September 16th, 2007
I am struggling these days to find my pace, my groove, and easy balance between work and real life. While it surprises me not at all that my schedule this fall is overwhelming, it does surprise me that I am so out of sorts with everything. Oddly enough, the only thing that is engaging me at the moment is my work, which has luck would have it, takes up most of my life anyway. My teaching schedule this fall is grueling–I begin Monday through Thursday mornings with an 8AM lesson, spend the morning in yoga class or at the piano practicing, teach several more lessons between noon and 2PM, either spend the next few hours in rehearsal or more practicing, and then begin my afternoon/evening lessons between 3:30 and 4PM. By the time I finish in the evening I am exhausted, completely extraverted-out, nearly comatose with the effort and stamina required to function on a high level for those 12-hour days.
On top of my teaching schedule, I have multiple performances this fall. All stimulating and extremely rewarding, but it does further fill my weekends and off time with needed practice and rehearsal time. We are traveling some this fall–to my brother's wedding in St. Louis at the end of the month; to Taos for a couple of days in October. We are taking most of Thanksgiving week to squeeze in a mini-vacation to San Francisco. I am in a charge of a teachers' workshop with a visiting clinician in a few weeks; Matt and I are hosting a musicale at our house that was auctioned off some time ago–we provide the entertainment and setting, others will cater food and drink. I teach performance classes three separate weekends this fall and have students in competition and recitals on several other weekends. Yesterday, my good friend Lora asked what weekends were open for her to come visit in the next few months. I haven't yet responded, but I know what the answer will be–there are no "open" weekends. I love visits from Lora, and to imagine that I can't make time for a friend to come for the weekend makes me crazy. Yet, here we are, standing at the edge of an overflowing few months.
But here's the thing: it is all this work that is most interesting to me at the moment. I am suffering from restlessness in the rest of my life, so much so that an empty afternoon or evening leaves me pacing the house, in search of something to grab my attention. Oh, it is not that there is not plenty to do: my house is in constant need of cleaning; I have books stacked up waiting for me on every available surface; I haven't really cooked anything in months, relying on Matt's skills in the kitchen and my ability to snack through most of my meals on fruit, nuts and cheese. But none of these things interest me; this restlessness runs deep, dragging me down.
There's an unrest inside me.
Oh, it's long I have had
Such an unrest inside me,
And it's getting' real bad….
….goes a favorite Marc Blitzstein cabaret song. These kinds of moods ebb and flow in my life; I've seen enough of them to know the signs. One of the triggers this time around certainly is the heat, which coupled with the unfamiliar humidity this summer has been depressing indeed. We've gone weeks without turning off the swamp cooler, which, faced with this level of humidity, hardly works anyway. Such heat leaves me with cabin fever: I know I can't be outside without risking a migraine, and so I stay inside, pacing the cage of my home.
For I wish it so!
What I wish I still don't know
But it's bound to come,
Though so long to wait….
I have seen enough of these patterns in my life even to know the way out. What I have to make myself do is exactly what I don't want to do: I have to sit down with myself and check in, take stock, make those little boring observations about my world that I don't really care about at the moment. I have to sit still long enough to remember that the climbing roses need trimming, I want to try to string a clothesline in the backyard, I need contact solution and face soap at the drugstore. I have to write down that idea for my brother's wedding present, make a note about the best way to teach Sally's new sonatina, make a practice plan for learning that trio I am playing for a recital in October. I have to sit down with the dull, ordinary, mundane details of my life and sort them out, so that in these horrible, restless minutes I don't have to wander aimlessly, blindly, unable to focus on anything long enough to keep my world turning, but rather I can turn to my written roadmap and numbly do the next thing. And the next thing. And still the next thing, until certainly, suddenly, one day, I will find myself climbing back into the life I love.
I will give my life
And my love, I know.
I've such grand aims,
With so many names,
That I grow numb;
But sure one is bound to come!
Because I wish, I wish it so.
I wish it so.
September 2nd, 2007
This weekend I taught my first performance classes of the school year. My students love performance classes. I hate teaching performance classes. Every time I teach a group lesson, I am reminded why I teach individuals: no behavior problems and all the activities can be custom designed to fit the needs of the student in front of me. Group lessons require more of me: I have to plan them carefully, making sure the activities will work for every kid in the group, working through the transitions from one activity to another for the most seamless class, preparing worksheets and listening lists, making copies, readying paper and pencils, recordings and books. On top of all the extra preparation, group classes fill up five hours of my weekend: one on Friday afternoons, three consecutive classes on Saturday mornings. This is after a normal, full week of teaching. No wonder I dislike performance classes.
