Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Hidden Theology of Music Theory

This is not a joke.  The study of music theory strengthens my faith.  The way in which a series of vibrations has overtones and harmonics that form ratios that make up the foundation of our tonal harmony is a miraculous event--that could only have been created by an all knowing, all loving, all scientific, all beautiful creator.  Our God.  This could never have been an accident or coincidence.  

If you take it to the next step and listen to the way those scientific vibrations get put together for example by a deaf composer to form the Ode to Joy theme in Beethoven's 9th symphony--could there be an atheist left in the room?   From Mozart to Bach to my two children singing Jesus Loves Me This I Know in harmony in the car after getting pizza--tonal harmony strengthens my faith.  

But still there are students of all ages--who have had unchristian thoughts while studying tonal harmony in the form of music theory.  (That is a joke.) While I have a passion for the nuances of German augmented sixth chords and Neapolitans and their resolutions--it seems most of my students have lost their music theory workbooks somewhere in the depths of the piano bench or behind the sofa.  Hmmm.

The way the circle of fifths works and the way key structures and patterns are formed is a work of art.  As is our system of rhythmic notation.  Starting out memorizing EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FUDGE and FAT CATS GO DOWN ALLIES EATING BAGELS seems almost a sacrilege.  It can be very difficult to capture the depth and profoundness of the human spirit translated into ink on paper staves when you are trying to get children to just put the stems up if the note is on or below the middle line.   

Seriously, the point of studying music theory is to gain insight into the reasons the music makes us feel the way it does.  At the end of every Garth Brooks song you feel the little pang of heart ache because the guitar player goes to the vi chord instead of the I chord.  (Probably if you are reading this you are not a Garth Brooks fan but, nonetheless, you get my point.) Theorists call this a deceptive cadence. Country musicians just play it.  The bass player in my Austin country music cover band couldn't even tell you the name of the note--he would just point to it on his bass.  Come to think of it he got by just fine without any study of music theory.  I don't know.  

But, I do know, if music is going to be our language, then eventually we have to understand the nuts and bolts of it and God willing relate it back to the emotion and beauty of the compositions we analyze.  So the first graders need to be putting the notes on the staves of their "Just the Facts" theory books.  We have to start somewhere.  I make Calvin do one theory question a day and week after week we make progress through the workbook.  Slow and steady wins the race.  I haven't seen some of my student's theory books in a year.  Some of them don't even have a book yet.  I'm gonna do better this Fall.  I am going to order those books!

I am sure many of my college theory and analysis teachers saw music as a religion.  I'm not gonna bring theology up at lessons any time soon, but at the very least, I want to be able to show the student why it is that we love a certain spot.  Doris Harrel always says, "Don't you love that spot?"  Yes, and this is why--it was a deceptive cadence or one of those pesky augmented sixth chords.   

The way in which Mozart arranged those vibrations and harmonies--those I, IV, V and vi chords--those scientific ratios--somehow touches our souls in unimaginable ways.  And. . when I am wondering if there could possibly be a God out there who knows us by name and cares about the fall of the sparrow--I think about Bach, and Mozart and Beethoven--and I feel more confident that the answer is yes.  Someone cared enough to align the planets and create tonal harmony and make pine trees that only release their seeds in terrible fires--and that someone cares about me.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Scales, Chords and . . . yawn. . . Arpeggios

Scales, chords and arpeggios fall into the quadrant of important but not urgent.  No one ever says, "we better work really hard on our scales this week because we have to perform them at the recital Friday night."  Let's face it, kids are resistant to working on technique. Perhaps like me, they would rather be working on the music.

When I was in grad school and practicing four hours a day, my teacher assigned 20-30 minutes of technique a day.  It become the warm-up to run all the major and minor scales and arpeggios.  It started to feel pretty good.  Like yoga.  Like starting up an operating system on a computer.

I ask my students in Suzuki Book Two and above do to a scale every week.  At least that is what they are supposed to be doing.  We are supposed to be cycling through all 12 major and minor scales, working our way around the circle of fifths.  They are supposed to be doing scales for 5-10 minutes a day.  I'm human, and more often than not I am anxious to get to the student's repertoire and we forego the scale at the lesson.  Then I realize that sixth months have gone by and the poor kid is still on c minor.  

The child is supposed to put the metronome on 80 and play one octave of the scale in half notes--making sure to use his best fingers, alignment and gravity.  Then they go right into two octaves of quarter notes.  Students in Book Three add three octaves of eight notes and Book Four adds four octaves of sixteenth notes.  Books Five and above start to increase the tempo and add other skills.

