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Planet of the Orchestra

Q. What separates the violists from the apes?

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Part 2: The bad music teacher

And now for another Controversial Opinion — for what is a blog but a means of airing personal grievances?

For I have a likely controversial point to make, and in so making I shall air a personal grievance. Purely for point making purposes, of course.

Follow me back, back, back, to middle school, when I was a wee violin student and began taking lessons with a private teacher. Let us call him Mr. Worthless, because you’d be surprised how well it works.

I don’t know when the tide shifted. I don’t know when Mr. Worthless and I became wary sparring partners. I can only assume it wasn’t from the first moment we met, or we probably wouldn’t have committed to lessons. I can tell you, though, that I don’t remember a time when we did get along. We traded veiled barbs and I hated every lesson.

Look, I know what you’re probably thinking — I bet you were a little snot. I bet you were a brat, tough to teach. And you know what? You’re right. I wasn’t trying to meet him halfway. But hold with me just a moment.

I specifically remember the week in school we got Bach’s second Brandenburg. This is a nice piece, ubiquitous enough that many are sick of it, not exactly ground-breaking work. It’s pretty easy to play but it’s fast and has a lot of runs, and I became obsessed with it. I was not a happy practicer — I used to waste time adjusting the metronome and fine-tuning the strings to eat up the allotted our — but I remember spending that entire hour playing the Brandenburg over and over and over, trying to get through a completely perfect run. Eventually my mom came in and pointed out that I should probably turn my attention to something else, which I did, so I did time-and-a-half that practice day.

We went to lessons that week — I say “we” because my brother had recently begun playing the viola, the instrument in which Mr. Worthless specialized, and we had an hour and a half blocked out for both of us in total. I always made my brother go first as the first person in generally wound up with the longer lesson, the second left with whatever remained of the 90 minutes.

I was so excited about the Brandenburg that I almost — ALMOST — volunteered to go first. Luckily I squelched this urge. But I wasn’t dreading it as per usual, and I went up to the music room on the second floor willingly. Even though it was a school piece, I whipped out the Brandenburg, eager to show him how well I had mastered it. I had gone through this piece for hours, after all, and that was a big deal for a non-prodigy such as myself.

So I played the Brandenburg, pretty well. Not perfect, but he must’ve seen my zeal. Couldn’t he see my zeal? I had found — of course I found it in Bach! — I had found at last some passion. I had played something for him, for the first time, that I wanted to play, and I wanted to hear his feedback, to improve upon it, to make it truly my own.

And Mr. Worthless sat quietly in his chair, the usual fighting smirk on his face. He looked at me, and he opened his mouth, and he gave me a lecture. He reamed me out for working so hard on the Brandenburg for school instead of the etude and Suzuki he had assigned me. What I had done, he said, was disrespectful and inappropriate, like slapping him in the face.

Go ahead and argue it — he was right. I should’ve concentrated on his pieces. I shouldn’t have taken that surly attitude to begin with. You, too, are absolutely right on all counts.

But here is where I insert my controversial thought: in the case of teaching, it is up to the teacher, not the student. Or to say it in Horace Mann’s far more eloquent words: “A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring in the pupil a desire to learn is hammering cold iron.”

I was cold iron and he the hammer, but with the Brandenburg I handed him the coal to light the fire. I came to him and said here — here is something that has made me care. Help me shape it. But he wouldn’t help me shape it, because I wasn’t using the material he had given me. (You can relax now — the metaphor is over.)

Again — the argument is a valid one that I shouldn’t have been so difficult. And again, my argument is that as teachers, the onus is on you.

There are different styles of teaching. Some are gentle and kind; some are harsh. My mother knows a trombone teacher who uses agitated gestures and angry words as motivators, and for certain types of people this method works. This would not work on me. Mr. Worthless tried to fight me, but mine is the sort of nature that, if faced with negative reinforcement, will simply shut down all attempts — for why should I reward you with my success?

Point being, that no single teaching style works on every student. And as a teacher, it is up to you to either discover the way to get through to your individual student or direct them to someone who will. You do a disservice to the both of you if you do not.

Why is it not also the responsibility of the student to bend to you? Well, ideally they would too, but it takes another kind of personality. Fact is, you are a music teacher — I hope — because you love music and you love playing your instrument. Hate to break it to ya, but the same can’t be said for all your students. We are handed instruments as kids and told to play. (See: Eddie Izzard.)

I, for example, love music but hate playing, because I find it unbelievably frustrating to hear the wrong notes come out. Some kids don’t even love music. Some kids love both but are driven by other forces to rebel. Some are perfect and come in and play perfectly –lucky you. But if every kid deserves a fair shot at learning — and if you don’t believe this you aren’t meant for teaching — then you must seek out the Brandenburg in every kid and nourish it.

If a kid that had shown little interest and/or has been troublesome comes in with something that excites them, be it a basic scale or a piece you never assigned, encourage them. Follow them for just a minute. Release the freakin’ butterfly and just see where it goes for a minute. Then use that insight to gently head the kid in the direction he needs to go. If you can’t, give him to another lepidopterist who can better understand this breed of butterfly. (This metaphor is now also over.)

Okay. Go ahead. Rant about all the bad kids you’ve had to teach. Not saying you haven’t suffered some little hellions. But I’ll say it again and if you ask me it’s the truth: as the teacher, the onus is on you.

Part 1: The good music teacher

Here’s another one of my music-in-literature-that-isn’t-about-music discoveries, or should I say rediscovery because I’ve read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn like eight thousand times. If you haven’t read it, you are dismissed from the human race until this situation is rectified.