But. Yesterday reminded me why it is I subject myself to this extra work and effort. The kids came bounding in all morning–thrilled and excited to be there, eager to see their friends after the summer, ready to play their first performance pieces of the semester. In the first group, (K-3rd graders), I heard about how five of them had played soccer together in the park the night before. We began with drawing pictures to illustrate various different recordings I played for them. "Amy, I am not done with my pictures," Josh kept saying to me as I tried to hurry them along. "I need more time." We did several Dalcroze-inspired activities with clapping and passing of balls, accompanied by much giggles and squealing. The students each played a prepared piece; we discussed performance etiquette for the 500th time. I read them a charming children's book by Daniel McPhail called Mole Music. This is the gentle story of a mole whose life is changed by learning to play the violin and how his music in turn changes the world around him, making it a kinder, more peaceful place. "My dad always smiles when I play the piano," Claire volunteers, "and my neighbors like it too." Other kids nod in agreement, convinced that they too could stop wars with their piano practicing. I ended the group by opening up the piano lid and allowing the students to gather around, crawl under the piano, examine the humidifier controls, and pluck the strings–all things I usually discourage during my more focused private lessons. "Do I have to go?" one boy asked his mom as she tried to drag him out the door.
My next group was my 4th-6th graders, a more subdued and experienced bunch. They, too, started with drawing pictures to recordings– I feel strongly about taking the time in these groups to allow some free creative, colorful thinking and listening. These kids know each other well and chatted and commented about their drawings and the music as they worked. "I am going to play the trumpet in band this year," Tom announced when I put on a Louis Armstrong recording. This led to a long, heated discussion about band instruments and the pros and cons of each choice. Among this group of students, I now have three trumpet players, which may lead to a brass demonstration in some group class later in the year. After the recordings were turned off, this group did theory worksheets, working through key signatures and spelling chords. We did Dalcroze and rhythm exercises, putting beats in our feet, passing balls first to the right hand rhythm of the music I was playing and then the left hand rhythm. The students performed for one another–grading each other on a scale of one to ten about how well they maintained posture and hand position during their performances. Finally, we reviewed composers we studied last year, reminding each other that Mozart wrote forty-one symphonies, not nine (that was Beethoven, who also wrote FÃ¼r Elise, and was deaf). Scott Joplin originated ragtime and was from Missouri -- my home state, I always tell them. Siblings from the earlier class wandered in during the final minutes, there to pick up younger brothers and sisters. They, too, offered their information about composers, suggesting that maybe Stravinsky was also an American composer. We have never studied Stravinsky, nor to my knowledge have I ever mentioned him, but I will entertain conversations about him if it comes up. As the students left, I overheard talk of swimming and play dates, parents greeting each other warmly and catching up on vacations and summer adventures.
My high school group is truly a performance class. They do theory worksheets, listening activities and Dalcroze activities as well, but then we move seriously to performances. This weekend there was only two, others still in the learning process with their pieces. Our focus, after the initial playing, was to look at breath and how performance anxiety and breath are linked. We asked the performers to play certain sections, and observe how they were breathing. We tried different approaches–holding our breaths, counting inhalations, counting exhalations, doing nothing but observing and noting the effect on their performances. It was established that performance nerves affect breath, which then affect performances, and that by breaking down those parts of the equation we might find ways to perform more comfortably. My high schoolers are a great group–ready to try anything, quick to point out inconsistencies with the performances or my teaching, candid and supportive of one another. I will lose one of these kids at the end of the year–Susan is a senior this fall. Several others are marginal in commitment. I like them, they are good kids, but tennis and other activities are beginning to take a bigger place in their time. I wonder how long I'll have them. Watching them tease and banter with one another, I thought, "But they are here today, and that's something."
I was reminded that in spite of all the grumbling about how busy we all are, that performance classes are worth it. I remembered a conversation I had with a precocious first grader last winter. He asked one week in his lesson if this was the weekend for group classes. I responded that there were no group lessons in December; everyone was too busy. "Amy, I don't think that is a good idea," he told me firmly. "You know we do important things there."
I know why I teach performance classes, and why I subject myself to the effort required to do it well. Yes, it is partly about the creativity, the listening, the Dalcroze activities, the music theory and history, and the performances. But mostly it is about the sense of camaraderie the groups foster–from the little ones and their stories about their soccer games, to the older ones talking about the high school dance on Friday night, to the parents who form their own community through their encounters in my sunroom dropping off and picking up kids. It takes a village, I will remind parents in my opening remarks at the fall recital in a couple of months. It takes performance classes and the community formed in those groups. It takes kind, interested parents who compliment not just their own child after a good recital, but who take time to notice that little Camille is playing so much better than last year. It takes students who become fascinated by each other's performance pieces and beg me (beg me!) to let them play one of the 12 American Preludes by Ginestera or the Chopsticks Variations by Robert Vandall. In this day and age, with so many competing forces against the time and work required to be a pianist, it takes everything we've got to keep kids engaged in music lessons.
It takes at least a village, and often much more.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org