The Pressure of a Day Off

My schedule in the summer is wildly irregular. Not only does it change from day to day but also from week to week. Which sounds stressful but I actually enjoy being able to be flexible and accommodate my students’ changing schedules: summer camp in the afternoon one week, evening swimming the next, afternoon camp and evening soccer the third, etc.

My policy states that I expect to see my students for a lesson unless they are out of town; there is no scheduled break in the calendar other than spring break, a week after Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Thu through Sun, and the week between Christmas and New Year, but students have the option to take a week off every ten weeks if they wish (many don’t). So it seems only fair that I try to work around their schedule as much as I can. Some students even change the lesson format: two 30-min lessons in a busy week, two 45-min lessons when there’s more time; others try to keep it more regular. Whatever works for them, I’ll try to do.

Because an unusually high number of students are taking two lessons a week this summer, all of them Mon/Thu, those two days are really full. Not much the other three days. Last week, it so happened that all Wed students were out of town. Which meant that in the middle of the week I unexpectedly had a day off. A glorious nothing-on-the-calendar day.

Maybe it’s the heat – it’s been unusually hot, or maybe it just feels like that – maybe politics which cause a great deal of stress these days, but on this day off I felt a lot of pressure to ENJOY THE DAY! or at least MAKE GOOD USE OF IT! so that it feels like the special day it was. So much on my list of things I would do if I had a day off from teaching and nothing else on the calendar either – ARE YOU RELAXING ALREADY??

It used to take me a couple days to get into vacation mode but over the last two, maybe three years I have been able to switch gears more quickly, so I was surprised that on this day off I only felt pressure, no relief, and that I couldn’t get into “vacation” (if only for a day) mode. At the end of the day I had accomplished a bit of what I thought I SHOULD! do, taken a bit of time to relax, but mostly I was struggling with how to make this day off worthwhile? count?

During the school year I teach Monday through Saturday, but in the summer I take Saturdays off. And every Saturday I say, Thank God it’s only Saturday, Thank God I have two days in a row, enough time to get stuff done, and also some time to just be off.

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.

Tigers, Helicopters, Elephants

As a piano teacher I meet all kinds of students, families, parents.

Fortunately, I have mostly a lot of simply normal parents in the studio: parents who are supportive, who are realistic when it comes to their children’s potential – they want the best for their children and? but? realize that it takes quite a bit of hard work to realize that potential. They know that lessons can’t always be fun; they are understanding when I have a less-than-glorious day, they keep me updated on what’s going on in their children’s lives because they know that it may affect the children at the lesson, they share with me their parenting challenges and triumphs, etc.

Every once in a while though, a different kind of mom waltzes into the studio: I call her “the delusional mom”. This kind if mother is exuberantly and loudly cheerful, so much so that it seems like there is no cheer left for her child who comes across as somewhere between completely bland and just very quiet, withdrawn. These children do not thrive in my studio, they kind of put up with the fact that they have to be here, but there is no enthusiasm, no desire to learn or improve, regardless of how enthusiastic (or not) *I* am. They don’t argue with me and my requests but are quietly defiant, passive-aggressive. There’s hardly any communication from the child to me; my questions or suggestions are answered with as few mono-syllabic words as they can get away with. Everything – body language, lack of desire to communicate, lack of effort at the piano – everything screams avoidance and “I am here because mom makes me.”

And that’s where the “delusional” comes in: mom is in complete denial that her child is not enjoying the lessons – it is truly stunning. Mom gushes how wonderful everything is, how much her child likes the lessons, all while the child slumps, or rolls their eyes, or otherwise, without words, says, “You’re kidding, right?!”

During the lessons she’ll give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to her child for even the most dreadfully half-hearted attempt at playing a song, and she’ll exclaim, “You are doing sooo GREAT!”

