Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lola Rosemary

I move faces, figurines and statues around in my studio periodically so that the students (and the statues) have something new to see. Some students look forward to the game, other students don't ever notice. I don't point it out. But, I am always on the lookout for whimsy.

So look at this terrific pot I found! She came with the name Lola, I'm going to put Rosemary in her head. One of the pictures showed her with fruit. That might have been fun too. I just had to open the seed starting mix and delight in the aroma of dirt! Won't she look fantastic with wild green shoots coming out of her bandana! And her earrings and lipstick! I imagine she makes that sing-song sound like Joanne Worley. AhhHAAAA! (Think of Laugh-In or the Wardrobe from Beauty and The Beast). Then I get to give her a haircut and cook with it! OK, that's weird.

The students will get to see the seeds grow too; they will mark the progress once per week, I'll get the pleasure of every day. May you find some whimsy in YOUR every day.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A TV In Every Corner, A Chicken In Every Pot

I went out to lunch today. It was fast food. The food was not fast, nor was it food, per se. But that is not my distraction point. My dining pleasure was interrupted by CNN, on a now "convenient" flat screen in the dining area. Does the Colonel really need 2 TVs, one in each corner? Does John need to expand his Taco experience to include the Dow Jones Industrial Average looping across the bottom of a screen? LeeAnn Chin, Perkins, Chipotle, Burger King-they have better TVs and more TV than I will ever want.

I can't get away for even a moment anymore from the noise of the world. And noise it seems to be. Long ago in a McDonald's far away, I remember hearing music, or in some cases, Muzak. Even a crude makeover of a Billy Joel tune was better than the dire announcements of yet more layoffs, and failing banks.

I've seen televisions that blare to no one, soap operas that bore, and products advertised that spoil my lunch. Do you really want to see that feminine itch resolved over your mandarin orange chicken salad? Is the friendly dining experience of sitting in a booth and talking to the person you came with an antiquated ideal? Do they really think that they can compete with the sports bar/grills? Is it an attempt not to choose a type of music that will then label their restaurant as "Oldies, contemporary pop, country, or hip-hop"?

May I grouse about one more thing as long as I'm a curmudgeon today? The service is even more poor; the help is watching the TV. Turn on some tunes, friends, I want you to listen to music, and turn off the tube. Thanks, I feel better now. And I'll try not to stumble coming down off the soap box.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Toy?

I had a really fun and difficult time with the topic this week. I've thought about it since it was posted on Sunday. I've roamed my house looking at the items I consider toys.

But I thought most about my pianos. The question I kept coming back to, the one that bothered me, haunted me, and followed me around all week was: Is my Steinway a toy?

Most of us would agree that the little piano below is a toy. I love garage sales and picked this up a few years ago. It sounds just like you think is does. Younger siblings love to play it. New students like to try their first pieces on it. It's cute and it's quirky that I own it.

I also have a very new-fangled keyboard with every bell and whistle. It has a whole band, choir voices, synthesized everything, drums, and it is FUN! I do most of my composing here. It is hooked into the computer and I can hear my compositions through its speakers. I get the luxury of hearing the flute as a flute. I think of this as a toy however. Why IS that? Because it's got lots of gadgets? Because it's FUN? I should take it pretty seriously as I use it for serious business. But I don't. I don't teach on it. Many teachers teach on keyboards and uprights. Students at this studio warm up on it using the headphones, or put a saxophone on their jazz piece, or play along to the drummer in swing rhythm. They love it too.

So, I'm in a bit of a quandry about this. I asked a friend today whether his Steinway was a toy. He got rather indignant and scoffed, "of course not, my Steinway is serious business!" I understand what he means. It is an instrument, a tool that is used to make music, to express one's self. At the root of my issue is the fact that when I ask people if the keyboard is a serious musical instrument, they invariably use the word "fun". So, if the grand piano is fun to me, is it a toy?

People work very hard, get a Porsche and put a vanity plate on it: MYTOY. Is it really a toy? We understand that it is an outward symbol of hard work. It's also a high performance vehicle similar to a Steinway.

Another friend said that the degree to which you use it makes it a toy. He views "toys" as parts of hobbies, rather like a man who gets lots of woodworking equipment to make things on Saturday in his garage. so, he couldn't see my piano as a "toy" because I make my living with it.

