Category Archives: Personal

A wake-up call

When I told parents that I have to reduce my teaching hours, I explained that it was for health reasons. Some parents were very alarmed and concerned, thinking that I had some terrible and mysterious illness.  I don’t.  But my gut feeling was that I would get sick if I didn’t cut back.

This past Tuesday, I woke up in the very early morning, feeling nauseated.  This happens once in a great while, and a dose of Peptobismol either makes me vomit and consequently feel better and ready to go back to bed and sleep, or it alleviates the nausea = go back to bed and sleep.  On Tuesday, I was on my third dose of Pepto and the nausea only got worse.  Mild cramps, a bit of pain, but mostly nausea so bad I was shaking, had the chills, sweat running down my face and body.  Mark was very concerned when he saw how bad it was.  My robe was soaked with sweat, I was shivering.  He put a towel on the space heater we have in the bathroom and as soon as it was warm wrapped it around me, then added another towel to the space heater, repeat.  The warmth helped with the chills, but the nausea did not get any better.

We had had egg salad for lunch the day before, and I had a spoonful of the left-over in the evening.  The left-over had been sitting on the counter all afternoon; I knew it was probably NOT a good idea to eat it, should have thrown it away, but – stupidity.  We were sure what I had Tuesday morning was a mild form of food-poisoning.

About three hours after I first woke up sick, we decided to go to the ER.  I was practically on my knees, begging the triage nurse to give me something, anything!, to make the nausea go away.  Vitals first, bloodtest, more questions, and then finally an IV with meds to stop the nausea.

We spent most of the day in the ER.  Blood test (nothing really wrong, except something with my white blood cells), later more meds for nausea and then also for pain, more questions, the nurse’s suspicion that this actually looks like something related to the gall bladder, later sonogram, then CT scan to clarify /confirm the sonogram.

By 3:30 they sent us home.  The very powerful nausea and pain meds had made me drowsy, dopey, so Mark put me straight to bed when we got home.  Through texting, we had kept Jonathan and Chris updated throughout the day, and Jonathan decided that he wanted to come up and see me.  He arrived shortly after we got home.  After a bit, he and Mark went to the pharmacy to fill the prescriptions from the hospital.

On Wednesday, I slept most of the day.  Wednesday evening I felt much better but still quite wobbly on my feet – no surprise given that I had eaten hardly anything for two days …

I am still not sure what happened.  The intense and unrelenting nausea and strong but relatively tolerable pain would suggest food-poisoning – but I didn’t have diarrhea; the kind of pain (location and the fact that it was radiating into shoulder, even jaw) would suggest gall bladder – but the (lack of) intensity of the pain wasn’t typical gall bladder.  To cover both eventualities, I promised Mark that I would never ever again eat left-over unrefrigerated egg salad (at this point the mere thought of egg salad – fresh or left-over – nauseates me); and I have made changes to my diet to be more friendly to my liver, gall bladder, and pancreas.

Every day is getting better. Thursday I went for a walk in the sunshine around our “bean” (our block is bean-shaped), yesterday I attended a morning business meeting and a concert at night; but I delayed going back to teaching until this morning.  I chose a family with three of my most favorite students (yes, I do have favorites) and shortened their lessons to half-hour lessons which was still an hour and a half at the end of which I was wiped out.

If I am careful I hope to be back to normal teaching by Monday.

Stereotypes and Expectations

There is a stereotype, an expectation, regarding mothers:  the best mother is overworked, under-appreciated, running on empty, comes crawling on all fours because she’s so exhausted, but of course she loves her children, so who is she to say no to their wishes and demands.  A mother who seems well-rested and happy cannot possibly be doing a good job because if she were she’d come crawling on all fours da-da-da.

Sounds sarcastic, seems exaggerated, but is true.  Look around: there’s a certain glamour to being overworked.  Find a well-rested and happy mother and the rumors start:  how does she do it?  Oh.  She’s got help.  Well, if *I* had help I wouldn’t be so exhausted all the time either.  (So, why don’t you get help?)

Private piano teachers aren’t much different, except you need to add “under-paid” to the equation.  There is a certain glamour to being exhausted because you teach so much, to being under-paid (and of course struggling with parents who either don’t pay or who pay late etc.) – the starving artist still seems to have a certain appeal; to not having time “for anything!” – especially for attending performances it seems.  I do not care to remember how many times I have attended a concert or a masterclass, here in town (= no traveling required!) and I was the only teacher from our organization there.

