The Importance of Snowball and other Strange Birds

Last month, for Mother’s Day weekend, my long-time friend Kacy and I had a girls’ weekend away. The timing was Kacy’s idea, because she figured neither of our husbands could easily say no to our wanting to get away on Mother’s Day. My husband was visibly relieved because this solved his perennial problem of what on earth to get me.

Kacy and I run away take small, restful vacations together at least once a year. We’ve known each other since college, and she’s that friend that, when we reconnect after months or even a year apart, it’s as though no time has passed. We pick right back up where we left off. And where we always leave off is with hijinks.

Shenanigans. Escapades.

In college, I learned that just going to the grocery store with Kacy could be therapy, as we would invariably run into some problem – a car stalling, one of us didn’t bring her wallet, a broken jar of mayonnaise – that with any other friend would have possibly ruined our mood or day. But somehow, when the two of us embarked on even a grocery trip together, even the annoyances of life became part of the adventure. Kacy is imminently practical, and I am sometimes a bit impulsive, and while that sometime exasperates Kacy, I think she enjoys the fallout. At least I hope she does. She calls me Lucy. I call her Ethel. Sigh.

This is why I tell people that when Kacy and I, (we now live in different states) go on our weekend getaways, it doesn’t matter where we go. Frankly, the first night of any Lucy and Ethel adventure simply consists of what she and I call “debriefing”. We go somewhere and get a good dinner. And then we go back to our hotel/cabin/condo, change into our pj’s, and stay up half the night filling each other in on everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly – that has happened in our lives since we last saw one another. Kacy can always offer a funny, quirky take on whatever is going on in my life, and some good advice. She also understands my fascination with chickens.

In 2011, I read an essay a friend posted on social media, called “And That’s Why You Should Pick Your Battles”. (http://thebloggess.com/2011/06/21/and-thats-why-you-should-learn-to-pick-your-battles/) The essay, by “The Bloggess”, aka author Jenny Lawson, had gone viral. Lawson, who also writes openly about her battles with anxiety and depression, had written a brilliant and roll-in-the-floor funny essay about a fight she’d had with her husband, and her subsequent rebellious purchase of a giant metal chicken. The story, which involves a trip to a giant bath outlet store with a friend, is precisely the kind of thing Kacy and I live for. I laughed myself silly, shared the post, and moved on with life.

I also began to obsess about chickens. I looked up photos of heirloom chickens. They are beautiful, magnificent birds. I decided I wanted to get a few chickens, but right at that same time, the city where I live decided to do the most UN-hipster thing ever and BAN chicken coops. Totally ridiculous. I just wanted a few chickens for eggs and staring at. I was not planning to run a CAFO in my backyard. Nonetheless, my plans for the cutest chicken coop ever, with accompanying chickens, were thwarted.

Also about the same time, we had an extended family crisis. My husband was on tour, and I called him, very upset. Later that same day, he says he was walking on a street in some small town in the midwest somewhere, when Floyd caught his eye. Floyd is a rusted metal buzzard, and John bought him for me. He brought him home on the tour bus. There are photos of Floyd on the bus, and one of Floyd “driving the bus”.  If you’ve read the Bloggess’s essay, then you’ll understand the significance of the way John presented Floyd. I received a text from him that said, “Knock, knock m———–, and then a knock on the front door. When I opened the door, only Floyd was there.  (My absolute favorite thing about Floyd is the receipt, which we saved. It says “Rusted Metal Buzzard. NO RETURNS!!!

I don’t know why, but there is something about the absurdity of owning a rusted metal buzzard that is soothing in crisis. Sometime after taking ownership of Floyd, I had a flute student who was going through a serious personal crisis. I took her around to our backyard to see Floyd. As I walked, I told her the story. First, the story of Beyonce. Then, the story of Floyd. As she rounded the corner of my house and saw Floyd in all his glorious ridiculousness for the first time, I saw the first smile I’d seen on her in a very long time. When this student graduated, her gift to me was delivered by her sister, who shook her head saying, “I don’t know what she was thinking, but she insisted we get you this.” It was a small metal chicken.

And so, I’ve collected a few more chickens of various sorts over the years. Kacy was with me when I bought a beautiful print of a rooster painting which hangs in my kitchen. I love it. It makes me smile, and I think of my friend whenever I look at it.

Which is why it is oddly significant that a chicken named Snowball had such a star role in our most recent getaway.