Done? Okay, good, you may come retake your place as a citizen. Now cast your mind back to the bit where Smith describes Mr. Morton, the music teacher who comes around to the public schools of Brooklyn in the 1910s once a week…

He drew notes on the blackboard; he drew little legs on them to make them look as though they were running out of the scale. He’s make a flat note look like humpty-dumpty. A sharp note would rate a thin beetlike nose zooming off of it. All the while he’d burst into singing just as spontaneously as a bird. Sometimes his happiness was so overflowing he couldn’t hold it and he’d cut a dance caper to spill some of it out.

He taught them good music without letting them know it was good. He set his own words to the great classics and gave them simple names like “Lullaby” and “Serenade” and “Street Song” and “Song for a Sunshine Day.” Their baby voices shrilled Handel’s “Largo” and they knew it merely by the title “Hymn.” Little boys whistled part of Dvorak’s New World Symphony as they played marbles. When asked the name of the song, they’d reply, “Oh, ‘Going Home.'” They played potsy, humming “The Soldier’s Chorus” from Faust which they called “Glory.”

And now I invite you to think about all the good music teachers you’ve had, both in a school and in private, of your instrument and of music as a whole. The ones that loved music so much they gave it to you like an infection. The ones that didn’t just make you try harder; they made you want to try harder.

Think about them and tell me about them now, because tomorrow I’m going to rant and rave about the bad ones. Oh yes.

Chess alternatives and microwave homicide

I lost power last night, and when it came back the microwave keypad shorted and is now blasting me with a high pitched alert to this fact every two minutes or so and the office doesn’t open for another half hour so I can’t tell anyone to fix it yet and there is a very real possibility I may kill some one so take your video without intro and watch it and like it or you could be my chosen victim, comprendes?

Always try it out on the small audience first

funny pictures history - The devil's in the house of the risin' sun
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Violists are such prudes

I was alerted to today’s joke by Medalist of Violar @Kickassical. It is slightly risque, so if you’re all offended you should direct your complaints to him.

Q. What’s the difference between a violist and a prostitute?

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Composer Cagematch!: Bernstein vs. Gershwin

I’m not surprised that Schoenberg won his bout. I mean, he’s kind of a big deal. I had a fantastic time touring the Schoenberg museum, with its little music clips and interviews with Schoenberg’s kids and of course a video demonstration of his chess alternatives (oh, man, I should so make that my Monday video!).

I must say, though, I’m a little disappointed that we won’t be seeing Berg again, because now I have to drop my looks-just-like bomb at his goodbye-party instead of preceding his triumphant return. Ah well. He looks just like Dan Stevens as Matthew from Downton Abbey plus ten years. Twenty years? An older version. Cool. Thanks for playing, Berg.

Okay. And now I’m just gonna do it. They told me not to; they tried to dissuade me with other, more “appropriate” matches, but I don’t care. In style they may not be a perfect setup, but in time and place and Americana they are both quintessential. So:

In this corner, he’s a Jet, and a Jet all the way! It’s


And in this corner, he dressed up Jazz and took her to the concert hall! It’s


Yeah I went there.

* Interesting fact: neither one used their birth name.

Familial exploitation

Hi there! You guys are subject to an awful lot of my opinions. In an effort to inject some variety into your life and impart some actual information, I have dragooned the incomparable Sheri German into writing a guest post. That’s right, you’re going to hear from my mom. And you’re probably going to like her way better than you like me — she actually, like, knows stuff: she has a masters in music performance, spent many years as a piano teacher, worked backstage at the freakin’ Kennedy Center, and could kick any and all of your asses at drop-the-needle. Make sure you tell her how much you like this post, because I’m trying to coerce her into telling some of those Kennedy Center stories, especially the one about that thing Rostropovich did that one time that she thinks is embarrassing (I kid, Mom, you don’t have to :P). And now, without further adieu…

Back in the 1980s I was a music student who earned my living as a “traveling” piano teacher. In other words, I braved the traffic of the city to teach my students in their own homes. I taught a nice little group of boys and girls who lived around the Northwest area of Washington, DC.

Every so often I would take them on field trips. On one occasion I took them to the Kennedy Center to see the great Rudolf Serkin play a solo piano recital. The children were quite young — mostly in the 9 to 14 year old range — and the program was probably a little long and ponderous for them. Serkin was considered a musicians’ musician and played a lot of German music.

Still, the children were well behaved and seemed to derive some benefit from the experience of being in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center listening to one of the great pianists of the 20th century. After the concert was over, I took them backstage. I felt like the mother duckling in Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings as all my kids trailed after me to the backstage “Green Room.”

Serkin graciously signed the program of each child and was very gentle with them as he asked them about their own studies. Then he turned to me and very seriously asked the most astounding question.

“Did you think it was OK?”

I was stunned. Did I think it was OK? I couldn’t believe that this remarkable  pianist was looking for my reassurance. I gulped and told him I thought it was one of the most magnificent concerts I ever heard. He looked pleased and my students and I said our good-byes.

I am not sure what I took away from this experience except to think that perhaps even the most lauded among us still want to know that they have reached an individual when they perform, not just a collective audience. Or maybe it’s as mundane as no matter how accomplished you are, you still harbor feelings of insecurity. Whatever the case, Serkin died in 1991, and the only performances I can see now are ones like the Schubert Piano Sonata in B flat on You Tube.

Oh, it was some composer or other

Good news! I am not, as it turns out, completely insane. I am only partially insane.

Remember in May of 2010 when I complained about my inability to locate a Silly Symphony about the three little pigs set to Dvorak? (Of course not; refresh your memory.) Well, I have discovered a possibility for that: it wasn’t a Silly Symphony and it wasn’t Dvorak. Haha. Oops.

Whatever. Disney/Warner Bros, Dvorak/Brahms; practically interchangeable, right?

It’s the law

funny puns-You Have The Right To Remain Silent
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