Much of the work of a piano teacher lies outside of the actual piano lesson.  College professors who teach 18 contact hours are considered full-time.  Outside of the actual lesson/class but within the normal 40-hour week there’s preparation time, evaluation time, professional development time, etc.  College professors are expected to do and publish research, attend meetings, etc., all within the normal 40-hour week.

I once had a colleague who told me, regarding a somewhat complicated student who was looking for a different teacher, “I can’t teach him anymore. I would have to prepare the lessons, and I don’t have time for that.”

Say what??

Whenever someone asks me, “so, how many students do you have?” I have to say that I don’t count them.  How do you count the student who comes on average every other week because his work schedule is so busy?  Half a student?  I do know that on average, I teach about 22 contact hours each week but that’s only the private lessons.  On top of that are additional contact hours in the form of irregularly scheduled performance classes, extra lessons to prepare for competitions etc.

However you count it, it is too much.  Part of the problem is that there is not enough time, quality time, to do all the preparing, evaluating, watching and editing and uploading student videos, professional development, etc.  The other problem is that when I get sick – and I seem to get sick more often these days – it is a nightmare to find times to make up a day’s worth of lessons.  Or:  competitions and auditions routinely happen on weekends – I normally teach six students on Saturdays, so when I am at a competition I can’t at the same time teach lessons = need to find time to make those up as well.  I have dedicated make-up lesson days on my calendar and I offer make-up and extra lessons on no-school days but those days are filling up awfully fast.

There have been days lately where I teach from 10:15 a.m. til 7:15 p.m. (with a lunch break).  My lessons are very focused, my students usually have 100% of my attention 100% of the lesson time – I feel bad when I have to take 5 minutes from a 45-minute lesson to use the bathroom (because I teach for such long stretches at a time).  I don’t want the quality of the lessons to diminish just because I am exhausted.

A colleague of mine routinely has to cancel lessons because of illness due to working too much.

In a way, this reminds me of the no-pain-no-gain attitude.  There are fortunately fewer and fewer teachers who disregard their students’ physical (and emotional) discomfort caused by an unhealthy approach to playing the piano, and more and more teachers who pay particularly close attention to injury-free technique and an overall healthy attitude toward playing, practicing, performing, competing, etc.

So, if we are so conscious regarding our students’ well-being, why do we seem so willing to ignore our own? Why do teachers glorify the problems that stem from teaching too many hours, from accepting students who drain the teacher’s energy because they are not a good match, personality-wise?  Why do teachers accept tuition that is too low, given their education, expertise, and experience – and then complain that they don’t have enough money?   Because unless it hurts it’s no good?

All in all not a healthy situation.

I don’t want to be one of those teachers who proudly complain that they are overworked, consider themselves under-paid, who come crawling on all fours because they are so exhausted.  And who get sick because they don’t have the time to take care of themselves.

I see no glamour in that.  I only see that my teaching would suffer.

So.  I have looked at my students and at my teaching schedule, and I have started to think which of my students might do as well, or better, with a different teacher – at least temporarily, if not permanently.  The challenge is how to explain to the parents/students that this is not a weeding-out process, trying to get rid of unwanted students, but an attempt to find what is best for both the students and me.

Of course, this 40-hour work week is my personal choice – it allows time for my family which is important to me.  If someone else chooses to work 60 or more hours, that’s perfectly ok but, I think, only if it can be done without detrimental effects on their health, and, please, without taking pride in getting sick from working “so much”.

Ferien!

As much as I love teaching, I am so very ready for a break now.  There were days recently where I thought that the end of my eight weeks of summer teaching can’t come soon enough.  And it wasn’t that students had become worse or that teaching wasn’t as much fun as usual – I simply need a break.  ~  Mark reminds me that part of what makes the summer exhausting is that because everyone’s schedule constantly changes, no two days are the same, no two weeks are the same; there’s no routine, no predictability, part of me is constantly busy trying to keep track of the ever-changing schedule.  I’m not complaining, as a matter of fact I enjoy being able to encourage parents to take advantage of the fact that my schedule can be so much more flexible in the summer.  But it wears on me.

