August 28th, 2011 :: Performing Days
It’s the details that kill me.
And man alive, there are a lot of details to attend to. And I don’t mean in the music.
This weekend Jerome and I are playing a benefit concert with a soprano, Checky Okun. Donations accepted at the performance will go to Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, a wonderful organization that provides medical and other assistance with the goal of getting people off the street for good.
is the easiest part of this whole thing.
It’s the other stuff.
The publicity: the press releases, radio interviews, flyers and postcards. It is remembering not only the deadlines, but who is supposed to meet them. “I’ll post all over UNM, who’s got Nob Hill?” we ask each other. “What are we wearing?” Jerome wants to know. “Send the program to me to proof,” I remind him. “Did anyone remember to contact Albuquerque Magazine?”
This is the stuff they don’t teach you in school, but it is every bit a part of being a musician as the notes and phrases of our music.
To paraphrase, its the details, stupid.
But while its been easy to get distracted, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the music itself this week. As we were preparing repertoire, a theme emerged. It seems that in a number of the pieces we chose, there is this idea of music calling to us and offering solace and comfort and inspiration. In these pieces, this inspired awakening comes in the form of a bird singing or a flute playing (“Pretty much this concert is about me sounding fabulous,” Jerome announced when we were talking about this theme.), and it serves to remind the listener of the power music has to uplift us.
It’s something worth every damn detail.
August 21st, 2011 :: Practicing Days
My older students and I have a motto: All Piano, All the Time. We say this to one another as they leave their performance classes, and is now a familiar benediction to our time together. "What's new?" I often ask them, as we get settled in for a lesson. "Not much," they sometimes shrug in response. "You know, All Piano, All the Time."
From her dorm room at college, a former student e-mailed me this spring, Amy! she wrote, APATT (All Piano All the Time) is going so well. I’m really appreciating my hours in the practice room these days. Kathryn is freshman, not planning on majoring in music, but taking piano lessons and playing juries anyway. It's gratifying to witness her commitment to her practicing habit, her desire to not give up this practice of daily practicing. I couldn't care less if any of my students become professional musicians, although some of them have over the years. I just want them to love music enough to want to keep it in their lives.
I have been thinking about all this lately, as we begin another semester. Because I require summer lessons, starting up is, in many ways, just another day in the office. As I see students this week, I can generally expect that they will actually be better practiced than usual, because over this most recent August break in lessons I assigned more practice days than usual. Instead of their normal 5 required practice days, I asked for 10 or more, meaning we will have good lessons to kick off the semester. I am thankful for this, knowing that it takes more energy to get something started again than it does to just maintain momentum.
To this end, it’s time to take up that practicing list again.
Several times this summer I taught rhythm and movement classes based on Dalcroze Eurhythmics concepts. First I taught three classes to a group of music teachers enrolled in Kodaly certification at UNM. Then, last week, I taught a class to a group of singers enrolled in an summer vocal camp.
I am careful never to say that I am teaching Dalcroze, because although I have had a fair amount of Dalcroze training, I haven’t jumped through the hoops for certification. Honestly, I have no intention of ever doing so, for while Dalcroze strategies for organizing rhythm physically changed my ideas about rhythm forever, early on I realized that I was never going to be anything but a piano teacher. While the concepts and activities I use might have originated from my earlier Dalcroze training, I am basically a piano teacher who uses a lot of movement to teach rhythm.
In fact, there is hardly a lesson that goes by (especially with a beginning piano students) when at some point when we don’t tap, pass a ball between us to mark the pulse or rhythm, or step the beat while singing our music. In fact, just yesterday I was teaching an adult who is returning to piano after many many years away from the instrument. She is convinced that she can’t “count.” I am always shocked how many adult students describe themselves this way, having any rhythmic confidence beaten out of them in their early music lessons. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to conquer this skill.
Yesterday she and I were working on a little waltz. In order to feel the strong pull of beat one of every measure, we were stepping and swaying with every beat one and tapping our hands on all three quarter notes of each measure, all the while singing the melody (OK, I was pretty much doing the singing alone) in accompaniment to our physical work.