When we arrived at the winery on the Biltmore Estate, Kacy drove around the full lot for a bit, looking for parking. Spotting an additional lot, Kacy said, “Let’s park over here.”

“Oh yes, let’s do! Let’s park next to the chicken coop!”

We had been to this area of the estate earlier in the day for lunch, and I had approached the chicken coop with the excitement of a small child. (Actually, the chicken coop is part of a petting zoo which actually IS for small children.) I was fascinated by the sheer number and variety of heirloom chickens there, and I had already spent a good deal of time staring at them.

As we walked up the path, I made Kacy stop again at the chicken coop. She eventually tore me away so we could go wine tasting.

The wine tasting itself turned into an adventure, as we were surrounded by rude people. The burly man to my left was clearly showing off for his date, saying things like, “This doesn’t have the heft of that Cabernet we tried in Burgundy,” and sneering and pouring the wine out. As though he were in some kind of special, invitation-only cellar special tasting at an elite vineyard and winery in a difficult to reach village in New Zealand, as opposed to a mass tasting room at the Biltmore, with hundreds of other tourists. After he and the other rude people left, I told the bartender that my husband and I had lived near Napa Valley in the 90’s, and had spent many a Saturday tasting the wine and trying the food there. Turns out the Biltmore imports grapes from northern California for some of its wines, and we then had a good time playing a game – could Kacy and I determine which wines were from local grapes and which were from Californian grapes? We could. And we did. A lot.

At one point, I remembered there was a limit to the number of wines we were permitted to taste, but our bartender didn’t seem to care. She implied the limit applied to people less cool than my friend Kacy and me. (She totally enforced the limit on the rude people.)

Her pouring arm went for variety over quantity though, so as Kacy and I walked back to the parking lot after a brief period of shopping, we were feeling calm and content, as though all was right in the world.

And that’s when we saw her.

Kacy saw her first. “Look, that chicken is on top of the fence!”

“Oh, wow, she totally is! Oh man, those people are going to get pecked and clawed.”

Anyone who has spent even the most perfunctory time with chickens knows that you do not stare at them, yell, and enter their personal space. But there were two families doing just that. And Snowball was not happy.

I looked away for a moment, distracted by something. (I cannot remember. I think it was a goat.) And then I heard Kacy say, “She did it! That chicken is out of the coop!”

We hastened to the coop, where Snowball, in her beautiful white, fluffy, serene way, was pecking and scratching the ground, as though she were still inside the coop. The perps had run away.

“Kacy, someone is going to hurt this chicken. I’ll go for help. You stay here, and, uhm, keep an eye on the chicken.”

It is a testament to the years we have known one another that Kacy simply responded, “Ok, Charlene. Right. I’ll watch the chicken.” And sighed.

I went into the coop, where, after some time, (I did not allow myself further distraction by goats), I found an attendant who looked exactly like Mr. Green Jeans.

“Excuse me, sir. You have a chicken loose.”

Mr. Green Jeans looked at me like I’d lost my mind, because we were in the petting zoo area where all the chickens (and goats) were loose.

“No, I mean over there.” And I explained what happened.

Mr. Green Jeans expressed his gratitude and said he’d take care of it. But by the time I’d gone back around to the people side of the coop, the perps, realizing they had done something wrong, had already alerted another staff member. As she was putting the chicken back in her coop, we learned her name was Snowball, and this was her first offense.

And Kacy and I went an had a lovely dinner, although neither of us could order the chicken.

And we think of Snowball often now. Perhaps she was simply trying to get away for a little “therapy weekend” like Kacy and me. Perhaps a persistent rooster was driving her crazy, or perhaps she was just tired of the coop and needed a change.

In her one act of defiance, Snowball has become the new standard-bearer for Kacy and me – just needing a little getaway to nowhere, every now and then.

Godspeed, Snowball.

 

Fantabulistically Awesome

“Wow, that’s fabulous!”

“Please meet my awesome assistant . . . ”

“These cereal flakes are marvelously outrageous!”

I confess to suffering from superlative fatigue. Everything or everyone is “super fantastic, thanks!” these days. I blame the advertising industry, and I suspected it started with or near that stupid hyperactive bunny that advertised cereals, or maybe it was the sugared-up leprechaun . . . .

