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 »


Love is…

July 10, 2009

I think I finally understand why my parents never wanted me to try to make a living as a musician.

You know what it feels like to fall in love – head-over-heels, ga-ga, out-of-your-mind in love? And then, you know what it feels like when you’re hurt by that person you love? Or when you lose that person? Or when the person doesn’t love you back?

Well, sharing your art with someone is a lot like falling in love. To actually do it well – meaning that you’re actually passing on those best parts of yourself to someone else – requires opening yourself so wide that you invite everything in. That means you can’t choose to “block out” the bad stuff, or give only just enough that you don’t get hurt. It means you invite in the heartbreak. You invite in the disappointment. You invite in the frustration. You invite in the agreement that despite all of that, you’ll keep showing up and trying again.

You do it because you embrace the beauty of seeing someone else grow in your presence. You do it because you know what the human spirit is capable of. You do it because sharing your appreciation of life with even one other person makes your experience richer. You invite all of that pain in because you think love requires it of you. Read the rest of this entry »

The Music Within Us

April 15, 2009

Yesterday I received an advance copy of a book entitled, “Talk About Music”. The art was created by my students, ages 4 through 10, to commemorate the past year of growth and learning in The Music Within Us program. I flipped through the pages of individually created drawings, paintings, and words describing my students’ experiences with music – what it means to them, or what they like about it – and I was overcome with awe. I have always felt that children are the truth, embodied for us adults to see and nurture and encounter, as a window to our own souls. What I see in the souls of each of my students is their wholeness, their uniqueness, and their infinite capacity to do, to know, and to feel.

Listening to music feels nice. I really like the violin. I don’t know why I just really like it. – Noah, age 7 (3rd year playing violin)

My violin is a dancing butterfly. – Soria, age 8 (5th year playing violin)

Music is important because it makes people happy. – Audrey, age 7 (3rd year playing violin)

Playing music means to me I know how to make a person happy or sad depending what the music feels like or how the person who is playing feels. – Sinead, age 9 (4th year playing violin)

Violin is love and beautiful. – Milan, age 4 (1st two months playing violin)

I wish I could share all of the quotes, the artwork, and the faces of the children here. But these quotes capture the essence of what is true and pure in the hearts of children. Read the rest of this entry »

What if…?

March 17, 2009

Despite the economy’s woes, apparently students are undaunted by the pragmatic (ie, financial) challenges of choosing music as a college undergraduate major. This recent Chicago Tribune article on the soaring number of applicants to college music programs and conservatories not only indicates that there are opportunities in music that never before existed – such as video game design, digital music composition, and other new media involving music – but also suggests that the skills of training as a musician may translate to success in other fields.

Here, a quote from the Dean of Oberlin Conservatory, David Stull:

“They know what it means to chase excellence. Musicans have the discipline to work in focus for hours, they can collaborate, they can attain high performance levels in the 10 minutes that count. If you ask a CEO what are the great life skills you need to succeed, it’s a lot of those.”

And this from the Admissions Director of Indiana University School of Music, Townsend Plant:

“Music students – we’ve seen for a long time – exhibit a remarkable set of transferable skills which can be applied to many careers…..They are good at collaborating and building consensus, they’re great at public speaking, they have drive and focus that comes from a real desire to master something. And that’s a remarkable collection of traits that make you successful in many fields.”

Of course, I’m sensitive to the broad-sweeping generalities that characterize these comments, which were made by people whose very livelihoods may depend on the veracity of these statements. However, can we consider for a moment the truth that may be embedded in these observations? What if the entire process of mastering both the skills of playing an instrument and the skills of bringing that instrument into a collaborative ensemble were actually the very training that would produce more effective leaders in society? Leaders who are more compassionate, who listen more carefully, who focus more intently, who have more perseverance to work through problems, who understand the beauty of collaboration?

What if?

Recordings…How, When, Why

September 24, 2008

Using audio recordings during practice is a commonly discussed and debated topic among musicians and music teachers throughout the world. “Suzuki method” teaching has been criticized for its over-reliance on recordings to teach students to learn by rote memory or imitation, thereby limiting the student’s motivation to learn to read musical notation. It is also said that students who learn purely by imitation of sound never learn to form their own interpretation of the music. These have some basis in reality as I look at results of various teaching approaches.

HOWEVER, why is it that so many “traditionally” trained violin students have trouble playing in tune, or playing with good tone quality on their instruments? And if music is all about the sound, isn’t a good model of sound required for students during development?

When I am trying to get a student to discriminate the difference between their sound and the “goal sound”, a recording is often the only way to transmit what happened in my studio to the child’s practice sessions at home.

Recordings – how and when to use them, and why they are sometimes necessary and at other times contraindicated – have been a constant source of thought and challenge for me as a teacher. I’ve used them, I’ve recommended them, and I’ve also worked hard to discourage them at times throughout my teaching experience so far. Here are some random thoughts inspired by my students on the subject of recordings.

HOW and WHEN to use (and not to use) recordings: Read the rest of this entry »

Tocar Y Luchar

April 8, 2008

Once again, I have been deeply moved and inspired by the work of Jose Antonio Abreu and the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Last night, after the Anne-Sophie Mutter all-Brahms recital at Davies Symphony Hall (more on that in a separate post), I purchased the documentary film DVD entitled, Tocar Y Luchar” (To Play and To Fight). This is the motto of the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela – that to play music, or to create anything of meaning to the soul, you must also be prepared to fight for it. The tagline on the DVD reads, “…only those who dream achieve the impossible.”

I just finished watching the 70-minute film, and plan to transcribe some of Abreu’s words for you here later. He believes deeply in the power of music to transform individuals from the inside, and, through the group experience of this in orchestras, to transform the listeners as well. He envisions a Venezuela in which every town, no matter how small, has a choir and an orchestra. “This is not the 22nd or the 23rd century,” he said. “This is eternity.”

Several things were made apparent to me about Venezuela from this film: Read the rest of this entry »