Thursday, November 6, 2014

Magic at the piano

My little piano student is now 6 years old, and I have been teaching her for almost two years.  In the beginning it was hard to get her to practice independently (and a lot to expect from a four and a half year old), so I developed a simple "token" system for her where she earned small pieces of paper from her parents every time she practiced, and at each lesson I would bring a "store" where she could exchange her tokens for small trinkets of different "prices".

This system increased her independent practice dramatically, especially as the months went on.  Occasionally she would still "forget" to practice or only practice once that week (an hour before I got there), but in general the system worked and even became self-managed (e.g. she would practice and her mother would tell her to give herself the tokens or sometimes they would just calculate how much she'd practiced and add it up at the end of the week).

She has progressed steadily through everything I have taught her, and from day one I always emphasized how impressed I was with how hard she was working, and gave her very specific feedback (e.g. "you played those notes in that passage so beautifully and smoothly because of how hard you worked at playing them over and over even when you were bored with them!)

A couple of lessons ago I decided to try something new.  I took a concept that my choral conductor uses with her choirs all the time (the five levels of music-making) and adapted the idea for my piano student so it suited her current stage of development.  We talked about the "levels" together (for example, the lower levels are about basic things like playing the right notes/right rhythms, playing "fluently", etc.).

Then I told her about Level Five.

"Level five is when the song sounds like magic," I told her.  She looked at me with full attention and listened quietly, but I could tell her curiosity was piqued.  "Remember when I showed you that video of a lady playing Bach on the piano and you thought it was funny that she moved her head back and forth a lot with her eyes closed?  Well that's what happens when people feel magic in the music.  It's like their whole body wants to dance but she can't get up and dance because she has to play piano! So sometimes our heads move, or our shoulders, or we have a special smile, or a look in our eyes.  Everybody has their own special way.  We just have to find what it is."

"What's my way??" she wanted to know.  "I'm not sure," I told her, "but I remember when I saw you at your ballet show.  You danced so fluently and you were so happy - a special kind of happy because you knew all the dance moves just perfectly.  You had a very special kind of smile that I've never seen you have at any other time.  So maybe it's the same for piano. We'll have to wait and see what it is."

"You can only get a song to level five if you practice really, really hard," I told her.  "Even when it's boring, even when you have to play the same notes a million times because they're too hard to learn right away.  Then when you play all the right notes and all the right rhythms and you make sure you play all the fortes and pianos in the right places, and you play fluently, and you feel the magic of the music inside your heart, you will get to level five."

I played a short piece for her after that, and she watched me very carefully and then said "I think I know what your way is!  It's your eyes" she said excitedly.

The following week, she was very excited to play her song for me.  She played it beautifully, and had all the right notes, right rhythms, and it was fluent and obviously well practiced (17 times that week, according to mom). She still seemed a little hesitant with it in general, though, but I didn't want to squash her obvious excitement at having put in so much hard work, so I told her all the different things she had done well and how she had met all the levels - even a tiny bit of level five. 

But she said "No, I didn't. I want to play it again."  Surprised, I said sure.  She then said she wanted to do it without the book.  "You memorized it?" I asked, doubly surprised.  She has always been very aversive to memorizing in the past.  "I want to try," she said.  She looked over the measures once more, turned her book over, and played the piece again.

It's only a simple beginners piano piece, but that child play the song again in a way that made me tear up.  I couldn't say anything for a second, I just hugged her.  "That's the best I've ever heard you play!" I told her. Truthfully. "You had a special smile when you were playing," I told her.  "I could tell that you were really feeling how beautiful the music was. And I could hear it in your notes."

She smiled at me from ear to ear.  "Can I play it again?" she asked excitedly.  "Of course!" I said. And she did, just as beautifully as before.  From memory.

I've heard from her mother that this week she is practicing her new song multiple times a day and has even forgotten about giving herself tokens.  This is the ultimate goal... practicing for the sake of the music itself.

