The power of music

December 29, 2009

I spent this Christmas in the frosty winter wonderland of Minnesota. I was reminded why it is an abstract concept to teach California kids about a song like “White Christmas”, while I made snow angels, built snow forts and snowmen, went skiing and ice skating, and wore snow pants, all without leaving the neighborhood where my brother lives.

I was also reminded of the unique power of music to bring people together. In terms of demographics, there is seemingly little in common between my family – a nuclear unit of four created by my Taiwanese immigrant parents, plus a scattered array of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in similar nuclear units throughout the Midwest and East Coast – and the multi-generational Minnesota-native family of my brother’s wife. Read the rest of this entry »


Gifts come in many forms

December 16, 2009

I’m sitting here in my office after six o’clock in the evening in the middle of December. I’m trying to get some year-end accounting done, while looking forward to a yoga class in about an hour.

My iPod was playing, but it just ran down to the last song on a playlist, so I’m left in the supposed silence.

Only instead of silence, I hear, coming from the violin studio next door to my office (we share a wall), shouting. Shouting interspersed with the sounds of a violin, but mostly shouting. That’s what makes the walls resonate.

It’s so loud, so profoundly disturbing, that I can no longer keep working on the accounting (which, I admit, is a tough one to hold my attention these days). When the music in my little office stopped, I was left to face the reality of the environment I am in.

To me, the shouting is a reminder of everything I am not, and wish not to become. Read the rest of this entry »

Happiness is…

September 30, 2009

Today I had one of those moments that reaffirmed my totally irrational love of trying to teach kids to play the violin. It only lasted a few minutes, but it didn’t matter. It happened after the last several days of my thinking about how I could expand the sound repertoire of my students’ musical environment, to expand their awareness of how sound can be big and expressive, or subtle and atmospheric. I was thinking about how much the piano had contributed to my overall knowledge of sound and musical style, since I was playing 20th century composers before the age of 10 (like a piece called “Pink” – as in, the color), and had experienced many different moods, tempos, textures, rhythms, and structures in my piano music at an early age. On violin, most of the early work is technical, because it requires both left and right hands to produce any given sound. Violin music is mainly melody, until the point where you reach enough technical mastery to actually express something more complex emotionally. (I was 9 years old and in a master class with Josef Gingold playing Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Mr. Gingold asked me if I knew what the word melancolico meant, which was marked by the composer at the opening of the piece. I said, “Sad?” He said, “I hope you don’t really know how to play that way at your age.”) Violinists often rely on other instruments to provide texture, harmony, and depth. Many years and hours are spent perfecting the production of a focused pitch and tone. Only then can you begin to embark on the journey of layering tones and textures through fancy bowstrokes and acrobatic left hand maneuvers.

From the age of three, I always studied both piano and violin in parallel, taking for granted that so much of my childhood universe was spent in a state of deep listening to sound and music. Several weeks ago I began a year-long immersion course in the use of sound, voice, and music in healing. I can’t begin to describe it fully in words, but it has opened me up to the direct experience of sound through listening. I realize that so much of what we call “listening” is not that at all. It’s deciphering and decoding, labeling or waiting to talk, enduring, or filtering, or manipulating.

But listening is actually a process of going inward, to the deep place of silence within each of us. When we have truly listened, we have internalized something from what we have heard. If we have truly listened, then we will have felt the effect of sound throughout our entire being.

When we go to a concert, we are not “listening” any more than we “listen” to a movie at the theater. Concerts are a display of human competence, and if we’re lucky, we might walk out feeling some  emotional effect other than the ringing in our ears. But that effect depends on so much beyond the sound. We’re bombarded with images, lighting, rituals that are specific to the concert venue, and then the language of the musical style presented. Classical music is becoming so distant from our cultural mainstream that most people feel they need to learn how to listen to it. There’s some truth to this, which has led to a much-needed trend of classical performers’ addressing audiences using words, before or after their concerts. Not only does this lend a humanity to the people “doing” the music, but it provides the listeners with a bridge toward understanding what they are hearing.