We do arpeggios in the same progression.  Book Two does one octave two hand cross over major and minor, and Books Three and above do one hand multiple octave arpeggios.

And last but not least--primary chords.  The child is supposed to play her primary chords starting in each inversion.  I have one student who actually does this--but I confess that it just takes a long time in the lesson so I don't push it with everyone.

Another school of thought is to work on technique as it comes in the pieces.  For example, when playing Clementi sonatinas, isolate the scales and arpeggios and make practice points of them.  There is much validity in this.

Sometimes it feels incongruous when kids are playing scales in so many keys that they don't even have pieces in.  No harm done but. . . it makes sense for the child to at least be able to play the scales and chords for the different keys her pieces are in.  I guess it all depends on the child.  Sometimes you have to choose your battles.  I do have one student obsessed with playing "Happy Birthday" in all 12 keys.

I happen to love theory and the study of technique, but I don't expect every student to share this passion. The best I can hope for is that our inconsistent study of scales, chords and. . . yawn. . . arpeggios will in some way serve to make the music easier and thus more expressive and meaningful.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

Last weekend was the lovely and wonderful camping trip with the Capel/Coyles.  The Kotrbas brought the cold rainy Saturday morning from Glacier, and the Capel/Coyles brought the dangerous wildlife from Yellowstone.  Yes, a little brown bear ran in front of the car on the way home, causing Bill to have to break hard on interstate I35.  The camp owners' two dobermans made repeated visits to our camp at one point stealing an entire sausage from our neighbors.  And I made the grave mistake of feeding a cute little squirrel who become the nuisance of the picnic table.

The kids got to do what all kids should have a chance to do: play for hours making forts and hideouts in the woods and rocks and lakeshore.  Nature at it's most beautiful and Friday night put on a star show that you only get in northern Minnesota.

Back to piano.  This summer is totally goofed up.  Calvin turned 10 last Monday.  Everyone who knows him knows that he is an early riser.  For ten years, roughly a quarter of my life, this kid has been waking up at 5:30 or 5:45.  As a toddler we tried everything.  Around two-years-old he could finally read a clock and we could set the rule that he couldn't come out of his room until 6:15 a.m.  There were many days I felt so bleary eyed I wished the night would come to start the next day over.

This summer the kid sleeps.  I guess all the traveling and staying up late finally caught up with him.  He sleeps until 7:00 or 7:20. Says he falls back asleep after he wakes up at 5:30. . .   Says he just rolls over and drifts away. . .  Says he doesn't want to set an alarm. . .  He is cheerful and less sniffly--eyes look bright.

THIS SCREWS UP EVERYTHING!  When are we supposed to practice piano?  My own body clock--which for 33 years preferred to crawl in bed at midnight and wake up at 8:00 is still waking up at 5:55 to brush my teeth, stumble down to the coffee pot and stagger into the piano room for practice.  Now it is a total breach of his precious free time to practice for an hour in the late morning.  To top it off--last week the kids had VBS all morning.  All this learning about God and singing great songs has also screwed up the routine.  This week?  GT camp.  Now Mary is doing "Robotic Engineering" and Calvin is doing "Robotic Amusement Parks."  Last night at dinner the two of them talked over Bill and my heads' about the lingo of lego robotics and the interface with the computer.  Bill and I stared blankly at each other and decided to split a beer.  So they are stretching themselves.  Meanwhile, I get to drive three hours a day back and forth to the camp, and by the way, when the heck are we supposed to practice piano?????

I work better in a routine.  This summer that is just not gonna happen. I suppose it is good for me to have to go with the flow, but last night I spilled liquid laundry soap all over the seven loads of laundry I had just completed.   It also ran all down the wall behind the drier.  So I have to do the majority of the laundry all over.  Primal scream.  I'm hoping Bill will help me move the drier at some point to clean the spill. . . or who knows it might just fester back there for ten years.

Next week is normal again.  Then the kids trade weeks at my mom's and then summer is winding down.  One more weekend at Bill's folks' cabin.  Fall will come and we will need a new routine.  Mary will be in school all day.  There you have it.  We won't have made much progress at the piano this summer.  We also didn't go backwards. The kids will have seen a lot of nature and family and friends and learned about their faith and lego robotic interfaces.

