Just Listen

Before you listen to this, close your eyes and shut out the sight of these guys, who are all in desperate need of a shower and a shave.  Just listen, at least to the first three minutes: 

Now, tell me, is this:

A) Crosby, Stills & Nash,

B) Simon & Garfunkel, or

C) An group of young whippersnappers?

An amazing sound.  Glad my friends care enough to make me branch out a bit, although it’s interesting to see how similar they are to things I already loved.  

The experience was marred somewhat by their obnoxious fans, who yelled and screamed and stood up (see above) with no regard for the mellow, introspective mood of the music or for others around them.  Still, a lovely evening, especially since our friend had the forethought to purchase pavilion seats.  The lawn was a sea of grassy mud after a day / week / month of rain.


Yesterday was tough, disappointing and tiring. It was also exciting, cathartic and joyful.

I'm choosing to focus on the joyful part. When I saw how my hardworking student and her mother had prepared the refreshments table for her recital, my heart was lifted. They'll never know how much.

Something about that ritual, the one I've performed countless times for students whose names and faces are now blurred by time -- the one I can perform by heart, including the speech at the beginning, the silly story punctuated by repertoire and the encore bow at the end -- never fails to help me face the trials I am called to bear with renewed strength. And even with joy.

The Perils of Modernity

As part of my music organization project, I went through boxes and boxes of books given to me by a friend from church when she moved to a retirement community.  Stuck between them was a paper she had written for an English class in 1960:

Living in the middle of the twentieth century seems to be characterized primarily by one factor: Speed.  Everyone is in a hurry to do things, see things, go somewhere, or run away from something. Often one who merely sits and meditates is considered to be slightly wacky because he is not “on the go.” Everyone seems to be consumed by a feverish desire to go so that it has been increasingly difficult for people to relax and to learn to relax.

Having a sense of humor and being able to recognize and enjoy good humor is a primary asset in coping with the speed, pressures and tensions of modern life.  Therefore, it is important for every teacher to do what she is able to do in developing a sense of humor in her pupils.

True then and now.  Bravo, Miss Mary.

A Tale of Two Portraits: Part II

Welcome to the new Teacher | Children | Well!

This painting also came to me without my asking for it.  The story is much shorter and simpler, though: one day after a service, a gentleman from our church approached me and said he’d liked the image of me looking down at the music from the chanter’s stand at the front of the church.  Could he take some photos and create a portrait?

I was honored, but not surprised: I’m used to extraordinary and undeserved blessings pouring over me every time I open my mouth in the sanctuary. They began the moment I started learning to chant and haven’t stopped since, growing in fact more intense, almost unbearable, over the years.

Like so many profound experiences, this one had a prosaic beginning: I was lonely.  After two years at a soul-sucking school, during which I hardly had time for basic grooming, I was suddenly thrust into a normal working schedule. From nine to five I worked at a corporate job, and from five to nine I sat at home and wondered what to do with myself and my life.  I went out a little, with new friends and dates, but mostly I missed my old life, even the incredible stress that had at least kept me busy.

There was a deeper struggle, too, about faith (why had I been through that?) and vocation (what would happen next?) And both began to come together when my dearest friend agreed to teach me to chant.  I had heard the ethereal Byzantine melodies over and over, their haunting cadences and complex truths driving themselves right through me, and I wanted to be able to sing them too.

The strange thing is that, really, I didn’t have a nice voice before I learned to chant.  I could sing on key, thanks to my piano training, but it wasn’t beautiful.  I am sometimes shocked, even now, when I hear recordings of myself: who is that person? I wonder.  It is certainly not me; I could never do that.  And when I look at this portrait, I have a similar feeling – she is not me at all, but the person I wish I were, graceful, humble, consumed by infinite love.  I become her for fleeting snatches of time when I am wrapped in the beauty and power of an ancient hymn.  John caught her for a moment, but by the time I looked up, she was gone.

Only by forgetting ourselves can we ever become who we were created to be.  I find this in music, in art, and in this lowly space, where I plug away at the daunting task of expression because it is so intoxicating, every once in awhile, to have done it well.  Having just completed five hundred entries here, I wanted to celebrate with something new that would inspire me to continue creating; and in this portrait, I think I have found it.

Starting Over

“Once I finally learned how to teach piano the right way,” said the instructor who trained my mom, “I had to fire all my students and start over.”  She was obviously (and humorously) misdirected in this remark, but expressed clearly the familiar frustration of trying to teach a new system to an old and complacent student.

For other reasons, though, her words have an uncanny resonance to me at this moment. My studio is half the size it was at the beginning of the year, which was half of what it was when I began teaching from home, which was half again what it was when I used to travel to students’ houses.  Over the years my students have lost interest, moved away and succumbed to the seductive allure of home lessons; they’ve been replaced, but never in the same numbers.  I suppose I could start advertising, but I prefer word-of-mouth referrals because they ensure the parents know what they’re in for before they ever show up for the first lesson.

