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 »

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 »

Letter to Parents

August 5, 2009

NOTE: I’m sharing this letter, originally addressed to the parents in The Music Within Us program, publicly here, because it represents my deepest commitment to the service I hope to offer in this life. May you all find the courage to ask life’s most important questions: WHO are you? And HOW do you choose to be?

Dear Parents:

I’m writing as I begin to invite each of you to join me for the sixth year of our co-creation of The Music Within Us program. I have known some of you for all of the past five years, when you were just several “important strangers” who have now become something like family to me – people I feel a certain responsibility towards, people I long to do right by. Others I have just begun to know, through your first steps on this path of discovery with your children. Each of you – through your expression of who you are and how you interact with your children – has a creative role in the emergence of The Music Within Us.

I feel it necessary to share some thoughts with you before the start of the new school year in just a few weeks. I also want to give you the opportunity to reflect on my words, and the meaning behind my words, before we enter into this mutual commitment together again.

When I first started The Music Within Us in 2004, I hoped to share the parts of myself that had been cultivated through the unique experience of my time with Mrs. Betty Haag-Kuhnke, in the suburbs of Chicago. I began a process of revisiting and rediscovering, through the practice of teaching, the art form that had been so central to my early childhood development. I relished the process of remembering all the details of how music is made, step by step, on the violin. Then I watched the magic of bringing just two young violinists together, making the sounds of a song in unison. I’ve witnessed the expansion of the numbers of students and of their combined sound. I’ve marveled at the tenderness of the fingers and hands that can draw out these sounds from such a foreign, unwieldy instrument as this wooden curved box with a long neck, and a horsehair bow. Read the rest of this entry »

The Post “Game” Analysis

May 30, 2009

Some youth sports coaches talk about utilizing the “car ride home” as an opportunity for parents of youth athletes to instill some life lessons from the events of the game, to help process emotions and thoughts related to certain moments, and to develop a supportive and healthy parent-child relationship through their involvement in sports.

I like this approach, and have begun to think about ways that a healthy parent-child relationship in music can also be developed. I am blessed with a relatively healthy culture currently in my program, but I am all too aware of the dangers of a self-directed parent culture within an environment like this, based on my own experience and the experience of my teacher’s nearly four decades of working with parents of developing musicians. There seems to be an ugly side to the human ego, with parents engaging in manipulative and/or unproductive conversations comparing the progress of their children. If my goal is to develop better citizens and to leave something positive within the souls of the children who pass through my studio, I need to plant seeds within the parents’ minds also, and give them the tools, the knowledge, and the courage to speak openly and truthfully about their children’s learning. Not for the purpose of comparing rates of progress, but for the purpose of becoming more aware.

It’s a cultural tendency to try to measure your progress from the outside in. “How am I doing compared to others my age? How about compared to others who have been taking lessons for the same amount of time? Am I playing a harder piece than someone else? Did I score the winning goal? Did I miss the shot that could have won the game? Did I get into the better school? Did I get the more impressive job title?” The problem is, none of these questions measures the only relevant process – the one that occurs within yourself. It can’t be measured by comparing yourself to others. It can only be felt and known by meeting or exceeding the standards – hopefully high ones – that you set for yourself. We cannot know another person’s learning process. We can only support them from the sidelines. But no matter how many times I say this to others, I continue to encounter that human need to be “assured” by some outside measure that I cannot honestly provide.

So here is my first innovative attempt at doing something to address this. After each performance, I always make notes in my own mind of certain things that happened, and try to use those observations as learning for me to improve my teaching of each student. There isn’t always something “to do”, but there is always something to observe. I try to stay curious about how each of my students performs in a concert setting. What makes them nervous? What obstacles did they overcome in their journey of learning for this concert? What surprises revealed gaps in their preparation? What habits do they still need to change?

Today we had our Year End Recital, in which every student performs a solo piece of their choice. It’s interesting for me to notice which pieces the children select. Sometimes it is an old favorite, other times it is the newest piece in their repertoire. I am touched when a student selects something that is not necessarily brand new, but is something they enjoy playing well. In the setting of a “private” recital such as today’s – where we have an audience of families only – I am encouraged to see an otherwise shy, methodical student select a piece that is a “stretch” or somewhat of a risk, and prepare it to the very best of their ability. There is growth in every situation.

After today’s events, I feel a need to “recap” certain moments in order to be clear about the message of learning and the culture I am trying to promote in our community. This is the first time I’ve ever tried this, so there’s an equal chance that it’ll blow up or it’ll be received with open arms, but I’m going to try it anyway, since I have to learn and grow. My question to the parents is, how do you feel about all this insight and feedback? Is it too painful? Embarrassing? Or is it illuminating? Fascinating? If your child is one who received praise, do you sigh with relief, or wonder what could still be improved? Because the kind of community I want to build not only appreciates this kind of feedback when it is given, but comes back to ask for more. Praise and criticism are effective only when specific, so read on if you want to learn more…. Read the rest of this entry »