Thursday, June 30, 2005

Twenty Years from Now

In the not-too-distant future
When the housing bubble's popped;
The peak oil's peaked; the globe has warmed;
Society has stopped;

Then the bullies will take over
And the land grabs will commence
Strong young males with excess hormones
Will respect no deed or fence

Who will stand up to this menace,
Save our precious sons and daughters?
Why, the artsy, intelleckshul
Roving Gangs of Queer Marauders!

LGBTs, shy, retiring,
Must learn how to shoot an Uzi
Art and film and music majors
Can all join - we won't be choosy

Operating by consensus
And by strictest feminist process
We'll debate things to the wee hours
Free of leaders and of bosses

When the straight boys in the Hummers
Come to take away our gardens
We'll convince them of their errors
And they'll humbly beg our pardon

Then they'll join us, and together
We'll renew civilization
Everyone will be respected
In our new inclusive nation

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I am a Bernhardist

No, not THAT Bernhard: the one on Piano Street. He is a piano teacher who has really amazing ideas. His posts seem very smart and trustworthy, and I am trying out one of his ideas (modified to suit my own style, of course).

Bernhard likes to start his new piano students, not with weekly lessons, in which the very first lesson is followed by six days of flailing around attempting to practice, but rather with five consecutive daily lessons. This makes a lot more sense in my view than the traditional method of starting a complete beginner with one lesson in a half hour, and trying to get them started and putting the entire burden of figuring out how to practice on their little 6- or 7-year-old shoulders.

Bernhard charges the same amount for a week's five daily lessons as he does for a traditional weekly lesson--but with the daily lessons, he simply goes for a shorter time. And he keeps this up until the student is ready in his view to work for six days without supervision. He says that he does daily lessons for almost a year with some students.

I think this is a great idea. (It is also not without precedent: some great pianists like Claudio Arrau had this kind of lesson setup. And people whose teacher was their parent or someone else who lived with them often had daily corrections and advice, as did Arrau.) So since this is summer (I am writing this at the end of June 2005), and many kids are out of school, this is a perfect time to try out my new Bernhardism.

My first experiment was Ivana. She is seven and the best friend of another seven-year old who is taking from me (Ilse), and has been begging for lessons ever since Ilse started.

This morning was the second day. I started Ivana out teaching her "Two Black Cats" from Piano Adventures, to get her aware of the black key groups, and finger position, and switching hands at the center of the keyboard, and stuff like that. Then I taught her to write whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and double bars, and how to clap them all using my clapping method. Then we made flash cards (with a special metallic purple pencil I gave her as a gift) for each of those concepts, so she could practice testing herself with the cards after I left. I practiced some short two-measure pre-notation (that means "floating notes, with no staff") pieces from Alfred IA Sight Reading book with her, and I asked her to practice each of the four pieces on the page after I left. On my practice sheet I put each piece in a task box, so that she would practice each one and check the box after she practiced it. This was largely to get her used to my practice sheet, and to the idea of checking the box when she practices each task. Finally I wrote on the sheet that I wanted her to listen to the Suzuki CD (her best friend Ilse is using the Suzuki CD and learning pieces from it, so I want Ivana to be able to play them too--it'll motivate both of them).

This morning when I returned for the second daily lesson, Ivana had put checks all across the page for each item! She was into it. And she had remembered very well all the little things I had told her about finger position, how to sit, how to cross her ankles, etc.

Today I brought her some books from the Alfred Prep A course: instead of the Lesson book, which has too much explanations, I decided to try the Solo Book. Each page is less cluttered with explanations, and the pieces are fun. I also brought her the Theory, Notespeller, Activity, and Christmas Joy A books. Her mom for some reason had made a big point of getting Ivana started ASAP on Christmas music. I am all for it, but usually I wait until September to start. But today I taught Ivana about repeat signs vs. double bars, and taught her how to read the diagrams that show where her hands go for each piece; and then I had her play Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. She was very good at it.

Tomorrow I will do the last daily lesson with her, and see how she did the written and practicing assignments I gave her today. Based on that and on what we accomplish tomorrow, I will give her a week's worth of work.

Just from today's experience, it seems very positive to have these daily lessons. I think new students who are given a week after their first lesson lose a lot of emotional momentum and forget a lot of what I tell them. Another issue has been: most of my students eventually get into the habit of putting their check marks (on the practice sheet) ON THE DAY THAT I COME BACK. In other words, they don't check off each task as they do it, but instead present me with a sheet empty of check marks. I invariably make them put the check marks when this happens, and they just keep doing it every week, no matter how many times I tell them that I want them to check off tasks WHEN THEY DO THEM. Maybe these daily lessons will have some effect on this...although I don't see why it would.

More after tomorrow's lesson...

Blog flame wars

I love flame wars. They are so much fun: they get my adrenalin pumping, and they are cheaper than psychotherapy. And they provide a very convenient way to avoid studying and doing things I need to do.

Recently I engaged in a flame war about obesity with a troll on one of my favorite blogs: the blog is Suburban Guerilla, and here is the post in the comments of which I had a little war with somebody.

Maybe I could hire out as a blog comment hit man...

Pischna and Hanon and scales (oh my)

(I originally posted this on Piano Street)

Jumping into the Pischna fray....

I never did Pischna at all, but did Hanon as an adolescent about twenty years ago. After getting to the point where I would play through the whole of Hanon (not transposed) once every day for a couple of months, I dropped it and never went back to it. I think having gone through Hanon was beneficial, especially because it made me do scales better than I had done them before, and also because the last few exercises like the tremolo gave me a lot of confidence.

So I have this idea that Hanon is something one should do for a little while, and then move on. Maybe it's just true for me. I think that there are a lot of things in piano which one should do for a while and then move on from.

Now I am taking lessons again and am working harder than I ever have before. My teacher is more conservative than teachers I have had in the past, and she wants me to do Pischna. So I have been doing it for about a week now: she assigned the first five exercises, so I have been playing one exercise a day -- not putting rhythmic variations on it or anything, just playing it through.

Even though it's only been a short time, I think I notice a big difference in one of my pieces: Beethoven Sonata no. 14 no. 1 in E Major, Ist Mvt., m.s 39 to 44. When I started this piece about two months ago, the right hand of these measures was difficult to play cleanly because it has a turn G# F# E#F#, with RH fingers 4 3 2 3, which must be played with the upper part of the RH while the lower part of the RH is playing something else. After one week of Pischna, I seem to be able to play these measures and this turn with much more clarity and control. I think it may be psychological: but it is undeniable that Pischna makes one get one's fingers into tight little squeezes and work out the kinks.

All my life I have been around musicians who vehemently insist that technique must be tied to and dependent on the music itself. Many people today say that any exercises you do should come from the music, so that the technique will be a means to expression rather than mechanical emotionless exercises.

I think this is mostly true...but then I remember growing up and learning scales. At some point I had to learn the dang scale, and after the intitial interest of the new idea of scales, it simply wasn't all that musically expressive to play notes ascending and descending. Sure, I make my students today do crescendo/diminuendo, and diminuendo/crescendo, and staccato, and contrary motion, and all kinds of things with their scales. But it is never going to be as much music as there is in even two measures of any Chopin piece.

My point is, I think there IS a place (not a huge one) for some mechanical technique exercises. Things like Hanon and Pischna may be something it is good to have gone through once in one's pianistic life, and then you won't have to do it again.

I read about how Richter said he never did scales or arpeggios, and I find it hard to believe. I am still trying to keep an open mind about the merits of Pischna (when I first looked at it I groaned), but so far it has already had one tangible benefit, even after only a week. Time (and possible injuries?) will tell...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Busy

Will post soon. There is hope for Kyle. Quintella's husband's mother died, and she is using it as an excuse not to have lessons. If she weren't so nice to me, I'd fire her. Isaac and his sister's cousins were going to start lessons; we set up a time; I showed up with lots of purchased materials and brought my keyboard to lend them; they called at the last minute and said they'd changed their mind. I was counting on the money for rent... I donated a set of four free lessons to two different auctions, and both were purchased. But they haven't emailed me. I have been practicing my own piano lessons three hours a day (except when I only do two). New student starting today: must shower and get to music store in the next half hour. Theory exam deadlines (two) next week -- where am I going to get the money for the fees? Also must study for the exam, and complete the practice paper to be submitted next week -- where am I going to get the money for that? Advances from piano students, that's where. Bad business practice, but if I were a good businessman, I'd be not a musician.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

How do these things work?

I don't know why these things work.

This one is similar.

Make 'em pay

I am 43 this year (2005), and still go through life having to be told a thing many times before it sinks in. Although in some ways I am smart, it often happens that I have to be reminded, nagged, cajoled, begged, whined at, etc. over and over until suddenly I realize 1) the thing I was supposed to learn and 2) that I had to be told it repeatedly to get it. This is not the smartest way to go through life.