She may only be 6, but I love explaining "adult" concepts to children.  I love it when I see in their eyes the realization that the universe is so much more complex, mysterious, and beautiful than they realized.

She moves and impresses me sometimes.  I'm not sure how I managed to ingrain in this small child's mind that "hard work", "boring repeating the notes a million times" and practicing even when she "doesn't feel like it" or "doesn't like the song" are actually the only ways to turn music into magic.  That it doesn't come easy and isn't always fun in the beginning, but that if she works hard enough, then fun and the beauty will come.

I don't know why she believes me.

Maybe it's the look in my eyes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Souvenirs from Portugal

Last week I spent seven days with my family in Portugal in a very small village.  I thought of blogging my experiences the way I did my choir tour this past spring, but I had writer's block the entire week until the very last day, when it all kind of flowed at once and I knew what I wanted to say.  I wrote it with the intention of reading it as a sort of spoken-word piece, but I think it also works well as a piece to be read to oneself.


Souvenirs from Portugal

You say you want to travel the world
but there are some places you cannot go even if you travel there.

Here I am, nestled in the small village of Tojal,

wondering what I can bring you, a piece of somewhere you’ve not yet been; a placeholder; a rain cheque;
something to keep the longing at bay.

If I could, I’d bring you the taste
of one of my late-grandfather’s sun-warmed oranges just picked,
or the subtle scent of pine and eucalyptus that permeates the hot air, or a bite of fresh bread from the baker down the road that appears as if by magic on our door handle every morning, or the sound of roosters singing not just in the morning but whenever they so please.  

I’d bring you the juice of my uncle’s sweet peaches dripping down your fingers.

I’d give you the feeling of rough bark under your feet to reach the ripest figs in the tree behind the house as you look down at stalls that used to hold chickens but now hold only memories of clucking 

I’d give you thirst from the hot sun on your head as you walk dusty paths through vineyards until you finally reach the spring and cup your hands under the small stream and sip the water cool and clear as the day my grandfather first discovered it.

*             *             *             *             *             *             *

Then I’d take you down the roads and hills to Batalha and give you the sounds of gypsies shouting prices in the market, the taste of fresh goat cheese cool and soft, vibrant colours of scarves thimbles wooden spoons fish beach towels baby chicks plums lettuce more fish leather shoes cheese walnuts rabbits pears...

and the sight of the Mosteiro
full of history
ancient memories of kings    and queens      and battles
I’d give you the sound of your footsteps against smooth stone from centuries of footsteps I’d give you
the eerie feeling of walking amidst the past and the present at the same time

*             *             *             *             *             *             *

And then, Nazaré! 
Would that I could bring you the feeling of wildness
frigid waves crashing against your entire body

I’d lend you
my stirred soul
for just a minute
if there was a way to give you      memories of myself as a child being tumbled
          a small bundle of limbs salt water rough sand

but no fear.

I’d give you salt-coated fingers from thick pumpkin seeds eaten while seated on grainy sand
I’d give you salt-sprayed hair I’d give you salt-coated fish I’d give you salt-covered skin from white foam

I’d bring you
the crash of ocean echoing against cliffs

I’d give you
for a second,
the beating of my heart in perfect rhythm with these waves
and the ache of leaving them.

*             *             *             *             *             *             *

There’s no novelty mug
that could capture the feeling of watching my mother sift through
old boxes stuffed with letters in her own handwriting
addressed to people no longer here

no postcard I could send that would give you
the sense of saudade
that seeps from the unused tractor still sitting quietly in the shed
                     the little windmill that no longer spins
                     the fields of corn and grapes and olive trees now covered in weeds
                     the attic full of broken furniture with locked drawers of old black and white photos
                     the missing love letters from my grandfather that my grandmother burned after he died                                                                          
no keychain I could bring you
that would tell you what it’s like to be a child of people that left this all behind but still search for a place that no longer exists and hold it in their hearts and tell stories of the way it used to be, freedom and poverty and hard work and forever roaming and stealing fruit and and drinking homemade wine and friends and family long passed away and hunger and meeting companions in the fields and making their fun out of sticks and grass and imagination and then growing up and longing for escape and a bigger world and taking a plane across an ocean to make a life somewhere else and have children in another land who would never really 

belong here

and yet somehow still
belong here.

