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What good are the Arts?

You’ve heard it a million times.  “We need the arts because …” and then come all kinds of good reasons.  For instance, Yehudi Menuhin said in an interview with the UNESCO Courier that “Art develops the intellectual, physical, imaginative and sensory spheres, and hence all human potential.”  He refers to “art as hope for humanity”.

And it can certainly be true.

Disturbing as it may be, however, and as Robert Fulford points out, “The arts won’t make you virtuous and they won’t make you smart”.  It’s not a popular thing to say, and it likely will not be mentioned in the Board of Education meetings when art and music teachers have to lobby, yet again, for more funds – if their programs haven’t been cut already.

Robert Fulford continues,

Great art, alas, has sometimes been loved by monsters, famously the Nazis. George Steiner, the eminent critic, delivers the bad news: “We know that a man can play Bach and Schubert and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”  […] cultured death-camp guards […] eliminated any foolish belief that great art comes with ethics attached. […]

On a more trivial level, we also can’t claim that immersion in the arts will create a lively mind. Art education has produced armies of learned bores. […] As for those who create art, we get it all wrong if we imagine their work makes them admirable in private life.

The arts come “with no guarantees of virtue or enhanced intelligence.”

What, then, does it guarantee? Those who give it their time and love are offered the chance to live more expansive, more enjoyable and deeper lives. They can learn to care intimately about music, painting and books that have lasted for centuries or millennia. They can reach around the globe for the music, the images and the stories they want to make their own. At its best, art dissolves time […]

There is still hope.

(Originally published December 15, 2015)

play – practice – perform

play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part One

Playing, practicing, performing are the three basic ways we spend time at the piano. Neither one is better or more important than the other, all three are essential. They are related, yet distinctly different. It is therefore important and necessary to define what it means to play, to practice, and to perform.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  Whatever happens is ok. Wrong note? No problem. Tempo all over the place? Don’t worry about it.  Which is probably why we call it “playing for fun” – because it’s fun not to have to worry about stuff. “Messing around” at the piano falls in the playing category, as does trying out new pieces.  One could compare playing to the way one meets people at a party or public function: due to the setting, interactions are usually less thorough, less intense, than in a one-on-one meeting. You will probably not take the time to divulge your inner-most secrets to every single person in the room – as a matter of fact, it would be inappropriate to do so; nor would you spend the time and resources (questionnaires etc) to get to know every last little detail about everyone present.

When you practice, the goal is to improve. This requires two things: you need a goal (what do I want to improve?) and you need a plan, a strategy (how will I go about improving? What do I need to do in order to improve?). Having a goal but no strategy is similar to having a destination (Kansas City) but no knowledge of how to get there (I-70, mostly). On the other hand, having a strategy but no goal will make you wander aimlessly.  It is helpful to have an evaluation system in place: how do I know when I have reached my goal? (“Kansas City – City Limit”  =  you’re in Kansas City.)

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  A pianist in a recording studio does not have a real audience, but he/she is playing as if there were an audience because once the CD or DVD has been published, it will be listened to, and/or watched by an audience. When you perform for a real/live audience, you get one chance at presenting your piece and for that reason it is different from playing. Most people underestimate what it takes to perform. They think that performing is like playing, except with a lot of concentration because you don’t want to mess up.  They think since you know how to play, you should – with a lot of concentration – be able to perform.  However, that’s like saying you’re qualified to give a speech just because you know how to speak.

Even though all three elements – playing, practicing, performing – are equally important, this is not how most students and pianists spend their time at the piano: we tend to spend a huge amount of time practicing, some time playing (feeling guilty because we’ve been told that we should be practicing), and even less time performing. We especially don’t practice to perform. This means our performance success is based on luck (“Just focus and you’ll be fine!”) rather than skill (“I have practiced to perform, I am well-prepared.”)

 

play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part Two

A different frame of mind is required for each of the three basic ways we spend time at the piano.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  In other words, you don’t care what happens. You should not care. The point is not to care. The moment you care, you are actually practicing.