Example: When I was with my second piano teacher (other than my mom), we worked on a fluffy 19th century Romantic-era piece called "Le chevalier fantastique" or "fantasque" or something like that. It was about seven pages long and had lots of octaves alternating between the hands, to emulate the sound/energy of a horseman From The Beyond or whatever. It was a fun piece; but I would always get to this particular place on page 5 somewhere, and I would mess up. Now I was all of twelve or thirteen, and very stubborn, and I would get frustrated with myself and with the situation. So I'm in the lesson with nice Mrs. Reavis, and galloping intensely along, and then all of a sudden I hit The Spot on page 5. What do I do? I get mad, and say something like, "Wait a minute -- I can DO this!" and without waiting for instruction from Mrs. Reavis I go right back to the beginning of the piece and start over. Of course I hit The Spot again, and now I'm really pissed, so I say something short of an expletive (not appropriate for nice Mrs. Reavis) and go back to the beginning. Again. By now nice Mrs. Reavis is starting to shift in her chair, but I am barreling down life's highway of repeated errors and ride that darn horseman to The Spot. Again. Round about the fourth time Mrs. Reavis sees an opportunity to teach me Something I Need To Know: and she actually gets me off the horse briefly as she tries to communicate to me that when I make a mistake I should keep going, finish the piece, and then sit back and think about it and try to fix my mistake. But my frustration at not being able to play this piece (which I'm playing too fast anyway) is now aggravated by the fact that she is interrupting my climb to the top of this mountain which I am not going to be able to scale the way I am going; and it only makes me madder that down in the recesses of my conscious mind, or what is left of it in my equine rave, I realize that she is probably right, and that I really like her and want to do well for her and for myself; and this just makes me keep doing this repeating thing. Then all of a sudden it's the end of the lesson, and I haven't achieved my goal of riding the horse over the hurdle, but it doesn't matter because it's time to pick up my books and clear out of the room so the next student can come in. Nice Mrs. Reavis is probably at some level relieved that I can take my twelve-year-old stubborn boy horse energy out of her life for at least one week, but she doesn't say anything mean or snippy. The next week, before we start, she calmly and quietly and smilingly explains to me that the way to handle the frustration I experienced was not to do what I did, but to finish the piece and then fix it. If I repeat my frustration cycle behavior (she explains, using different terms), I get into a Bad Habit: the dreaded Starting Over At The Beginning Without Finishing The Piece First. I feel kind of embarrassed that I was such a jerk last week and apologize, and we ride the horse again but this time I make myself finish when I mess up.

The whole point of this is that she had to tell me several times before I would hear her, because I was in this emotional damn-the-torpedoes mode.

Now if I had been living in the Paleolithic era and hadn't eaten for two or three days and suddenly had an opportunity to catch an animal to eat which had strayed into my immediate surroundings, I would probably not be so self-indulgent as to scare it off repeatedly while attempting to snare it or shoot it with my bow and arrow or lance it with my spear or whatever...because I would only get one chance. If I botched the chance, and my prey figured out that I wanted to eat it, it would run away from me and I would be hungry until the next animal came into view. So this would be closer to a life-or-death matter of learning my lesson the first time, rather than the artificial and indulgent situation in the piano lesson, in which there are few consequences of note if I act stubborn and stupid.

Sometimes I get students who come from families where money is very tight, or budgeted down to the penny. Everyone budgets to some degree, but there are families where waste is not looked on lightly. In these families (often but not always Asian American), if Janie doesn't listen to me the first time, Mom or Dad says something short and sharp to give her a little reality check: she's not going to waste the family's money by failing to learn what I am trying to tell her, and she had better get it the first time I tell her.

But every once in a while, I, who go through life ignoring lessons that are staring me in the face, realize I've done it again. I'm starting the piece over again, instead of taking a deep breath and doing some actual thinking.

As a piano teacher, there have been times when I met people who wanted their kids to have lessons, but didn't have money to spend on it. [Cue Dudley Doright voice: "I'll save you, Nell!"] So I jump in and offer to teach them for free. For a few lessons this works out and everyone is happy and smiley. Then the novelty begins to wear off and the grind becomes apparent, the real work to be done reveals itself. It is around this point that a family who is not paying for lessons, because I was going to save the world and give them free lessons and thereby achieve world peace and love and understanding and get into heaven etc. etc., begins to slack off. Why do they slack off? Because they're not paying for the lessons.

If they were paying hard earned cash, it would mean more to the parents, and they would not let their kids get away with not practicing, or not paying attention, or whatever bad behavior it is that the kid is going to do. But because no money is going out, and I am entertaining their kids for an hour during which the parents can watch their kid jump through hoops and feel that warm glow they get when their offspring perform little prodigies, the parents don't care, and that attitude hits up against the kid, and then the kid doesn't care. This is an example of how the values of the parents directly and immediately impact the values the kid gets.

This truth is an unpleasant one that I don't want to learn, because among other things it contradicts my happy naive left-wing view of the world: If everyone is nice to each other and gives each other flowers, we're all going to rise into the clouds in a rapture of nice-ness and God will be so pleased. Well, sometimes money makes people value something. If they ain't payin', they ain't carin'.

This has happened in my life over and over and over and over. I meet up with some people who want lessons, but they're poor (in one case, they weren't even poor...that's an interesting story in itself), so I offer to provide the lessons for free, with a few succinct explanations, delivered in an oh-so-serious tone, that they Must Value The Lessons As Though They Were Paying For Them. They keep smiling at me and make the sounds they think I want to hear, and I go away for the week, and they wave goodbye to me as they watch me leave their house while they feel that warm glow you get when you are going to get something for free.

But when the kid is at the lesson, and it was an unusually busy week, because the cousins are in town visiting and they had a book report due at school and the new Star Wars movie came out and this that and the other happened, then push comes to shove, and the free piano lessons' written assignment doesn't get done. The parents jump in and explain: "Well, this was just a busy week -- the cousins are in town visiting and" etc. They deliver this speech to me with at least one or two underlying messages that go along with the words they are saying: the unspoken text is "Piano is nice and all that, but my kids also have a life, and you need to back off when the cousins come, because we don't want our kids to miss out on the cousin experience. So don't bitch at my kid for not doing the written homework/practicing/whatever that they were supposed to do, OK?"

And I have to take it.

Now if they were paying, they wouldn't be saying or thinking such things.

What does this say about human nature? It says that even the smartest, most generous, most spiritual, most thoughtful, most caring people don't value something if they don't have to pay for it.

And I have had this lesson presented to me on a platter over and over and over and over and over and over and over in my life. But I keep going back to the beginning of the piece and trying it again, not changing what I am doing/thinking/believing/adhering to politically, because I want it to work.

In a certain family whose two kids I am teaching, I offered to help the mom practice her English if she would help me practice my Vietnamese. And, once again, it doesn't work if they aren't paying. The mom works from 10 to 9 six days a week, and doesn't have a lot of time to spend with friends and with her family. So during the time I am over there for English/Vietnamese exchange, what does she do? She has her friends come over. Think about it: it's the only time she has to see her friends. I know her schedule, so I should have figured this out. But because I am stubborn and I want something to be the way it isn't, once again I waste my time. She doesn't sit up at nights thinking about how she will prepare for the next English/Vietnamese exchange, like I'm doing right now with this post; no, she's thinking how did she get into this mess where the piano teacher is monopolizing her only free time and preventing her from spending it with her friends.

If she were paying me, she'd value it, and the friends wouldn't magically appear during the English/Vietnamese time, and she would care.

That's a harsh truth, and it's enough to make a guy cynical about human nature.

But I still won't vote Republican.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Teaching pedal

Two tricks for introducing pedal (overlapping pedal):

1) Teach a two-octave crossed-hands arpeggio in C Major. LH C E G RH C E G LH C
(No pedal yet). That was ascending. Then teach the same notes descending. Then put them both together, going up and down. Then have them play the whole thing with the pedal down.
It forces them to get the right notes, because with the pedal down, any wrong note in an arpeggio is going to sound really bad, and this will get them to start listening.

2) Teach a five-chord progression using common tone in C Major: (RH) C chord in root position; F chord in second inversion; C chord in root position; G7 chord in first inversion; C chord in root position. Then have the student play the first chord and hold it down with the fingers, and while holding the chord down, have them depress the damper pedal. Now, without lifting the pedal, have the student play the second chord and hold those fingers down. Both chords are now mixed together, which sounds "muddy". Now have the student, with the second chord's fingers still down, lift and depress the damper pedal, thus "clearing" the pedal of the first chord's tones. I have my students do this with each chord of the five-chord progression above. (I call that progression the "Grand Progression", which I got from Piano Adventures. It makes it easy for them to remember.)

Both of these tricks get the student to listen to what the pedal can do between notes or chords, rather than what most people do with the pedal when they are just messing around on the piano, which is: they think something like "Oooh! The pedal makes the tones last a long time and sound really cool!" but then they don't take it to the next step and really address all the cool things that the pedal can be used for.

I have gotten into a space where I only (almost) teach overlapping pedal. If they can get overlapping pedal, which is coordinating chord changes or note changes with the pedal, then they can do the easier kind of pedalling in which you are holding a chord down and you depress the damper pedal just for a moment, to help the sound out. That kind is much easier to do, because it doesn't have to have precise split-second timing.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Planet of the Hats

You must read this.

Friday, June 17, 2005

When good students...just stay good

Dara and Timothy (not their real names) are sister (11) and brother (7). I have taught Dara for about three years now, and Timothy for a year and a half. Dara did CM levels Prep, 2 and 3; and then this year (2005) we didn't do an exam, because I felt she needed time to relax and catch up her developmental learning skills with the piano skills that would be demanded of her in level 4. So we have been working on level 4 stuff and RCM grade 3 stuff, and I think she will be ready to do a RACE exam this December.

Timothy did CM Prep level this year.

These kids live in a family where academics are a given, and where classical music is actively loved and listened to and discussed by both parents, and the mom plays piano. The dad doesn't have training in an instrument but his mother was an opera singer and he LOVES all classical music (as well as jazz), going around the house singing. They have a huge collection of CDs and videotapes of music and shows, and much of it is classical, and it gets played a lot. The kids are actively involved in listening to classical music: when I assigned an easy arrangement of Grieg's "Morning" from Peer Gynt to Timothy, he proclaimed it his favorite piece in that book (Faber's PreTime Classics). That could only happen because he knows that piece and has heard it; and I use this a lot in teaching these two kids. They have a HUGE advantage because they have heard this music. Wish everyone I teach was like this...

Dara loves to play piano, and will play other than what I assign her to play just for fun. It was partly in order to keep this love of music healthy and growing that I kept her out of CM one year: I wanted to increase her playing and sight reading abilities and at the same time keep alive her sense of fun when playing. We have been doing the Piano Adventures books and she loves them, especially the Performance and the Pop Rep. Currently she is in the 3A books, although I am deemphasizing them gradually in favor of the Piano Odyssey books. I have her working on Clementi's Sonatina in C in the Piano Odyssey 3 book.

