Monday, July 18, 2005

Efficient or inefficient Nazis?

So I'm reading this article about this visionary guy who is working in China to help the Chinese implement sustainable development policies, and it's an interesting article. In it he mentions Deming (the WWII American who studied how women workers who staffed factories in the absence of men changed production for the better, and why they did it) and then he mentions an interesting idea which is pertinent to piano teaching: the idea of the efficient Nazi.

The idea is: what is better, an efficient Nazi, or an inefficient Nazi?

See, we're assuming here that the whole Nazi thing is bad, that is, it is a bad ideology that we don't want promulgated in the world.

So an efficient Nazi would be bad, because s/he would just be that much better at achieving the Nazi agenda.
But I have been around thoughtful people (actually, Buddhists) who would argue that the efficient Nazi is a good thing. According to their idea, the efficient Nazi has some inherent spiritual advantage over the inefficient ones which makes her/him efficient. And that efficiency means that the efficient Nazi is in a position to work for change from within.

So, according to this idea, an efficient Nazi is actually better than an inefficient one, simply because the efficiency itself will work toward purging Naziism of its evil.

Well, I don't think I buy it. You can have short-term efficiency and long-term efficiency. The WWII Nazis were effective in the short-term at exterminating Jews, Gypsies, communists, anarchists and gays. But their efficiency in exterminating Jews and Gypsies didn't last much beyond 1945 (although the other groups continued to be jailed and criminalized well into the post-war era). So the long-term efficiency of the Nazi policy of exterminating Jews has not absolutely succeeded. So what did we get from it? A lot of misery and evil, with Jews being killed and displaced. Wouldn't it have been better in the long and short run to have had incompetent Nazis running the Third Reich, so as to minimize the damage they were doing?

Why one does things matters. But what one does also matters. Sometimes the why and the what can even be diametrically opposed. Imagine a member of the Nazi party who is, let us say, spiritually enlightened, who because of his talents and abilities gets promoted to head Jew-exterminator for his region. He's still exterminating Jews, which is a bad thing. I would also argue that, no matter how talented and able he is, he's got this problem of having a bad ideology: he is a Nazi. So his enlightenment isn't as good as it could be.

Brief digression designed to annoy people: we could turn this inside out and say that Americans, although living in a country with a good political system, are evil because their government is doing evil things abroad for the sake of hegemony over territories that can benefit the powerful in America.

So: piano teachers. We piano teachers in 2005 are participating in the tail end of a musical training system that has evolved...well, pretty much since human culture existed and music was taught: say, for about 80,000 years now, to be conservative about it. But it's not a perfect system, and the question is: is it good for the world? We can break this question down: is it good for the student? is it good for the teacher? is it good for music? is it good for society?

1) Is it good for the student?
It can be, if the student enjoys it. Forcing students to learn against their will, which happens with everybody to some degree, can cause emotional damage. But sometimes you have to force people to do things they don't want to do, for their own good and for other people's good.

2) Is it good for the teacher?
Teaching music is good for a teacher because it is a way to make money by doing what the teacher (presumably) loves to do.

3)Is it good for music?
Here I am not so sure. The best music in my opinion is that which is discovered by the musician. In a perfect world of musicians, teaching would be rare, and would be almost entirely collaborative (because every musician would be equally skilled). So these huge systems of hierarchical "lessons" which get instituted and integrated into society for reasons of status and "bauble flaunting" would not exist; instead, musicians would spend all day making music as much or as little as they wanted to, and occasionally two or more musicians would bump into each other and have a conversation, make some music (maybe) and (maybe again) might even exchange tips and ideas on how to improve their music making. Well, that ain't gonna happen any time soon. And if it did, I'd be out of a job.

4) Is it good for society?
It's better for society to have music teachers than not to have them, I think. The problems with music teaching as it exists are in my opinion directly related to problems in society: there are too many people and so people's lives are devalued; because of there being too many people, things that should be anomalies or blips in a healthy society, like having two or three people in a hunter-gatherer band that only wanted to sit around and twiddle with their musical intstruments instead of running around with spears trying to impress girls by hunting for food or whatever, get magnified into huge institutions that are kind of dysfunctional. Speaking Kantian-ly, if we all sat around twiddling our musical instruments, neglecting our hunting skills, there wouldn't be much food to eat.
I guess society as it is now is benefitted by having music teachers, and the concomitant pressures that force people to enroll their children in music lessons. There is a lot to be said for accountants and CEOs and nurses who have had some piano lessons: at the very least, it gives them some common ground with the instrument twiddlers and takes them out of their accountant/CEO/nurse mindset for a while, so that they have that much broader a perspective on life and on instrument twiddlers.