When you practice, the goal is to improve.  In other words, you must care. You must listen and take stock and correct and aim to improve.  If necessary, you must interrupt your playing in order to fix something. You must be prepared to interrupt, and to repeat short sections. If you don’t care, you’re not actually practicing, you are playing.

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  In order to perform successfully, you must leave the “practice” frame of mind behind. You may take mental notes of your performance, but you must not care. Any accidental deviation from the perfect ideal must not distract you or interrupt your playing. It takes practice to change one’s frame of mind, intentionally, from practicing to performing.  Naturally, there is more to successful performing but this different frame of mind is probably the thing students and pianists overlook the most often.

Goldberg Variations . Aria da capo e fine

Around the middle of February, I decided to join 31 other Kansas State University piano faculty, students, alumni and guests, preparing a performance of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, to take place April 2.

The entire work, 50 pages of “technical  virtuosity, compositional ingenuity, and transcendent musical expression” (according to Dr. Virginia Houser’s program notes) also takes between 75 and 90 minutes to perform, depending on one’s tempo, and is therefore not something that the mortal among us endeavor to tackle in its entirety by oneself.

Since I came in as the preparation was already well underway, I had no choice in which variation I would perform; it so happened that the person who had signed up for the reprise of the aria at the very end was unable to perform, so that’s what I got.

I had heard the piece but had never taken the time to learn it. It was surprising, and a bit depressing, how long it took me to just learn the notes. There is some polyphony, some tricky rhythms, a bit of ornamentation, and then there was, for me, the challenge of trying to figure out what to do with such deceptive simplicity. I listened to a few YouTube recordings but didn’t really like any: most of them were either sentimentally swooney, or strict and unfeeling. Glenn Gould was extreme but actually came close to what I thought it should sound like.

I practiced, and played, practiced, played, over and over, trying different things, and finally realized that I had no real concept of the piece. No plan, no image, no anything. It was such a perfect example of hitting all the right notes and still not making music – at least not the kind of music this utterly sublime Aria deserved.

With some panic, and hesitation – I should be able to figure this out on my own, shouldn’t I?! -, five days before the performance I emailed my professor from grad school, Bob Edwards, asking if he would be willing to listen to me. He was, and did, and mostly encouraged me to use a bolder tone, carrying the sound to the last row, and to linger a bit more, here and there, employing a very careful rubato. He used words like “delicious”, and “scrumptious” to describe the tone and sound to aim for. And always, sing! Sing! It opened my ears, and I liked the new sound.

When I told Mark, who had patiently listened to my practicing over the last couple weeks, that I had found a new tone, but that – three days before the performance – I still wasn’t entirely sure of everything, he asked how this Aria fits with the piece that comes before it – the Aria should be a somewhat logical continuation, or perhaps contrast. Without thinking too deeply about it, I said that this Aria, unlike the first one which – note-wise – is identical, should sound retrospective, perhaps like an old person looking back over their life, remembering the good, and the not so good.

Suddenly I saw my mother who a bit more than seven years ago had just been informed by the hospital physician that the mysterious neurological symptoms that had plagued her for a good ten, twenty years, gradually worsening, were in fact ALS. No cure, no prospect of ever getting better again, or even going back home, only gradually losing more and more of her ability to move, swallow, speak, eventually breathe. She already was unable to use her legs anymore, and because of severe osteoporosis wasn’t able to sit up, comfortably.

My mother used to love to travel – she was in Turkey when she became too sick to stay and had to be flown to Germany -, and she delighted in good food, whether prepared at home or dining out. I remember her phone call from Turkey, “You should taste the food here! The carrots! I’ve never had carrots that tasted so fresh!”  Now she would never be able to travel again, and eating had become a chore already.

While she had a preference for sentimental books and movies, when it concerned her life, herself, she was refreshingly unsentimental. She had short bouts of honest sadness and despair, allowing – once – that her diagnosis was “crushing”.  But she also, in one of the many introspective moments she shared with me, said, in a voice as if it had just occurred to her, “You know … we really did have a good life.”