It never takes much physical movement to immediately produce an “Ah-ha!” moment rhythmically. Yesterday was no exception. After singing through the piece a couple of times, first just tapping quarter notes, then adding the steps on the downbeats of each measure, my adult student sat down and played the piece perfectly.
And so: practicing strategy of the day:
Get off the damn piano bench and start moving. Sing (or count out loud if this is more comfortable) the melody and tap a steady beat in your hands. For the very advanced, (or for the music that most begs for this) find a bigger pulse to step in your feet. For example: tap quarter notes, but step half-notes. OR as my adult student and I did, tap quarter notes, but step dotted half-notes in ¾ time. Organizing different layers of pulse is a great way to truly understand what is happening rhythmically.
Even after all this time and years of rhythmic work, I STILL do this almost daily in my own practicing, keeping me honest and in good shape physically, if nothing else. APATT, as the kids would say.
August 14th, 2011 :: Traveling Days
It is not every day that a gay actor in the Jewish theater, who holds a masters degree in Yiddish and is an Episcopalian from Kansas City, takes you out to dinner in New York City for your birthday.
But this has been the summer of memorable moments.
First there was our get-away to Lamy, New Mexico.
Then there was a trip in June to San Francisco, where Matt was attending a convention and I tagged along, making it the second trip this year where I played the role of the spouse with nothing better to do than to accompany her husband on his business travels. This could not be further from the truth, but this year his conventions were in particularly appealing places---Chicago in March, San Francisco in June--and so I was persuaded to give the role of tag-along spouse a try. Turns out, I like nothing better than to travel with Matt while he is busy all day. While we travel well together and, over the years, have worked out a healthy and happy rhythm to our holidays, it is, I discovered, equally fun to have the freedom to do what I might want all day and then to have a dinner and evening companion to share stories with at the end of the day’s adventures. This is also another way of saying that I have a high tolerance for walking across cities, regardless of hills and distance, and Matt does not.
As it turns out, my musical partner-in-crime, Jerome and his partner, Neal, were in San Francisco at the same time, as was Mary-Ellin, Matt’s executive director for Quintessence, his semi-professional community choir, which meant there were lots of opportunities for great meals with friends. Jerome and I spent one spectacularly beautiful day in Napa eating and drinking. I spent many many hours roaming the city, utterly and blissfully content and somewhat lost. Although it wasn’t exactly a traditional vacation for Matt and I, it was a lovely escape for a few days.
We had hardly unpacked our bags, when we headed out on another adventure. This one was closer to home, yet more exotic in its own way. A couple hours southwest of Albuquerque is a gigantic art instillation called The Lightning Field. Created by the artist Walter De Maria in 1977, it is a field measuring one mile by one kilometer filled with steel poles of various heights intended to attract and magnify lightning. On the property is a spartan cabin, which sleeps six people and lots of mice.
For years we had read about the Lightning Field and had tried to find a time to go. It is only open from May to October, and is generally booked solid. To experience the Lightning Field, you drive to the only two-story building in Quemado (a town straight out of a western), and meet the host, Robert, who will then drive you to the Lightning Field 40 minutes in the middle of nowhere and drop you off for 24 hours. Knowing this last part, we weren’t taking any chances. We decided that we only wanted to visit the Lightning Field when we could book the entire cabin with friends that we felt sure we could tolerate for 24 uninterrupted hours in the middle of the desert.
And so, it’s taken years of planning to arrange this. But this spring, we and two other couples arrived at an agreed upon date and booked the Lightning Field. Armed with plenty of food and wine and games, we borrowed a suburban and headed south.
The experience is nearly impossible to describe. Away from any sign of civilization, you immediately feel the isolation and utter nothingness of the landscape. The wind was raging at 45 miles per hour, making it almost impossible to stand upright, let alone enjoy wandering through the field. There was no lightning, although we could smell the smoke from the nearby fires. The poles themselves were bleached nearly invisible by the relentless sun. We huddled together on the rickety porch creaking in the wind and felt like we had been transported back 200 years in time. I found it to be the most depressing, desolate place on Earth.