Dara is a very smart girl, who is accomplished in a variety of things. Tall and thin and blonde, she is good at whatever sports she plays (she and Timothy won trophies for swimming), and she loves to sing for people at church, and she reads books voraciously. Timothy is also very smart, and for his age he can do amazing sports things like throwing and catching footballs and playing sports and eye coordination stuff above his age level. You'd have to see it to understand what I'm talking about; I'm not describing it well. It's unusual.

Occasionally Dara gets into a bit of a resistance mode (not very often). She does this mostly with her mom when her mom is helping her with theory homework (I hear them in the kitchen while I'm teaching Timothy). Dara tells her mom that she didn't finish her homework because she doesn't understand it and she needs help; and then she sits back and forces the mom to explain everything. The mom, being a trained teacher, doesn't put up with this for very long, and starts calling Dara on her recalcitrance. Dara repeats "But I don't understand it" over and over again. I have gone into the kitchen a couple of times and taken over the "helping". My way of helping doesn't let Dara get away with anything, but stays light and fun and active. If it's about rhythm, then we clap everything, in as many ways as I can think of that keep it interesting and fun, counting aloud and having one person clap main beats while the other person claps the given rhythm, or whatever presents itself. It helps greatly to make it a joking kind of contest, or just to have give and take between myself and Dara or between us and the mom. Dara doesn't do this resistance thing very often, and I include it here because in some ways she and Timothy are my ideal students, but even the best students have off days. Mostly she is the epitome of enthusiasm for whatever music we are working on. But it's not a sappy, Pollyanna-ish enthusiasm: we do lots of silly role plays and joking (example: she will play something I have assigned and I will say: "It was really good, Dara! Yes, that's right...it was really good. There's only one little thing...nahh, it's such a little thing...oh, never mind, forget I brought it up...really, it's too tiny and trivial to bother with...it's not important..." etc., until she catches on and starts begging me to tell her what my correction is. Then I make her beg in several different silly ways, then finally I tell her what I want her to do differently). It takes time but it is fun and breaks out of too much seriousness, and she loves the game aspect of it (and so do I).

Timothy is also very humor oriented. He likes the fake German accent that I use when telling him to put his heels on the ground ("Heelz on zee GRRROUNT!!!") and replies to me in the same silly dialect, and we have a good time.

With both kids their natural enthusiasm for music is occasionally (not often) tempered with a slight inertia: it's interesting to see when it happens and with what tasks. At the beginning of our lessons several years ago Dara did not take well to counting aloud while clapping or playing, and for a while there she was asking me "Do I hafta count aloud?" to which the answer was, as kindly as I could put it, "Yes." It's funny that now, after three years of counting aloud, she is quite good at it; but the vestiges of the old negative attitude of not liking it persist, and when it's time for the sight reading drill, I say, "Sight reading bookie!" (all piano books are "bookies" for me -- don't remember how that got started) in a chirpy cheery voice, and she makes a face and says "yay" or "great" in an ironic tone meant to indicate that she doesn't like it. Probably in the total picture of all the things we do in the lesson, it's low on her list; but the actual truth is that she is good at it and comfortable with it now, and I need to think of a way to get her to realize this. As far as being able to dig up her mom's old music and play it for fun, I don't think she's at that point yet, mostly because I have controlled her choice of music so carefully that she always has fun music to play from what I assign, so there is no need for her to dig through Mom's old books to find new interesting stuff. I need to think about this: it gets back to motivation and self-starting and loving best what you do for yourself. How can I get Dara to really want to go through her mom's old books?

Both Dara and Timothy, more than most kids, are willing and eager to tackle new music with a minimum of guidance from me. I hope to develop this into a full-fledged desire to mess around with whatever music they can find in the house.

This post is meant to counter some of my recent posts, which I thought were getting too moany. The old saying that "no news is good news" means, among other things, that when everything is going well, there isn't much interesting to report. That's true for these two kids: they're mostly free from BS and they are a joy to teach. So that's my take on them.

But I'm still going to post about problem students. I hope that other teachers will read and comment with their own stories.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Bad writing I have seen, part one

Occasionally I read, in a blog or website I really like and want to be as good as it can be, some really awful writing. It makes me angry, especially if it is in a larger work that deals with a subject near and dear to my heart, like politics. If it's about literature or music, then it's just a bad paragraph, and little harm has been done. But if it's about economics or politics, and the point of view being expressed is an important one that is underrepresented, then I may do something about it.

Here is part of an otherwise excellent article from the redoubtable Dark Wraith Forums (the link is here):

Absent the magnet those Chinese reserves of dollars have in returning to America as lendable funds, and the impact of those domestic trade deficits would have been considerably less, particularly on the outflow of American jobs to overseas markets, although that process had been on-going for some years, simply because of the undervaluation of the yuan.

And here is the final sentence of an interesting article on Howard Dean and his asides which seem to offend some people (not me, though):

Absent the substance, though, it’s hard to see the shallow, pandering cracks that have elected Dems running away from Dean as anything other than a distraction from the uphill task of bringing what is a distinctly minority party these days back into power.

Aside from the fact that both of these posts begin with a nominative absolute "Absent...", what they also have in common is that they are bloody hard to understand. And they are both saying important things that should be discussed (although I disagree with Doug Ireland about Dean's need to be nice).

In both articles I have posted comments which you can find at the bottom.

Update: The Dark Wraith attempted to shoot my critique of his writing down, but anyone who knows a little about grammar will see that he is laughably wrong in his refutations of my criticisms. I replied to his attempted refutation in a personal email, but he did not bother to answer.

What gets my goat is: the Dark Wraith says he is a college instructor in English! And Doug Ireland is a famous journalist! How can they write so badly? Gosh, I have no degree, and I wouldn't write such a bad sentence!

[You may now scour my previous posts for example of horrible writing. I hope you find some -- I'd like to know. Leave a comment.]

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Blogifying blogulation

Stupid blog names I considered and then rejected:

BLOGORRHEA
If you've read my blog, you know about my propensity for verbal bombastificationitudiousness.

TREEHOUSE OF THE MARGINAL
No normal people allowed. Get your OWN treehouse! (Y'all already own all the good ones anyway...grumble...grumble...)

PHLLLLBBTTPPPPP ' ,
[Expresses my feelings succinctly; but could be difficult to include in a URL. The punctuation at the end is meant to symbolize drops of saliva.]

SELF-INDULGENT TRANSGRESSIVE
Somebody wrote that right-wingers think of gay people as willfully flawed, like people who drive too fast: according to this world-view, gay people should just slow down and follow the rules, like everybody else.

THE BLOG THAT WOULDN'T DIE
50s retro irony. Also When Blogs Collide, Attack Of The 50-Foot Blog, Voyage To The Bottom Of My Mind.

BLOGGENSTEIN
Also Blogula, It Crawled Out Of My Blog, Look What The Blog Dragged In, Man Bites Blog,...Probably some of these are taken.

IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?
Neatly encapsulates the pathetic life of people like me who spend time in front of our computers hoping someone will read us. The question mark could be a problem for URLs...

BLOG THIS
Also Up Against The Blog, I Got Yer Blog Right Here, Blogslapped.

STEAL THIS BLOG
Would limit me to anti-corporate anarchistic sentiments, and instead I wanna talk about imposing my constricted aesthetic viewpoint on hapless children in order to seek out and destroy any last vestiges of love of music they might have left in their vulnerable little souls mwoohahahahahhh.

LOG-FLOGGING BLOG
A very apt metaphor for the whole blogging thing. Again, the audience overlap between masturbators and piano teachers might not...might not...oh, wait...well, anyway...

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S BLOG
Those who read my posts and fail to leave a comment will have their tongue torn out slowly, their lips sewed together with cheap polyester thread in unattractive colors, and be forced to listen to songs that start out with a pretty good hook but don't follow up on it in the rest of the first phrase of the melody, like Don't Cry For Me Argentina or pretty much anything else by Andrew Lloyd Webber. You have been warned...

[Off-topic news flash: Nestor va a ser abuelo. Tengo una pregunta: si los mexicanos dicen que una cosa buena es "padre", entonces ?no sera aun mejor ser "abuelo"? Ser abuelo: !que abuelo!]

Monday, June 13, 2005

Props are bad

Today is Monday, so that means it's Quintella and Kyle (not their real names).

Quintella was great today. As usual with adult students, we had to have a chat at the beginning of the lesson, and it was hard to tear ourselves away from the chat. Right as the lesson began, the verdict on the Michael Jackson trial was being delivered, and Quintella and her husband like to watch TV to keep apprised of such things. (I don't watch TV, except through the Internet occasionally.) So we had to chat about it, and after ten minutes of chatting, Mr. Quintella came in and announced that all counts were not guilty. So we chatted about that for another three minutes or so, and then I yanked our chain and we started playing.

Quintella, as I have posted before, is 72 and overanalyzes. Today she did quite well: kept going and didn't recite The Creed (see previous post on Older Students) except for a short version once or twice. I have her working on Beethoven's Ecossaise in Eb, WoO 86 (every time I see a WoO number I wanna SHOUT! WoO HoO!! WoO HoOOOOO!!!!). Last week I assigned the entire ecossaise, each hand separately. The first four measures of the RH are in an Eb Major five-finger position, and the next four measures are in an extended Eb triad position. This piece switches between those two positions, and then in the B section the RH switches between an Eb Major five-finger position in one octave and the same position an octave higher. It's a good "Grade 2" piece in my opinion.