I asked some of my teaching and performing colleagues. They were a bit ruffled to even pursue the question. (That could be a whole blog in itself now, couldn't it!) If I could ask Lang Lang or Leon Fleisher, I am pretty sure that the answer would be absolutely not. So, why can I see it both ways? Can't my students find great joy, passion and FUN in learning to adore the beauty that is music? Does it have to be serious all the time? Am I doing it and my profession a disservice by even thinking about it as anything other than a high art form?

What I decided today (only because the time was up and I needed to post) was that my grand piano is and is not a toy. Brilliant aren't I. I play popular music, lead church music, and compose. I practice and perform as a classically trained artist. It's work, serious business and a tool, part of my teaching and performing, yet it's also sublimely, deeply rewarding. There is a duality here that is both amazing and challenging.

So, I guess the bottom line for me at this moment is: it depends how you play it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect?

A mom and I were having a conversation about the increase in practice time that I had asked of her children. It had been significant because they had big goals. She said that it had been working, that she and her husband had really heard progress in their music, and best of all, it had changed the student's perspective. Because they knew that they were going to be on the bench for awhile, they really dug in and did some hard work, rather than playing through the music and being satisfied. She thanked me. Can you believe it? She thanked me for asking more of her children. Then she smiled and said, "Practice makes perfect, right?"

One of the children on the couch sat up that moment and said, "That's not what Chris says. Chris says that practice makes BETTER." This is true, I do say that. I've never really heard myself quoted before however. It wiggled in my gut. Oh my.

There are so many influences on children these days. The research says that it still comes from home the most. But this is a realization that who you choose for other coaching matters too. We private teachers spend precious amounts of time one on one with your kids. I spend years, YEARS, with some of them. We go through middle school, braces, drivers permits, first dates and prom together. They end up on my Facebook-I play at their weddings. I am so blessed to be part of their lives.

I can't imagine choosing a teacher because the lesson time on Tuesday at 5:30 is available.

After the student had spoken, there was an awkward pause, the mom looked back to me in gratitude and said, "You're such an influence on my family." I smiled. May I always treat my relationships, especially with students, with care and compassion, even when I need to kick 'em in the pants.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

To Make an Omelette...

first you have to break a few eggs, or so the saying goes. It is the height of piano season now. The many holidays that break the schedule into small pieces are behind us and from January until spring break we can make significant progress. That is, of course, if you decide to.

I have 2 younger students that don't like to get messy, so to speak. It's actually work to move a piece from pretty good to really great. They play a piece to about 70% and then it's difficult for them to see the need to work on what I perceive to be the best part! After the omelette eggs are in the pan, the time is ripe to add the green pepper, cheese, onions, and bacon bits. What would you put in your musical omelette? Let's add some dynamics and season it with a few staccatos. I'm also of the mind that you can choose to leave out an ingredient or two that doesn't suit you. It's ok if you don't like tomatoes on your eggs. We'll at least have to try a musical tomato at some point. I may suggest one on your hamburger next time? Or a fresh one from the vine standing in the garden in the heat of the day? Taking a salt shaker with you and feeling the juice run down to your elbow? Heaven.

I may have tomatoes on my brain. Despite the snow, I bought Beefsteak organic tomato seeds yesterday. I can't plant them, even indoors yet, but I'm planning. I'm drooling with the thought of smelling dirt and getting into the warm soil. But it doesn't have to be today. So, now I ask myself, "in what area of my life can I improve my 'playing' of it?"

(Picture from the seminar, breakfast, day 2. It's a dozen dozen-that's gross?)

A Dardos Honor

I am a little overwhelmed at your generous praise, Iris313. Let us continue to inspire each other!

A Year of Beauty author Iris313 wrote this in her blog today:

The Dardos award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

The rules:
1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog. [Note: Don't forget to copy and paste the award jpeg itself to include on your own blog!]
2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

I've decided to send this to Chris Wolf for her site, Piano Posts. On the surface, Chris writes about her experiences teaching music, and what she writes about her students is often both eye-opening and amusing. She has great passion for what she does, so her posts usually also include personal observations, wisdom to share, or worthy questions for readers to ponder. Always I come away from this site with a sense of inspiration and something worthy to consider.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Self ________

How would you fill in the blank? Self centered (selfish), selfless, self interest (self aware)? At our conference, we were given the task to write synonyms for these 3 categories. It became clear that though selfish and selfless had different attributes, many of the consequences of being selfish or selfless were similar. Both brought about physical, spiritual, and/or mental illness. Although one might become arrogant and the other become a doormat, both seemed to turn in on oneself.