The next time I sat down to play the Aria, I saw my mother, looking back over her life, remembering, reminiscing, somewhat removed already but still very much here. When I ended I was in tears.

I was afraid that performing the Aria which had now become so very personal, private in a way, would get to me emotionally and I’d end up in tears on stage. But as I kept playing and practicing over the next two days, playing mostly, practicing to perform, my mother who had been so very present started to fade into the background. The memory of her was still there, and I will probably never hear or play the Aria again without thinking of her, but I was able to play without tearing up.

 

Photograph in the local newspaper, The Mercury.

Receiving a short email from Bob Edwards after the performance, saying he thought I played the Aria beautifully – that was emotional. As was having several of my students come up to me after the performance – one even brought flowers. And Mark. Many many hugs, and Thank You’s, and smiles, and relieved laughter.

Video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/mLmjuPOoTeE 

Johann Sebastian Bach. After almost three hundred years, he still gets to people.

Thank God.

Technique

I have a new student. Early advanced, learns a new 4-5 page piece in one week, note-perfect. I can tell that his previous training has been good – he knows his stuff. Except for technique.

His technique isn’t bad in the way a student’s technique is so often bad: floppy, mushy, undefined, collapsing joints and the like. Instead, his technique is very limited, and therefore limiting: even when he tries to play softly, he only knows how to play with a sharp, aggressive, percussive touch.

He is aware that this is limiting, he just doesn’t know how to change it since this percussive touch is all he knows, all he was ever taught.

Perhaps due to his age – middle school – he strongly dislikes soft and/or slow pieces, prefers instead loud and fast, the louder and faster the better. Beethoven and the Romantics, yes please.

We are working on some smaller, shorter pieces with specific technical challenges, and also on large masterworks. I try to satisfy his immense hunger for The Big Sound while slowly working to broaden his horizon where it concerns nuanced touch. A big part of this involves listening, very active, involved listening, and constant (mostly …) evaluation: is this the sound I want for this part? If not, how can I change it?

Changing a student’s technique is like braces to straighten teeth: it’s a long-term project. But at least with braces, one sees that this is a work in progress. As long as someone is wearing braces, nobody would fault the orthodontist for the person’s not-yet-straight teeth.

Many years ago, I knew of a very respected and well-known piano teacher whose middle-school aged male students entered a lot of competitions and had a reputation for playing very difficult literature with technical ease but an obvious lack of expression. The teacher was quoted as saying, yes, it’s a phase, they’ll grow out of it (and back into more expressive playing), but does that mean that for this time period they should not perform/compete?

 

Rachmaninov

Last week, Jamey came to visit. He is working on Rachmaninov and wanted some advice on “how to fix some things”.

Here is a short excerpt of his arrangement for solo piano of this concerto movement:

Furlough

Kansas State University is looking at a possible furlough soon:

As the state budget is being debated in Topeka there have been many questions based on media reports about potential furloughs of state employees. Without an approved budget by the Legislature, there is no funding authority to distribute funds to cover the first pay period in Fiscal Year 2016, which begins June 7.

If the Legislature comes to an agreement on increasing revenues and passes a budget by midnight Saturday, June 6, or if the Legislature passes a bill authorizing short-term expenditures for payroll by midnight Saturday, there will be no furloughs.

(Source: K-State Today; Guidance on potential furloughs, By President Kirk Schulz)

The thought of a furlough is disconcerting of course, and many people are upset.

But then again, this is what a lot of piano parents (would like to) do to piano teachers every summer. I am not talking about the case where teacher and student/parents mutually agree that the student needs a few weeks off from lessons, which can happen during the summer or during the school year, for whatever reason. Or there are teachers who grant their students a “summer sabbatical” every couple years. Or maybe it’s the teacher who wants to take the summer off. Some teachers then send their students to study with another teacher over the summer.

