Author Archives: Sibylle

A Sign of the Times

Our town has always had its (small) share of (usually) homeless people, standing in the shade under a tree at the street corner, often close to a grocery store or Walmart, usually with a smallish hand-written piece of paper or cardboard sign, asking for help, food, occasionally money.

Recently, things have become more sophisticated. It is now usually a small family, or mother and children, often Hispanic where the mother speaks no English and depends on the child(ren) to communicate. The signs have become larger, much larger, with large print that is readable from across the parking lot, and the pleas for help have become more urgent, usually mentioning some sort of dire emergency: pregnant without resources, just lost their house in a fire or having been thrown out by the landlord with nowhere to go, one of the children urgently needing surgery, etc. and so on.

Gone is the disheveled look, the temporary-ness of the small cardboard signs. The same few (two or three) families seem to cycle through town, showing up in different places on different days.

The newest, latest, is now someone, sometimes a child (with father nearby), playing a violin, again with a large sign declaring their emergency, often with an online payment option at the bottom of the sign, Venmo number etc. so you don’t even have to interrupt their playing as you give them money.

The music is beautiful, romantic, lush, usually with some orchestral background to the violin solo. While it is not at all unusual for street musicians to have a recording of the orchestra part to their live playing, these recent performances are so obviously NOT live performances – the bowing and the finger movement of the other hand are so terribly out of sync with the music, and the sound of the violin unnaturally carries all the way across the parking lot.

It is not these scam artists whom I consider a sign of the times, but the reaction of the people.

We’ve been under so much stress for so long, helplessly watching COVID-19 ravage our country, raging fires destroy towns, entire counties, with no end in sight. Afghanistan, hurricanes, it just keeps piling up – and there is NOTHING the average citizen can do. We’ve been feeling helpless, powerless for so long – so, when there appears a chance to make a difference in someone’s awful life by helping them – a chance to actually DO something, right here, right now – people jump at it.

Reading accounts on social media, it is touching how quickly people put their lives on hold and go to great lengths to help these unfortunate ones who through no fault of their own are in such dire straights right now. People spend hours and resources to collect money, set up GoFundMe’s, collect resources where to find help (we have lots of them in our town), offer to take them places. – Only, these unfortunate ones show up a couple days later in a different part of town, with the same story, starting another cycle of people going out of their way to help them.

When it is being pointed out to the helpful ones that the boy playing the violin is not actually playing the violin, they get upset, “We were just there! We saw him!”

Which may possibly be a point to be made for public school music education: educate people so they can tell the difference between real violin playing and something fake.

Your earliest convenience

My brain has trouble processing spoken language when I cannot see the person with whom I am speaking. I therefore have on my website that all communication should be via email. So, I receive emails, inquiring about piano lessons. Sometimes they have specific questions, sometimes it’s just, “Do you have room in your studio?”

Once in a while, the email concludes with “Please respond at your earliest convenience.”

I want to respond and ask, “Why?” Is there some emergency?

I can think of medical emergencies where I depend on a fairly immediate response from my physician. But piano lessons?

Or perhaps they think I need to be told not to dawdle? Because – ?

I don’t get it. And I resent it. If you send me an email with a question, of course I will respond. And I will respond as soon as I get to it. Which is usually the same day, unusually a day or two later, perhaps after the weekend. Which is by the way how my doctor responds, or actually any professional I happen to do business with. And they do it without being told to respond at their earliest convenience. It’s just – normal? I would think? And if they don’t respond right away then there’s most likely a good reason.

Many years ago, an email arrived, inquiring about piano lessons. When I didn’t respond right away, a tersely worded follow-up email basically said, “Well, are you interested or not? Because if you’re not then we’ll look somewhere else.”

I should have said, “Go something-something-unprintable and look somewhere else.” Instead, I was polite and responded that I was in Germany, completely overwhelmed because I was taking care of the memorial service for my mother who had died unexpectedly a couple days earlier, taking care of her affairs, and that I would get back with them when I was back in the States. “Oh.”

Instead of telling me what to do, implying that I NEED to be told what to do, I would suggest something like, “I look forward to your response!” or “We’re eager to get started!” or “Can’t wait to hear from you!”

(In case anyone is wondering – yes, I do take things very literally.)

Retard!

Retard!

Ever since I came to this country, I’ve been puzzled and appalled by music teachers who use the term “ritard”.

I recently came across it on a website where the blogger talked about taking advantage of “phrases, cadences, ritards, etc… – Whenever I have an excuse, like at the end of a phrase, at big cadences, in spots marked with tenuto marks, or where there are ritards, […]” .

