Monday, March 14, 2011


The images of Japan are overwhelming me. I have finished composing one piece, and am moving on to another, but they are from a dark place of deep longing to relieve pain. I had a drink of cool water this morning, in my climate controlled home, put on clean clothes, and knew where my friends and relatives were. This is profoundly significant to me. This is what matters.

But dwelling on the hurt in Japan very long is no help to anyone.

On a different "note", here is a video using the number pi turned into song. It would have been even better if the video had been 3.14 minutes long, after he made such an effort to use the number everywhere else!

I can't seem to find focus today. I find my brain trying to make sense of the devastation. The sheer math of it all, the number of bodies, the miles of tsunami damage, the trillions into the economy, the potential nuclear disaster numbers of particles of radiation in the air, the one volcano rumbling, make me come back to the place of "one". How can we overcome this? One person at a time, one family reunited, one meal provided, one maker over all. That, that I can do, that I can rest in. One prayer I send, one donation I make will make a difference. One moment to stop thinking of myself. We get to carry each other.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Difference is in the Details

We are always doing some sort of warm-up before the pieces for the week. This week the preparations begin for the end of the year piano "report cards", through the National Guild of Piano Teachers.

The NGPT has established fine charts and levels of scales, chords, arpeggios, sight playing, ear training, transposition and improvisation for each level of piano study. There are 6 elementary, 6 intermediate and 4 preparatory young artist levels of each category.

I like to photocopy the sheet from the book so that the student can highlight his progress as he makes his way across the chart at his level. When performing 10 pieces for memory, up to 3 of these musicianship elements can be counted as the same level of difficulty as memorizing a piece. Often there are parts of this list at which a student excels, so we cross those off first.

Now is the time when the copies get taped into their "hardest" book cover, and we make plans to learn as many of the seven elements as diligently as possible. Because the motivation of learning a "few scales" can seem easier than a whole piece, we really learn some good technique. I am always encouraged by the way students are diving in to these challenges right now. It's almost as if spring studies get ramped up now. I think they feel the details of the change in the seasons coming too.

According to a nature preserve I visited over the weekend, the month of March includes details that the monarchs have left Mexico, the robins will soon be gathered in our yards in groups of 20 or more, and the average high is above freezing almost every day. My camera broke recently and I did not take the pictures you see above. But I hope to have a new camera as there is soon going to be a lot to photograph. Although we still had a snowfall on Sunday that was snowblower worthy, I am also sensing the sun that is higher in the sky. The awakening from a long winter is so invigorating.

I wonder whether the monarchs do any warm-ups before they fly every day. Caterpillar Calisthenics? What an amazing trip they make to and from Mexico. What kind of preparations do they make?

This weekend, there are several students of the studio "Going to State" in piano, through the Minnesota Music Teachers Association. It will be held over two days at the University of Minnesota, Ferguson Hall. We are having the tough last lessons, reminding them that they are competing against all the other winners, and that details matter. Strong musicianship will serve them well. What an amazing trip some of these students make, from all over the corners of this state and western Wisconsin. Thousands started the journey last fall with music, many of them participated in the preliminaries and now, some have survived to make the finals. It is also a long arduous journey.

Monday, March 7, 2011

March Month of Composing

This year at the studio we will be composing under the umbrella of Destinations. The first week, students will merely dream about a place to visit and describe it. It can be real or imaginary. These descriptions will help us to write a piece that is like our vacation spot. I've already heard some very good ideas! Where would you like to visit? I'm still hoping for a sunny locale.

So, choose a place, and then set some describing words in your mind or on a little notecard. Why do you want to go there? Have you been there before? Is it a warm or cool place, is the pace fast or slow? Is it noisy or quiet? Sights, smells, and language all play a part in writing descriptively. Have a good time with this, it should not be laborious.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Day's Work for a Day's Pay

What is a "normal" amount to receive for a day's pay? Is a day 8 hours long? Do you break it into an hourly wage? Do you add your benefits package pro-rated for one day? As a self-employed person, I set my wage, I pay for my own benefits. This is a difficult assignment. What can the market bear; what are others charging in my neighborhood? Should that matter? What are their degrees? What are parents willing to pay for piano lessons for their child? What is reasonable and true?

According to, the average daily wage today is $15.00/hour, but it also states that a day's wage is $70. The figures don't match. This means a person was not working 8 hours but closer to 5 hours, or that the hourly wage is really closer to $10. If I take 8 hours times the $15 rate, I get $120.

According to Wikipedia, the median income of the US was $49,777 in 2010. This covers ALL jobs across all levels of education and experience. It also doesn't match the other figures mentioned. $15/hour is $31,200 per year, or $49,777 is almost $24.00 per hour. And I have no idea whether benefits are part of these figures.