Quintella got through it verrrry slowwwly but steadily, hands separately. Then I had her try it with the metronome, and told her that 60 is always a good speed to try out at first. She set it up clicking away at 60, and then tried to play the RH with the MM. After a few false starts, during which I kept silent, she ended up playing eighth beats with the clicks, which would make it quarter note = 30, if her MM had such a speed. I remarked that it seemed quite slow, and she agreed, so we experimented with faster and faster tempos, still sticking with the eighth note to a click. Finally we settled at eighth note = 100, which seemed comfortable. I asked her to practice hands separately at that speed this week. Her other repertoire piece is Mozart's Minuet in F, KV 6 (I think -- don't have it in front of me). Last week she was assigned to practice the first four measures, hands separately; and today we tackled the next four measures, focusing on having the repeated notes "go somewhere" (= crescendo), and then working on getting a contrast between eighth notes alternating with eighth rests and quarter notes. I did my Austrians vs. Germans spiel, about lightness vs. stodginess, and she got a lightness going with it which was promising.

Kyle is one of my problems, and I am going to fire him at the end of the summer if he doesn't shape up. I have been teaching him since March of 2004. He is so smart that he is almost a genius; but he is one of those 8-year-old boys that don't sit still easily. So even now, after fifteen months, we are still hassling out how to sit correctly and how to take instructions without asking too many questions that distract from the task at hand. Really, he has decided that he doesn't like piano much, but his mom is bound and determined that he will NOT QUIT, and she dangles carrots over him like guitar lessons or drum lessons, both of which he really wants. I think he's heavily influenced by the coolness factor of drums/guitar vs. uncool girly piano, and it doesn't help that I am about achievement rather than easy fun. He is quite open about not liking the piano; but when he doesn't behave or fails to follow directions, his mom takes things away. It's Younger Sister again in some ways, except that Kyle will actually talk to me and tries a little bit, especially at the beginning of the hour. I think that an hour is too long for him, but also think that it shouldn't be; and I want him to do well.

Kyle likes the idea of playing piano, and last year we did a reduced arrangement of Joplin's The Entertainer. He got through it (barely - he has trouble maintaining focus on detail without squirming), and we moved on to other pieces. But he really likes The Entertainer -- that is, he likes the idea of it. Every time I start writing on the sheet or when my attention is distracted from Kyle, he starts playing the first four bars of The Entertainer (the melody, not the intro), which are the only parts he remembers. He plays it very fast and very loudly and very sloppily, and I have taken precious lesson time for months and months teaching him all kinds of "cool" piano stuff by rote, which he will only learn if I write out the note names in patterns on a blank sheet of paper, because he cannot be bothered to figure out notes on a staff unless he is made to. So we learned the Pink Panther, and Batman, and we did a lot with the 12-bar blues progression, and we did some simple improvisation in the blues scale and did duets with that, and I got the Faber PlayTime Popular books with cool songs in them and he worked on some that I assigned (Star Wars was one he begged me to teach him), but when it became clear that I was going to have him figure out the notes on his own more and more, he lost interest in the Faber books.

That is the trouble with teaching kids stuff by rote or cool pictures or fun diagrams or index cards with pictures on them drawn by the kids or anything other than Making The Kid Figure Out The Notes: the kid gets to like learning the other way, and resists figuring out the notes. I must really stop doing cool, innovative ways of teaching pieces that don't involve the kid figuring out the notes on the staff.

Another kid I teach is Isabelle (not her real name). Isabelle is seven and is legally blind, although her vision is sufficient for her to read books when she holds it within two inches of her face. So I was all excited when I heard she was blind because I wanted to teach someone who was blind and learn how to do it. I had visions of learning Braille and all kinds of stuff. But Isabelle doesn't do any Braille at all, so that didn't happen.

What did happen was that I picked for Isabelle the Suzuki method as a basis for lessons. I figured that while we dealt with the reading thing and figured out how to get her to feel comfortable with it, she could be learning by listening to the CDs that go with the Suzuki books, and I could gradually work her into reading however it had to be done with her particular abilities. (I have not gone through the official Suzuki training, though I have read extensively on it and grew up myself with Suzuki cello lessons.) Well, I get into the form of simple pieces and break up The Cuckoo, for example, into four sections of four bars each, which I call "A", "A1", "B", and "A2" because the A sections share a similar beginning. I also wrote words for the first half of Suzuki Book One, and use my words to teach the songs. That has not worked well in the past, and the Suzuki stuff I have read says that the teacher shouldn't use "gimmicks or tricks" to teach the kid a song, but rather that the kid should listen to the CD and the teacher should get the student to figure out the song by ear, with guidance from the teacher. But I didn't take this good advice, and the kids like my fun words to the songs, and they're well done if I do say so myself. So I had Isabelle draw little pictures (she loves to draw, even though she has to get her face right up to the page) on cards, and we used those cards as flash cards for each section of the piece, and we played games where we mixed the cards up and created new pieces, and gave them silly names, and it was all good fun.

But it avoided the real meat of what piano needs to be: the kid must figure out what the notes are, and must play those notes upon reading them.

Isabelle likes the cutesy attention of drawing the cards and learning the words and all that stuff - in fact she loves it. What she doesn't love is when I require her to do pages in the Alfred Prep B Notespeller, or when I require her to do pages in her Theory Discoveries book, or when we do sight reading exercises (I hold the book up to her face so it's almost touching; my arm gets Really Tired, because she has to be dragged through each exercise). I have tried recasting the music at 250 % with my Finale Print Music program, and I put it in different colors, which was fun, and she can work with that; but she still has to lean way over so her nose is almost touching the music on the music rack. Then I thought: OK, she can actually read the music as it is printed, if she leans over and gets her face on it, or if I sit there and hold the music to her nose; so how much should I recast music in huge type and pretty colors? It's just another way of postponing the hard work of having her read the notes and play them, when she would rather have me or Mom or Dad teach them to her.

So I don't know how to do this. I think I'll keep the fun color big recasting thing going for a while, but will also try to wean her off it ASAP. The world isn't going to recast things for her in special fun colors with cute words; and more to the point, there is a real joy in working out the notes on one's own and feeling the good feeling you get when your hard work pays off and you can play something because you took the trouble to figure it out. She needs to learn how to do this, and I must stop avoiding it with cards and words and stuff.

I've got Kyle working on the Beethoven Ecossaise as well. We labored through it last week, and today he tells me he didn't practice it because he "forgot how it goes". So we go through it all again. He doesn't actually refuse anything, but makes me drag him through every single note. It's not fun. Today he had his first guitar lesson (I have seen the writing on the wall and have tried to talk up guitar or drum lessons for him to the mom and dad, discussing frankly that he doesn't like the piano lessons with me; but Mom is bound and determined that he will continue with piano, and at one level I don't blame her). How did it go? Mom: "He LOVED it."

Good. [Quoting Mr. Burns from The Simpsons:] "EX-cel-lent." [with much rubbing of hands]

I hope he can really like his guitar lessons, and I can simply announce that I am going to have to "take a break" from teaching him, and if I do it right, all parties involved will get the message, and he will have a good grounding in the training I have given him. But really, if he is so determined that he isn't going to like me and my teaching, then what good am I doing by prolonging the inevitable? If he doesn't have a major attitude change by the middle of August (I recognize my responsibility to facilitate this change and will do my part as well), he is history.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

How to get them to care

Nancy (not her real name) is 15, Vietnamese-American, and beautiful. She is very talented at drawing and loves all things anime. What she does not love is piano. I don't think she hates it, but she does it because she's a good, dutiful Catholic girl and she does what is expected of her even when it hurts. She is always very polite in the lessons (I think it's about four years now) and is generous enough to humor me when I go off on un-piano-related tangents about things like what books she is currently reading (I like to ask this question of all my students - I hope it may stimulate them to read more - probably not, though...).

Her younger sister studied with me for about three years, but I ended up "firing" her, in a somewhat tearful family meeting in which the aunt (who lives in the house and speaks Vietnamese and English) translated for the mom (Vietnamese only). Basically the position of the adults from the beginning has been: "Younger sister is open about the fact that she is not interested at all in piano and doesn't want to be bothered with it. We don't care; we want her to study piano anyway. She must do whatever you tell her; and if she doesn't, tell us and she will be punished." (This was said to me verbatim about one year into Younger Sister's lessons with me. It was said by the mom, translated by the aunt, with Younger Sister and Nancy both within three feet of the aunt, the mom and myself, with both girls hearing every word.)

So here we are dealing with a different mentality from the one I grew up with in easy-street post-WWII white-bread America, which still exists, and whose parents often tell me things like "I want Janie to learn piano...[pause]...but I don't want to PUSH her..." This whole mentality is how I was brought up: and it has some wrong assumptions.

In this universe of naive Americans (I am part and parcel of it, so I feel entitled to refer to it so), which I will call White-bread-land, Janie is only granted lessons when she expresses an interest, and as soon as she is made to do actual work and therefore complains to Mommy that she doesn't want to do piano anymore, Mommy begins seriously considering the ramifications of what a mess they (and I) are all in, because she didn't realize the consequences of what she was doing when she signed Janie up. Now if Mommy allows Janie to quit, then she is encouraging Jamie to quit when things get rough, which is not a good thing to teach your child. So Mommy then has to find some way to get Janie to keep going and to have a good attitude about it, even though Janie has just declared her moral and philosophical opposition to piano lessons based on its failure to gratify and entertain Janie like everything else in Janie's life is supposed to do.

For everything in Janie's life is about pleasure and entertainment; and everything in Janie's life is judged as to how good it is for her by how much she likes it at any given moment. Janie probably doesn't like things like math at first, where she is made to do actual thinking and work hard; so math teachers are judged by how entertaining and "fun" they make the math. If kids come home saying "Wow, math was fun today", then those teachers develop a reputation for being good teachers. It doesn't matter if the kids can actually do the math -- what matters is the things said about the teachers, by the kids and therefore by the parents. This is I think somewhat peculiar to American over-indulged society, and since the 1940s this indulgence is always just about to get wildly out of hand, when all of a sudden America gets a wake-up call like Sputnik or the reports in the past several years comparing math abilities of students in different countries. And, as other developed countries' cultures and societies get more like America's, there arise similar pressures to entertain the kids rather than teach them something that would require effort. But from what I read, and from the foreign parents I talk with, European and Asian countries and ex-British holdings like New Zealand and Australia and South Africa still make their kids learn more than America does to graduate from high school, and those countries are still less forgiving of slackers.