I am talking about parents who – despite their teacher having made it clear that piano study is a year-round activity – parents who announce that they are going to take the summer off to “save some money” and because the kids are so busy, and return in the fall for lessons. So the teacher is supposed to keep their spot open over the summer = not accept new students who might fill that spot. However, despite promises there is no real guarantee that the student actually will return in the fall.

Parents cheerfully say to the teacher, “Enjoy your break!”

I wonder how employees would feel when they are being furloughed and their employer says, “I am pretty sure your job will still be around at the end of the furlough so don’t go looking for a new job but I can’t guarantee anything because you know, the economy and anyway –  enjoy your break, you’ll have time for your kids!”

Or a landlord whose tenant says, “I’ll be out of the country for two month so I won’t need my apartment. I’m not going to pay the rent since I’m not using the apartment but you can’t rent it to anyone else either.”

Utility companies have a base rate, regardless of usage. Even if I don’t use any water or electricity or gas while I am out of town, I still have to pay the base rate to keep the connection. If I disconnect I have to pay a reconnection fee.

Any and all of these comparisons are flawed, of course. I also don’t think that any parent who announces that they are taking the summer off does so out of malice. And of course there is much more at stake than the teacher’s income when students take a ten-week break from lessons – especially when the parent promises, “We’ll practice on our own!” Oh God, please don’t. If practicing on your own worked, why are you taking lessons?

Honors Recital

The local Music Teachers Association started last year to have a yearly Honors Recital. The idea is that each teacher selects one or two students and has them perform in a recital, along with other teachers’ students. After the recital there are pictures and certificates, mention in the newspaper I think.

So, who gets to perform? Who is good enough to earn the honor of performing? How do you choose the student who is the best in your studio? Who represents your studio the best?

You might as well ask me what food represents me best.

Sure, there are teachers who have a “signature food”, a poster child, their star student. I don’t. I have a whole lot of students who are doing really well, as well as a couple few who are struggling, who are not even sure that they like piano. I do have a “bragging wall” where I display (copies of) certificates and awards my students have won at auditions and competitions. Most of my students are represented there.

So, how do I choose which one or two get to perform at the Honors Recital? The one who plays surprisingly well for his/her age? The one who made the most progress over the last couple months? The one whose mother needs the certificate to show to friends and family how good and exceptional and wonderful her child is?

Last year I selected one student, this year two. The students I ask are those who I think would benefit from a public performance outside of the piano studio. I choose students whose parents understand that I strongly dislike the notion of an exclusionary Honors Recital and that we are going to treat this as a performance opportunity that happens to have the unfortunate name “Honors Recital”.

I am looking forward to the performances we plan to give at a retirement community, where all of my students get the honor of performing and sharing their love of music.

Making Music a Life Profession

The following article was published in the American Music Teacher, Aug-Sept, 1995. It is as relevant today as it was then.

Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University

A friend of mine quit her profession last year. Janice was a bright, energetic young woman dedicated to her clients and excited about her field. After moving to town several years ago, she jumped into her work wholeheartedly, developing a clientele, joining local professional organizations, and making contacts within the community. Who would have thought she would leave the profession within three years?

Janice’s profession is my profession–piano teaching. I am saddened by her departure and the loss it represents–the students who reluctantly have had to find another teacher, the future students who will not know her, and those of us who will not be enriched by her ideas. Why did this fine teacher, seemingly well-trained, enthusiastic, and passionate about music, quit the profession?

DOES TRADITIONAL PIANO PEDAGOGY ADDRESS ALL THE RIGHT ISSUES?

As I have reflected on Janice’s departure from the music field, I have wondered about her pedagogical training. She often spoke about how enjoyable her college pedagogy courses had been. She still referred to the enormous resource notebook she had developed from those courses.

I would guess that most current pedagogy courses present the nuts-and-bolts information of running a private studio, i.e. learning styles and theories, aspects of studio management and business procedures, methods and materials, and use of technology. This is undoubtedly a necessary component of teacher training. But the question can be raised, as in Janice’s case: Is such information sufficient for insuring long-term vitality in a teacher’s lifework?