And it has seeped into our pedagogy. Those of us who teach know the value of supporting our students and making sure they are confident in themselves. And so of course we tell them what they are doing well. “That was lovely! Great job! Atta girl!” And the movement of concern about kids’ self-esteem has been, and is, based on legitimate concern. These days, teen anxiety, depression, and suicide are far more common than they used to be. Parents are understandably concerned that their kids are overwhelmed with pressure – to be the best at everything – academics, sports, the arts. In fact, there is real, albeit somewhat erroneous, concern among parents that kids need to participate in a wide variety of activities in order to stand out in an increasingly competitive college application pool.

But the movement to slather students with compliments is misguided, and it gets the whole teaching and learning act backwards. Compliments do matter, and I tend to lead with them in my critiques, especially when working with a student who is new to me. But as I get to know students, I back off on the compliments. My longtime students know I have faith in them, and they do not require regular reassurance of this fact.

Additionally, when talking about this phenomenon with a friend and mentor who is longtime studio teacher, she pointed out that overly effusive compliments are difficult for young students to process mentally, and can lead to them having a higher opinion of themselves than they should. This can further lead to a lack of motivation to practice, and can also create issues getting along with ensemble members.

Students know very well who they are. And unless they have already been doused with compliments, they know very well at what level they are playing, and are probably aware of some of the playing issues they need to resolve. And here’s the rub – when a teacher over-compliments a student, the student can feel patronized. “Why is she telling me this is great? It’s not. I must be absolutely terrible and she is just being kind.”

I recommend emphasizing truth and facts in teaching. These need not, and should not, be delivered unkindly. If I am unsure how a new student will respond to criticism, I take care to lead with a compliment – a compliment based in fact. “You are doing a fine job of balancing the flute now. It’s much improved over last week. Now, let’s look at how you’re articulating the 8th notes in measure 3.” This reassures the student, if the student needs reassuring, that they are doing something well, and keeps them in the reality-check zone, the area in which they are aware they are improving, but also cognizant of the fact there are areas in their playing that need work, just like everyone else.

With a longtime student, I find I don’t need to bother with reassuring them, and I often ask them to self-diagnose. “Ok, what’s going on with the tone in the low register?” They usually answer correctly, and they may even know what to do about it. And the point is that they are aware that I would not BE correcting them in the first place if I thought they were a hopeless case. In this way, honest correction and critique increase, rather than diminish, a student’s self-esteem, and in a healthy way.

I often think of a handful of teachers I had who taught in what I would call “old school” style. Compliments were few and far-between, but when you received one, you knew you had earned it. The infrequency of compliments had the supply and demand effect. The value of the compliment was increased. This also had the effect of making students work harder for these teachers. Hold the bar high, and the students will not think less of themselves. They will think more of themselves. A parent recently relayed to me that she asked her daughter why she was practicing more, and her daughter replied, “Mrs. Romano knows I am capable of more.”

There will be periods of frustration. Every day is not awesome, every organization is not fantabulous, and not every breakfast cereal chocomarvelous. Students do not learn along a linear climb like a hill. They learn in stair steps. As the student becomes aware they can do more, it is common to experience periods of frustration just before making a learning leap. Quite often, right about the time a parent contacts me with concern their child is frustrated in their home practice, the student comes into a lesson sounding like a whole new kid. That’s the time to use a superlative.

Hello again, from the tightrope

It has been so long since I’ve blogged, WordPress doesn’t know who I am anymore. Kids’ appointments, my own appointments, rehearsals, meetings, and the like have interfered. I considered not sharing that, the why, but isn’t that rather the point of the Domestic Flautist blog? I write about that tricky balance – the high-wire act so many of us parents perform daily, monthly, yearly. With my husband’s retirement from his military band job, our family has been in a state of flux for the past year. I’ll admit it shook my tightrope. Actually, I’ll go ahead and admit it shook me to the core.

I feel very fortunate that, 15 years ago, when our oldest child was born, I was able to scale back on work to spend time with him. I am, and have always been, a free-lance musician – making my living through a combination of performing, teaching, and writing. And I’m proud to say that, before my son, I did this full time, and actually made quite a good living at it.

Flash Back:

Before our oldest was born, my husband and I had some rather unrealistic preconceived notions about how parenthood was going to roll for us. Specifically, we expected that absolutely nothing in our personal or professional lives would change, and that our little bundle of joy would simply come along, obediently and passively and silently, for the ride. I don’t know where we got this idea. I do recall a conversation we had in the car, zooming (it was a good traffic moment) along the beltway to an OB check-up, where this mythical being was to be born. Our naive rationale seemed to be that we were of above-average intelligence, and that all these people raising these loud, disruptive children, the ones who annoyed us when we were on one of our all-important nights out at a restaurant which we felt children should not be IN, well, our rationale was that they were just DOING IT WRONG. And we could do it better.