I’ll be the first to praise a student for trying – anything. I praise profusely for giving it your best effort, even if the result is not perfect (yet), maybe especially when the result is not perfect yet. But I am also very specific with what I ask a student to do: for instance, focus on fluency (ignore everything else), or find a tempo slow enough where you can play every note correctly (but ignore dynamics, fluency, beautiful tone, etc.) – and then I praise the student for trying to focus on that one thing at the expense of everything else. When they complain that they didn’t play everything correctly, I say, “Of course not, but that wasn’t the goal, was it. You focused on dynamics, and your dynamics were beautiful. Play it again, and this time see if you can keep the dynamics as beautiful, AND keep a steady tempo!” – or whatever else is on the list.

Maybe I am the delusional one because I *thought* I had educated the parents on how I teach and how we work at the lesson. These moms seem perfectly content – and act over the moon – when their child kind of plays most of the right notes for the fourth lesson in a row, without any regard for details – details we’ve been working on for the last three lessons. They don’t listen when we work on healthy technique, or fluency, or dynamics, or anything else that would elevate the child’s playing above the bare minimum of kind of trying to hit the right notes.

Maybe these moms think that they *have* to be overly and outspokenly enthusiastic, loudly cheering, to lift the child out of their unenthusiastic hole. Except it doesn’t work. The children do NOT become more enthusiastic, involved, motivated, over time.

I guess one of the things that bother me so much about the delusional mom is how low she sets the bar. If I were the child, I’d feel insulted when mom gushingly praises me for shit. I just can’t believe that anyone – and these are educated women – would think that their child is capable of so little. ?

I wish I knew how to deal with this kind of family. When I mention the child’s lack of enthusiasm and motivation to the mom, her jaw drops, “What do you mean? She LOVES her lessons!!” I can point out what I mean but mom will immediately make some sort of excuse, and laughingly explain away why the child “always” slumps or acts disinterested or doesn’t talk much or whatever.

I wonder how these children do in a regular classroom setting.

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?

 

Coloring inside the lines

I have always loved coloring books, long before they became so popular that bookstores now dedicate entire shelves to them and have special displays all through the store.

Many years ago, when my students studied Verdi’s Aida we used the Ancient Egypt coloring book published by Dover. When we listen to The Song of the Unicorn, we color pages from Life in a Medieval Castle and Village. My beginning students who study the Musical Alphabet get to color the Garden Fairy Alphabet.

Azalea Fairy coloring pictureAnd so on and so forth.

One of my favorite features of the Kodak software that came with my camera, a very long time ago, was that I could turn any photograph I had taken into a coloring picture. Many years ago, I took a picture of the front porch of my then-studio and turned it into a coloring picture.

Stonehouse front porch coloring picture

 .

Several years ago, when I spoke with my mother about art, and painting, I somewhat sheepishly admitted that I liked coloring books so much that I sometimes sat down and colored a picture I had found or created for a student – this was before the age of coloring books for adults. My mother chuckled and said that she did the same. Before retiring, my mother had started to resume painting and drawing, and after retiring, she dedicated much of her time to traveling, painting, and attending workshops, focusing mostly on watercolors.

untitled

Winter (2006) 50 Euros

As we talked, she mused that what attracted her to coloring books may have been the freedom that comes from not having to create something from scratch. The coloring book already provides the outline – literally -, all you have to do is choose your colors and have at it.

I could immediately relate to that.

I’ve also recently started to think that playing the piano is much like a coloring book: there is the outline – the notes, the printed information in the score –  which you can’t (shouldn’t) alter, and then you get to color, staying more or less inside the lines. I’ve also wondered how useful it would be to add a short coloring activity to my meeting with a new student: observe how they handle having to stay in the lines, how creative they can be within certain confines. I always explain to parents of especially young students that so much of what we do in the beginning has to do with learning to follow directions: if the score says E flat, and you play E natural, it will not sound right. If the rhythm consists of quarter and eighth notes, and you play everything as eighth notes, it will not sound right. Yes, music, making music, is a wonderfully creative process, but unless you want to play nothing but your own creations, you need to know how to follow rules. And if you want to learn, you need to be willing and able to follow directions.