THE UNDERPINNING OF DYNAMIC PIANO TEACHING

The music profession has retained, probably to a greater degree than many other fields, a close tie to the original meaning of the word “professional”:

At root, a professional is one who makes a profession of faith–a faith in something larger and wiser than his or her own powers….the true professional is a person whose action points beyond his or her self to that underlying reality, that hidden wholeness, on which we all can rely…the true professional is one who…strips away all illusions to reveal a reliable truth in which the human heart can rest.(1)
This “reliable truth” is the heart of our profession–music itself and its power to inspire, express, illuminate, and transform thought and emotion.

Considering music’s close ties to matters of the heart, should not pedagogy programs pay attention to spiritual aspects as well as informational elements in their training? Marilla Svinicki in the book Teaching Tips writes:

A teacher, whether by accident or design is more to students than a content expert. The teacher is a model of all that it means to be a thinking person. We teach not only what we know but what we are. Part of the ethics of teaching is to realize this responsibility and to become the best models we can be, which requires some serious self-reflection on our personal standards of scholarship and living.(2)
Spiritual perspectives of the music teacher’s life are seldom overtly taught to pedagogy students. Perhaps it is assumed that students interested in piano teaching already possess the self-knowledge and ideals for life work in music. Perhaps it is assumed that such perspectives will be learned in the process of working with their own teachers in the classroom and studio. Perhaps these aspects seem too intangible to teach.

Whatever the reasons, inclusion of topics outside of the informational realm can go a long way in preventing Janice’s crisis of spirit. Teacher training programs which offer a more holistic curriculum promote longevity and effectiveness in teachers’ careers by bringing attention to a wide array of topics. In regard to spiritual considerations, what ideas and resources nourish the inner life of a teacher?

SUGGESTIONS FOR LONG-TERM, ZESTFUL LIVING AND TEACHING

Live with a vision.

While it is important to have goals and plans for one’s life, listing personal goals within time frames is not the starting point of purposeful living–commitment to a life purpose is. In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey invites you to visualize being present at your own funeral. For what would you be remembered? How would that life have made a difference in the world? Covey stresses the value of taking stock of one’s life and creating a mission statement–“the solid expression of your vision and values….the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life.”(3)

Know your own daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rhythms.

Many of us in the teaching profession plan our schedules without considering our personal rhythms and cycles. Questions to ask oneself for optimum energy levels throughout the year might include: Am I a morning or evening person? When is the lowest slump in my day? What can I do to help myself through it? Does my teaching schedule reflect my varying energy levels during the week? What can I do for myself to insure high energy during the demanding times of the year? How can I best use the less demanding times of the year to recharge my batteries through interesting activities, rest, and reflection?

Integrate personal renewal into each day’s schedule.

How easy it is for independent music teachers to live frantic lives without private time. The message can be traced back to earlier student years: work long and hard and success will follow. Consequently teachers, especially those in the early years of building a studio, are prone to interpreting continuing tiredness as confirmation they are devoting sufficient time and energy to their work. This can lead to a lifestyle of constant unrelieved work activity that frustrates and squelches the inner creative voice.

Covey describes the hypothetical scenario of a man in the woods working like a maniac to saw down a tree. Although the work has become slow and difficult, he refuses to take a break to sharpen the saw. “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man explains emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”(4) Similarly, the teacher should take time to cultivate life-long habits which nourish and preserve the […] dimensions of human nature: physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual.

Design your life for development of “the things worth being”.

In their book, Type A Behavior and Your Heart, Drs. Meyer Friedman and Ray Roseman discuss the necessity of cultivating an interest in the broad satisfactions of human culture. Not only do they write this is crucial to maintaining good health, but also write that one “cannot continue to avoid all that man in the past has considered lovely and humane without becoming the sort of person whose death saddens no one.”(5)

How easy it is for teachers to abandon all interests and activities that are not directly related to their profession! And yet the rejuvenation and perspective from other activities enlivens teaching. The music professional does herself a favor by regularly visiting libraries, museums, galleries, concert halls, theaters, and parks. This also includes time with friends and reading of books that tell about the lives of inspiring people.