If you were to hear someone use the term “dimins” – would you know what they meant? It’s the same kind of abbreviation as “ritards”.

Yes, “ritardando” is a long word, but so are crescendo, decrescendo, and five-syllable words such as accelerando and diminuendo (which is even harder to pronounce).

The use of the term ritardando varies of course from composer to composer and from one style period to the next: Baroque and Classical composers didn’t seem to use the term (they trusted you to know where and how much to bend the tempo), 19th Century romantic composers actually did not use it as much as one would think, whereas contemporary composers who compose in a romantic style use it a lot. Impressionistic composers do use it but prefer French terminology (en retenant or cedez).

There are two commonly used abbreviations for ritardando:  rit. and ritard.

In scores, whether we find rit. or ritard. seems to depend to a large degree on the edition: Wiener Urtext does ritard., Henle has mostly rit., Schirmer seems to be 50/50, Maurice Hinson and Jane Magrath use rit.

Chopin, in Polish and Hungarian editions, uses rall. or rallent.

Here in the United States, I find the use of “ritard.” appallingly insensitive because ritard. sounds too much like “retard” – a word we have been working so hard to get people to stop using. Retard *is* a word in the English language, and to use something that sounds alike, even though you mean something different (the root is the same, though), shows an appalling lack of concern, especially when it comes from a teacher.

If you want to abbreviate ritardando please use rit. (There is no confusion with ritenuto which is always shortened to riten.)

P.S.: I similarly like to shorten diminuendo to dim. (not dimin.) because it is short and unambiguous, and because it is descriptive: dim the lights, dim the sound.

It’s a brave (??) new world

If things were normal, I would be in Chicago right now, at the annual Music Teachers National Association conference.

I don’t attend every year, but this one I had been particularly looking forward to. I signed up in November, sent my check, booked the hotel room, and after much research decided to book a dormette on Amtrak, mostly so I could take a nap with some privacy. I have never been on a train here in the States and was getting excited about this new adventure.

Because I didn’t have a computer bag – something sturdy, protective, and large enough to hold everything I could possibly need for a day at the conference -, I spent hours on Amazon, looking, measuring, weighing (some of them are surprisingly heavy …), reading reviews, and finally found one that I thought was perfect. It arrived and it is, in fact, perfect. I like everything about it: the sturdiness, the color, how it feels, how it carries, how immensely stable it is: at the moment I have three 1/2 inch binders and several thicker piano books in it and it refuses to wobble even the least bit.

Not being able to be at the conference and meeting people I usually see only at the conference, and attending presentations I had been looking forward to – that was very disappointing.  There are now plans to do things digitally, remotely, electronically, and I am grateful that I will most likely get to – somehow – see at least some of the presentations after all.

It is perhaps a sign of these weird and unsure times, this new world that is anything but brave, that I found myself feeling unreasonably (?) crushed that I wouldn’t get to use my new computer bag. – Like buying a new car, THE perfect car, and then for whatever reason not being able to drive it.

A few days ago, I decided to use the bag anyway: in the studio, next to my desk where it now holds my most frequently used books and materials.

And someday, I hope to use it for real, out in the world again. A brave new world.

Covid-19 and other challenges

Yesterday, the Kansas State Department of Education clarified that “Governor Kelly didn’t cancel school for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year due COVID-19. She closed school buildings. Schools will be working to implement Continuous Learning plans for all students.”

Similarly, my piano studio is closed for in-person lessons but learning will continue, via remote communication. One week ago, I sent an email to my piano students and parents, explaining how we will go about this: most of the learning and teaching will happen via videos my students send me which I will then critique and respond to, via email and/or video. The videos I send to students illustrate a point I was making in my email, or it is a recording of a piece or part of a piece that a student is struggling with – the way I would at an in-person lesson perform for a student (who usually takes a video to review at home). That way they don’t have to try to remember but have something they can re-read and re-watch.

A few parents and adult students responded within a day or three to say, good idea, but how *exactly* do we do this??

In addition to responding to students individually, I also wrote another lengthy email to the entire studio, explaining in more detail *what* to put in the video, what format to send it in (I made suggestions but also said that anything goes, I am not particular), and when to send it – no need to wait until the normal, usual lesson day, but send whenever you have something you want my feedback for.

While there has been a wonderful response from some parents and adult students, actually thanking me for this arrangement to keep the learning going, and sending videos right away and responding to my response, there are parents from whom I haven’t heard at all.