Self interest has been turned (like power) into some sort of "bad word". Thank politicians I guess. Turning to the root of the words, it really more about being aware of self in the midst of others. I loved the synonyms we had in this list: ambitious, balanced, connected, centered, steward, confident, assertive, highly mutually relational* (personal fave), truth and accountability.

In a nutshell,instead of being me me me, or them them them, when you are self interested you are about us us us. We were then asked to get out of our heads and into our guts. (I loved this turn about.)

Your self interests come from who you are, what shaped you, and where you are going. We took who we are and analyzed some of the reasons we are. Your self interest will come from some significant things in your past: from joy, sorrow, family, labels (mom, brother, etc), dreams, aptitude, milestones, culture, faith, ethnicity, generation, orientation, gender. We were given time to think about what really drove us to who we are, and drives us toward what we will be.

We were asked to come up with our epitaph. What is my legacy? What is the one thing I'm going to be remembered for? What's the unique difference I will make having been here? Where's my passion?

(The seminar was held in a beautiful church with stained glass. There were "people on yard sticks" made by children, all around the sanctuary-I thought they were as lovely as the windows)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

It's Thaw Right

Although we got more snow overnight, *groan*, the sun is getting warmer and by afternoon it had started to melt around the trees. I had to judge today and miss the last day of my seminar. I heard some good playing though.

I find a lot to like in almost everyone I meet. There are some great stories out there! Even in the people that really tick me off, I try to look for what the Creator, or their mom, sees in them. It can be challenging.

And there are many opinionated, quirky people in my music world. Heck, I'm one of them. No matter where I sit on an issue there's a person who seemed to want to argue with me about it. And he pushes. And I would try so hard to keep my mouth shut. And I would eventually fail. It seemed every time we were in the same room, we would be on opposing sides of the conversation.

One day the topic seemed to be holding up the high standard of classical music. He believes in the pristine-ness of our art form. I believe in the joy of it. You wouldn't think that these would be opposing views. I like to point out the human aspects of the composers which I can make relevant to my students, he likes to put them and the music on pedestals. I perform to the people in the room; he performs to the ghosts in their memory. He gets more "real" gigs than I do. So he must be right. Define 'real', I wanted to say. Only classical music performances count, he stated. Oh okay.

He is a very lonely man, I noticed. Today, like the snow, my heart is melting. It is starting from my core, and slowly spreading out, slushy and muddy. yum.

Friday, February 20, 2009


pow·er, n.
1. The ability or capacity to perform or act.
2. A specific capacity, faculty, or aptitude. Often used in the plural: her powers of concentration.

I am at a seminar on civic leadership and Thursday night the topic was power. I was surprised by 2 things-1. that people at first thought almost all thought power was bad, and 2. that almost none of us wanted to step up and take it. Look at the above definition-the ability to act. Amazing. It's not a bad thing. We talked about the "power of evil", the power people have over us. And about being powerless.

Mary Gonzales was the speaker Thursday night. She and her husband were part of Barack Obama's training while he was in Chicago. Our seminar is confrontational, soul searching stuff-and I am so privileged to be a part of it. I am learning so much.

"Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love.

What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."

Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Musical Library-"Heads will Roll"

Theme Thursday is "Library" and I can't tell you how funny it is to stand on a piano bench and have all these faces staring up at me! These are some of the people in my music library. When I use these books with my students we call them the Talking Head books. Many publishers use head shots as covers. As I look at this picture after I've taken it, I chose a lot of dead white guys. Oops, sorry, Clara. That's not all I teach though, it's just that the contemporary pedagogical covers use "kid-friendly" art, comic book or Holiday Inn landscapes.

I get to go to a seminar the next few days-I'll tell you all about it when I can!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


A student turned to me and asked if it was alright to ask me a random question. Of course it is.