So Nancy and Younger Sister are caught between two worlds: the world of their parents, Vietnamese immigrants who prize education and attainments and who believe in and use absolute parental authority to mold their kids into what they feel they should be; and their peers' White-bread-land, where if it doesn't feel good, it's wrong.

Younger Sister is the rebel of the two sisters. She told me the day I met her, in a very quiet way with her big eyes focused right on me when I asked her why she wanted to learn piano, that "Actually, I don't really want to. Mom wants me to."

Now, what do you do with that? According to the rules of White-bread-land, you are supposed to be nice and cheery and make a minimal effort to get her to "Try it; you'll like it"; and after a couple of months when it is clear she does not like it, you make some excuse and drop her, because She Has Said She Doesn't Like It.

But in Authoritarian-parenting-land, where it doesn't matter what the kid likes, I accept the student anyway and don't refer too much to the topic "So -- how do you like piano lessons?", because the answer is possibly painful and in any case irrelevant.

There is a small sub-district of White-bread-land in which music teachers, justifiably embittered by the entertainment ethos, react too much the other way and set themselves up in their own minds as True Guardians Of The Sacred Knowledge. For such teachers, the student had better prove herself every lesson, because if she slacks off, they will drop her. The motto of the True Guardians is: "I'm not here to entertain them. If they don't work, they're history."

Teachers who I have heard say this or things like it are usually not very successful, because they have a bitterness in their lives, and it is bound up with how they perceive their students. If the student fails to show sufficient enthusiasm for the music lessons, she is Betraying the Sacred Knowledge, betraying the True Guardian of the Sacred Knowledge, and betraying everybody else as well; and so she must be summarily fired with a haughty sniff.

This attitude, like the other two attitudes, fails to account for a lot of factors. And it lets a bad teacher off the hook: "It's not MY fault Janie won't practice; she just wants to be entertained."

So I have these three attitudes warring within me and in the people I am working with. I see all three points of view, and see flaws in all three. And I must contend with all three, for they are all real and prevalent and powerful.

What I did with Younger Sister was: I made a vow that I would do my best to be as fun as I could, and that we would do at least one exam so that she would have a tangible record of her achievement.

The vow to be fun lasted about a year; after that, I had to accept that Younger Sister had more stubbornness and more staying power than a fungus growing on a tree. She was not going to respond to even the most innocuous attempts by me at small talk, so that went out the window after about six months. And she wasn't going to try at all to put any expression into her playing. She would only do what I could prove she was required to do: no more, no less. She did this all very quietly, and didn't show any disrespect or flippancy. She was focused and determined from the onset not to like the lessons. If I were to recommend a career for this amazing girl, I would say "hostage negotiator" because of her sheer persistence, her ability to stick to her goal, her quick and steady intelligence, and her unswerving patience in the face of all attempts by me to get her to emote or make an effort.

After two years and two exams, which she passed with not very good remarks from the adjudicators (that is significant, because this is the California CM exams, and anyone who smiles at the adjudicator gets points just for that), I had her working on Schumann's Melody and the second piece in Everybody's Perfect Masterpieces Volume Two. Week after week I would come back, and she would not be able to get through four bars without completely collapsing. I'm not talking about small errors of notes or of fingering: she had not touched this music since the last time I had seen her. Every lesson in this period was a marathon clash of wills: all moves by the combatants were met with by parries borne of superb strategy and executed with the most cunning of tactics, and this was all done in quiet restrained tones, with no one ever raising her/his voice, or giving in one inch to the opposing force. Did she play the measure I asked with the wrong finger? even after I asked her to correct the finger? Very well; then she would repeat it until she used the correct finger. This worked for a while: her boredom and resentment was trumped by the different boredom of having to repeat so many times the same measure. So I would win that one; but the next week it would be back to the same wrong finger. This kind of thing went on for months. Between lessons no progress was being made. Finally I resigned myself to the fact that any progress she made would be done within the context of the lesson, and it would only occur at that time, and it would only happen if I insisted she do it in front of me. I was operating at this level of resignation and frustration for months. After the second exam with her in March of 2004, this went on until August. Finally I had had enough. I was going to fire her. But how to do this right?

Because all my students are referred to me by word of mouth (a good thing, because it shows that people who know my teaching like it), they are all to some degree networked with each other (can be bad, can be good). If I want to keep my good reputation, I cannot mess up with one student, because they will talk about it and the word will spread. Plus I really was considering the well-being of Younger Sister through all this. I wanted to sever my connection with her as positively as possible. So this operation had to be performed very delicately and lovingly, for her sake and for mine.

I knew that Mom would be angry with Younger Sister if I stopped teaching her, not at me (at any rate, Mom would not express anger to me, but would take it out on Younger Sister); and I knew that my statements had to make the break fairly quickly, or else Mom would threaten Younger Sister with lots of nasty consequences. Nancy (the 'older sister') told me as much: if I fired Younger Sister, Younger Sister would not be allowed to do cheerleading, which is something that apparently she wanted to do. (I had and have trouble believing this of Younger Sister: a more quiet, shy person you will rarely meet. Cheerleading?...yeah, right...) Well, I didn't want this; but I couldn't allow this kind of blackmail either. What I figured out was: I couldn't base my decision on whether to teach Younger Sister or not on things like the horrible retaliations they might punish her with. I didn't want them to do those things; but I couldn't operate like that, or they would be in charge of me.

I told the mom that if Younger Sister didn't shape up in one month, I would not enter her for the exam. This was a mistake on my part, as I will shortly explain.

The month came and went, and there was no change, and so I prepared the battleground by asking Younger Sister to confirm what we both knew: that she would be happy to stop piano lessons (I knew this might be the more drastic option I would take). I asked this and all other questions in as non-judgmental and kind a tone as I could. She almost smiled as she replied that no, ending piano lessons would not be a problem for her. I then told her that I was going to tell Mom that I was not going to enter her for the exam, and that she would probably get in some trouble, because she had not done what I had asked her to do in the lessons; but that I would try to make it as easy on her as possible. Then I summoned Mom and Aunt.

I fired the first shot by saying that Younger Sister had repeatedly and for a very long time been shirking her practicing. I asked them if they heard her practicing, and they were forced to agree that they didn't hear her playing "very much". Then I said that exams were not only about the student but also about my reputation as a teacher, and that I was not going to enter a student who did not try her best, and so I was not going to enter Younger Sister for the exam.

(This conversation was taking place in September, a month before the deadline for entering students for the March CM exams.)

This was a blow to Mom, because she wanted very much for both her girls to do the exams. But "would I keep teaching Younger Sister?" They wanted me to keep teaching. Here is where I became aware of my earlier mistake. In this moment I realized that the quickest solution, and the best one for Younger Sister, was to say that I would no longer teach her. So I said that today was the last lesson I would teach Younger Sister, but that I would like to continue teaching Nancy. This information was processed. After a pregnant pause Mom asked me, through Aunt, if I would recommend another teacher who would do exams. I said that I would, but that an ethical teacher probably wouldn't enter a student they had just begun to teach a month earlier for exams, so Younger Sister would probably miss a year. I then gave them the name of the referral contact teacher of the local branch of the MTAC -- the organization that hosts the CM exams.




The mom said quiet-but-firm sounding things in Vietnamese to the girl, who began to come as close to crying as I ever saw her do -- no tears, but the tear-y kind of voice you get when you're about to cry. Back and forth they went a few times; then Mom turned to Aunt and said something. Aunt repeated what Nancy had told me: "If she doesn't take lessons with you, she will not be allowed to do cheerleading." Thinking as fast as I could, I replied that I hoped they would not take away activities that Younger Sister liked and that were good for her (but is cheerleading really good? anyway, this was no time to be dithering because of that...so on I pressed...), but my mind was made up.

Now the ball was in their court.

Mom proclaimed that Younger Sister wasn't going to be cheerleading, and Younger Sister and Aunt retired to their respective rooms, with Younger Sister in tears. Mom stayed during much of Nancy's lesson, sitting behind me, which she never does. At one point, after Younger Sister and Aunt had left the room, I looked at Mom with a kind of "I'm sorry, but I really think this is best" expression and half-shrug. She was smiling at me, but looked like she was about to break into tears herself.

Thus the firing of Younger Sister was accomplished. Interesting (and annoying) epilogue: the teacher referral person, who went around saying she was retired and not accepting new students, took on Younger Sister as a student AND entered her in the exams for the very next March! So much for integrity. I tried to ask Nancy how Younger Sister did in the exams, but she was never quite able to tell me. Smart girl. Both of them...

Anyway, why I titled this post "How to get them to care": I have a teaching technique which is kind of a negative thing to do and is only to be used when all positive cheery happy-clappy smiley-face strategies have failed, but sometimes I resort to it: "You are going to do it three times right in a row."

Me: Play measures 19 and 20.

She: [misses a note or a finger or something]

Me: Ooops! You missed [whatever]. Let's try it again.

She: [misses it again, or in a different way, or not as bad but still wrong...]

Me (in as cheery a voice as sounds sincere): Oh, no!! Better try it again.

We go back and forth until she does it once right.

Me: Great! [in awed tones] That's the [careful, slow, excited enucnciation] "First Right Time"! Now let's do it three times right in a row.

If she misses one thing, we start over.

This can take a while. Eventually, with me encouraging her and getting her to keep it slow and sit right and generally just keeping little verbal pats on the back coming, she will reach a frustration point where she will WANT TO GET IT RIGHT.

Notice that I am assuming she is not concerned with getting it right. This may not be absolutely true; she may actually want to do a good job, but is not caring enough about the details of the two measures I am asking her to play and fix.