Just like probably everyone else, I, too, am a bit on edge, not sure how all of this – virus, school closings, etc. – will unfold over the next weeks, months. Communication is very important to me, saying please and thank you is important to me, and when I send an email, especially an important one that outlines important changes, I need a response. Doesn’t have to be an essay, just a short “got your email, busy, will talk in a couple days” or “got sick, distracted” or something like that. Anything. To not respond at all is rude.

ETA: a parent to whom I just complained about the above reminded me that “I think the silent ones are the ones that think the same as I thought yesterday: today for certain I will have time to deal with it.“ (Thanks, Yurii.)

So. Deep breath. These *are* stressful times, for everyone.

Changing Teachers

During the first couple weeks with a new transfer student, they will often exclaim when I say or demonstrate something, “Wow – I didn’t know that! My old teacher never told me about this.” Or they will say things like,”I have learned more from you in just one month than from my old teacher in a year!”

When I first started teaching, I naturally assumed this happened because I was such a better teacher than their old one. Then one day, a colleague conducted a small masterclass for some of my students and in the process asked my student in what key his piece was. He gave her a blank look and said, ” – I don’t know?”

I almost fell off my chair. Mouth agape, stunned look on my face, I could not believe he did not remember how we had figured out not only in what key his piece was, but also the key relationships from one section to the next. Whenever I quizzed him at his lessons, he knew all of that. And now – suddenly he doesn’t know in what key his piece is??  I was embarrassed and made sure to tell my colleague afterward, privately, that this student DID in fact know the answer. She just chuckled and said, “I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t teach this piece without going over the key relationships.”

Nice of her, but very eye-opening for me. Now when I get a transfer student who doesn’t “know” something I don’t automatically assume that the previous teacher didn’t teach it.

It also puts in a different light when transfer students gush at how much more they are learning from me than their old teacher: so often it is simply a matter of hearing a new voice, sometimes a different gender, describe or explain something in a new way that makes them pay attention in a way they didn’t with the old teacher. Different environment, different materials perhaps, different vocabulary, and also very simply a bit of adrenaline because everything is so NEW! and not familiar yet.

To parents of teenagers this is nothing new. One of my favorite books as a parent of teenagers was “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall” by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.  In the chapter on “They Don’t Listen to Anything I Say” he imagines the following conversation: 

“Eloise, I think it would be a good idea if you dropped Spanish. You’re spending a lot of time on it, and you’re still failing. I’m afraid it’s pulling your other grades down as well.”

“No, Dad, I can handle it. Just leave me alone. You don’t know anything. I’m doing okay.”

“No, Eloise, you’re starting to do badly, and I think the Spanish is just too much.”

“Dad! I can handle it. I’m doing okay. Now leave me alone.”

Two nights later: “Dad, I’ve decided to drop Spanish. I was talking to Becky’s mother about how I was having trouble in school and she said maybe I should drop Spanish. I think she’s right. Besides, I don’t need it anyway, and now I’ll have more time for my other subjects.”

“What did I just say to you two nights ago?”

“I don’t remember.”

… 

 

On the subject of pianos

I own a piano studio. I teach people how to play classical piano. Acoustic pianos have several unique properties that allow them to produce music that is richly textured, has tremendous dynamic range, and is exquisitely beautiful. Having a good quality acoustic instrument is essential for learning piano and laying the foundation for a lifetime of music enjoyment.

While it is possible to learn to play piano music on a keyboard, I do not recommend it. In order for a keyboard to be acceptable it must have weighted keys and touch. Expect to pay $1200 – $1500 for an acceptable digital piano with weighted keys.

Keyboards without weighted keys, or that do not have a full sized keyboard are simply not sufficient for piano study. (Full sized refers to the number of keys as well as the size of the keys.)

Pianos, like any other manufactured object, have a spectrum of quality; from “piano shaped objects” to world class concert grand pianos that cost more than $100,000. While it is possible to spend tens of thousands or more on a piano, a good quality student instrument can be purchased for as little as $3,000 or $4,000. While there are good instruments available for less than $3,000, less expensive instruments often are in poor repair or have mechanical issues that will make them uncomfortable to play and will hamper a student’s progress.

I am always available to help families look at and decide about a piano purchase. I am thrilled when students and their families ask me to help them make a good piano purchase, one that will last for years and years.

I understand the reality of making a piano purchase. I traded in two quality upright pianos to purchase my first grand piano, and I still had a two year loan to pay off the instrument. Pianos, good pianos, are expensive. Good piano lessons are too. You are investing in the lessons I provide, paying for the 30+ years of teaching experience I bring to each one of your or your child’s lessons. Please invest in an instrument to match.

When your child is 16 and you purchase them a car, it will have good brakes, good tires, and good safety features (seat belts, air bags, etc.). Why? Because you want them to be as safe as possible.