As my experience of listening and sound evolves over the year, I will undoubtedly have more to share about what I learn.

But now back to that moment from teaching today. Read the rest of this entry »

Ad art

September 21, 2009

What’s your intention?

That’s what this brilliant ad from lululemon athletica asks us:

Whats Your Intention 2

It shows a yoga class in session, with a room full of people facing us and seated with crossed legs on yoga mats, hands in front of their hearts in prayer position. Everyone is meticulously dressed in lululemon-brand yoga gear, and all their spines look straight. They are all young, fit, and active. The woman in the foreground has a perfect pose also, except only one of her hands is held in prayer position, while her other hand holds a Blackberry up to her left ear. Her gaze is downward and off to her right side and she is smiling.

Other details that are done artfully in this ad are the facial expressions of each person in the class. The people seated around this woman display an array of emotions. One woman, in the back row, has her head slightly askance and one eyebrow raised, as if to say, “Is she SERIOUS?”.  The woman next to her turns her head to look at the Blackberry holder with an intent gaze and pursed lips, displaying a mixture of pity and mild disbelief, as if she were trying to wish away the situation in front of her eyes. A man in the back of the class has furrowed brows, and another man on the opposite side of the “protagonist” wears the incredulous, raised-eyebrow look of the woman in the back row. The person on the phone is blissfully unaware of her effect on the people around her. In fact, she possesses all the outward accoutrements of a loyal devotee to yoga – after all, it’s printed on her eco-friendly water bottle: “I heart yoga”.

It’s thought provoking, isn’t it?

I asked three different groups of my violin students (ages 3 and up) to look at this picture today, and tell me what they saw. “They’re doing gymnastics,” said 4-year-old Jack. “I see a person talking on the phone,” said 4-year-old William. “The woman with the green top has the same color mat as her shirt,” observed 10-year-old Greer. “There is a water bottle that says, I love…something,” offered 5-year-old Ella. “Maybe it says ‘I love yogurt’,” added her father. “I see windows,” said 6-year-old Sarah.

As we shared what we saw, even if we didn’t know what “yoga” is, we could deduce that these people – all dressed similarly and assuming a similar posture – were gathered to do something together, in an enclosed space (indicated by the windows). All of the children agreed that this might be a class. One person guessed that the woman in front was the teacher. I said, “What if she is the teacher?” “No, she’s not the leader,” said 5-year-old Nina. “How do you know that?” I asked. “Because she is sitting with her back to the class,” said Ella. “That’s true, it’s hard to teach if you’re not facing the class. But what if she is the teacher? Are the students following her?”

“Who in this picture is learning?” I asked.

“Nobody,” said 8-year-old Isabela in a quiet voice.

“Great answer! Why is nobody learning?” I continued.

“Because they’re all looking at the woman talking on the phone,” she said with a smile, as if that should be obvious.

What a joy it was to see all the possibilities observed in this picture from the perspective of these fresh eyes and young minds!

To me, the picture asks us to consider the areas in our life where we think we are “showing up” and “doing all the right things”, but in reality, we are undermining our own intentions. Read the rest of this entry »

A visit with an old friend

September 17, 2009

Last night I sat down at the piano in my studio for the first time in a long time. My mom likes to remind me that I studied piano for more years than I did violin, and it contributed as much if not more to my overall music appreciation. She’s right (grumble). But I never found that same connection to teaching piano or the community of playing piano as I did with violin.

I had two different piano teachers in my life. Both of them are now deceased. Mr. Leviton started me at age 3 and took me through age 13 or so. And then the last three years of high school I moved on to Dr. Isaak, at Northwestern University. He was the one who thought I was absolutely NUTS for not continuing to study music in college. He said I was already at the level of a typical Master’s Degree student at Northwestern! I simply ignored this, or dismissed it as the rantings of someone as lunatic as you must need to be in order to become a professor of piano.