So here I am, with half a dozen kids and what could be viewed as an opportunity.  With twenty or forty students, cancellations are commonplace and overhauls to the schedule nearly impossible.  With six, I decided, I can try something I’ve wanted to do for years: group lessons.

I started small.  Two groups of three: one for beginners, one for advanced.  I told the families that for our end-of-year event, we’d replace the last lesson in June with a group class.  I dreaded the scheduling, but it actually wasn’t so bad, and I was even able to put the groups back to back for two solid hours of games and performance.

Surprisingly, though I’ve had lots of classroom and private teaching experience, this new hybrid format made me a little nervous.  I wrote out a schedule of games, reminders and stalling techniques in case I ran out of things to do.  And then I unlocked my front door and waited.

They came with parents and grandparents and anticipation.  They sat on the rug, pointed and spoke and clapped rhythms, worked cooperatively and let their personalities shine through.  The slower, more methodical boy accepted help from his bouncy, lightning-fast friend.  They both stared wide-eyed at the girl who played the last piece of the volume they had just started.  The preteens fell into joking and jabbing each other as if they’d always been friends.  They complimented each other and talked seriously about improvements for the future. When they left, smiling for a few parting photos, I wondered why in the world I hadn’t done this a long time ago.

Oh, yeah – because I couldn’t have done it then.  I can, however, do it now.  And I’m already scheming about how to make it a permanent part of our plans for the future.

Down in the Dumps, and Climbing Out

Pascha is always the high point; after it, everything seems to tumble.  End-of-year deadlines approach with alarming speed.  Carefully-made professional plans unravel left and right.  Weekends pass in a frenzy of social events and dump me abruptly back at Monday morning, where class after class seems to have lost all interest in learning:

  • Yesterday one (out of fourteen) students got one (out of eight) geometry problems right.  In case math isn't your thing either, that means there were 111 wrong answers and just one correct one.

  • Other classes struggle with Fitzgerald (Did he have to spend a whole paragraph describing a drunk, weeping singer?) and Eliot (Would Prufrock please stop mooning over mermaids and just make a decision for once?)

  • This evening I asked a piano student, who wore a slightly-sullen expression, whether she was all right. "Yes," she replied.  Then, thoughtfully: "Well, my nose itches."

Somehow it's still only Tuesday, though this week is a short one (we leave Thursday for five glorious days of travel in the South.)  So in case your week is going anything like mine, I wanted to share my best advice for climbing out of the deepest of fogs: friendship.

  • Have pulled pork at Little Havana with people who love you too much to care (or even notice) that your eyes are swollen and red from the atmospheric pollen.  Laugh a lot.  Optional upgrades: coconut custard, Flying Fish Summer Ale and half-price entree night.

  • Watch an episode of Anne of Green Gables.  Preferably one of the first ones, in which her rare and precious friendship with Diana saves her from a life of loneliness and despair.

  • Read this heartwarming portrait of two teachers who stuck by each other through personal and professional difficulties and remain the closest of friends.  In New York, of all places.

Don't get me wrong.  True love is grand.  But friendship is what makes this all worth it.


Letting Go

Even before Amanda opened her mouth, I knew it was bad news.  The way her hair hung down, covering her face, and the way her sneaker toes scuffed together nervously on my rug, crushing each loop into oblivion.

I unpacked my psychologist's hat.  "How are you doing?"  I said it searchingly, honestly, leaning toward her eyes, which leaned in the other direction.

"Okay.  I have some bad news.  I'm going to stop lessons."

Besides my dilated pupils, I think my surprise and dismay were well-hidden.  I teased the story out of her.  She had started playing clarinet a couple of years ago and liked the camaraderie of band class.  Middle school was already highly stressful, and in a few months she'd graduate to a whole new level of pressure.  She never had time to practice as much as she'd like, and she felt guilty about it.

And the clincher: she'd auditioned for high school band the previous week, and the director had complimented her on her playing and asked if she took private lessons.  Not for clarinet, she said.  For piano.  Well, he said, piano won't do you much good in a marching band.

So she was here to say goodbye, she finished miserably.  She'd stay through the month (two more lessons) but after that, it was time to move on.  Her mother's voice broke as she said how much they both would miss me.

Still, I was calm.  I focused on her, told her I was proud of her accomplishments and progress.  She was so much more confident than the skittish girl who'd first darkened my doorway, uttering only a handful of words per lesson.  And she played beautifully, and she would always play beautifully, even if only for herself.

The comfort of routine beckoned, and we moved on to studying what would now be her last piece.  Drill the chromatic scale.  Soften the phrase endings.  Duet the new section, alternating hands.  A game.  A bow.  Out the door and on with the evening.

When my last lesson ended, I had just enough time to change and dash out the door to yoga class.  Late, I waited an eternity until the warmup was complete and I could enter the room.  It was not much of a challenge; having endured several sessions of Vinyasa last summer, I hardly broke a sweat in Level 1, though the stretches felt good.