Purchasing a quality student instrument for $3000 or $4000 is an investment in your child’s future. The natural, injury-free technique I teach will protect them from repetition injuries and tendonitis. Having an instrument that is in poor repair, having a fixed height bench that requires an unnatural arm-wrist-hand alignment, having a keyboard that simply can’t produce the music – all of these factors will detract from your child’s success and will potentially risk their physical health as well as their desire to continue piano.

(Written in collaboration with Mark Nichols)

Genius and Little Mozarts

The parents of my young piano students know that I have a serious problem with the name of one of the piano methods for young beginners, “Music for Little Mozarts”.  Not only do I find it presumptuous and misleading, I find it unfair to the children:  they are being taught that if they only try hard enough, they can be “little Mozarts” which leads some of them to think that they are expected to become little Mozarts.

There’s a misconception here in the United States, arising from the statement, “All men are born equal.”   People equate “equal” with “the same”.   The fact is, we are not all the same.  We are born male, female, (or, in moderately rare cases, intersexual – persons incompatible with the biological gender binary); we are born tall, short, in-between, easy-going or not; we are born first, second, the last of ten.  We are not all the same.  Nor should we be.  In a truly great society, everyone finds his/her place, with room and encouragement to develop his/her individual talents.

Dylan Evans, in an article that was published in The Guardian, speaks of talent:

We can’t bear the idea that some people might be better than us, so much better that we could never be like them, no matter how hard we tried. That upsets our democratic ethos, our belief that all people are born equal.

But raw talent is not distributed equally. By definition, most of us are not exceptional. We are neither particularly stupid, nor especially intelligent. Only a very few are extremely gifted. […] The Mona Lisa, the Goldberg Variations and King Lear were not the work of ordinary people like you and me. They were the work of geniuses, people so much more talented than us that we could never paint or write anything comparable to their achievements, no matter how hard we tried or how long we lived.

And here’s a thought that’s particularly dear to my heart because of its relevance to piano competitions:

The just allocation of admiration is a virtue that requires judgment and integrity: judgment to distinguish genuine talent from mere showiness, and integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it. Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful – it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.

This kind of thinking usually doesn’t go over too well with American students and parents who by now are used to receiving some kind of prize or recognition for just about everything.   While I wholeheartedly believe in and teach supporting young people’s efforts and accomplishments, I think this society has gone overboard in its attempt to reward expected behavior.  Making people, especially young people, think that they are exceptional just because they follow the rules or because their work is acceptable is dangerous.

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So, what’s wrong with naming a piano method “Music for Little Mozarts”?  It is the arrogant assumption that all children are geniuses in the league of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  It is degrading to the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to put him on the same level as the majority of people who just happen not to be geniuses.  It reminds me of the story of the 4-year old whose parents manage to grab him just as he’s about to step onto a busy four-lane highway.  The parents, distraught, demand to know, “What on earth and in heaven’s name did you think you were doing?!”  The 4-year-old answers, “I am going to cross the highway because I can do anything if I just believe in myself.”

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First Impressions

As someone who often has trouble “reading” people, first impressions are tricky for me. I tend to take things literally, at face value.

Last year, a new student was coming for a first meeting. As it was dark, the mother had trouble finding the house and ended up being something like 20 minutes late. She texted, “What is your address?” and “I can’t find your house.” When she finally arrived, she was frazzled, almost panicked, exuding frantic energy, complaining loudly that she couldn’t find the house in the dark and had to drive around the block several times, almost knocking on the wrong door (intent on showing me exactly which house she meant) , etc and so on.  As someone who likes to over-prepare it was a bit difficult for me to accept that she hadn’t realized that she had never asked for my address nor done a google search *before* she left home to know where to go and how to get there.

It turned out that this frantic first impression was a sign of things to come: not every week, but often enough to become almost predictable she would forget books and frantically apologize and explain, or she would show up on the wrong day, or show up 30 min early and then wander around the yard. After a few months I couldn’t take it anymore – “it” being the disorganized and frazzled energy she brought into the studio – and ended lessons.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when another mother came for a first meeting: couldn’t find the house in the dark, panicky when she finally arrived, frantically complaining that it was dark etc and so on. (Just to clarify: we live in a residential neighborhood, where even in the dark you can read street signs; and our house number is on the mailbox as well as on the house.)

There was an immediate feeling of déja-vu, a sinking feeling in my stomach, Oh God, not again – this is NOT going to work.

Turns out that this was a one-time shit-happens event: the mother as well as the daughter have turned out to be delightful, reliable, responsible, a joy to work with.

So much for first impressions.