I look back on this 2001 conversation and I can’t help but want to slap us. We were the people that parents worry about when they go out. We were, in that moment, the man on the pedestrian mall in our town who, four years later, took the time to lean in my face and yell (he had to yell because my children were having simultaneous tantrums, which were echoing beautifully off all the brick facades and brick sidewalks and echoing down the mall, at ear-piercing frequencies that must have left all the neighborhood dogs and cats in pain), anyway – he yelled, “Ma’am, I can hear that all the way down the other end of the mall!”

It’s the worst kind of person for a parent in a moment of toddler/infant public tantrum to encounter. Because really, could he not see that I had the baby strapped (screaming) into the stroller, and was trying to strap the screaming toddler in too so I could GET THEM OUT OF THERE, but the toddler was arching his back and doing that “ironing board” technique, the one where the kid goes totally stiff and refuses to bend, and you’re pretty sure Child Protective Services will come along any minute and arrest you, as you’re trying to strap your ironing board-shaped kid into a seat that is simply not designed for ironing boards.

No, this man was of the same ilk that my husband and I had been before our son had come along and opened our eyes, (and kept them open, a lot, a whole lot, at all hours of the night and through the day, with the constant feeding, changing, rocking, and also staring at walls because I’m just the kind of person who can’t go right back to sleep after doing all that sort of stuff). He didn’t know the truth – that a child is not his or her parents’ possession to control, but another being which we have an awesome and frightening responsibility to guide.

Fortunately, an older woman then passed by, and I suspect she’d heard this “gentleman” speaking to me. She leaned over, put a hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, “This too shall pass.”

And she was right. And it did.

And now, we’re the parents of a teen and a tween. And while they don’t really scream and tantrum anymore, the game stakes are higher. There are so many THINGS that present themselves as THINGS which your t(w)een will need guidance around, over, under, or through. I say “THINGS” and I see my 12th grade AP English teacher shaking her head at the use of the forbidden term, but I really have no better word. They are not all challenges; they are not all obstacles; they are not all gifts. But some of them are. Clothing choices, sleep habits, eating habits (some holdovers from toddler-hood after all), the internet, learning to drive, managing money, social challenges, acne, hair, hygiene, balancing activities, depression, school elective choices, school choices. It just all gets bigger.

And so maybe it’s not just my husband’s change of job (he’s now free-lancing too, and I’m working more, and we’re grateful for his military pension and our healthcare) that has so much rocked my world and caused me to wobble on my tightrope as it is simply the inevitable moving forward of my kids into small adults. Adults that maybe don’t need me 24/7, but who need me, and my husband, with an intensity they didn’t before.

And so, pardon my wobble. It’s a new chapter for us. I’ll try to write more. But I’m also playing more (yay!) , teaching more, and writing pedagogy articles more. And I (we) need to find our balance, one step at a time. I suspect we’re not alone.

Lean In, Lean Out

How much do you teach?

Usually, this question refers to the number of hours a private studio teacher or college or conservatory professor teaches per week, or to the number of students they have on their roster.

I’m pondering this question this week in regard to how much energy you invest in each lesson, how much control you exert, and whether you think it’s okay to lean in or lean out. (Thank you, Sheryl Sandberg, for this deliciously juicy and loaded metaphor. I almost typed meatophor. That’s how juicy it is.)

In regard to energy expended in lessons, I inevitably think of the beginners I’ve taught over the years. These lessons always seem to demand the most of me. With my intermediate and advanced students, I can say, “Here’s your sight reading. (I always start the lesson with sight reading. That’s a topic for another blog post.) Would you like some water? Take a look at it, and I’ll be right with you.” And I can go get them a drink, take a restroom break myself, come back in, take a deep breath, and begin the lesson.

With beginners, I have to guide them the moment they walk in the door:  Your case is upside down; turn it over before you open it. Put the flute together like this. Remember your posture; do you remember how to produce a sound? This is a quarter note.

The teaching of fundamentals does not allow much room for a teacher to lean out. When a teacher leans out, they give the student room to breathe (metaphorically, and I suspect physically as well) and make their own decisions. We can’t do this often with our less-experienced students. They need to be told what to do. We need to demonstrate for them. And there is simply not much decision-making to be made. The fingering for second-octave F is the fingering for second-octave F.