This technique is a little negative, in my opinion, and could easily be used to lash out at a student I am angry with or frustrated. And it only works because my lessons are open-ended with regards to time (I teach in students' homes, so I decide the time frame.) -- if a student knows I have to finish by a certain time, theoretically she could just keep getting it wrong and I would have to decide to either keep going with that task or switch to another. It's a bit negative, but sometimes I can't think of another way to get Nancy to care about getting the notes and fingers right.

Before you object, let me assure you that I am not absolute about this (or anything else with students): I don't use this every lesson; but I do probably use it at least once every month with Nancy. And I don't use it if I think that the problem is that Nancy is tired/sick/emotional/something else out of her control.

But it gets her to care.

She's reading Jane Eyre now. What a rich mine of ideas about tyrannical men and taking care to do the right thing, even at one's own expense! I think I'll bring that up at the next lesson for a brief discussion.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The vision thing

I just read this article by R. X. Cringely (the computer guy at PBS) and felt inspired by it to ruminate on how piano students can be thought of as analogous to future computer technology.

In the early 1970s the folks at Xerox park (parc?) were creating the future of computing. How they did it was: they used trends and directions that were available at the time, such as Moore's Law, to predict what might be happening in twenty years, and then they went to work to create technology that did the twenty-years-from-now things that the twenty-years-from-now technology would be able to do. In order to do this they had to envision stuff. Cringely explains how it was kind of like creating the future.

I think piano teachers are creating the future, and how we teach our students is a big factor in determining how music will be in the future, and how people will love/hate/be indifferent to music.

Bound up tightly with the idealistic "let's make Janie the best musician she can be!" motivation is a more mundane and crass motivation: "let's make Janie the best classical music consumer she can be!" as well as "let's make Janie the best machine-that-makes-music-to-specification she can be!" Much less exalted-sounding, but real. If we as piano teachers dare to look the truth in the eye, much of what we do is about commodification of music performance. Like it or not, we as teachers are measured as to our success by the degree to which Janie can make music on cue to precise detailed specifications. Janie must be able to play music from a written score, with correct notes and rhythm and interpretation. If Janie is learning commercial music like jazz/pop/rock/etc., then she must be able to read a chart, comp, and improvise a solo.

In classical music, which is mostly what I teach my students, the commodification means that the student must be able to play from a written score. The ability to improvise within a classical style framework, which is not marketable to radio stations or concert halls, is not valued very much except as a cute novelty, like Le Petomane, a 19th-century Frenchman who could fart tunes and did so on stage. So why does anyone even talk at all about classical improvisation?

Oh, I don't know, ... maybe because it's THE ESSENTIAL HEART OF THE BAROQUE AND CLASSICAL PERIODS' MUSICAL TRADITION????

But it's not commodifiable, because there isn't a market for it. So for over 150 years most American classical music students (except for organists) have been going through their entire lives without being required to improvise. At some level, this cuts off any understanding of what Mozart and Beethoven were doing with cadenzas, and what Bach and Buxtehude were doing with preludes: They were improvising. And you can't understand what they were doing if you haven't been called on to do it yourself.

I am a ballet accompanist, which means I play for ballet classes. The main job of a ballet accompanist is to come up with music appropriate for a particular ballet combination and to play that music. Ballet accompanists must have a bunch of music ready to go at different tempos, feelings, and time signatures, and must be able to edit it instantly. Many ballet pianists take music written by others, like the classical repertoire, and use it in class. I do this. A few are able to create music on the spot by improvising. The ones I have known who could do this fall into two categories: pianists who have extensive experience with jazz/rock performance and the concomitant improvising skills; or pianists trained in former Soviet bloc countries who are made to improvise as part of their training. (I knew someone from Korea who had had this training, too.) Right after the USSR fizzled out in 1990 there was an influx of pianists from Russia, Moldova, Yugoslavia, and similar places to big cities in the US. I know because I was competing with them, and they were darned good. They could improvise stuff on the spot, like a 64-bar mazurka. Could I do that? When I tried it, it really was bad. If I had kept doing it, I probably would have gotten better at it...but how long before my reputation would suffer? Instantly. So I kept doing, and continue to do, what I always did: carry a bunch of printed music around and supplement it with memorized music.

Our students are missing out by not being made to improvise. The trouble is, they can come back with: "Why should we improvise? No one else does!" And all I can think of to reply is " blah blah ballet blah blah church organ blah blah Mozart and Bach blah blah"...

There's something wrong here, but I can't fix it, because I already have a lot of trouble trying to get my students to do things they don't see the immediate use of, like theory. Improvisation would have very little connection to any reality that is out there in the world, and what is more, I can't do it very well myself.

But I wish I could...

So I'm creating a future of well-educated piano students who can analyze and attack a score and play acceptably. And they will grow up to have kids of their own and buy CDs of the music they like, some of which might even be classical. And a few of them may even play chamber music for fun. But they won't be able to improvise.

Shame.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

How come they're not like me?

When I was a child, I had few friends, and relationships with other people were always difficult and fraught with pitfalls (still true). So I retreated into a fantasy world of books and obsessive messing around with Mom's old piano books. Being smart, I taught myself by going through the John Thompson and Michael Aaron and most of all John W. Schaum books I found stashed in the piano bench. When I had a question, I asked Mom. More often, I figured things out myself.

It got to the point where I would spend a couple of hours at the piano, running through old pieces for the joy of it, with all the wrong habits I had instilled in my playing because I had taught myself, and trying new pieces out as soon as I incorporated the last piece into my play-through-'em-all routine.

Now that I am a teacher, I am trying to get my students to understand and love music by telling them everything. Here is the rationale behind this period versus this other period; here is why and how we play a phrase; here is why there are movements in sonatas and what we are supposed to do with them; here is why ... here is why ... here is why ...

When I think about this, I realize that this is to some extent living vicariously through my students: Oh, what I would have given to have had an endlessly patient Master willing to answer my smallest question about music and happy to repeat the same answer in the same or in different ways as many times as was necessary for me to get it! So I am trying to be that Master for my students.

The problem is that I figured stuff out on my own, and that made it Mine. I spent hours and hours playing through music anthologies and hymnals and whatever was there and whatever was in the library and whatever I could get my parents to buy from the music store, and I learned to sight read really well by doing this.

My students don't do any of this. How do you assign sight-reading for pleasure -- "Every time you practice, spend ten minutes reading a piece you've never ever seen before" -- if there isn't a large collection of music in the house because none of the parents play? I could lend them a book of music -- but part of the fun I had when growing up was choosing music from a large, motley collection of old stuff. It was My Choice, and that made it Fun.

If I assign it to my students, they won't find it fun -- it'll simply be Another Task On The Practice Sheet.

In every lesson, with every student, I spend a few minutes doing what I call "sight reading": we take a short four- or five-bar piece from a book like Bastien Sight Reading or Alfred Sight Reading or Right At Sight and I make them go through a routine with it: they must put their hands in position, read through the piece silently to themselves while counting under their breath, say "Ready!", count one measure for nothing, and play while continuing to count out loud until the end of the piece. This routine is to prepare them for the sight reading portion of exams, and it works well for that. But it doesn't have much to do with the self-starting joyous discovery of gold nuggets in old tattered piles of music that I experienced as a child and which was such a formative force in my life.

Another thing I had was: my parents had a bunch of records of classical music around, like E. Power Biggs playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor, and Bernstein directing Scheherezade, and Van Cliburn playing the Tchai 1st and the Rach 2nd, and John Charles Thomas singing, and a few like that. No one made me play them; I found them lying around and enjoyed playing them of my own volition.

Most of my students' parents don't have even small collections of CDs of classical music -- there are a couple of exceptions, including Basil's parents -- and the ones who do have classical CDs always go for the cheapo $4.95 compilation CDs, so they aren't getting great and famous performances. For years I lent out my own CDs and assigned them to be listened to a minimum of three times in the week; and for years it was either done half-heartedly or completely avoided with lots of excuses. Even students in families that love classical music and listen to it avidly rarely take to any CD I lend out. I still do it, though; but it doesn't have the response I hoped for.

I think it's largely because the most fun thing is the thing you discover yourself or discover something about on your own, which makes it "yours", as opposed to something some authority figure made you do. It's probably like that scene in the English public school in Monty Python's movie The Meaning of Life, in which the teacher demonstrates during a sex education lesson by having sex with his wife in front of the class, and keeping up an atrociously pompous and boring running commentary while doing it; and the result is that the kids in the class are bored to tears (I was going to say "bored stiff" but they aren't...). The point of the scene is a commentary on how education done badly can make students dislike even subjects they would normally like; but I see another truth in it: There are some things it's more fun to discover for one's self, rather than under the direction of another. Maybe the reason I am really good at music is because it was my solitary pastime and I was in charge; and maybe the reason my older students of 14 and 15, who know a lot more about the ins and outs of pieces than I did at that age, don't have that driven energy combined with a need to show off (why? maybe it was my way of connecting to others...) I had at that age. When I was 14, I was hired as the rehearsal pianist for the countywide high school production of West Side Story. That was my first job playing for musicals. Why don't my students do that sort of thing?

What can I do differently to make my students love music more? Or is there something more sinister here: maybe I loved music so much because I didn't have friends, and so maybe I shouldn't wish a love of music like mine on my students?

It's hard to know what to do. I just hope I am not driving them to hate it, like the teacher in the sex class in the movie, and like so, so many kids I talk to who take from other teachers and who, I am told by them and by their friends, either actively dislike piano lessons or are not particularly excited by them.

Shouldn't kids anticipate piano lessons with excitement?

Do mine?

Down, down into the maelstrom of self-indulgent whiny doubt I go...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

I'm going potty

Some will recognize this as a double entendre (which itself is a fake French phrase -- the real French phrase is "double entente". But I digress...).