I was asked my salary again today. The person didn't ask it directly. They first casually asked how many students I'm teaching. Then, later in the conversation, they asked how much I'm charging these days. All innocent questions. I have always side-stepped these with "I teach full-time, I teach part-time, or my studio is full enough for me", and "oh, are you interested in lessons; I have a few openings." I think it would be a shocker if I asked what their salary was, although men around me are much more likely to discuss their salaries, as a general rule.

My husband says I'm overly sensitive to these questions and it is part of my business to share what the cost of lessons are to potential students. I agree. I am inclined to believe that this was not a potential studio family asking, however.

And so the next question I have to ask myself is what is a good day's wages? I have an advanced degree and tons of experience. When I'm asked to judge for a day, what should I expect for a day's work? Some expect that I am being given a stipend and that some of my judging is to encourage the next wave of musicians, a "pay-it-forward" mentality.

Judging is and is not hard work. You must be a critical listener, fast on your feet, so-to-speak, You want to be amiable, courteous, and able to discern a child's nerves. I am asked to understand without asking the student whether they have put their best effort into their performance or whether it was slung together on a whim a week before the event. I am being asked to write my thoughts coherently, with good penmanship, in 5 minutes or less, and move to the next student.

On the flip side, it is not physical labor. It is not as dirty or difficult as waitressing, nursing, or being an auto mechanic. It's not like the Dirty Jobs on television by any means.

A professional in law works for $250/hour, a director of sales is pulling in over $120/hour, a waitress friend of mine at a really nice restaurant makes tips in excess of $300/for a Friday night shift and is often working about 5 hours. A friend at Kohls department store makes $10/hour. The girl at the Kwik Trip is making minimum wage and has to clean the restroom.

I received a possible judging assignment in the mail today. I have to decide whether or not I wish to sign on for this position. It is four days for $700.00. They are 8 hour days. Is this a fair wage? 32 hours is about $22/hour. This is $2/hour lower than the median income rate. It seems decent, but not glamorous. The organization needs capable judges, but has to charge a manageable fee to the students who will take the exam that I will adjudicate.

I've decided to stop comparing. I will now try to refuse to compare my salary, my hourly rate, my life, my house, or anything else the world would like me to covet with anyone else. That's when my trouble starts, ya know? Try to measure up? I lose. Try to rank my playing, my children, my grocery bill, my job against anyone else's? Not going there. I just can't do it any more. I just don't want to measure myself anymore.

In some ways I think it's crazy that I'm debating with myself over getting this kind of money to do what I love; I get to sit with kids and talk about music and then listen to theirs. It's $700 for goodness sake! I'm going to say yes, in the current economic situation. What an insult, some will say, and roundly put it down, with a snort. I know others that would love to make so much.

Where do you stand, not that I'm asking what you make....

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


I know I am not alone in wishing for SPRING, emphatically! It was a killer winter in the Midwest, and the snow is as high as an elephant's eye. (gosh, I used past tense, I hope that's a sign) These are my neighbors' mailboxes. We need a serious meltdown? And also one that is gentle on the floodplains.

I have no doubt that some of you have seen this story before. But, I will put it out there because it was new to me. A friend of mine sent it in an email this morning. How did she know that I needed it? May you find what you need in the story as well.

"It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you," said the retiring, successful businessman.

The young executives were shocked as the boss continued. "I am going to give each one of you a seed today - one very special seed. I want you to plant it, care for it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO."

Jim went home excitedly with his seed, and told his wife the story. Together, they got a pot, soil and compost and planted the seed. He tended it with great care. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow.

Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing grew. Three weeks, four weeks, months went by, nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn't have a plant and he felt like a failure. He just knew he had killed
his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim
didn't say anything to his colleagues, however, he just kept watering and
fertilizing the soil - He so wanted the seed to grow.

One year later, the young execs brought their plants to the CEO for inspection. Jim felt sick to his stomach, it was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew he had to be honest. He took his empty pot to the board room. When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful, in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor in the corner, and many of his colleagues laughed, a few felt sorry for him. "Ho ho, Jim, way to grow 'em," they chided.

When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back. "My, what great plants, trees and flowers you have grown," said the CEO. "Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!"

All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim in the shadows with his empty pot. He ordered the Financial Director to bring him to the front. Jim was terrified. He thought, "The CEO knows I'm a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!"

"What happened here, Jim?" Jim shrugged and told his story.
The CEO asked everyone to sit down and then announced to all, "Behold your next Chief Executive Officer! One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were dead - it was not possible for them to grow.

All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When
you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the
one I gave you. Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring
me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new
Chief Executive Officer!"

I'm so judgmental. I am a teacher who is a critical listener. I also am a judge who gets paid to differentiate between good and better performances. I can instantly have an opinion on almost anything. I hate it and love that about myself. It's almost impossible to turn it off. But that doesn't make it right.
May I keep striving to be planting good seeds, seeds of love and acceptance. Dang it, dang it, when I mess up without walking in anothers' shoes.

What are you planting?

Who's been to Visit?