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 »

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 »

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 »

Kung Fu Panda wisdom

May 4, 2009

There is a beautiful but quiet scene in the animated movie Kung Fu Panda which actually expresses a piece of great wisdom. It reminds us of the art of balancing belief in our work with the illusion of our need for control.

The wise old kung fu tortoise, Master Oogway, is speaking to his disciple, Shifu, a red panda who is charged with training the unlikely Po, a giant panda, to become the next great kung fu Dragon Warrior. They are standing under the Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom. Shifu is at a moment of crisis of faith, unable to see the potential in his overweight, clumsy protege.

Master Oogway points to the peach tree, with its lovely branches and its colorful, plump fruits. He picks up a peach pit, and explains to Shifu: “My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours until you let go of the illusion of control. The essence of this seed is to become a peach tree. Within this bumpy, hard-shelled pit is the potential for this entire tree, with its flower blossoms and branches filled with ripe fruit. I can plant the seed in the ground, cover it with soil, and nurture it with water and sunlight. But I cannot make the tree blossom when it suits me nor make it bear fruit before its time.”

Shifu insists, “But there are things we can control: I can control when the fruit will fall, I can control where to plant the seed: that is no illusion, Master!”

Oogway replies, “Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will only get a peach.”

Shifu, anxious to produce a “winner” immediately out of his young Kung Fu Panda, says, “But a peach cannot defeat the evil Tai Lung!”

Master Oogway, while gazing into the starry night, replies, “Maybe it can, if you are willing to guide it, to nurture it, to believe in it. You just need to believe.”

How often in our lives do we try to force an apple or an orange out of something whose essence is a peach? Master Oogway reminds us that we cannot become so attached to an outcome that we imagine in our minds. Everything has an essence – a true nature that is immutable no matter what kind of influence we try to exert. Read the rest of this entry »

Why “education reform” won’t work

April 30, 2009

We need to forget what we think we are in order to become who we really are. – Paulo Coelho

It seems that the topic of “education reform” has been mentioned more frequently in the first 100 days of the Obama presidency than I have heard in the last several years. The dialog has not made headlines in the way that swine flu, the collapse of Wall Street, or even Dancing with the Stars has. But the fact that we have heard a speech outlining long-term education reform strategies, and several New York Times columnists chiming in on this topic says to me that a little red light has gone on.

I see it in my own experience. I come from an immigrant family that valued education over almost everything else, the only exception being protection of good health. Call it the old-school values that focused mostly on the basics beyond survival, since luxuries were few for my parents’ generation. And not just my parents. In President Obama’s memoir, he tells the story of his mother waking him up every morning to tutor him in English, so that he would have access to the American education system one day. When the young Obama complained, she replied, “This is no picnic for me either, Buster!”

I would argue that the very values that made America what it is today, and what we value most about living here, are also the reasons why full-scale “education reform”, if pursued only from a government policy perspective, won’t work. Individual freedom of expression, the freedom to live by any values you choose, without government intervention or limitation, are to be celebrated. They are the foundation of this country’s greatness and sustainability.

But a real education “system” requires agreement by a society – or at least a community – on the values that surround education. I live in the Bay Area, specifically the Peninsula south of San Francisco, which is characterized by the pluralism of choices in education that reflect the beauty of American individualism. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning and Entrepreneurship

April 7, 2009

One of my favorite teachers – someone who makes his own life lessons transparent in all of his work and has followed his heart through life – is Brian Johnson, the founder of PhilosophersNotes. What I admire about him is the honesty and self-awareness with which he talks about his own journey, having started three different businesses so far (he is 34 years old). He is a self-proclaimed student of life, and PhilosophersNotes is his “PhD in living”.

Check out this interview with Brian on