Basil (not his real name) is nine years old. His mom is a beautiful, tall, willowy, college-educated woman who was born in Mexico and went to primary school and most of secondary school there, then moved to the US. She is fluent in English with absolutely no trace of an accent. The dad is like me: Northern European Anglo-Saxon white mix. Unlike me, the dad is a big NASCAR guy, and Basil and his older brother follow NASCAR and are big into sports. This lifestyle is way not me. So guess which parent sits patiently with Basil in every lesson and actively participates, and works with Basil during the week,, for more than three years now? It's the dad. Although the mom will do it when the dad is away, the dad used to play trumpet in a low-level symphony orchestra, so he has had more music, so he's the designated "music helper." If you didn't meet this guy but just read about what he likes to do (NASCAR, hunting, kind of right-wing politics, follows sports, etc.), you would be full of stereotypes about him -- or at least I was full of such stereotypes. Turns out he is tolerant and kind and patient and a whole bunch of other good things I in my blue-state mental lockdown would not have believed of him, did I not see it every week.

Anyway, Basil is slow. Now that is a loaded phrase which requires clarification. Sometimes it is used as a euphemism for what I grew up calling "retarded", which is now called "developmentally disabled" by the PC-inclined. Basil is NOT developmentally disabled. No, what Basil does is: I ask him to find where his hands go for the beginning of a piece, and whereas most kids would immediately look at the page, focus their eyes on the beginning of the song, and start moving their hands and fingers towards the general vicinity of the notes printed there, and usually find their hand position within twenty or so seconds, Basil takes longer. A LOT longer. I counted in my head once: I got to "one hundred eighteen Mississippi" before he was in position. He is not dumb or anything like it: sometimes he just takes a long time to do things. Once he begins to do them, if I can just shut up and let him take his time, he mostly does them well, and will even do them with quality and finesse, especially if I insist on it and encourage it.

At the beginning of teaching Basil, about three years ago, he had briefly had another teacher and was playing out of the Alfred Prep Course Level A book and a couple of songs out of the B book. I took him through the B book (I like to use the Lesson, Theory, Activity/Ear Training, and Notespeller for the Prep Course) and then with great fanfare told him that he was ready for "bigger kids' books": the 1B books (which are part of the Alfred Basic Course and are geared for slightly older kids). We went through the 1B book and started the 2 book, which we are still in (Lesson, Theory, Notespeller, Ear Training -- don't always get to this one, and Technic).

His family tells me that they like my teaching because I am patient. At the beginning when I was getting to know Basil I didn't understand why he took so long. Something told me to watch my mouth and wait it out, not blurting anything negative or censuring. Sure enough, if I am patient, Basil comes up with quality.

His "slow" thing, though, has caused him some problems. In public school, they were failing him in 2nd grade because he wasn't finishing tests and in-class assignments. He just went too slow. Parents and teachers discussed it with him, and he promised to try, but he still went slow. I think, from dealing with him, that he doesn't mean anything by it or do it for any reason like trying to get attention or get "back at" anyone; it's just an extreme example of kids experiencing the flow of time differently. Basil is a bit of a perfectionist -- not a huge one, though -- but he is aware of attention to detail and how it can result in a higher quality. I think he is going through a checklist of some sort in his mind when someone like me or a school teacher sets him a task, and he goes through it even when adults around him are starting to freak out that it's taking him too long (the mom jumps in faster than I think she should, but I could be wrong and not have the full picture, so I don't contradict her when she does it in the lesson -- of course, I almost never contradict parents in front of kids anyway). He just does a little sigh, and continues doing what he was doing inside his head, and I continue waiting...and eventually it happens.

Basil failed his 2nd grade in public school, and the parents decided to put him in the school of the Catholic church they attend. It costs them a lot but they feel he has more attention. He is repeating 2nd grade at this school. I was worried about this affecting his self-esteem, but from what I have seen and from what the parents have told me in quick whispered conversations, it has not. He enjoys his new school and sings in the choir.

Here is another reason I know that Basil doesn't really have a problem: while studying with me he has passed two CM tests: Preparatory Level and Level 1. These tests are timed and have clearly delineated components of skill assessment: there is a written "theory" test of musicianship skills, including listening to a recording and answering questions about it (2/4 or 3/4 time? Allegro or Adagio? etc.); and there is a ten-minute performance adjudication during which he must play a prepared set of technique exercises (for Level 1 it's C, G, and F Major scales, one octave, hands separately; six five-finger patterns, hands together; and the primary triads in C, G and F Major; all of these must be completed in four minutes), and play two memorized pieces. He did quite well in both exams, passing them and earning many positive comments; but this past year I decided to keep him out of the exam, in part because I was worried about him being only eight and taking a Level 2 exam (they are geared for the average ten-year old), and also because I wanted to hold off putting pressure on him when he was adjusting to his new school and any possible emotional trauma of having to repeat 2nd grade.

But he has done well at his new school, and I am going to enter him this fall for the RACE Grade 2 exam. Over the past nine or ten months we have, in addition to the Alfred 2 books, been working on RACE Grade 2 repertoire: Mozart Minuet in F KV3; Beethoven Ecossaise in Eb; Schumann Melody; and the Musette in D from the AMB Notebook. He has learned all of these except the Ecossaise, which we are currently working on. He has memorized the Mozart Minuet and the Musette, and plays them fairly well although there are always a couple of wrong notes, which I try not to jump on (am I being too nice? I always wonder and stew about this...). In addition to all that, early in the year he learned the first of Tajcevic's Murinsel songs, and is currently hugely enjoying Martha Mier's Jazz Rock & Blues Volume One, in which we are learning the differences between "straight" and "swing" timing of eighth notes.

So he AIN'T no dummy, nohow.

For some reason: every time I go over to his house -- well, not exactly EVERY time -- I have to go to the bathroom! Understand: I drive all over the place and have to carefully plan my bathroom forays throughout my day on the road. Although I try to go before teaching, sometimes it comes on all sudden like, if you know what I mean. I don't like going to the bathroom in students' houses: it can smell bad and if I leave a drip on the floor by mistake or a bad smell, that can become a distraction from focusing on the piano lesson. Well, tonight I had to pee really, leg shakingly, bad, and by about fifteen minutes into the hour-long lesson I knew it was now; so I set him to playing his Technic exercise in a new way which I had introduced him to tonight: the "Three Tempos" method, where you pick a slow, medium, and fast MM speed and play the exercise to each speed, trying to get as much detail correct such as dynamics and articulation as you can. He did this for the first time tonight with his Technic exercise, and was quite good at it. I went to pee, and while I was peeing, it felt like I had to break wind; so being in the bathroom with the water running to drown out any embarrassing sounds, I let it go a little.

It wasn't wind.

But it was only a little, and I didn't realize at first the extent to which my personal hygiene had been compromised. I considered briefly, but decided against, sitting down and doing a Number Two (I have done that in the past at that house and it left a smell, and the older brother had friends over who noticed while I was still teaching, etc....). I should have, but I didn't know that at the time. So I went back to the family room and sat down on the chair, which has a light-colored removable cloth cushion tied to the slats of the chair's back.

Of course, you guessed it, dear Reader: upon standing up at the end of the hour, talking a mile a minute with the mom, I noticed a strong odor that I had been thinking was the new kitten who was gamboling loudly throughout the family room for the whole lesson; and it was only when I turned to leave and glanced at the cushion that I saw the small wet spot.

It wasn't dark brown or anything; and it wasn't huge -- I am very tall and fat and have a big butt -- it was about two inches in diameter (irregularly shaped), but it looked like someone had spilled clear water on the cushion.

I thought about offering to have it dry cleaned, and was lifting the chair as I was wrapping up with the mom in order to take the chair into the kitchen to place it at the dining table where it normally goes; but the mom did one of those "Oh, no, that's OK -- I'll take it" things, and I couldn't think how to bring it up gracefully.

So I just said goodbye and left.

Other than the fluid control issue, it was actually a very good lesson, and we achieved a lot (he sight-read the first sixteen bars of Malaguena, and did the metronome with the Technic, and a lot of other good stuff).

Sometimes I hate having a body. Could I just please be a brain in a jar, with a display screen to give instructions to students? It would be so much easier.


No, I know it wouldn't. But AAaaarghhhhhh!!!!!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Older students

Quintella (not her real name) is 72 this year (2005). I have known her through a church we both attended and worked at: I was the music director and she was the head of the day-care program.

Quintella had a few years of piano in childhood, using the Wagness method books (which she gave me one of). It's like Schaum, basically: Middle C approach, gradually expanding by key signatures. Quintella may have gotten to the point where she could play a minuet from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook -- she doesn't remember. Later in life she went back to get a college degree in childhood education as a working mother (wow...how could anyone do that...the mind boggles with incredulity and admiration...), and in one of the many classes she took for that program, she learned to do simple I - IV - V7 left-hand accompaniments for songs. She learned it very well, because that is one thing she can really do: in any (white) key, she can play a I - IV- I - V7 - I progression. She really liked to use the autoharp for singalongs, though, and was better at that.

Quintella is motivated by nostalgia, which is (reportedly) true of most adult piano students: they want to play "their" music. In her case, it's the pop music of the late 40s. She likes standards such as The Tennessee Waltz and almost anything sung by Frank Sinatra; but she is not self-limiting and is receptive to just about any style, including classical.

For the first few years I taught her, we used the Alfred Basic Piano Course method books. We worked through the Complete Level 1 books and then I moved her into the Complete Level 2/3 combined books. This was not a wise decision on my part. When I tried to do simple ear training exercises of rhythm and interval recognition, she froze up and was not able to do it. She would dutifully play the pieces from the Alfred books, with their darned goofy art with kids and animals with goggly eyes and such, but her heart wasn't in it, I thought at the time because the results were always so lackluster. No lighting a fire under her: she was always careful and methodical to the point of overanalysis; and when I would stop her, correct her and ask her to start again while applying the corrections, she would (and still does) recite a little verbal "creed" to ground herself in the most basic facets of the piece, viz: "Now, let's see: I'm in C; and the first note is a treble G; and this is my right hand fifth finger; and we're in 3/4 time; ...."etc. This is frustrating to me and I have tried to work around it, cure her of it, render it unnecessary, .... in other words, spent lots of mental energy trying to conceive of a way to get her NOT TO DO IT. But whenever she feels pressure on her to do something and feels slightly unsure, that is her routine.