"Have you ever heard of 'postponing a friendship'?" she asked. Turns out that another 15 year old told her off today, and that is what she asked of my student-to postpone their friendship for awhile. What does that mean, I asked her. She didn't know.

Language like this is new to me on a number of levels. Remember we're dealing with 15 year old girls here. They can be mean. But 'postpone a friendship'? I'd like to sit back and think about it during her lesson, I said. I'll have an answer at the end. We enjoyed some music and some smiles. She seemed to loosen up a little by the time the lesson was over. Music always does that.

I guess, I said, that if I were asked to postpone, put off, a friendship for awhile, that I would certainly agree. While we were on our hiatus, I think I would reevaluate whether we were ever friends in the first place. It seems hurtful and manipulative to think that you can take a break from a friend relationship in this way. As a grownup, I've seen couples do it. It doesn't usually end up working out very well, but I've heard of it. When she comes back and wants to be friends again, if she comes back, you need to be ready with an answer.

My other question for her was "Was this a way that you want to be treated another time in the future? She may (will) do this to you again when she doesn't like something.

A friend of mine would have just looked at her and just been done-for good. This seems definitive, but yet brutal somehow.

Finally, I told her, "This statement says a lot more about her than it says about you. I think you're amazing and special, and I don't think you should have to be on hold for anyone, ok?"

Have YOU ever heard of this turn of phrase? What would you have told her?

On a side note, after hearing a chickadee for the first time since November on Tuesday, we got snow overnight. Here is Snow on the Sedum. A momentary postponement of spring, I guess...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Smiled with the Rising Sun"

I'm a bit overwhelmed and perplexed today. I'm certainly no "Polly-Anna". I see the pain and uncertainty of the future lurking behind eyes. I read it in other blogs, I hear it on the radio. It could be any number of worries that plagues us, I could name several or try to guess yours. The following is just my humble opinion. I'm preaching to myself, ok? It's just out loud, I guess.

Here's the LOOK DOWN part-For just a moment, I turn off the noises around and face the worry (or multiples). Write down the big one, the one that may have kept me up or infiltrated my head today at work. Name it. It probably fits into a more general topic like work, health, family, friends, finance, spirituality, or yes, even worry about worrying. Look at it. Is it something I can control or fix? Many times the answer is no, which begs the question of why am I worrying about it in the first place. A whopping 85% of the things people worry about never happen.

Write "I can not fix this alone" across the paper. There, I said it. It can no longer control me. I tuck my piece of paper in my journal. My fingers bumped into another piece of paper, which I read and now laugh about. Why was I worried about THAT, I wonder.

I'm no doctor, but my best advice to myself is to now go do something for someone else. We are an amazing community of human beings. Here's the LOOK UP part. Call a friend, bake a cake, plant a seed, donate something, help somebody. My friend's mom grew up in the depression and said that although they had little, they knew they had each other. Who is your community? Seek it out, offer a hug and some hope. Ask for a hug and some hope.

Some of you just said, "What about the other 15%?" I heard that. I've never worried a problem away. Here's where I'm going to need a little faith. Just when I think I'm running on empty in the faith department, someone has called me, made coffee, or sent an email. I am never truly alone. We are each other's Spring.
(Photo-a double rainbow-May 2007 in CT)

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Coffee Mugging

I have an aunt who has lived in her beautiful farmhouse for over 50 years. About 15 years ago, she looked around her kitchen and decided it didn't make sense to keep her coffee mugs in the cabinet by the refrigerator any longer. Her children had given her a dishwasher, you see. It would be much more efficient to keep the mugs above the washer now, than to walk across the kitchen to put them away by the refrigerator. For 35 years, the mugs had been by the fridge, now for 15 years, they've been by the washer.

When I went to visit her at Christmas time, she offered me a cup of coffee and we moved to the kitchen to make it. When it was ready, which cupboard did she go to? To the original by the refrigerator of course. She giggled, "oh what a creature of habit I am". And then walked across the kitchen to get one from above the dishwasher. I am struck by how relevant this event is to me.

I think that as "creatures of habit" that we will remember what we learned first. Success by 6, they say. Many of the changes that we make will come with great continued thought to actually remember what we changed. For example, I am learning a Chopin Ballade and working really hard to get the fingering right the first time. But on my first run-through of the 'hard part', I missed a note in the Right Hand passage. Now guess what, I still miss it. I will need to play it correctly more to break my habit. I don't like to have to change it later.