At the last, we lay on our backs, breathing deeply.  The instructor dimmed the lights and led us through a relaxation exercise, but I could feel tension, still, a wadded-up ball in the center of my chest.  I wondered idly if it would be rude to get up and leave early.

Then I heard a voice: "Let it go."  It was the instructor, of course, but it could have been God.  Maybe it was God.  "Let it go.  If you hold on, it will only hurt you.  Let it go."

The ball exploded.  Tears ran down my face.  I allowed myself to grieve the loss of this lovely child who was all grown up, who didn't need me any longer, who wanted to spend her time and energy elsewhere.  My insecurities flowed through me: this is the third one this month.  No one wants to study piano in a recession.  Maybe I should shut down my studio and teach at school full-time.  Maybe I should look for another career.  Is it too late to find something I'm really good at?  Why did it have to be Amanda?  Why my best student?  Why today?  Why ever?

The thoughts swelled through me and then burst gently free, clinging to my hair and wet face before drifting  heavenward with the words of the meditation I had long ceased to hear.  The tears, too, flowed away, down to the earth.  I remained in the middle, empty but free.

Nothing was solved -- nothing ever is, really -- but it felt so good to let go.


This is the first year I've ever seen real overlap in my two teaching jobs: private piano and classroom English.  It helps that several of my piano students are nearing the age level of my classes, and at the same time they're musically mature enough to be able to handle larger questions of interpretation and approach, rather than just pitch and rhythm fixes.

Most rewarding has been my use of self-diagnosis as a tool for improvement.  It's amazing how true it is that most people already know what they need to do; they just need someone to affirm that.  Whenever I meet with students (mostly in Creative Writing, but occasionally in literature classes as well) I try to let them do most of the talking, because it ensures they're really taking in the information; they leave empowered, and with many of the same ideas I would have given them in the first place.

So, this year, I've been trying to use this method of critique with my piano students.  When a student plays for me, I'll always lead with a compliment or two (as specific as possible, so he knows I was really listening.)  Then I'll ask him one or more of the following:

  • What's your favorite part of this piece?

  • What one thing do you most want to work on?

  • If you were me, what would you say to you?

  • What do you think the composer of this piece wanted to convey through it?

  • What's the main emotion or idea you want to leave your audience with?

  • Can you visualize an image that will help you better perform this piece?

There are others, too; these are just the ones that come to mind.  The great thing is that there are only two possible outcomes:

  1. The student says exactly what I was thinking.  At first, this made me feel a little insecure (why does he need me if he can tell this on his own?) but now I just take it as further confirmation of my thoughts, and I remember that he probably wouldn't have thought of it if I hadn't asked!

  2. The student says something completely different than what I was thinking.  I actually like this scenario even better, because it gives me the opportunity to learn something from him.  Often, it changes my view of the piece, adding layers of complexity that are useful to both me and the students who will play it in the future.

A Quartet of Quadratics

1. One day my Algebra teacher brought his guitar in and sang the following lines to a tune I've mostly forgotten, though I do remember the words:
When you encounter a quadratic equation

In a difficult situation,

Remember this and you can't go wrong;

The quadratic formula's not too long.

X equals negative B

Plus or minus the square root of B squared minus 4 A C

All over 2 A (bum bum)

Remember this and you can't go wrong;

The quadratic formula's not too long.

2. I thought of this because last week in class, my friend the Math teacher told this story:
Once there was a bee. An unusual bee. A very sour, bitter, negative bee. He was flying up and down, up and down, minding his own business, when he flew smack into a square root. He looked inside the root, and he saw another bee, but this bee was unusual too -- it was a square bee. And the square bee was pulling four apple carts. And the whole thing was balanced on two apples.

3. And then during a meeting of the literary magazine staff this afternoon, one of my students got up and sang the following with accompanying hand motions, to the tune of "Yellow Submarine":
Negative B

Plus or minus

The square root of

B squared

Minus four

A times C

All over

Two A (bum bum bum)

We all know the quadratic formula,

Quadratic formula,

Quadratic formula.

We all know the quadratic formula,

Quadratic formula,

Quadratic formula!

4. After all that, if you still can't remember it, I guess you need to follow this guy.

Keeping the Mystery Alive

"What's in the cupcake?" they all want to know.

I keep mum for as long as I can.  But when they're down in the dumps and they just can't seem to *get* it, sometimes a little encouragement is called for.  So I pick it up and open it just a tiny crack -- enough for someone to come out and make them smile.

"One time.  Great job!  Want to do it again?"

They beg, plead and cajole to be able to open the cupcake and choose their own.  I shake my head solemnly.  "But if you play it again, you might see another one."

"Might" means "will," of course.  Until the spot is perfect, or at least until they're cheered up.

Sometimes a little mystery can make all the difference, whether you're three or thirteen or thirty.  (Hey, I'm the one who keeps expanding the collection.)