Cultivate a life approach that does not separate creativity from daily living.

In preparing for a life of satisfying personal and professional achievements, I believe the teacher should cultivate a sense of learning and curiosity that is not limited to certain activities and times of the day. Hugh Prather in his book, Notes on How to Live in the World …and Still Be Happy, recommends bringing the same attention and energy to both job and personal life for optimum happiness. If a teacher can inculcate a sense of creativity in all circumstances–from housework to planning the day’s schedule to grocery shopping to successfully teaching concepts to a young student–rejuvenation can be an integral component of daily life.

Cultivate the habit of writing.

Personal writing probably works best when not read by anyone else. It does not have to be polished writing. To be most effective, it should be honest and done regularly; and like playing the piano, it improves with practice. In her book, The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron describes writing as her own form of meditation and a fundamental tool of creative recovery and maintenance. As a film and television writer, director, and producer, she speaks about creativity in the following way:

“In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond….As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem. If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked….Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well….leaves us with diminished resources….we must learn to be self-nourishing.”(6)

Writing is a wonderful form of self-nourishment and can be encouraged by the habit of keeping a pencil and pad available for scribbling ideas throughout the day–in the car, bathroom, kitchen, night table. A personal diary can be valuable as a written record, feedback to oneself, uncritical friend, access to creativity, personal expression, a problem-solving tool, and therapy. A practice journal by the piano invites the pianist to record practice times, impressions, ideas, and musical goals.

Emphasize means over ends as the most important element in the ventures of life.

It is unfortunate that in our goal-oriented, competitive, result-driven culture, the mentality which glorifies ends over means influences every pursuit. So it often is with music study. Ends-oriented teaching stresses competitive performing to the exclusion of broader considerations. Means-oriented teaching promotes and develops a wide range of elements: comprehensive musicianship skills; awareness of the body in playing; nourishment of a deep emotional attachment to the music itself; personal knowledge of one’s own learning style; and responding, creating, and expressing in the sound and emotion of the present moment.

Remember that efficiency and function do not feed the soul.

We all absorb the message from the earliest age on into adult life–to live in a way that produces results in the quickest, most efficient way possible is the best way. Modern culture extols efficiency and function in objects and lives as well; but a deep, rich sense of living is not nourished by these elements. In his book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes about the soul and spirit being fed by myth, ritual, tradition, and, for those who embrace a higher faith, religious belief. It has been noted Drs. Friedman & Rosenman in Type A Behavior and Your Heart that “the repetition of any pleasant event eventually gives far, far more pleasure than the initial event possibly could have done”.(7)

Rituals to enhance the life of a music studio might include celebrating achievement with recitals, complete with individual certificates and sharing of refreshments; giving birthday remembrances; observance of holidays and seasons of the year through appropriate music and decorations; and regular study of the great composers’ lives.

Stay in touch with new ideas in the time management field.

Time management encompasses so much more than it used to. While the teacher can always gain inspiration from reading books about time use (e.g. How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Lifeby Alan Lakein, or How to Put More Time in Your Life by Dru Scott), there are holistic-approach books which adopt a broader life-management view. One such book, You Don’t Have to Go Home From Work Exhausted by Ann McGee-Cooper, promotes ideas to bring joy, energy, and balance to life. Topics include high energy engineering, the importance of passion and dreams, recapturing the vitality of childhood, balancing work and play, recognizing burnout traps, designing an energy environment, and daydreaming as a source of energy. A far cry from the old make-a-list-and-check-it-off system!

Cultivate active ties with fellow musicians through dynamic involvement in professional organizations.

No pianist leaves a pedagogy course without hearing about the value of membership in a music organization. Yet it is easy for a new teacher in a community to get so busy setting up a studio that seeking out fellow professionals gets put on the back burner. It cannot be stressed too much in pedagogy training; there is a synergy in numbers which translates into inspiration, practical ideas, increased knowledge, exchange of information, and increased political and financial resources for its members.