Another example I talk about with some students is this. Imagine that you now have to learn to tie your shoes a different way. How many times from now on will you absentmindedly tie them the former way?

My students are the same way. They work on correcting the mistake much harder and longer than if they would have done it well, and correctly, the first time. How hard it is when they learned it wrong at home for 6 days and come to play it for me on day 7. Depending on the student, it's not ever going to get fixed, if you know what I mean.

Today I am taking a personal day to rearrange the studio. I'm not moving pianos, but I am moving a desk, a keyboard, updating a computer, changing out a printer. I am going through books and music, recycling what I can. It will look much different and feel better to me. As I work through the clutter, I am hoping that I won't be moving the coffee mugs of my teaching life. But, only time will tell. (Picture=Can't wait for you to join me for a cup!)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love is...

When I was a child, I had a small book by Charles Schultz called "Happiness is..." My favorite page was Happiness is a warm blanket. Here's a variation on that beautiful idea.

Love is going to a classical music concert even though you don't really like that sort of thing. It included dressing in more than jeans, which is also not your speed. It wasn't a great concert; you smiled and held my hand.

Love is whispering at the intermission that we're among the youngest here. It's looking into the balcony and realizing that classical music concerts are a dying art form and this may have been one of many memorial services. Love is remembering the dead, honoring the living. Love is the snoring behind me, the lady with the real fur, his dusty wingtips. Love is the man who conducts from the 12th row, his combover flapping gently.

Love is laughing with the percussionist who got to play the contemporary piece. One of the many unusual percussive devices used was a ping pong ball in a jar. You asked if it would be on his resume some day-I played ping pong ball with the chamber orchestra. "Yes," we pretend that he says, clearing his throat and trying to look modest, "I play first-ball". Asking him in person, we found out it was his first time playing a ball in public. Love is a smirk and a chuckle.

Love is nachos and beer after Beethoven. Love is talking late into the night; Beethoven suffered deafness because of his mother's syphilis and liked beer too. It is realizing that sometimes you need to see poor concerts to appreciate really great ones and that all live performances are exciting. Love is watching a paid professional group of musicians that plays together every day almost lose the beat. It is realizing our volunteer musician group can almost lose it too and that it's ok. No, it's much better than ok-it's real and it's the love between us that makes it palpably special.

Love is being part of life, not a perfect life, but a real one. Love lifts us all.

"Take away love and our earth is but a tomb.". Robert Browning

Friday, February 13, 2009

Taking the Reins

Before she even finished the piece, she was looking at me. "Well, how was that?", she asked. I replied, "Lift the pedal, finish, then talk to me, please."

I could have told her what I heard. But instead I asked, "If you were the teacher and I was the student that just finished playing, what would you tell me?"


"What did you hear in your playing that improved? What did you hear that still needs some polishing and what's one spot that could really use some detailed, hard work?"

I feel I am at my one of my best moments when I'm teaching myself out of a job. If I do a great job in our lessons, they won't need me anymore. Eventually. I am not hear to teach a certain piece, or up to a certain level. I'm not teaching so they can win awards or pass a test. I want them to know that they could learn a piece without me some day. There is a special exhilaration from being satisfied with one's own performance. When we together realize that the day has come, I hope they smile, shake my hand, thank me, and I will wish them all the best. I will be so proud to have been a part of that journey. We might keep in touch, because we shared something meaningful.

You should have seen her face. "Oh, I'm sorry. I wasn't really listening," she said. "Let me play it again".

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Something about your Scales smells Fishy

It's Theme Thursday in blogland. This whole blogging thing is new to me, let alone following a theme. By looking at some of the other blogs, it seems to be beautiful pictures and poets. Can't compete-here's a groaner or two. Remember I work with kids-be gentle...

What do fish and pianos have in common?
They both have scales.

Which is the most valuable fish?
A GOLD fish.

What lies at the bottom of the ocean and shivers?
A nervous wreck!

Two men have been sitting out on a lake all day long ice fishing. One has been having no luck at all, while the other has been pulling fish after fish out of his hole in the ice. The man having no luck finally leans over and asks the other what his secret is. "mmmmm mmm mm mmm mmmm mmm mmm," is the reply.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"mmmmm mmm mm mmm mmmm mmm mmm," the successful fisherman repeats.
"I'm sorry, I still didn't understand you." The man spits something into his hand and says very clearly,
"You've got to keep your worms warm.