I still look for opportunities to lean out with these young students, though. Leaning out offers the student the chance to take responsibility for their own playing, beauty and warts and all: When you roll your head joint in and out, where do YOU think the best sound is? Which Bb fingering should you use here? Do you think “Hot Cross Buns” sounds better with connected notes or separated ones?

The last example above, (my apologies to everyone who reads this who will now be humming “Hot Cross Buns” for the rest of the day), is a perfect example of an opportunity for a lean in/lean out hybrid. Perhaps the student doesn’t know which articulation will make this fabulous tune sound better. The teacher can demonstrate Hot Cross Buns with legato articulation, and then staccato articulation, and maybe even a few of the horrible examples the beginning students give us (stopping the sound with tongue, “tut”; or gasping in-between each note), and help the student to decide. The student, at this point, is beginning to take ownership of her own playing.

Lean In/Lean Out works particularly well with intermediate students. As players become more accomplished, they begin to develop their own ideas as to how to interpret the musical codes in front of them. And this is a good thing. They are not always right. This is STILL a good thing. Really, I promise.

As the parent of a teen and a tween, I am experiencing the joys and challenges of living with and mentoring two young humans who have their own opinions on how the world should operate. I find myself doing quite a bit of tongue-biting and evaluating when I should and should not speak my mind. I have found that if I make direct edicts (leaning in), I am often met with rebellion and absolute snubbing – meaning that they shut down and refuse to discuss the issue with me. I ask my teen and tween many leading questions, hoping to guide them to make the right decisions most of the time. Sometimes, they will fail, but as a teacher, I’ve also seen the results of over-controlled, hyper-parenting, which produces students/humans/adults who either feel they are entitled to win all the time and never fail, or students who are timid and afraid to make their own choices, lest they fail.

As a colleague/mentor once said to me, “Too much control is a bad idea in parenting AND teaching.”

For example, once a student has learned what a typical phrase looks like (4 bars with an arc shape), they can begin to recognize the many departures from this standard set-up. So rather than dictate how the phrase should be played, I ask questions like: What is the most important note in this phrase? How will you make that apparent to the listener? Do you think that worked well? What can we do differently?

Sometimes the student will pick the wrong note to emphasize. Let them try it. I can’t recall a time the student didn’t realize they’d chosen the wrong note once they tried to execute the phrase and heard how ridiculous it sounded.

It’s ok to let your students fail, and it is healthy for them.

It’s important to begin to lean out with our intermediate students. Give them an opportunity to express themselves, even if it doesn’t always work out.

This is not to say that we don’t lean in sometimes:

You MUST have this memorized by 2 weeks from Tuesday.

You are clearly unprepared for this lesson. Let’s chat. (And I don’t mean we’ll be chatting about what happened on last week’s Downton Abbey. Actually, they probably don’t watch Downton Abbey. See? We definitely won’t be chatting about that.)

Blow!!! Just MOVE SOME AIR!!!!

The Lean In/Lean Out Hybrid is an art form and takes a bit of practice. You can gauge whether your levels of leaning one way or the other are correct by observing your students. It is a balance of giving them enough guidance so they are not lost, dazed, and confused. (One very specific sign of an over-taught studio is one in which the students simply do not project their sounds.) A well-taught student should be confident, curious, and willing to try new ideas and ask questions. Take the risk. Watch them fail, and then watch them fly.

 

The One Compliment You Shouldn’t Give an Artist

My hubby and I often joke about the plethora of articles and tidbits on social media that swamp us with the feeling we’re doing EVERYTHING wrong. You know, “Slicing Avocados – You’re Doing it Wrong”. And so, after a recent performance, when I shared with him that yet another well-meaning individual had said to me, “You’re so talented!”, we laughed and said that I should write a blog post entitled, “Post-concert Compliments! You’re Doing it Wrong”.

Now, if you HAVE been doing it wrong (post-concert compliments, I mean. I can help you with that avocado thing too, but another time), please don’t fret. We’re not insulted. We know you mean well. And we know it’s your way of saying how much you enjoyed the performance. But the problem with “You’re so talented!” is that it points to a bigger issue with how our society views artistic endeavors and musicians.