But piano teachers are still efficient Nazis, because we at some level are forcing students to learn who sometimes don't feel like learning. So what is to be done? Be the best piano teacher we can be, with lots of love and compassion? Or abolish piano teaching?

Well, I think the former. Just don't ask me to substitute the word "Nazi" for "piano teacher" in the above paragraph. Because then I might see an unpleasant truth with no apparent solution about my function on this planet.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Still piano teaching, believe it or not

Although you wouldn't know it from the last few posts here at Piano Teacher Blog, this blog is actually mostly about piano teaching. So I better write about it.

Quintella is letting me practice at her house, because I don't have a piano and I need to prepare for exams this December (four months or so from now) and practice for my own lessons. Trouble is, she has complained of not feeling emotionally well enough to practce or have lessons this whole month (with her husband's mother dying and her granddaughter getting married, it's a lot of stuff). So she isn't practicing. What do I do about that? Well, if she doesn't make sounds like she's going to start practicing, then no matter how nice she is to me letting me practice on her piano, I'm not helping her if I keep taking her lesson money. So I will say that she can't pay me if she's not going to take lessons. This will not be a good month for that to happen, though...here's hoping it doesn't.

Kyle is on vacation. Basil just came back from vacation and is doing quite well, having mastered (more or less) the Malaguena from Alfred Book Two. He is also making slow but steady progress with the songs in Martha Mier's Jazz Rags and Blues Book One. Another family has returned from vacation in Europe and we must deal with the limited vision thing with one of the kids. Yet another family is on vacation. My best student performed in Sacramento last week at the Music Teachers' Association of California annual convention. With my oldest student I'm discussing a lot of literature, which is of course only peripheral to piano study, but I find it's good for them and it leads to discussion of broad trends in history and art which affect piano directly. She was having trouble liking Dickens (she had to read it for class), and I recommended Hans Christian Andersen, which she says she likes a lot. I gave her a copy of Oliver Twist and told her she would like it better than Great Expectations, which is what all the schools seem to make the students read. (Why not Oliver Twist? anti-Semitism in the portrayal of Fagin, perhaps...)

And yet another family is also on vacation. Isaac and Myrtle weren't home when I showed up last week, and the note they had left on the door wasn't addressed to me. This, coming the week after their cousins had set me up for new lessons and had me buy a whole bunch of new materials, only to cancel by calling on the phone while I was at Isaac and Myrtle's house waiting for the cousins to show up, led me to believe that Isaac and Myrtle were going to quit as well. But they didn't, which is good.

I have been trying to arrange a master class with my own teacher. We just started lessons about a month and a half ago, and she is much younger than me and probably not used to me yet; but this whole week I've been trying to contact her by phone and email, and she's ignoring me. This is not good, not least of why being that I am trying to get her to teach three master classes next month before school starts (it was my idea), and also because we need to arrange next week's lesson time! One of the down sides of me taking from women is that I think I intimidate them or something: this "I'm just not going to talk to you" thing seems to happen quite a lot to me over the last fifteen years or so, and it's always with women. They do it to me; I have never done it to them. The mysteries of the human organism...

When your own teacher won't return your emails, it's hard to find the emotional energy to practice for your lesson with her. But I will anyway. If worst comes to worst, I'll simply get another teacher and start over. Maybe this time it won't be an Asian woman, with all the concomitant communication weirdnesses.

During the last couple of weeks I have been teaching the two children of one of my two ballet bosses. These kids are 4 and 8, and are extremely smart. I tried to teach the 8 year old a couple of years ago, but he was unable to be serious in the lesson and we had to give up. Now he is focused and bringing all his considerable mental abilities to bear on the task. Both he and his younger sister go to Waldorf schools, where they have different ideas about grades and developmental stages of learning and stuff. It is an issue now, for example, with the four year old, that I need her to be able to write the numbers 1 to 5 and the letters A to G. With my other students, even my 3-year-old Asian students, they already knew. But apparently this Waldorf school will not look kindly on anyone other than the school personnel introducing these concepts to the 4 year old. This will make teaching her piano very difficult (although not impossible).