My vacation now for the next three and a half weeks is of course only a vacation from teaching actual lessons; I will still be busy preparing the fall schedule, catching up on reading and watching videos, among many other piano and teaching-related things.

I have recently become “friends” with a number of pianists and musicians on facebook many of whom routinely post links to very interesting videos, videos of performances (student and/or professional), teaching demonstrations, as well as music and teaching-related articles, etc.  Over the last several weeks I have accumulated a long list of links of videos to watch and articles to read “when I get to it” …

A colleague of mine who studied with Sheila Paige is lending me some of her videos which are so chock full of information that during normal teaching days I cannot digest more than one video a day.  So, I am looking forward to having more time and leisure.

Last summer I had a young Asian student who consistently played one part of his assignment particularly well:  his pieces from Beyer Op. 101 were unusually well-prepared and musical (the other pieces not so much).  When I commented on it, the mother told me that there are videos of a Chinese pianist/teacher available online who demonstrates each piece, performs it, shows how to practice, etc.  The mother made her son watch the videos and follow the instructions.  With beautiful results.  So.  I have started to record videos of my performing some of the pieces my students play, some at practice tempo with metronome, for them to watch at home in order to refresh their memory of what we started at the lesson.  Mostly this is about technique and to set a musical example of what I expect the student to aspire to.  Time-consuming, and not usually something I like to do on normal teaching days when I have only 15 minutes in between so many other things.

And then of course there are the things that have nothing to do with piano or teaching:  I look forward to spending more time gardening (I hand-weed the lawn …), smelling the roses I recently planted (yes, in the 100 degree heat of the summer but I couldn’t resist the “all bedding plants 50% off” sale), watching the immensely cute little frogs and less-cute toads that have decided to live on the deck, the patio, in the planters by the entrance …

I look forward to not having a schedule.  I look forward to doing things when I get to them, not because they’re on the calendar and need to happen at a certain time.  I look forward to breathing space.  Sitting on the deck, in the heat, feet up, dripping with sweat, smiling.

A new semester

August 18 came and went and life is good again. 

I had returned from Germany late Saturday evening which gave me a wonderfully relaxed Sunday with Mark, a Monday with nothing on the calendar, a Tuesday full of interviews, so by Wednesday the 18th I had had a couple days to come home and get organized, ready to start teaching. 

While I don’t believe in jet lag = the assumption that for a couple days after transatlantic travel my body is still operating in a different time zone, I do acknowledge that spending a day that begins at 5:30 a.m. in Germany and ends some 24 hours later at 10:30 p.m. in Manhattan, KS – a day that is spent sitting and trying to sleep in a taxi, airplane seats, waiting areas and a car – takes its toll on a body that is closer to age 50 than 40.   I was dragging for a few days, taking delicious naps and generally taking it a easy.   It helped that the terrible heatwave which had gripped Manhattan the previous weeks had finally broken right before I arrived back in Kansas. 

My schedule this semester is very full, and it is still evolving:  since I started the piano semester six days before students went back to (public) school, some students were still on vacation which necessitated rescheduling their lessons.  Now that we have started and students are back in school, the reality of how realistic the piano schedule is for my students is starting to sink in.  I have already had requests to move lessons to a slightly different time to accommodate other family obligations during the school year.   Back-to-school nights temporarily mess with the schedule.  So far, I’ve been able to accommodate these requests.  

Other changes that are coming up:  I have particularly many transfer students this semester, and all transfer students start with twice-weekly 30-minute lessons until I am confident I can leave them alone with their assignment for an entire week and we switch to once-a-week 45-minute lessons.  There is no time limit on this transition: for some students it takes a few weeks, for some many months.  So there’ll be changes to my schedule throughout the semester, depending on how fast students transition.  I have future students waiting for a time slot to open so they can start lessons.  I have current students whom I am watching particularly carefully because they are not doing as well as they could and should because I may not be the best teacher for them.  If I determine that I in fact am not what they need I will approach the parents and suggest a change. 

But all in all, the semester is off to a good start and I have a pretty good idea of what my schedule will look like for the rest of the semester.  Busy.

Alle Jahre wieder

It’s that time of year again.