Not that we didn’t have a good time. Fortified with enough good food and wine and ridiculous games, we soldiered through the hours, never forgetting how completely unplugged we were. Late that night, after an intense game of Apples for Apples, we wandered outside to look at the stars. Never having been that far from the man-made lights of civilization, I was unprepared for the sight of layer upon layer of stars, seemingly so close you could lick them off the bowl of the sky. Even the familiar constellations were unrecognizable, disguised by the light of thousands of stars we usually never see. We had prayed for lightning, but got instead, stars.
July passed with its normal onslaught of performances and lessons. We celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary with an overnight at Tamaya, a resort just outside of Albuquerque. I finished up designing my fall teaching schedule, put studio newsletters in the mail, planned rehearsals for upcoming concerts. We had two wooden screen doors built, painted a lovely Roasted Eggplant color and installed. Matt organized and led a community sing and four musicale concerts to benefit a local charity. I swam laps and watered obsessively, trying to bribe my garden into not withering and dying in the heat. I adopted three betta fish which Matt named Ping, Pang and Pong. On the heels of this quiet predictable domesticity, on the last Saturday morning in July, my best friend Lora and I boarded a plane to New York City.
This had been long planned and anticipated. Lora used to live in the city and was eager for a visit. My sister Sarah, who lives just on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey, had a baby the last week of June and I had promised to come and meet little Felix. It was my annual two-week summer break before resuming lessons mid-August. It was also my birthday.
For the second year in a row, my birthday had fallen the same week Matt was helping with a retreat for mid-career church musicians in Michigan. This made me not happy at all. “Fine,” I said, “I’m going to New York,” determined to make not merely lemonade out of lemons, but rather something more along the lines of lemoncello.
This was a brilliant plan all the way around. In the weeks prior to the trip, as Lora and I plotted and planned our time in the city, Matt began referring to the trip as The Girls Gone Wild Tour. Lora and I didn’t go wild, but we did eat a lot of good food, consume many cocktails, visit several museums and many many shops where shoes could be purchased. Lora visited friends while I spent time with my sister and the cutest baby ever.
And then, of course, there was what will forever be known as THE Birthday Dinner.
To my husband’s everlasting credit, he did feel badly about missing my birthday yet again. So to this end, he texted Shane, his best friend from high school and college -- the above-mentioned Episcopalian from Kansas City. Would Shane be available to take his wife and her best friend out for the 18th annual celebration of her 21st birthday?
“It would be my pleasure,” Shane immediately texted back.
And so, there we were drinking cocktails, Lora and I, in the Campbell Apartment, an old Mad Men kind of lounge located in Grand Central Station. Shane arrived wearing a tuxedo, and holding a long stemmed rose and a Little Brown Bag. “I thought that I should bring you a flower,” he said to me and then handed the rose to Lora. “But then I thought I should get you something to wear,” he continued, pulling out of the bag a florist box containing a wrist corsage (A wrist corsage! So 1990s prom night!). “Or perhaps,” he said smoothly, “you’d rather wear this,” pulling out a small jewelry box containing a beautiful bracelet. “I’ll wear both,” I answered promptly.
From Grand Central, we walked a few blocks past the Chrysler Building (“You will want a picture here,” Shane said, forgetting for a moment that he was a cool New Yorker and not a tourist.) and on to the Palm Too restaurant on the Upper East Side. “I can’t remember the last time someone brought me a flower,” Lora said as we walked along florally adorned. “Raise your standards, madam, raise your standards,” Shane replied.
At the restaurant where it was clear that Shane was a regular, we were offered a booth next to a group of Swiss yodelers.
“Ask the birthday girl if it is all right,” Shane told the host when warned that this group of performers might be a rather rambunctious group. “When have I gotten to sit next to yodelers on my birthday?” I said, and so we were ushered into a booth.