Because they live far from me, and because both kids are heavily involved in ballet and therefore don't hunger for a creative performing outlet for their performing impulses like many of my other piano students do, I am thinking they won't want to continue after the summer (I presented it to them as a "Summer Piano Camp", with a clearly defined endpoint, after which we would see what is to be done). But if the kids are interested and the parents think it's a good idea, I'll keep teaching them as long as they work hard. If these kids really applied themselves in tandem with their parents, like my Asian families do, they would take over the piano world in no time--that's how smart they are. I hope they decide they really like piano and are willing to work as hard as my other students; but if not, I'll still be grateful for being able to work with them for as long as I get to.

More in the next couple of days...

Who is the Half-Blood Prince? [for Harry Potter readers]

It's 12:53 p.m., and I've been reading since 9 this morning. (Went at midnight to buy the book; braved the long lines in the hot store with screaming girls counting down the seconds to midnight and chanting "Harry Potter [clap clap clap clap clap]" over and over and over. Around 1:00 a.m. they called the number for my wristband and I bought the book and went home. Read for about an hour then crashed, exhausted. So altogether I've been reading almost 5 hours now. Page 348. I have been sure for about 200 pages that I know who the Half-Blood Prince is, mostly because all you need to do is think who the most unlikely person would be. It's a ten-letter name, beginning with D and ending with e.

Have you who read the Harry Potter books stopped to speculate, as I have, upon the possible clues evinced by the etymologies of the Latinate names that Rowling assigns her characters? "Voldemort" is French (kind of) for "Flight of/from death". So whoever Voldemort is must have something about fleeing or literally flying from death happen to him, just as "Malfoy" is French for "Bad faith" and all the incantations are thinly disguised altered Latin verbs. Perhaps D********e attempted to kill Harry and succeeded in killing his parents, and then had to flee the scene. Or something like that.

This is how a grown 43-year-old man of reasonable intelligence wastes his time...

UPDATE: OK, page 441, and D********e is talking to Voldemort, so they aren't the same person. So is Voldemort Snapes?
And the Half-Blood Prince: I have thought for a couple of books now that it is Ron. Or Neville.

SECOND UPDATE: Page 604, 7:55 p.m. Argh. Just....argh.

THIRD AND FINAL UPDATE: 8:15 p.m. Finished. Read from 1:15 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., then from 9:15 a.m. to 12:53 p.m., then from 1:55 p.m. to 2:15 p.m., then from 6:30 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. for a total of 6 hours and 28 minutes.

Although every action taken by Snapes leaves open the possibility of at least two interpretations as to his loyalty to the Dark Lord, it seems pretty clear that he is not, as has been implied, a mole who ultimately serves the good side, but rather is firmly on the side of the Dark Lord. This is sad for me, because all through the first six books I derived some comfort from Snapes seeming to be evil but always turning out to be a force for good. Of course, we haven't heard the last of Snapes: clearly he will figure in the seventh book. Perhpas he will turn out to be good after all. I find myself hoping so.

The funeral was interesting: usually funerals involve some sort of religious activity, and that has been a bit of a bone of contention among certain overly-religious people who feel threatened by the Harry Potter books. No priest-like figure was portrayed in the funeral. Another interesting religion-related factor is the inclusion of a recurring character named Patil, whom Rowling has put in several (all?) of the first six books: is she Muslim? It's never said. And only in the first few books is Christmas mentioned. Someone could wring a thesis out of "Religion and Cultural Stereotypical Behavior in the Harry Potter Books". I should patent it, or whatever it is one does with ideas for theses...probably I'd have to actually write it.

Also: no pooftahs anywhere in these books, although with each new volume, sex and adolescence figure more and more in the plot. I wonder about that; Rowling is clearly concerned with the politics of the marginalized, and much of what happens in the books are thinly veiled commentaries on things like Guantanamo Bay and the War on Terror and post-9/11 heightened security and the concomitant loss of freedoms. Maybe she'll bite the gay bullet in the seventh book.

Can anyone believe that the seventh book will be the last? Even if Rowling sticks by her resolution not to write more than seven (she would be passing up on a lot of money if she did), others will no doubt attempt to write sequels exploring the adult life of Harry Potter. Boy, that seventh book has to do a lot of wrapping up...

Except for a few pages of too-hastily contrived dialog in which characters breathlessly narrate what has just happened in some battle scene in a very unrealistic and deus-ex-machina way, this book was quite good IMO. Much of what makes the whole series worthwhile is the moral and ethical decisions made by the characters. The series is sort of a boiled-down look at how different people grow up differently, and that is one of the most worthwhile things Rowling has contributed to the world. Some of the writing is quite empathetic about oddballs and misfits, while never losing sight of the feelings and complicated motivations of the gifted and privileged, which is what Harry and Hermione are. I eagerly await the next installment.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince gets an 8.5 on the Tomometer.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Movie Review a la Howard Cosell: Troy

Seventeen minutes into Troy, and I'm already highly annoyed.