These are the decisions we make on behalf of our kids.  I think I'm okay with that.  I know I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wheat and Weeds--More Theology and Pedagogy

So our scripture lesson on Sunday was the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  Pastor Sarah brought out the main point that it is not our job to judge the people around us.  It is only God's job, and He will judge with love, since we all have a little wheat and a little weed in us.  (There is that grain and chaff again, Susan) Nobody is all good or all bad.

I think most of us are probably pretty guilty of judging the people around us on a daily basis.  I know I am.  I'm working on it.  I was a lot more judgmental of other people's kids until I had my own--THAT IS FOR SURE!  Another point of the sermon was that sometimes a weed grows into a flower and if we yank it out too soon we will never know.  In other words--if we set limitations on people we will never know what their potential is or was.

I was thinking about this as I was walking once around my yard tonight to make sure nothing was dying in the heat.  I started feeling all high and mighty--because I have been too busy to weed--a little weed by the swing set turned out to be a little purple pansy.  Had I been faithful about weeding I would have yanked it out and it never would have bloomed.

I thought about why we don't screen children for Suzuki Piano lessons.  And why I never kick a kid out for not practicing.  You never know what is going on with these families or with these kids at any given time.  There have been more than a few times when I have found out later--that coming to the piano lesson every week was the only stable thing going on in a kid's life.

A student left my studio a few years ago to pursue other musical interests besides piano.  This happens and parents should feel no guilt.  I sent him a high school graduation card this May.  He sent me a note back--thanking me and reflecting that piano had been the start of the fostering of all the talent he was using to pursue his dreams and possibly a career. He was one of the kids who didn't practice so much.  Another "non-practicer" went on to study music composition in college.  You just never know.

Then I took a quick walk down to the pond to check on the five birch trees I planted in April and the big aspen we tried to transplant from the driveway area. The aspen is alive!  (DON'T ASK ABOUT THE DRIVEWAY)  I only found four little birch trees because the fifth one had been pulled down to the ground by the evil grapevine that thrives on our property.  The weeds won and threatened to kill the beautiful little tree.  I tore every little tentacle of the vine off the tree--there were about 100--and the four foot high tree sprang back up. Anyone who fights a bad weed will start to think of it as evil.  I guess there is another metaphor in there there doesn't relate to Suzuki piano.  I'll have to ask Pastor Sarah about that.

In any case. . . not judging folks has a lot to do with compassion and seeing the weeds in ourselves.  There go I but for the grace of God.  I'm glad none of my teachers yanked me out.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Confessions of an Introverted Perfectionist

So--we have been back from traveling for a week now and I have started teaching my six week summer piano schedule.  There have also been some social and business events on the calendar, all of which have been at our house, which I am happy about.  Suzuki board meeting, scrap booking with friends, a going away party for our friends in church small group, and Monday is Calvin's family birthday party--good friends, family, and good food.

Whenever we get in a groove like this, however, I find myself slipping into a state of obsessive compulsive disorder.  You can't travel and be social and entertain and also keep everything else together.  Doing ten loads of laundry from our travels last Monday, I found myself having the irrational compulsion to immediately have every closet and every drawer clean, tidy, free of little made-in-China objects from McDonald's Happy Meals, and completely organized.   It is like an itch that needs to be scratched.  How can I possibly spends time with friends if my sock drawer has mismatched pairs??? If I can't control everything in the world, at least I should be able to control my stuff.

This brings to question many philosophical issues, primarily, what is more important--people or things? I have a couple close friends who are very skilled at reminding me what the true answer is.  There are some rare individuals like my mother who manage to keep a lovely home and garden and still have energy left over to give to others and even volunteer for strangers.  I constantly remind myself that my mother is retired and doesn't have small children.

I am quite sure that God probably didn't intend for us to spend so much time taking care of our stuff.  Here in suburban America we have fallen under what I call the curse of abundance.  If we don't control our stuff our stuff will control us.  I have never wanted more and more stuff.  I just want the things I have to be beautiful, useful, sentimental, and well taken care of.  I have fantasized about Caroline Ingalls placing the little china figure on the mantle that Charles carved for her, and calling her house in order.  Instead of a basement full of playmobil Laura would carefully hold Charlotte, her one rag doll.  Simple.  Pure abundance.