CONCLUSION

Independent teachers, by taking advantage of the freedom and choices available in their profession, can create a life that is creative and restorative. Problems and stress are handled within the context of a larger purpose. Flexibility, awareness, open-mindedness, love of learning, balance, and attention to self and others are tools of daily living. It is from this humanistic foundation that living and teaching are nourished.


NOTES:1. Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life–A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring(San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990), 44.2. Wilbert J. McKeachie, ed., Teaching Tips (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1994), 273.3. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People(New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1989), 129.4. Ibid., 2875. Meyer Friedman, M.D. and Ray H. Rosenman, M.D., Type A Behavior and Your Heart(New York: Ballantine Books, 1974), 255.6. Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way–A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 20-21.7. Friedman and Rosenman, 257.

The amusic brain

an abstract from an article by Isabelle Peretz, Elvira Brattico, Miika Jarvenpaa, and Mari Tervaniemi in Brain. A Journal of Neurology

Like language, music engagement is universal, complex and presentearly in life. However, ~4% of the general population experiencesa lifelong deficit in music perception that cannot be explainedby hearing loss, brain damage, intellectual deficiencies orlack of exposure. This musical disorder, commonly known as tone-deafnessand now termed congenital amusia, affects mostly the melodicpitch dimension. Congenital amusia is hereditary and is associatedwith abnormal grey and white matter in the auditory cortex andthe inferior frontal cortex. In order to relate these anatomicalanomalies to the behavioural expression of the disorder, wemeasured the electrical brain activity of amusic subjects andmatched controls while they monitored melodies for the presenceof pitch anomalies. Contrary to current reports, we show thatthe amusic brain can track quarter-tone pitch differences, exhibitingan early right-lateralized negative brain response. This suggestsnear-normal neural processing of musical pitch incongruitiesin congenital amusia. It is important because it reveals thatthe amusic brain is equipped with the essential neural circuitryto perceive fine-grained pitch differences. What distinguishesthe amusic from the normal brain is the limited awareness ofthis ability and the lack of responsiveness to the semitonechanges that violate musical keys. These findings suggest that,in the amusic brain, the neural pitch representation cannotmake contact with musical pitch knowledge along the auditory-frontalneural pathway.

So, in essence, and pushing this issue a bit further:  this is like autism with regard to music?  Just like an individual with autism who can perfectly well see and hear – but then doesn’t know what to do with this sensory input (what does it mean when someone “smiles”??), an individual with an amusic brain can hear and distinguish musical details just as well as everyone else – but what is being heard has no meaning because there is no “contact with music pitch knowledge” due to a “lack of responsiveness”.

The question, as always, is:  what do we do – now that we know?

Merry Christmas!

I’ve overheard teachers say, “Only a couple more students stand between me and my winter/summer/whatever break …”  How sad is that? It makes the students sound like an obstacle, something to endure. What kind of lesson can you expect with this attitude?

While I certainly look forward to my break, I hope I never feel like any of my students stand between me and something I am looking forward to.

This week Monday and Tuesday are official make-up lesson days: students who had to miss a lesson this semester and have not yet been able to make it up have their chance now. Only four and a half lessons over the course of two whole days: one at 11 this  morning, one in the afternoon, half of one as an extra lesson for a student who needed a bit of extra help with a piece, and then tomorrow a lesson at 1:30 and one at 2:30.

In a normal week, a spread-out schedule like this would feel terribly disjointed and wasteful. But somehow, this week, it feels luxurious. I get one more chance to be with a couple students before the break. The lessons are somehow nicely relaxed – maybe because the kids are out of school already? -, there is somehow less pressure (why??), and even though I would be prepared for the kids to resent having to have a lesson when it’s their break already, so far every one seems in a good and festive mood, smiling, laughing readily. Not only that, but they are willing to work, too, even doing the kind of detail work that so often has them rolling their eyes. I don’t want to jinx it but maybe we should have lessons routinely when the kids are out of school?

What a wonderful start to my Christmas break.