“You’re so talented” implies that we exited the womb, perhaps with a Stradivarius in hand, knowing EXACTLY how to play the Prokofiev Sonata. It negates all our educational experiences and efforts, and that in turn affects how school administrators value and give (or do not give) access to arts education. There are far too many people out there who believe that artistic people will do artistic things no matter what their educational and life experiences expose them to.

This is a falsehood.

Just yesterday, I was completing a crossword puzzle, and the clue was, “A 9 letter word for ‘talent'”. The answer was potential.

And as anyone who has studied basic Newtonian physics will tell you, potential energy does nothing, sitting there by itself. An outside force must act upen the object to release that potential.

This outside force, in terms of artistic development, may come in the form of a family member who sings to an infant, music experienced at church or civic events, and (hopefully) eventually, in elementary school music. And hopefully, if a student is inclined to music, they will enjoy their elementary music school curriculum enough to sign up for band, chorus, orchestra, drama, or art class. And it is there, in these classes and the experiences they offer, that those fundamental skills are developed.

I don’t know a single professional musician today who says, “I’ve always done this and I don’t remember when I started.” If you talk to us; if you read the biographies of the famous among us, you will find there is almost always a formative experience. “I joined the town fife group.” “I started playing trumpet in band because we had one in the attic.” “My parents were involved in community theatre and I used to watch rehearsals from backstage where I was supposed to be doing my homework.”

And then there is the grit. The blood, sweat, and tears. I recently had a student decide, after much reflection and conversation, to not major in music. His reason? “I just don’t think I’d enjoy my life spending all those hours in a practice room.”

His reasoning is completely valid. You have to want to do it. And yes, you have to be wired for it. And I mean neurologically wired. What sounded like torture to my student was the dream of a lifetime for me when I was his age. “A college experience where I’ll be expected to practice at least three hours a day?!!! Bring it on!” But being wired for it and doing it are different things. Those were long hours in sometimes dank, smelly, graffitied practice rooms. And the rehearsals. And yes, the coursework – music theory, music literature, ear-training. And many music students must take traditional academic courses on top of this to satisfy state requirements.

And it’s not as though the practicing is done when a musician leaves school. We continue to practice to maintain and further our skills, and of course we have to practice our current repertoire. And then there’s the competitiveness of the field itself, and all the self-marketing most of us must do.

And so, it’s not that you’re speaking an untruth when you tell a musician they are talented. Respectfully, it’s that you’re missing the point entirely. They probably are wired to bring you the concert you just enjoyed. But they also worked very hard to be able to do it.

Instead, tell them about a specific piece you enjoyed, or some particular aspect of their playing or singing or acting or painting or sculpting. Or, if you’re at a loss for words, just say, “I really enjoyed your performance.” Acknowledge the hard work involved in putting a performance together.

But please, whatever you do, don’t say anything that implies the talent fairy simply swooped down and sprinkled talent dust on their head while they were sleeping. That “talented person” was developed, not born.

The Well-Rounded Quad (On the arts in curriculum)

A few months ago, I was invited to a small, liberal arts university to give a master class and perform a recital. While this university does offer some professional programs, the core of this program is its liberal arts curriculum, located on the beautiful, traditionally designed main campus. As I walked onto campus, I entered the quad, flanked, as one might expect, by buildings housing the school’s programs and some dormitories, and by one building housing the school’s performing arts center.

The music program is housed in the Humanities building, a short walk from the performing arts center, and is a small department. As I approached the building with my friend, a new faculty member at this school who had invited me there, on a misty, damp fall morning, I was struck by the demeanor of the students milling about in front of the entrance.

They were so calm. And happy.

As a graduate of two schools of music (an east coast conservatory for my bachelor’s and a west coast school of music for my master’s), I couldn’t help comparing the differences in the student environment here, in this small school, nestled in a little valley near the Cumberland Gap, and the students at the schools of music and conservatories where I have attended and taught.

Anyone who has attended a conservatory or school of music will tell you that they are . . . . for lack of better words, special places. They are wonderful places, attended mostly by students who simply love what they do so much, so much that passionate becomes an overused, tired expression to describe the love and dedication they have for their craft. These students tend to be highly intelligent, creative, and energetic types. For two years of undergrad school, my dorm room faced a patio outside the cafeteria entrance. I often woke to the sounds of music theatre majors and vocalists bleating out a few warm-ups or excerpts on their way to breakfast. While students at other schools sat and studied, my classmates and I practiced, and practiced, and met in the lounge above the practice rooms for breaks, snacks, pranks, hijinks, competitive banter, and then adjourned and returned downstairs for more practice. While we did attend classes and write papers like other college students, we spent a great deal of time in rehearsal as well. And a good many of our classes were lab-oriented – sight singing and ear training. We didn’t have many opportunities to fall asleep listening to a lecture.