So, I put social events on the calendar and I enjoy them!  If I didn't, I would never leave the house until every last lego was in a sterlite bin labeled "legos" and every last weed was out of the garden and I and the children had each practiced our piano for the day.  I used to feel more guilt over this, but it is part of who I am.  So I put the events on the calendar--as odd as it may seems--it forces me to take time for the people I love and not slip into a coma of solitude or an organizational marathon where everything in my house is perfect but I haven't spoken to anyone in a year.  My friends and family tell me that they love me anyway.  I hope so.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let it Begin With Me

Today was such a good day. The kids and I are still here in Iowa and not doing too much of anything except drinking coffee, swimming at the pool, catching and releasing frogs, and eating too much.

My cousins and aunt and uncle came over today.  The kids all play and it feels like the next generation of cousins making their way.  We don't know what are kids are to each other--Robin has figured it out--they are second cousins of some sort we think.  As Calvin said--it doesn't matter, there is a place for everybody.

The conversation was very light today.  We have so much common ground.  Gardening, religion, music, the kids, education, our memories.  Great Grandma Hope would say that we were letting peace on earth begin with peace in ourselves.  (We sang her favorite song, Let There Be Peace on Earth, at every family function.) This was our first real get together without her.  There was a lot of peace. There was also a tender moment for me when my Uncle Dave was sitting in my dad's old chair and Mary never skipped a beat and climbed right up in his lap.  That is what you do when someone sits in that chair.  She was happy and Uncle Dave was happy.  And I was happy too.

I might add that it is really nice for families to get together even when nobody is dead or dying.

Today was good for other reasons too.  I'll say it again, there was just a lot of peace flowing around.

Tomorrow afternoon we go home.  Our little Sabbath is over.  I go back to being the axle of a many spoked wheel.  That is not my metaphor--it belongs to Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift From the Sea.  Without these little breaks in life our axle becomes uncentered and the wheel wobbles.  The forces of life fragment us.  Lindbergh suggests that we take time alone each year, each week, and each day to center ourselves--to realign.  For parents, that can sometimes seem impossible.  Days go by when I am with someone --child--spouse--student--from dawn to dusk.  There will be days when we must find the stillness within chaos--but still we are better equipped after a rest.  And, I recommit to taking that time each day in solitude to keep the wheels running smoothly.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

There's No Place Like Home. . .

So, we were home for a few days.  A giant thank you goes out to the team that helped get me through June: Bill, Mom and Dad Kotrba, and Mary Lynn.  You all made sure that the cats, the plants and the kids were all fed and watered and taken care of--not necessarily in that order.  Now to process the mail and the phone messages. . .

After four nights in my own bed I am now writing from my mom's farm in Iowa.  The kids and I are here for a few days, before I head home for good--and start the summer teaching schedule.  I'm missing my garden and my friends--again--not necessarily in that order.  And my kids are tired.  They are happy to be visiting their Grandmommy, but they will be happy to be home for a while too.

I was reflecting on the Washington Suzuki Institute.  I mentioned that Calvin had Fay Adams for a teacher.  You remember that both Calvin and Mary were coming off two weeks of piano vacation when we showed up at the camp.  Calvin was playing pieces for Fay that I had not yet heard him play.  Yikes for me.  That is not the beautiful life but that is the way it went.  I had to swallow my comments and let them work together.

Every time you observe an experienced and esteemed teacher trainer you are going to be reminded of good things.  Watching Fay with Calvin I was reminded of the power of approval.  Everything he did was gold in her eyes.  And it was.  I am so conditioned to making a mental note of everything that needs fixing about him that I overlook the gold.  "That was wonderful, Calvin."  "That was marvelous, Calvin."  And it was.  She wasn't satisfied, it simply freed them both to get down to work knowing that he had her approval.

How often I forget those first words.  That was wonderful.  That was marvelous.  You are really improving.  I really liked it.  Wow.  Beautiful.  That was very musical. Instead I jump right into the fixing it.  Who wants to show up for that day after day?  And we wonder why eventually we meet resistance.

The same thing happens with Mary--when she is getting fixed she shuts down.  When she is amazing she opens up to learn.

We are not going to meet our goal to practice every day this summer.  We will practice on the days we are home--but sometimes breaks are important too.  Perhaps it is me that needs the break as well. When we do get home, I'm going to remember that my approval is the greatest motivator to my kids--when they are reminded that they are awesome in my eyes just the way they are, it frees us to get down to work.  I am going to see the gold first.

P.S. Mary lost her two front bottom teeth.  In case she didn't call you--she called almost everyone.