Remember, You can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Prelude and Fugue

I have students working on Johann Sebastian Bach this spring and he's a stinker, that one. (I know what it looks like, but it's pronounced fewg.) Everybody gets a baroque piece; 3 students specifically have a Prelude and Fugue set. We hope to learn the art of voicing, that each hand's melody is important, fingering, phrase shaping, listening! The learning list goes on a long time; that is why Bach is so cool. He wrote a set in every key (that's 24 of them), twice! Brilliant! I've never been able to write one that I really liked.

Today they are all struggling with the same thing, and it's not the Prelude. It's the voices of the Fugue. It's allowing each hand to speak independently. I like to explain that it's like a lunchroom with 3-4 friends at a table. The conversation turns to a certain topic, and all 4 have an opinion about it. Most of the time the girl begins, then another girl chimes in, followed by a boy or two. We need to hear each person's voice and their opinion on the topic.

Here's the hard part. Most of the time in the music, like life, the girls continue to talk while the boys are speaking. It's the way it is. We need to let them talk, but we want to hear what the boys are saying, so the boys need to speak louder and the girls need to tone it down.

I broke it down to patting on our laps today. Just the effort of patting one hand louder than the other on your thigh can be tricky. Go ahead, try it, I'll wait. Pat your Right Hand (RH) firmly against your right thigh, now pat your Left Hand (LH) gently on your left thigh. At the same time. Got it? Now switch it around. Then imagine eventually doing individual fingers.

I also gave them the idea to voice their warm-up scales one hand louder than the other, and to try to write their first name with their other hand. Whatever you do with one hand, mimic with the other! This is mostly just to be silly. We'll get there, one musical sentence at a time. (Silo prelude and fugue, wrapping our fingers around it with ivy)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Frosty had a Meltdown

Rainy days and Mondays got him down? Remembering the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, "Then they threw my arms over there, and my hat over there, and my eyes are down there!" Or the gingerbread boy from Shrek, "Noooo, not my buttons, not my beautiful (gumdrop) buttons!"

Monday, February 9, 2009

Last, comma, First

We are getting ready for end of the year exams. Students will be responsible for memorizing repertoire in the four time periods, plus scales, chords, arpeggios, ear training, and sightplaying. Some of my students also add a hymn playing, new age, popular, or jazz element. Every program is as different as the child. We keep a list of quality pieces in the back of their notebooks throughout the year, so it's a matter of deciding details. They can perform as few as 4 but no more than 10 pieces for memory. Often that is the goal. It's as much work for Teacher, but the programs are valuable. There is a balance here-Junior should be a well rounded pianist, while Teach should remain well tempered.

I take a lot of transfer students who have not played any technique in their whole piano life. 7 years of lessons without a scale. It might be like no milk in a child's diet. Let's just give them soda because they like it better. Strong bones and teeth? I don't think so. Strong fingers and agility, not so much. It's astonishing to me sometimes because I always had it as part of my piano life. I believe technique is vital to progress. I've never met a great pianist with bad technique. (I have met poor pianists with great technique, however). When the students study here, we have to catch up sometimes to get their technique to match their music. Sometimes it doesn't ever quite meet.

I am beginning the process of registering students for their end of the year report cards. Their name will come handwritten in a handsome calligraphy, so how they want it to appear is one of my questions to them. Because it's so fancy, many young people (and their parents) want to use their full names. Certificates get hung on bedroom walls and shown at graduations I suspect.

My certificates as a student did not use my full name. There could be many reasons for this. As the teacher, it is a lot of work to ask them all and spell it correctly. My first teacher had over 100 students. This could easily have been a naming nightmare for her! I'm not sure she sent all one hundred to the auditions, but even half and you have a recipe for disaster. Misspellings alone, OY.

The only time I usually ever heard my full name was when I was in trouble. It was sometimes used by my grandparents in love, but most of the time I heard it loudly. You know the tone. And it was followed by "get in here this instant!", or something like that.