In short, my undergraduate education was one of constant activity, outrageous happiness, and blood, sweat, and tears. And competition. It was a stressful thing. And it was a good thing. For me.

But that sort of experience is reserved for us weirdos who LIKE spending hours and hours alone in practice rooms, and hours and hours with others rehearsing. There is a very small percentage of our population that is cut out for that sort of experience, to do this thing full-time.

This is not to say that a liberal arts experience is not stressful or intense. But it is more balanced.

Back to my tale:  The students at this small school continued to impress me throughout my visit. In our master class, I worked with a flutist who wishes to become a music educator. While her level of playing was perhaps not that of a student at a more performance-oriented school, she was quick to try new ideas, and was able to think about her own playing, and the music she was trying to interpret, in a critical way, and to develop plans to practice her music in ways that would help her achieve her goal. I think she’ll make a fine educator.

And every time I entered a hallway, or a classroom, or the quad at this school, I was again struck by the peaceful, contented nature of these students. This is not to say that they were lackadaisical. Not in the least.

To wit – the performing arts center has one stage, which is shared by the drama and music departments. It seems my recital was scheduled smack dab in the middle of a run of The Three Musketeers. When the dean saw the set-build in progress, she asked the drama professor to ensure the set was designed so there was room on the small stage for a grand piano and a flutist. It didn’t work out that way. But, knowing their set was in the way and a guest artist needed room to rehearse the following afternoon and give a recital the following evening, the drama professor and his students came in late one night and partially struck their set, only to rebuild it for the following weekend’s productions.

They love what they do. Maybe not enough to major in it, but enough to participate. The administrators at this school, and at many liberal arts colleges across the country, realize that music, arts, and drama should be an integral part of EVERY human’s education. For these students, their participation in The Three Musketeers or an instrumental ensemble is a vital part of their humanity, of their day-to-day existence. They understand that participating in an artistic project, as opposed to passively listening on their way to class or while studying, is a healthy and balancing part of their human existence.

And they come to concerts. On the night of my recital, it was foggy, misty, wet, and generally unpleasant outside, and yet the hall was full of students, faculty, and community members. Afterward, several audience members approached me to congratulate me, ask me what they should do about their grandchild who wants to study violin, and to thank me for giving the recital.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all week!” This was a student who told me she had played flute in middle and high school, and that she’d been putting in many, many hours in a lab that semester, and she was simply delighted to have a flute event to look forward to and attend.

I went home with a new appreciation of the value of arts education as part of a complete, well-rounded liberal arts curriculum, with classes in English, writing, history, foreign languages, science, philosophy, mathematics, art, physical education, drama, and music for everyone. With that in mind, I continually encourage my public school administrators to design and tweak curricula with this principle in mind, making these subjects accessible to all students. And I encourage you to do the same.

 

 

 

 

I’m Not James Galway, and Neither are You

I will begin by saying how much I adore James Galway’s playing, and how influential he was to me as a young student. While my Southern Baptist family sang in 4 part harmony at our gatherings and wholeheartedly encouraged my study of the flute, we were not the sort of family with season tickets to the symphony or the opera. While my audio technician father did go through a phase of playing Bach toccatas and fugues in prototype surround sound, my early musical influences were Johnny Cash, a heavy dose of bluegrass, hymns, and whoever was playing on Hee Haw that week. The closest I ever came to taking a piano lesson was when my aunt, who had taught me a few pieces by rote, handed me a piano primer and suggested I work my way through it. I had never even heard of flute lessons.

I played flute in school band though. My 5th grade band director also played the flute in local jazz clubs. (He was a woodwind doubler.) But there was something about his sound I didn’t like. I also didn’t like the sound of the flute on the Sesame Street end credits. (I’d like to add that my tastes have evolved, and I appreciate the 70’s jazz flute sound for what it is.) My band director’s sound, and what I now call the “Sesame Street jazz” sound, was an airy, unfocused sound. My father did listen to the classical station in his car, and I was sure I’d heard a different flute sound somewhere – something that sounded shinier and had a “ring” to it. So I was delighted one day, while shopping with my Dad in Woolworth’s, to come across a record with a picture on the cover of a dark-haired, bearded guy playing a gold, (GOLD!!!) flute. I had some allowance money saved, and I bought the record.