First came wine and appetizers: crab cocktail and calamari. Then came a steak for Lora and lobsters for Shane and I with sides of creamed spinach (“This is life-affirming,” Lora announced when she took a bite) and three-cheese potatoes. Then there was the birthday cake the size of my head. So much for the diet.
Somewhere along the time of the birthday cake came the singing and yodeling. “Do you mind if we sing?” asked a jolly Swiss with the word Edelweiss stitched on his belt. (Really, Edelweiss? Could you get any more obvious?) “We'd love it,” we told him. And so, they yodeled.
And then, perhaps spying the birthday cake the size of my head on the table, they shifted into "Happy Birthday," sung first in English, then German, then Italian. It was, in a word, something.
“I missed you tonight,” I later told my husband, “but really, this was quite a birthday dinner all the way around. After all, you wouldn’t have thought to wear a tux, and you don’t yodel.”
Back home after our adventures, we have resumed our quiet domesticity. I have a week off and a list of chores as long as my arm. My fall teaching schedule begins next week, classes at UNM begin the following one, reminding me that I will have to take up the role of being a student once again for another few semesters. The betta fish are alive and well, as are the cats, and the garden limps along, all of us wishing for cooler weather. Yesterday, I found a bull frog hidden in the irises, probably seeking out a shady spot with a regular supply of water. Just this morning I noticed ristras dangling from the overhang at the grocery store. They’ll start roasting chiles any day now, signaling a shift of seasons. I’m ready.
But in the meantime, I miss Baby Felix and the yodelers.
August 7th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
Katie was playing a piece for me from her sight-reading book. Checking out a book every week from my SR library, as we call it, is something she had been doing for some time now. I have several hundred method and repertoire books in my library, catalogued by levels. To look at my shelves of SR books one might think that I am an organized person. The kids would tell you this is deceptive at best, and that, in spite of what appears to be an unlimited supply of SR books, I am ALWAYS in need of fresh material. After all, many kids have read through every book in my library. I remind them that they could probably check out a book twice and it wouldn’t kill them, but they don’t believe me. I am tired enough of their whining for new SR books that I promised them that over this break between the summer and fall semesters I will take myself to the music store, armed with my inventory list, and buy new books to start the year. They are thrilled. (Really, when I think about it, what am I complaining about? The kids are begging for sight-reading books. Clearly, I have won some pedagogical battle.)
But I digress. I was talking about Katie. She had come to me several years before from another teacher, but in spite of her previous lessons, Katie was basically a beginning piano student. Since coming to study with me, we had been working to systematically fill in the gaps in her skill set and to establish a strong basic foundation of rhythmic and note-reading skills. It’s a frustratingly slow process, particularly so when the student should have already learned these skills because it means circling back to the beginning, and trying to be less than obvious about the fact that we are essentially starting over.
But in the last 6 months or so, I had seen Katie turn a corner. She was finally learning assignments consistently well and making progress at a nice clip. The sight-reading assignment she was playing in her last lesson was a nice example of her progress. When she arrived in my studio, she had basically no reading skills in spite of the fact that she was working from second level method books. Now she could sight-read elementary level pieces nearly perfectly. It seemed a good time to take mark of how far she’d come.
“Katie,” I said to her, “do you notice how well you are sight-reading?”
“Yes,” she responded.
At this point, my educational psychology training kicked in. I couldn’t help myself. I had to get her thinking about why this skill of sight-reading was important, and why this assignment of sight-reading a piece every day would remain on her assignments until Kingdom come.
“Do you know why we sight-read?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she answered confidently.
This startled me. I was not expecting her to have thought this through.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if you were ever in a performance and then you turned the page and realized, ‘Oh no! I never practiced this page!’ you could just sight-read it.”
This sounds suspiciously like a repeated nightmare I have in which I have gotten to a concert only to realize I never learned (or memorized, depending on the dream) the second half of the program. This, I have to admit, is an excellent reason indeed to be good at sight-reading, and one that I will consider carefully in the future.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com