So over the last few years we have evolved (she and I) to a point where I give her piece after piece at the same level (which is approximately Alfred Basic Course Level 3, and Faber FunTime). This was so that she could gradually develop a confidence in her abilities and so that she would not need so much to rely on emotional coping mechanisms like The Creed ("now, let's see: we're in G Major; and it's 4/4 time; and my left hand third finger is on...." ).

Other rationales for this are: I don't WANT her to feel pressure unduly; but in order for her to progress at all, I have to apply some pressure, even if it's only very minimal.

And by staying "horizontal"-- that is, doing many pieces at the same level -- we can work on many pieces she enjoys, such as the ones in the excellent Faber FunTime supplements (FunTime Popular, FunTime Hymns, FunTime Jazz and Blues, etc.). So we're building her self-confidence, exploring music that rewards her desire for familiarity, and very gradually inching her forward in technique and musicianship.

Over the last few months I have decided that we have stuck too long in Level 3 pop, and that the best way to move her along in her abilities is to dive into some real gosh-durned repertoire: Mozart Minuets, Beethoven Ecossaises, the Everybody's Perfect Masterpiece series, etc. So I'm going through a bunch of "real" repertoire from the RCM 2001 Grade 2 Piano Syllabus list. Whatever it is we play, I want it to have a famous name on it, so that she can feel good about "playing Mozart" while actually learning stuff she needs to move on to pre-sonatina stuff.

And she, bless her immense and generous heart, is willing and eager to take on these challenges, not complaining about several months now of no Sinatra pieces.

The problem is, everything she plays, for almost seven or eight years now, she overanalyzes to the point of playing it really slowly, with many stumbles, in the lessons. She never "arrives" at a piece so that she can just whip it out. She has always been diffident about her memory, and will not allow herself to do anything from memory. Repetition, I have seen with my own eyes, does not have the same effect with Quintella that it does with the rest of the human race. Other humans gradually get better and more fluent with a task after repeating it; Quintella keeps increasing the level of verbal front-brain analysis ("The Creed") as she repeats it more and more, so that she never allows it to filter back into the reptile brain or wherever it is that the rest of us get a piece to go after many repetitions. I know she is repeating, because she is very conscientious about marking her sheet (I have a practice sheet I have devised which tracks things like that), and I have tested her in the lesson.

So what does one do with a student who works hard but never lets go enough to play anything fluently? She is enjoying the lessons, she says, and it seems to be true.

My biggest fear is that people will see she is not improving and chalk it up to my incompetence. I don't want people to talk about any perceived incompetence on my part. But Quintella is having fun and learning facts about music theory and history and performance practice and experiencing many different kinds of music, and at some level her brain is becoming better at some things. I love Quintella and am not going to drop her just on the off chance that my reputation as a teacher might suffer slightly less.

Principled Reason Why I Will Die Poor #4,892.

Scales, and The Tale of the Two Teachers

By talking to another teacher and complaining to her about how a couple of my students were taking undue liberties with the fingering of the A Major scale (hands together), I got her to drop a pearl of wisdom on me that I have used ever since. She told me that when she has her students play scales, before they are allowed to begin playing them she makes them recite verbally which note their fourth finger of each hand will play. For A Major, that would be: "Left hand: B; right hand: G#." When she told me this, a lot of things clicked from my own personal experience. I took this idea a step further in my usual unorthodox way, and came up with a "shortcut" way of teaching scales that prevents the problem of transitioning from one-octave scales to two-octave scales: I am now teaching all my beginners to play a one-octave C Major scale with this fingering:

RH 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1

That is: I make them start on C with their RH thumb, and play the scale as usual EXCEPT that instead of allowing them to finish the high note of the scale with a fifth finger I make them use a thumb. This makes it easy for them to play two-octave scales later, and gives them lots of extra practice crossing that thumb under.

For LH I use an analogous fingering:

LH 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1

That is: thumb on the low C, then immediately cross the fourth finger over to play the adjacent D, and continuing up the scale.

Doing the LH is a bit awkward this way, but there are advantages. Using this method keeps the "rule" that in any octave the fourth finger ONLY PLAYS ONCE true. In the traditional way of teaching an F Major scale there are two right hand occurrences of the fourth finger: on Bb and on the top F. But in the way I teach it, the top F is played with the RH thumb. This gives extra practice in crossing the thumb under the third finger, and it allows the teacher to say that there is only one fourth finger in each octave, and it eliminates the cognitive dissonance of switching fingerings for two-octave scales. I also get to say: "No fives allowed!" as a kind of mantra which reminds the student that in none of the scales is the fifth finger used.

This works best for absolute beginners. People who have had some exposure to scales fingered in the traditional way may find it strange to use no fifth fingers. They just have to deal with it.

After my students have learned to play all twelve major scales, one octave, hands separately, with no fifth fingers, I tell them that NOW they are getting to be "advanced" and (with much building up of anticipation) they can do what the REAL pianists do: use a fifth finger on the outermost note of the endpoint of the scale.

This has worked well for almost all of my students. One for whom it is an issue (actually, the only one with an issue with fifth fingers as far as I can see) is the student I will call "Myrtle" (not her real name).

Myrtle is an interesting case. She is ten years old and started with me when she had just turned nine, along with her younger brother, whom I will call "Isaac." (I teach them at different times, except for occasionally having them play duets.) The family of Myrtle and Isaac is from Vietnam. The father speaks English with great difficulty, especially when I forget and speak too fast; the mother tends to avoid English because of shyness and a lack of ability. The father is very dedicated to getting out any school or piano books his kids are expected to read and making sure that he understands them himself. Often while I am sitting in the family room teaching a kid, the father will be sitting on the couch across the room with his huge Vietnamese-English dictionary, looking up the words he doesn't know in some handout from school or from me.

They live in a small two-story apartment in a block of apartment buildings occupied by many Vietnamese-American families. Now here is the weird situation about Myrtle: many of the families in this apartment complex, although they are struggling financially, really want their children to take piano lessons. And there is this very nice white lady who has made it her mission to come to the families that want it and give their kids free 15-minute piano lessons.

I was referred to this family by friends (all my students are from word of mouth; I have not yet advertised), and soon after I began teaching Myrtle and Isaac, I started getting some flack from Myrtle, who is very headstrong and can't keep her mouth shut, and who is very set in her ways once she does something one way, resisting change to an astonishing degree. (If you are familiar with the Meyers-Briggs personality type system, she would be a big "J": no changes or surprises for her, thank you very much; let's just keep everything the same as much as possible.)

Myrtle complained that my method of teaching the physical gesture associated with the ends of slurs was "weird." (I teach exaggerated lift-offs at the ends of slurs at first, with the wrist leading up; I call these "peel-offs".) When I told her as nicely as possible that that was the way we were going to do it, she came back with "But my tutor doesn't do it that way."

Big red flag. "My TUTOR?"

Turns out that the mom, figuring that free lessons from Nice White Lady would be a great addition to my lessons (which she pays me for), was having Myrtle continue to go see the Nice White Lady while I was teaching Myrtle. And Nice White Lady doesn't do peel-offs. At all.

OK, this was a problem. If I'm going to teach a kid, I am going to be the only teacher (maybe when they're entering competitions, I'll get them to see coaches and stuff; but in elementary level lessons, I am the only teacher). So I immediately ask Myrtle about the lessons with Nice White Lady. Myrtle tells me that her mom wants Myrtle to continue with NWL while taking from me as well. I explain to Myrtle that I don't want her taking from NWL: she has to drop those lessons. The mom doesn't want her to drop, though. We go back and forth about this for over a month. The mom is a fun, happy person who dresses really well and has a good sense of humor. She is the opposite of some imaginary cold, calculating, grasping type: she is warm and funny, even though she can barely put three English words together. This little kerfuffle of the two teachers gets dealt with by her pleading the "don't speak English" thing. I don't back down, and lay down the rules for Myrtle: I don't want to hear about Nice White Lady, I don't want to see the books she uses (John Thompson), and I don't want to hear any quibbling about my methods: Myrtle must do everything my way for me. I take care not to dis the Nice White Lady: I tell Myrtle that she does stuff differently, and it's not wrong; it's just not the way I do it. And my way is the way Myrtle must do it. Myrtle is not convinced. "But professionals don't do peel-offs!" She is getting this from Nice White Lady, who thinks that lifting off at the end of a slur is silly.

I am not happy with this situation for many weeks. After teaching Myrtle for three months or so, it becomes time to think about who I am going to enter for the annual exams. There is no way I am going to enter a student who is studying with another teacher!!! I tell Myrtle and the mom this, and the father as well, so that the message can sink in in as many different ways as it needs to. Privately I promise myself that if Myrtle doesn't drop Nice White Lady I will drop Myrtle. This would be a shame, as this family is a good match for my teaching methods.

Finally one day I come to the apartment and Nice White Lady is there, talking with Myrtle. We introduce ourselves, and she really is very nice. The conversation quickly turns to lessons, and NWL proposes, with Myrtle there listening, that Myrtle must choose between NWL and myself for a teacher. I agree, and we chat a little bit longer.

Upshot: Mom grudgingly has Myrtle stop taking from Nice White Lady, and a year later Myrtle passes her CM Grade 2 exam with me, playing a Mozart Minuet in F and Orange by Niamath.

Hoo boy, that Myrtle continues to be headstrong, though.

And then there's her brother Isaac......(to be continued at a later date...)