Today I asked students how their name should look on the report card. Some asked why I wanted to know. I showed them the cards and many of them chose to use their full names. But one youngster said, "will you ever use it against me?" I laughed my best low, sinister "bwaaa ha ha", and said "Of course, I remember these things. The next time you are mutilating your scales, I'm gonna pull it out!" Smiling she said, "well then, my full name, including my second and third middle name, and my Grandma's names is" and she rattled off a list almost as long as Carla Tortelli from 'Cheers'. (Carla Maria Victoria Angelina Teresa Appolonia Lozupone Tortelli LeBec, if you were wondering. What a great character.) I probably really WON'T forget some of what she said! Hilda Bertha Augusta sort of sticks with you that way.

But she only want first and last on the certificate, with all the initials in between. Good luck at headquarters when they write this one.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Sunday Carwash Blues

What do you do in Minnesota when it gets a whopping 33 degrees?

I got "The 4 Ahead and the 4 Behind Me Carwash Blues"

An Adult Performs

I judged a Festival yesterday. The last "contestant" of the day was an adult! I should not be shocked. I teach adults. They are some of my treasured students. I have sent adults to the festivals to learn how to play in front of critical audience, to handle those nerves, to get to another level of playing. There are many great reasons to participate. But I had never critiqued an adult student.

Do you know how many adults have whispered to me that they used to take music lessons? Many wish that they had "kept with it". Many hated it. Many have the Nun and Ruler story. This is a public apology for any of you who went through that. Some remember secretly going to their lesson for the candy, the stickers or to pet the dog. A few went to the "little old lady next door" for lessons regardless of her teaching ability. Some can still play for parties or Christmas. Does one of these describe you?

Many felt that it was important to give that musical gift to their children, or that when the kids are grown, the bills are paid, the time is right, they may take lessons again. I can't wait to see them here!

Adults at the festival don't have to memorize their two pieces. I'm so glad. Most of us have enough on our minds. I have come to think about her presence at the festival a lot since yesterday. She chose two intermediate pieces; she chose slacks and a nice sweater. She didn't clip her nails. She played cautiously and correctly, and she DID IT! I told her how excited I was to see her and hear her and celebrate this moment with her. I think I critiqued her graciously, with hope of a faster tempo on one piece someday. How lyrically she played her Sunflowers, a full deep melodic line sang above the rest of the field. I wonder how she felt about the experience.

Performing at a critiqued event is not for everyone. Some want to enjoy music for their sake, a stress relief, a time of meditation, a moment of grace. I do not know if it was her choice to perform yesterday or if she was coaxed, coached, cajoled into it. I only hope she feels proud and invigorated.

I know how I feel when I'm learning something new and then putting it out there. I am taking pottery classes intermittently. 6 weeks of doing something new, exciting, intimidating and foreign to my hands. It is so humbling. There are master artists East and West of me on the wheel that encourage, tilt their head askew, and comment that this may be my best pot yet. Oh my, I created a, ah, a something. I imagine that is what all students feel in any art. I created, I learned something about the art, and something about myself. There is such beauty in that for me.

This is my favorite piece to date. Why? It feels good in my hands, the glazing is fun to see where the white ran into the blue, but the best reason is because it perfectly holds a bag of peanut M&M's.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Frosty Watches the Sunrise

"Is this the beginning of the end", he wonders, "or rosy with possibilities?"

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Practice Practice Practice

"We perform what we practice."
"Only practice on the days you eat."
"Practice makes better."
"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time"
Or my friend's small black button on her coat, "go home and practice".

How many ways can I encourage, nudge, nurture, foster, engage the young artist? Musicians can't just show up and BE great. (That only happens on TV, like American Idol) Musicians BECOME great when they work out the details. I want to push, I'd like to nip a little on their heels, but I refrain. I can't make them love this. I can lead them to the music, I can be a good example. I am trying to ask the right questions and put the numbers out there. After all this is mathematical. If you want to be memorable, you spend the time at the bench. What goal can I set before you in a small attainable way that sparks your inner fire to do more, go higher?

Minutes per day, hours per week, it's not glamorous, nor is it a mystery, really. I remember sitting in the basement practicing and hearing kids play ball in the open field next to our house. I got out there eventually. I didn't mind the process, most days.

