the black and white
geography of notes before we add the challenge of a jaunty
rhythm to the equation. Just as Luke.). I have suggested
a rhythm for number 21 that I like--think of all the syllables as
being eighth notes, with the rests being the fourth eighth of each
grouping. This does create an asymetrical meter, but that's
OK, and gives it a nice kick.
July 12th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
To know my husband is to know that he
has, shall we say, hair issues. These aren't the normal hair-loss issues of a man rapidly approaching middle age. No, Matt's
problem is that he has a lot of wild, unruly hair, and absolutely no
hair management skills. His hair tools consist of a comb, which dates back to the 1980's. One wonders if it wasn't once lodged in the back pocket of a pair of skin-tight Jordache jeans, which isn't a particularly sexy image in 2008. The other product is a tube of dollar hair gel, which I bought him out of desperation. "This costs a dollar. Couldn't you do better?" Matt questioned me. "Don't I deserve the expensive stuff if I am going to start using product?" Not in my opinion. He needed to first prove his dedication to product before I was spending any real money on hair gel. Admittedly, it doesn't help that he is married to a
woman for whom hair doesn't rank very high in importance. I
have relatively thick, wavy hair that has still managed to stay
mostly blond. I wash it, blow-dry it, and
throw it up in a curlers for a few minutes every morning.
Otherwise I ignore it. I don't want to be bothered with Matt's
But other people are, and in huge numbers.
His kids in the youth choir comment about it. His older female
volunteers nag him about it. He was even once stopped on the
street and asked to be a hair model for a salon. His hair is a
running joke at church and among all his friends. Recently, he
went golfing with a couple of high school kids from church.
"Will you bring clubs for me?" he asked Katie, having
never been golfing before. "I'll bring the clubs.
You bring your hair," she responded.
The issue is that he
doesn't get regular haircuts, letting it grow out to the point of
becoming unwieldy. He talks a great deal about getting a
haircut, but then many, many weeks go by before he can bring himself
to actually make an appointment. For a while he had a regular hairdresser whom he liked, who cut hair in a
trendy neighborhood salon that served wine and beer. He was
more inspired to get a haircut then, but then Rachel moved to Taos.
After that he would wait until there was practically op-ed pieces in
the newspaper about his hair, and then would frantically drive around
until he found an open barbershop. His opening line was, "I'm
here for a haircut. It has been a long time since my last
haircut," which echos of his earlier Catholic days in the confessional.
Needless to say, the haircuts were never good, looking much like he
was about ready to ship out to boot camp. This scene happened
one year at Easter, Matt becoming completely disheveled and in
desperate need of a haircut, but then unable to find somewhere to get
his hair cut on Good Friday. This led our friend Regina into
calling the late stages of Matt's hair growth his "Easter
hair." Just recently, Matt had a big performance, no time
for a haircut, and had to once again go on stage with "Easter
hair." Lora commented afterwards, "Yeah, yeah, yeah,
the music was amazing, but let's talk about Matt's hair. Your
husband has a great head of hair."
Sure, if you like the look of Kramer on Seinfeld. At some point
recently I finally accepted the hair responsibilities in the
relationship and sent Matt to Leonardo, my hair guy, with a note.
The note read,
This is my husband, who desperately needs a
haircut. He has great hair, but is unable to talk coherently to
hair stylists. Hence the note. We like it long on top (I
am a fan of his curls), but shorter and neater on sides and back.
He does have the unfortunate habit of running his fingers through it
during rehearsals, which does nothing to contribute to the style, but
does add to the mad artist look he's got going. Help!
Leonardo has been doing a great job, and consults me seriously as to
my opinions about Matt's most recent haircut every time I see him.
Matt still doesn't get regular enough haircuts though, which forced
me to instruct him last time to "take your calendar and do
not leave without making another appointment in three weeks."
I almost called Leonardo with the same instructions, but refrained,
not wanting to win the award for the most controlling wife in New
Mexico. Last week Matt left on a youth choir trip to San
Antonio (he says his mission in life is to introduce these desert
kids to humidity, taking them first to Washington DC, then two years
ago to New Orleans, and this year to Texas.). The first stop on the trip was a
church in Granbury, Texas, where Matt served as
the music director years ago. The congregation was thrilled to
see him and enjoyed the kids' production of Godspell.