I took it home and bathed in that gorgeous, liquid metal sound. That vibrato that almost sounded alive. That technique that sounded, to my young ears, almost impossible and super-human. I played the record over and over. I took to playing one track, lifting the needle, practicing for a few minutes, and putting the needle back on for the next track. My father once found me in tears because, I, (wail) “don’t sound like HIM!!!” Dad pointed out that this guy was obviously older than a pre-teen girl, and probably had a few years of practice on me, but that if I practiced frequently and worked hard, one day, just maybe, I would sound like James Galway.

At some point during these early years of flute discovery, my Dad brought me a cassette tape that was in a deck brought in to his shop for repairs but was never picked up. It was a Jean-Pierre Rampal cassette. I was astounded to discover that one could NOT sound like James Galway and also sound gorgeous – that dolce sound, that light touch, that al dente articulation! I played that one, comparing it to the James Galway record, until my tape deck ate the tape.

Fast forward a few years to graduate school, during a lesson with Linda Lukas. I don’t even remember what the piece was, but I do recall her saying, “You’re trying to play this too fast. Slow it down and keep it controlled. Nobody plays it that fast. Except James Galway. And you’re not James Galway.” I responded with stony silence. After a moment, she responded, “You do know that, right? You’re not James Galway. Nobody is James Galway except James Galway. And that’s ok. That’s even good. You are you.” I nodded, but I didn’t get it. I may not have even really heard it at the time. I was too busy inside my head, planning all the ways I would be the next James Galway.

I did eventually realize that Linda was right. I was not James Galway. In fact, I soon no longer aspired to be him. I had come to know and hear and love many flutists by that point, and had taken away from all that listening and experimentation a zillion ideas which I incorporated into my own ideal sound, and my own philosophy of interpretation. I felt I had become my own flutist and my own musician – completely aware of who I was, and completely ok with it. No one can be successful at being James Galway except James Galway. And we, the rest of us, can only be successful as our own true selves.

So, I was surprised this week to learn that some small part of me was still trying to be someone I’m not. I’m in the final week of preparation for a master class and recital at a small college. My host is inviting many area middle and high school flutists, so I’m including some pieces in the program that will hopefully be accessible for them to pick up and try on their own. Which means I am revisiting some pieces from my past.

There was one piece on the program that just wasn’t coming together in my practice sessions. I could play it, but it just wasn’t working musically. Finally, in frustration, I stormed into the breakfast nook, where my husband was placidly sipping an espresso and reading an article on his phone, and boomed, “I am just going to CUT that piece from the program! I never liked it in the first place, and frankly, well, I just think it’s bad writing!”

My husband, looked up calmly and said, “Well, cut it then. I thought you were concerned the program was too long anyway.”

I stormed back into my studio/office and stared at the piece. I realized that the handwriting on this piece of music was that of a teenager. I’d been assigned to learn the piece by one of my first teachers, and the only reason I’d gleefully accepted the challenge was that James Galway did it on a record. And I was trying to prove to myself I could play it. And, if I were James Galway, maybe I could make it work somehow, but even then, I’m not at all convinced of this piece’s musical value.

What is interesting is that, upon deciding to remove this piece from the program, everything else fell into place. I was no longer worried I would have to rush my talks to the audience in between pieces, and it actually helped the flow of the program. Further, I was able to relax and approach my preparation from a calm, musically inquisitive perspective, which will of course enhance the performances of those pieces. And, when I saw the first bit of social media advertising about the program, I was able to smile and look forward to meeting and interacting with the faculty and students.

All of this, because I was true to my own musical self. So I took a moment to assess who that is – who I am right now. Because it was easier, I started with what I am not:

I am not James Galway. I am not an international touring flute superstar. I am a musician who values beautiful and effective interpretation above all else. My technical development is a means to that end. I am a wife and mother, and I value that role above all others. (I bet James Galway’s practice was never interrupted because his kid came home from school with head lice.) Because I started my flute life in public school band programs, in addition to private teaching, I go into public schools and into small towns and bring solid playing principles and inspiration to those kids who may never have the opportunity to study with a private teacher. And, having seen the negative effects our current testing-obsessed school culture has had on arts and cultural education, I have become, by accident, but now with intention, an advocate for the arts.

Who are you?