Sunday, October 24, 2010

This is a test. This is ONLY a test?

The screech preceding these words vibrates through my bones like a dentist's drill. I can't ignore it. That's the idea. I'm supposed to be alerted, alarmed, and aware that my life could be in danger. The reminder that this is only a test is designed to calm down my excited nervous system so I can return to enjoying the scheduled radio programming of classical music.

Today my mind is unable to move beyond the words only a test. For me, the word test is rarely an only. It is a challenge I am required to meet, or a determination of my skills by an outside judge, or, even worse, a recital.

When did I develop the idea that playing for others was more of a test than a pleasure? I suspect I connected tests to performances on my own as a young student. I heard the older students play and wanted to measure up. I don't remember my first piano teacher ever referring to a recital as a test.

Undergraduate school was a different matter. I was introduced to the jury process. A jury is a measure of a music student's progress from year to year, and it involves playing for faculty members. In other words, it's a test.

One of my wise friends asks the questions, "If this is a jury, who is on trial? What is the crime?" Taking that analogy further, I ask, "Am I the defense?" Usually, in my own mind, the answer is yes. I am defending my interpretation, my tempi, my dynamics, my pedaling. The problem is that I don't know what charge I am defending myself against until the verdict - the jury sheets or the critical feedback - are handed to me. It is only then that I know what laws I have broken. Thanks to the uncertainty of the sentence, I can become alarmed, alerted, and aware that my musical life could be in danger. All because I am playing classical music!

Reframing this experience to something more generous and more satisfying is part of my process, especially because I work in an undergraduate school. I am around the nervous - and often judgmental - young students who are laying their musical lives on the line for juried performances. It is part of my task to help them present confident musical performances, knowing that they are also required to survive the tests built into the structure of music school.

I remind them that music is a means of communication. Even the occasional mistake in speech and writing can be understood, as can the occasional mistake in musical performance, if the performance is NOT only a test.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Same old, same old

Merriweather played beautifully at her first adjudicated master class. I should know - I'm her teacher and one of the two judges. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and of what I would like to hear change, but I was pleased with her performance. I jotted down the good points and the suggestions, as did my co-judge, and we handed them to Merriweather.

Dr. Great-with-Kids gave her a thumbs-up as well, pleasing Merriweather and her mom.
Merriweather's mom said, "What did Mrs. Hooper say?" Merriweather rolled her eleven-year-old eyes and said, "Same old, same old."

I had to laugh, my other choice being a good sulk in the corner for being such a boring teacher. Then I looked at the comments from Dr. Great-with-Kids. Slightly different words, but the same suggestions I made! Why was her opinion so well-received and mine so quickly dismissed?

A mental har-rumph was in order.

After a few days of har-rumphing, I was ready to challenge myself. There is no denying what one friend calls the "guest conductor syndrome" - same information, different delivery style. A change of environment alone is stimulating to the brain, as is the sound of an unfamiliar voice with its unique rhythms and cadences. Nonetheless, I still felt the need to rethink my delivery style.

Even though Merriweather has been in my studio for years, and I hope will be for more years to come, I may need to take on the "guest conductor" persona from time to time. I could listen to the sound of my voice for pitch, rhythm, speed and inflection. I could change some of my time-honored phrases for the "same old, same old" challenges. I could change up the order of lesson materials covered. I could bring out different learning aids from time to time. Every now and then I could surprise the student by doing something completely different, whatever that something is.

I have never thought of myself as a boring teacher, that is for sure. But I am re-evaluating the difference between "tried and true" and "same old, same old."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Them Bones, Them Bones

Hammer, anvil, stirrup. One by one, these are large objects with a common connection to saddle and horseshoe construction. Together, they are three tiny bones that are critical to hearing. Together, they would fit on a dime.

The eardrum is the membrane which picks up sound vibrations. These vibrations need amplification to be perceived. Amplification is the job of these three little bones. Small as they are, they amplify sound. If such tiny bones can amplify sound, imagine what the other 203 bones could do!

When I get a tooth drilled, the sound is the worst part of the process. Thanks to novacaine, I don't feel much pain sensation, but I do "feel" the sound. Teeth are rooted in the jaw, a large bone that connects to the skull, an even larger bony structure. The jaw connects to the skull in very close proximity to the ear. The big bone amplifies the sound of the drill directly to the three little bones in the inner ear. When the drill is not in contact with the tooth, the sound is not as loud as when the drill touches the tooth.

Singers and wind players may be more aware of the way their sounds resonate in their bones than pianists and string players. Even so, they may forget that the whole body resonates, not just the ear bones, the skull and jaw. In fact, ancient healing chants were designed to resonate in order to activate the healing process throughout the body. Modern medicine has ever-developing uses of sound for diagnostic and healing purposes.

"Hearing" sound in the whole body can be a very freeing experience. It helps to put the performer smack dab in the middle of the sound. A constricted body does not amplify sound as well as a free, balanced body amplifies sound. Allowing the whole body to experience sound is a way to release unnecessary tension. The result of this is good for the performer and good for the audience.

And... you don't need electricity for these amplifiers. Or a roadie to carry them for you.

Practice feeling sound in your whole body. Notice where the sound gets blocked. Notice how pitch and volume change the sensations. Notice how certain spaces change your access to natural amplification. Enjoy being in the middle of the sound.