February is that revealing month as end of the year goals start to look out of reach. It happens every year. We eagerly said "yes, of course we can" accomplish this or that. The wonderful thing in September is that it's all true. We CAN accomplish the goal, if we put in the time, slowly, daily, working toward May. It's what our country will realize soon. "Yes, we can" will take daily hard honest work.

If I didn't practice as a tortoise, slowly and steadily conquering the road, February now looks bleak. 10 weeks until May is over. The task too mighty, the deadline too near. Minutes a day now better become hours. It's not always the talented that rise to the top - it's often the hard worker. Bach once said that everyone would have as many compositions if they worked as hard as he. He believed more than talent he had a stronger work ethic than most. Yikes.

I have a fantastic quote on my wall from Jon Kimura Parker. "I practiced this and this and this (imagine big black sharpie arrows pointing to the program notes), even when I was completely sick of them!"

How many ways can I encourage you? Go and practice. You can do it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Chit Chat Happens

Sometimes I actually have to explain things to my students in words. There's only so far demonstrating, breathing, and singing can go before we stop and get out scale fingerings booklets and discuss the most efficient way to run up and down the keyboard. A mom who usually listens to her childrens' lessons remarked today that I was unusually talkative. Between critiques and techniques, she's right.

The two of us then proceeded to talk awhile longer about the weather, spring sports and Superbowl commercials. My next student wasn't coming and I had time. It was delightful to chat with a grown-up for a minute. Finally one of the student children said, "Mom, you think the teacher talked a lot today?" Maybe Moms need the interaction with me as much as I need them!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My Bad

One of my students was sure he would NOT be a finalist. He had played so much better at home, he missed a few big jumps, he was fairly certain he had few to zero dynamic contrasts. To quote the president today, "I screwed up". He called his mom on the way home, so disappointed. What this young man did not do was to blame the piano, the day, the drive or the judge. Noble.

What's remarkable about my student's honesty is that his critique said almost the identical. You should work harder in accuracy, the quieter sides of this piece, but there is so much potential in your performance. In a wild dash of grace, our young pianist IS a finalist. The judge heard past the minor flaws to the full content of his musicianship, of his character, in a way. Granted this will not be the case at the final competition. His best "A" game is the only one that will be awarded honors.

I can hear the president at the dinner table, groaning as this Daschle problem came to light. Wow, Michelle, what do I do now? Girls, if you had this problem in school, what would I expect you to do about it? You'd tell the truth? What an awesome and novel idea. I can do no less than what I expect of you.

I hope we can we allow the president to take the responsibility, be honest, noble. I admire my student and the president for owning up to their mistakes. My high school students love to say, "oops, my bad". I shake my head in agreement, amusement and some amazement that we can be given a second chance.
(an albino squirrel family lives in our neighborhood. He is sitting in a crab apple tree.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Astilbe Predictions

The shadows are crisp in Minnesota today, 4 degrees above, smart and shiny. In other parts of the country, they are bragging about the buds on the hydrangea, but my astilbe poked dead heads up, and predicted at least 6 more weeks of winter. Where the icy birdbath sits, there is at least a foot and a half of snow blanketing the crocus bulbs.

I predict that my studio did well at the contest. Remarks and emails from the students so far sound promising. 12 students of mine participated this year. The best news for me is when they don't need to know whether they won, but they felt they performed well, or even know that they didn't play that great. They speak matter of factly, almost boldly. Wednesday's US Postal holds answers.

Today I reminded a young lady to pedal with her heel on the floor. She turned and said, "You sound like my mom when she tells me to chew with my mouth shut." Laughing, I told her it was more important than that. But my prediction is that neither Mom or I are done with our messages to her.

Although no birds are chirping in Minnesota yet, the students are!

In honor of poetry day in blogland, here is a poem that the English recited on Feb. 2nd, hedgehog in hand (groundhogs were easier to find in the US). A healthy mix of pagan and Catholic images prevail on this day, which is halfway between solstace and equinox. "The church" planned a purification day to coincide with this day. 40 days after the birth of a son, women would purify themselves in the temple, having been unclean and unable to enter the temple before that. Feb. 2 is 40 days after Christ's birth. The German church named it Candlemass, and blessed their church candles.

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter has another flight
If Candlemas brings cloud and rain
Winter will not come again

Who's been to Visit?