It's all about the love of one man for one woman, is it? That is why a war was fought?

No. Not to belittle the love between a man and a woman, but wars are opportunities. Wars are chances on a roulette wheel, and if you win, you get power and territory and a good life for your relatives. And, if you win, the people who helped you fight the war have stronger ties to you, because they profit; so they owe you. And you owe them.

That is how dynasties are created. A "dynasty", after all, is just a fancy name for a gang. A gang that won.

Around 1,300 BC, when something like the Trojan War may have been fought, a global population explosion dictated that gangs of marauding men were jockeying for position in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. We're talking about groups of 500 or 1000 men whose career options in life are: be a rich noble, be a soldier fighting for rich nobles, or be a slave. Merchants were few, and they were never sure of how their day was going to go, because they lived at the pleasure of those with power, and they were effectively slaves themselves. If they displeased those in power, there was no court of appeal, no ombudsman, no binding arbitration. You have made Biff mad, so Biff has to make an example of you.

The idea that old fat men with English accents sat around pompously bellowing in Received Pronunciation about "my best man will fight your best man, and whoever wins will turn his army around and walk away" is bogus. Armies don't turn and walk away in 1,300 BC. (They really don't now, either.) They need their paycheck, and in 1,300 BC, their paycheck consists of whatever they can scam or beat out of the people through whose land they shuffle, keeping their mental eyes on the potential prize to be gained.

People who go to Medieval Times to revel in the atmosphere, pounding their flagons on the table and eating large legs of turkey or whatever, usually have no clue of how bad it actually was for most people in the world between the dawn of agriculture/slavery (they are the same) and the latter half of the twentieth century. That's twelve thousand years of hell and slavery, folks.

So the pretty girl may even have actually existed. But it wasn't her face that launched a thousand ships: it was the need for more slaves and land in an ever-shrinking economy, in which all the good places to farm or to control nautical trade were already taken.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Brief Rant: We Have The Secret Knowledge

You know, the good thing about Linux MIGHT be that it was free and accessible to all...if the geeks that put it together weren't so proprietary about their own expertise. The whole Linux world is all about "We have the knowledge, and we may allow you to partake IF you play by our rules and pay your dues in our world, working your way slowly up the geek ladder."

I bought a book on "Linux For Non-Geeks" which included a distro of Fedora, all for $35.00. Thinks I: "I'm finally gonna learn how to do Linux, and I'll be able to get my roommate's computer, on which Window$ 98 crashed, up and running in time for his daughter to get here this weekend."

OOooohhh. Class, do you see all the bad thinking examples here?
First of all: NEVER do anything computer with a deadline approaching. The buttered side of the toast is as likely to fall on the carpet as the carpet's price is high and its difficulty of being cleaned is high; the likelihood of a computer thing being successfully installed by a deadline is proportional to the calmness and serenity surrounding the installation.

My computer had a working Ethernet card which I used to connect directly to my DSL router. Then 98 crashed. Fine, I said: I have this nifty little Fedora distro; I'll just install it.
Fedora didn't recognize my audio card or my Ethernet card. And I couldn't hook it up to the Internet to download drivers or all of the myriad geekly fixes recommended to me, because...I had wiped Window$ when I installed Fedora.

Oh, say the geek forums: you can burn a CD of [various geekly applications designed to enable Linux to see cards and applications designed for Window$], because the format will work on Linux.

No, it won't.

My bitch about all this is: I think the forums and all are fine and a great idea -- community helping community and all -- but then they put these "We Are Geekier Than Thou" rules on the forums for posting, rules like "Don't post a question if you haven't searched every nook and cranny of our poorly organized forum site for your answer, or else we won't trouble to answer you. Also, if you're too craven a newbie, or we just don't like the scent of your post, you're SOL."
So my frantic desperate posts were mostly ignored by the super-geek 14-year-olds who populate these forums.
Finally a kind soul from India deigned to reply to my pleas for help. None of his fixes worked, though.

I went to Goodwill and bought a refurbished Window$ box running XP.

I know, it's the evil Window$. But I just don't have time to dig for the answers. Why does Linux have to have so many different and incompatible distros? Before giving up on it, I spent another week trying to download Xandros and get it to work. (It works fine on the refurbished PC I bought, which I partitioned for XP and Xandros.)

Now I see that "Linux For Non-Geeks" is superseded by a new version which comes with a Xandros CD. Sigh.