Saudade is a birthright. Inherited.

*             *             *             *             *             *             *

There’s no souvenir I could bring you
of a decades-lost Portugal
for there are some places you cannot go even if you travel there.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Only the wind

All these things she’s gathered, magpie-like:
shiny jewels and dreams
delicate feathers and feelings
shore-strewn shells and words
soft-polished stones and ideas
Line her nest
cocooning her from noise and
from fears. standing still.

Push them out of your nest, little bird
one by one
they’ll all fall, flutter, disappear

you have no need of nest or home
you have wings too long unused

shake off the dust, reach for higher skies

old words old stories feathers pebbles memories dreams        cannot
save you.

Only the wind can save you, little bird.

Only the wind and the sun and the sky.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Last concert in Amsterdam – Choir Tour Day 13


Sometimes, when everyone gives everything they have to give, when everyone relaxes just enough, when the energy and focus is in the right place at the right time, and maybe even when the stars are aligned just right, perfection is possible.
Our last concert at the Westerkerk.  This church was built in the early 1600’s and is mentioned frequently in Anne Frank’s diary, as it’s clock tower could be seen from the house she hid in from the Nazi’s nearby.  Today the church is used for a variety of musical performances and we were part of their lunchtime concert series.

Often when preparing music for a concert, you only get to perform it once or maybe twice.  It has been such a joy to get to know all this music so intimately, to have come to know so much of it by heart without  even trying, and to constantly strive for the best performance each time.  There have been a lot of perfect moments in all of our pieces this tour, but today I think the entire concert was near-perfect.

Sign advertising our concert
The house was full.  We were all excited but so focused.   I love the high of performing like that.  When I try to describe it to people, sometimes I use the metaphor of being on a moving train.  If any one voice or part of the “train” falters, things can get derailed.  But that’s why trains/choirs have conductors... for this last concert, I felt like we were all so tuned in to each other and the conductor that even in the few places it felt like we might be inching towards falling off the tracks even for a second, we all watched and listened so intently that we remained together through the entire concert.  We were really one.  Through every piece.  Every moment.  Every place we had been not-quite-so-perfect in previous performances or rehearsals, we mastered them during this concert.  It was beautiful.  It’s still surreal to think about.  Here we were, at the end of a European tour, singing in the Westerkerk.  In Amsterdam. To a full house.  Moving people.  Moving ourselves. Performing choral music at a level that I sometimes still can’t believe I get to be a part of.  It’s a good thing I have mastered the art of holding back tears while performing... 

A very grateful woman came up to a few of us after the concert and said that she had come in while we were rehearsing and was completely stunned by the sound we were producing.  She stayed for the concert and seemed to have just been blown away by the entire thing.  She said she also sings in a choir, but nothing like this.  She also found it fascinating how professional we all looked.  It’s funny how the little things – everyone having the folder in the same hand, switching places and walking on and offstage so fluently, really make such a difference and add to the entire experience for the audience.


After the concert, some of us went to the music store where they sell music scores and CDs and we spent a couple of hours in there like kids in a candy store, spending way too much money on hard to find and  music to take home and learn.  We didn’t get to go to any of the museums as everything closes pretty early there.  I will have to come back to Amsterdam one day with some more time.  This trip it was all about the music.
Later that evening after a lovely dinner by the water, we again took over the hotel lobby with a rowdy after party, celebrating the end of a wonderful, exhausting, challenging, and moving tour.  The next day we would be on a 7am bus to the airport, but that didn’t stop some of us from partying until well past 3 or 4am... 

The next day also happened to by my birthday, and the choir waited until midnight to sing me a beautiful ~15 part harmony rendition of "Happy Birthday".  