In retrospect, I missed out on some great learning by not being open to him at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Follow Your Bliss

August 23, 2009

Vines with landscape

In northern California, they say there are two seasons – brown and green. Summer is brown and winter is green. This refers to the dryness of our summer months, when the foothills around the Bay turn wheat-colored and stay that way until the rain comes in January and February.

I visited Napa Valley earlier this month – one of the brown ones – inspired by the visit of my violin teacher who has known me since I was four years old. We went on the guided tour of Robert Mondavi Winery. As we stood in the 85-degree sun of the vineyard, my teacher asked our tour guide how often the irrigation pipes were used to water the plants. We all assumed that there was an elaborate watering system to maintain such lush green leaves on the vines surrounding us.

We were wrong.

The tour guide explained that the vines are deliberately stressed, and not given supplemental water during the dry season, because the growers have found that the more the vine struggles, the deeper its roots must go, and the more complex flavor is produced in the grapes, resulting in better wine. So prized are those roots that often the heartiest of the “rootstocks” (as they are called) are grafted onto newer fruit-bearing branches, to help enhance the hardiness of a harvest.

It surprised us all to hear this, especially as we strode into the dusty soil that supported the growth of endless rows of green-leafed grapevines. Who would have thought that good grape cultivation actually meant withholding water from the vines?

Rows of grapes

We were invited to taste some of the grapes. I braced myself to wince at the sourness. But they tasted amazingly good! I and the rest of the tour group each helped ourselves to a small handful of grapes before moving onto the fermentation room.

That story about the most resilient – and resourceful – vines producing the most complex and therefore valuable grapes stayed with me. I thought about it again today as I took a hike in the dry landscape of an open space preserve near my home, walking on dusty trails and surrounded by waist-high prairie grasses that were the color of straw. I noticed a tree, living there in the same parched landscape, somehow managing to have all of its branches teeming with blooms of bright green, shiny leaves. This was one thriving tree in the midst of a whole lot of dried out deadness.

Somehow, I thought, that tree must have dug deeper with its roots to find the water for all those leaves to grow out here. It must be like one of those resilient grapevines.

This got me thinking about the concept of bliss. I had always heard that famous phrase, coined by Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.” I thought it was one of those woo-woo spiritual mantras spread by people who were promoting “the good life”, which I took to mean, do whatever pleases you in the moment, and most likely it won’t be work. Read the rest of this entry »

Child Whisperer

August 19, 2009

I have to share this incredibly insightful post from Pam Slim, entitled “Valuable Coaching Advice Straight From The Horse’s Mouth (And Nose)”. In it, she talks about how her experience at a horse whisperer workshop taught her valuable lessons about her own parenting behaviors.

I started my violin school five years ago, knowing that I would have to start by recruiting the right parents – get their commitment, spend time educating them, and then hope for their long-term buy-in to a philosophy that extends well beyond the boundaries of violin training. What I couldn’t fully articulate back then but am realizing now is that I’m really teaching a way of being. It’s an awareness of the self as the gateway to deep, long-lasting learning. And mainly I’ve been focusing on developing this within each child. After all, that’s why we’re all gathered together – for the sake of the children.

But what I’m beginning to learn is that, in order for the child to learn optimally in this environment, there is an element of openness and awareness of themselves that the parents have to develop as well. This has been the harder problem to address. I’ve never told parents upfront that they are required to be coachable. Once I’ve screened and accepted the parents, it’s easy for me to become totally absorbed in my direct work with the child that I forget to specifically address the parent’s relationship to the child. I’ve used the excuse that it’s “not my place” to comment on parenting style, just to try to work with what is there, and do my best to “work around it” by ignoring the parent’s behaviors when they’re not helping the process. It’s been my habit to avoid the difficult situation of calling out a self-defeating behavior in a parent when it comes up, because I feel ill-equipped to do the necessary work of changing an adult’s patterns of instinctual behavior – especially something as primal as parenting. Read the rest of this entry »