One former member of his choir was especially enthusiastic.
Bill, a successful businessman, was always very generous to us, and as he left the show he
handed Matt an envelope that Matt assumed was a donation to the
choir. Later he opened it. It was a personal check made
out to Matt for a hundred dollars. The memo line read: "Haircut."
July 4th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
Last week I went to
get a pedicure. It was the middle of a work day, and very quiet
in the shop. There was a young girl of maybe ten or eleven years hanging
out in one of the chairs with the foot baths, who clearly belonged to
one of the people who worked there. A woman gestured me into a
chair next to the girl and began filling the tub with water. I
put down my bags and climbed up. Just as I was getting settled
in to read a magazine, the girl turned to me and said, "What's
"Amy." I responded. "What's
"Where do you work?"
work at home."
Without missing a beat: "You
teach from home?"
I'm impressed that she might guess
"That's cool. You
mean, you teach math and science at your house?"
"Oh." Long pause. "Piano
is hard, isn't it?"
I nodded. "It can
"I'd like to play the piano."
long pause. I am about to return to my magazine when....
you have any kids?"
about dogs or cats or fish?"
"I have two
"Oh, what are their names?"
"What do they look like?"
is black and white...."
"Like an oreo,"
Jennifer inserted. "You could have named her
"True," I agreed.
does the other one look like?"
"She's chocolate-colored. You know, like Godiva chocolates."
It is clear
she has no idea what Godiva chocolates are. She is quiet,
"Oh. You could have named her
'Reece's' or 'Hershey's' or 'Twix'."
This girl has some
good ideas, I must say.
I was resuming my reading, when out
of the blue....
"If you could be in a time machine and
could go back and do any other job, what would you do?"
was taken aback by this question. Stalling for time like any
good Miss America contestant, I said, "Wow. Interesting
"Not interesting, good
question," she corrected me.
question." Still stalling, I asked, "What would
"I would be a doctor."
good. You could be a doctor, you know," I told her
"I know. Now what would you be?"
She clearly was not going to let me off the hook.
writer?" I said. (When I relayed this conversation
later to a friend she said, "That answer was cheap, Amy.
You are a writer." Yes, but Jennifer doesn't know
Long pause. "What's that?"
know, someone who writes books."
could still do that, you know. There is still time.
You could go back to school or something."
I was floored
by this response. There is still time, this child has
just encouraged me. There is still time.
have I needed this piece of wisdom thrown in my direction more than
now. It may be only the first of July, but already I feel the
summer racing out of my reach. I am teaching a ton,
playing a ton, and every day seems to hold more obligations and
responsibilities than hours. Recently, Matt and I were
discussing the possibility of having some friends over for dinner.
But there was a trip home to the midwest for a week, then on the
heels of that Matt left for 10 days with his youth choir to Texas.
"Stick a fork in it, June's done." Matt said.
Something panics within me at this statement.
Summer can't be done yet. There are too many things I planned
to do: clean out the garage, finally organize my teaching
files, read through a tall stack of music, learn the Chopin G Minor
Ballade. At the very least, I was hoping for one empty afternoon
to sit in an Adirondack chair, drink lemonade and watch the
lavender blow in the breeze. "What does 'having a summer'
really mean to you?" I asked Matt. "What do you
need to feel like you really 'had' summer?" "I don't
know," Matt admitted. "I haven't known what I wanted
out of summer since I was a kid." I think I know what I
want: time to play aimlessly with no end goal in sight.
Which sits in opposition to the lists that I scratch out in my
calendar and journals: learn to make tarts and pizzas, dig up
two new borders around my flagstone walks, read poetry, write
letters. It is this conflict between all I want to do and the
desire to have plenty of time to do nothing that haunts every
summer. Too many years, I just throw in the towel, resign
myself to my normal ambitious tendencies of over-achieving, and bask
in all I manage to accomplish. Not the spirit of summer at all,
There is still time. I will need a
regular reminder of this gentle thought between now and the
unofficial end of summer somewhere around the middle of August when
school begins around here. Luckily, I know where to find
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org