That time, toward the end of July, when I wish I could just fast-forward to August 18 when the Fall Semester starts.  The time until then is so stressful because it holds so many unknowns:  I am not sure how many students will enroll this fall; I don’t yet have the schedules of the ones who will enroll; many parents do not yet have a schedule because especially sports don’t get scheduled until school starts. 

Of course I want the best schedule for everyone – their favorite time, siblings together, conveniently together of course, and so on.  I’ve been bugging Mark to see if there’s some kind of software to help with the scheduling but there are so many variables (on my part) that it just wouldn’t work.  There is scheduling software available, commercially – I googled – but most of them put the scheduling into the parents’ hands.  As much as parents may think that it should be either first-come-first-serve or work by some sort of seniority – that’s not how I schedule.  I want to pick and choose and reconsider and change until I feel that the schedule fits everyone, me included, as perfectly as possible.

In addition to the stress of the unknown, it’s been hot.  Hot and humid and miserable.  Yesterday was the first day in I can’t remember how long that Mark and I were able to ride our bikes.  Well, enjoy to ride our bikes. 

Hot means that we run the a/c which means that in regular intervals there is the noise from the blower (fan?) which is particularly noticeable at night.  We don’t sleep well. 

On top of everything else, I am going back to Germany the first two weeks in August, for the fifth time this year, this time to finalize the closing of my mother’s apartment.  She lived in that apartment for 37 years, I grew up in it.  Several years ago, when my mother and I discussed end-of-life issues and how she would like me to deal with things after her death (we had no idea that she would die so soon), I had already asked her to make sure her landlord knew that I would want to hold on to the apartment for a while after.  The idea of her dying and my having to close the apartment right away was unbearable.  She understood and accepted.  I found among her many many handwritten notes one she had written to herself, to that effect.

I am so very fortunate to have had Mark’s understanding and support with this.  One week after I arrive in Germany in August, it will have been exactly six months since her death.  She herself hadn’t been home in her apartment since about October or November when she left for what was meant to be her over-winter vacation in Turkey. 

It’ll be trying, and I expect emotional upheaval. 

Strangely, and this may be some weird survival technique, I don’t expect the stress from the preparations for the Fall Semester and the stress from the closing of my mother’s apartment to compound each other. On the contrary.  (And this is where it gets weird.)  I am good at completely focusing on one thing, by pushing other things aside.

I am already organizing, long-distance from here in the States, the apartment closing; and I will be working, long-distance, on the Fall Semester scheduling while in Germany.   When the stress from the piano preparations gets too much, I can take a break and take care of my mother’s apartment.  And the other way around.  Use either as a distraction from the other. 

I’ll be glad when it’s August 18.

Sorrow

I live in the old part of Olathe, where the houses are small and the trees are tall.  Hardly anyone here has a real lawn, it’s more like just lots of grass with some weeds here and there.  In my backyard, the first flowers to appear in the spring are usually dandelions and those prolific purple groundcovers (name?), and tiny plants with tiny sky-blue blossoms that look like they just fell out of the sky, and violets (the weed, not the kind you buy at the store).  I especially love the cheerful dandelion yellow – which happens to be my favorite crayon color, too.  It’s a rare sight to see the “chemlawn” guy drive through our area.  People here don’t have much money, and a weed-free, year-round-green lawn is not a top priority.

I recently came across a cute little peom that, years ago, I enjoyed reading to my young students.  The poem is called “Dandelions everywhere” and was written by Aileen Fisher.  I had copied it onto a worksheet and included a coloring picture; that way they would be able to have it at home and hopefully re-read it or have it read to them, for the young ones who didn’t read just yet. 

The wind had some seeds
in his hand one day,
and he tripped on a bush
when he came our way.
He tripped on a bush,
in our yard, he did,
and he dropped the seeds –
and they ran and hid.
They ran and hid
in the grass and clover
and didn’t come out
till March was over.
And now that they’re out
we’ve more than our share
of dandelions,
dandelions,
everywhere!

Looking at it now, I realize, with sorrow, that it would probably be meaningless to the students I have here in the greater Kansas City area: sadly,  they have perfect lawns, with not a weed in sight.  I’m afraid to even try to share this poem with them, I don’t think I could bear their asking me, “What’s a dandelion?”