And so ends one of the most intense but rewarding two weeks I've ever experienced.  I didn't set out to blog like this, it just sort of happened, and it surprised me that so many people were reading along, both in the choir as we were going through it together and people back home, so they could live a little bit of it with us.  I'm glad my words were able to capture the experiences, both for myself and for others.  I'm sure I will look back on this trip soon and it will all seem like a far away dream (it is starting to seem that way already).

It was just such an incredible tour.  Thank you to the Ottawa Bach Choir, to Lisette Canton our conductor, and to everyone else who worked behind the scenes to make this tour possible and deal with all the administrative things so we could put all our energy into the music.  These were a special two weeks that we shared together, and I will carry these moments with me always, and my future music-making will be all the more inspired for it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Performing in Martinikerk in Groningen, Netherlands - Choir Tour Day 12

Lübeck was a beautiful town.  There were so many old buildings and walking the streets was a little like stepping back in time.  Even though many things were destroyed during the war, I love that they rebuilt everything by using old pieces they could find and restoring it to look as similar as possible. 

I also love towns are on the water, and it was a nice reprieve for me to be able to go and be in the little woodlot at the shore of the canal and just relax and watch ducks when I needed a break from being social.  

One of the most profound things I saw in Lübeck was inside the Marienkirche.  There was a corner of the church where they had left two enormous bells that had fallen during World War II.  They were not touched and allowed to remain where they’d fallen.  The smashed bells and damaged stone floor was the most powerful war memorial I’ve ever seen. It was so stark and honest.

I think leaving Germany was a little hard for all of us.  Having sung so much music in German and studied the language and the music of all the composers that lived there, it felt a little like a second home.  Italy also felt a little like home for me because the culture is so similar to Portuguese.  

But after both those countries, arriving in the Netherlands, where many of us had never been, was a little bit of a culture shock.  We happened to arrive on the evening of a world cup soccer match when the Netherlands was playing, so the entire city was shutting down all the shops and restaurants so everyone could watch the game.  The streets were full of excited fans wearing orange and everywhere was decorated with orange banners and flags.

While Italian and German are both languages that I’ve studied and can sort of figure out, I could not make heads nor tails of Dutch, either in written or spoken form, and had to rely entirely on English, a first for me in a foreign country.  (I did, however, try out my “Dank u” a few times which seemed to make the Dutch very happy).

And the bicycles...  they are everywhere.  They ride way too fast, they don’t slow down in the slightest for pedestrians, they appear out of nowhere when you least expect it, and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the rules of the road.  (Even a hotel guidebook says that while there is a complex system of lights and paths and pavement markings to control bicycles, pedestrians, and other traffic, most locals don’t actually follow any of these rules.)  I ended up saving our conductor from near-death-by-bicycle on at least half a dozen occasions while we were in this country...

But the people are friendly, they speak English very well, and they have good food, as we discovered during a nice group dinner yesterday evening.

Martinikerk, Groningen, Netherlands
The Martinikerk (Martin’s Church) was a beautiful church that backed on to a large park.  It’s origins date back to the 13th century, and some of the original artwork has been preserved.   The organ in this church is thought to be one of the finest in the world, not only because of it’s sound but because it is the only instrument in the world that still has the original prestant pipes manufactured in 1690. 

The church also had a wonderful acoustic (like so many of the churches on this continent).  We sang an afternoon concert to a small but very appreciative audience.  Even though most of us are getting very tired by this point in the tour, we still always manage to find the emotional, mental, and spiritual strength and energy to make it through another concert.  The church volunteer was very moved by our performance and told us that no choir like us had ever sung in that church.  It’s hard not to feel humbled when people say things like that to you.  Sometimes I feel so in awe by the fact that a group of human beings can come together and somehow put aside all their differences, their personal lives and their day-to-day problems and somehow become one just long enough to create something beautiful like a musical performance, or anything else that requires a complex fusion of skill and intuition, like dance performances or certain sports.  It’s a pretty incredible thing to be part of.

About an hour after the concert, we were back on the tour bus, ready to be taken to Amsterdam, where we would finish off the tour with one last concert.