In the meantime, I enjoy the many coloring books I have acquired recently, bought at the store, or received as Christmas present from an observant family.  I am also a regular at the local arts store where I buy my coloring pencils, one at a time, the exact color I am looking for.

From the 2016 Coloring Calendar, published by DO Magazine:

2016 coloring Calendar January

 

And, under construction, from the “Enchanted Ocean” coloring book:

Enchanted Ocean coloring picture - two fish‘Tis a good day when I get some coloring in. 🙂

Piano for Young Beginners

For me, teaching young beginners is like having a toddler around, or a puppy: cute, enjoyable, so much fun, and so incredibly much work. Lesson preparation has to be immaculate while the actual lesson requires utmost flexibility.

I love it, but it tends to burn me out. So I have decided to accept only one or two young beginners per year. On my waiting list was a now 6 yr old girl who lives around the corner from me, literally across my backyard. Two weeks ago yesterday, we started lessons. Because she lives so close she comes every day for a short lesson. And I love it. We learn a tiny little bit something new, adding on every day. No pressure to cover more material to keep her busy for the next 3 or 4 days (normally, beginners come twice a week), no pressure to learn an entire song in one lesson. One day maybe 10 days ago, her younger sister spotted my rhythm instruments and rain sticks when they came into the studio. I could tell that both girls were curious, so we played around with different rhythm instruments and took turns making sounds with the different rain sticks. We didn’t really “learn” anything that day, we just explored, and if this had been a traditional lesson I would have felt bad for not really “teaching” something specific. But since I got to see her again the very next day there was no pressure to accomplish  specific things. It feels beautifully and luxuriously relaxed.

2015-08-22 13.27.43Because I get to see her every day right now, she is progressing much faster than the average beginner. And because there is so little time – just one day – for her to forget something she learned at a lesson, or to spend much time practicing something incorrectly, our lessons can focus on revisiting old and learning new things, rather than correcting or re-learning.

Her attention span could definitely handle longer lessons, so in about a week we’ll move on to three lessons per week, later in the semester two lessons per week. She already knows four songs (in different keys), is working on a fifth, and between playing all of her songs and working on theory concepts – musical alphabet, key names, finger numbers, beginning note reading – we run out of time with the shorter lessons.

I wish I could see all of my students for lessons every day …

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:

Time off

Today, one of my piano parents made an interesting comment. When I reminded her that she didn’t have to wait until the next lesson to find out whether her daughter had practiced something correctly but that she could take a video of her daughter’s playing at home and email it to me for review / feedback whenever she needed, she said, “I don’t want to bother you in your spare time, during your time off.”

With very few exceptions – like the parent who texts at 10:30 p.m. – my piano parents are very respectful of the fact that I have a family, and I appreciate that they don’t take for granted that I am available outside of the actual lesson time.

This parent’s consideration and respect for the fact that I have a life outside of the piano studio felt very good but it reminded me that I need to educate my piano parents better:

I don’t work on things related to piano studio in my spare time. A university professor does not spend all of his/her weekly 40 hours teaching – a full-time position assumes 18 contact hours, the rest goes toward preparation, evaluation, research, etc., but you wouldn’t call the 22 non-contact hours “spare time” just because the professor is not with a student.

Likewise, I spend some of my business hours teaching, and some hours researching, preparing, evaluating, viewing and uploading lesson and performance videos to YouTube, communicating with parents and students via text or email, practicing, etc.  Every so often I go to the piano store to check out a piano for a student, texting and emailing back and forth with the parent, sharing my thoughts on the piano, answering questions. This is not done in my spare time, it is part of my job.

The difference to a 9 to 5, true 40-hour week is that my hours are very flexible. Most days I spend several hours on studio related stuff (in addition to teaching lessons), occasionally perhaps just 30 minutes, catching up on email and uploading a video. I work a lot in the evening after dinner, and most weekends, but I don’t consider those hours my spare time – I just happen to work well in the evening and on weekends.

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?