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 »


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 »

The Biggest Loser = The Biggest Learner

May 6, 2009

I’m learning a lot about learning in my job as a teacher. I’m discovering how adept we humans are at finding the loopholes – ways to “meet the standard” by any means possible, without truly learning anything. I’ve been surrounded by a lot of “successful” people in my life, but by very few true learners. I realize that my goal in starting The Music Within Us was to create a community of learning. That means, a community of dedicated learners – both parents and children. Sometimes learning means acknowledging our failures and trying something different. Other times learning means celebrating successes and moving on as a different person. I would argue that our culture over-celebrates success, and under-recognizes the failures that support most success stories.

This is why I love NBC’s The Biggest Loser so much. For those of you who don’t know this about me, I am fascinated with this show. I literally well up with emotion when I see the transformations that occur over the course of the seventeen-week seasons. The producers of the show clearly know a lot about learning, and they continue to learn each season about what it takes for real humans to undergo total transformation. They are also clearly going for nothing short of miraculous, total inside-out metamorphosis. Morbid obesity is a reflection of so many of our society’s failures. It is visible, so it grabs our attention. It makes for good television, which is another central part of our culture. It’s the perfect medium to reach the audience it intends to inspire – the millions of sedentary “couch potatoes” who have succumbed to what is so easy to do in our culture. By that I mean, to go through life doing what is popular and easy to do. In order to even try out for the show, each of these contestants has reached a breaking point in their lives, and recognition of the need for profound change. They enter this process with a willingness and commitment that has yet to be put to the test.

The contestants on The Biggest Loser may seem very different from “the average person” because of the way they look physically. Those of us who do not have weight problems might say, “Boy I’m glad I never let myself go like that.” But we would be wrong to think so. These people are humans, like all of us. They happen to have the genetic and behavioral combination that causes all of their lack of discipline in their lives to manifest as extra weight on their physical bodies. When they are not in control of their habits, it shows up as weight gain. It’s visible to the world. And in America, image is everything. At least on television.

So what better way to put these people and their process on display than in a competitive reality TV series, where each week they compete to lose the most weight, with elimination of one player per week, and, at the end of the season, have one of them ultimately be crowned “The Biggest Loser”?

If this were merely a weight loss show, where we tuned in to watch interpersonal dramas and see the numbers on a scale each week, I would have no interest at all in the show. If it were about contestants pleasing a panel of judges or acting in outrageous attention-getting ways, I would also have no interest.

But The Biggest Loser is truly about total transformation and learning. Read the rest of this entry »