Music’s Lessons

Today I taught two music lessons.

At first glance, that’s not a particularly unique statement…there are many music teachers in varying sizes, shapes, capabilities and experience. However, when one takes into account that I’ve never really enjoyed teaching music, that statement carries a wee bit more significance. I learned how to teach…took all the classes and met all the requirements to graduate…only to discover in the last two semesters that whenever I met with a student or entered a classroom, my stomach was in knots. I couldn’t wait for the lesson time to end. So, after three years of obligated torture, I quit teaching…much to my stomach’s relief.

Once I established my new career, I kept my musical past to myself. I didn’t want to get pulled into doing something I’d left just because it was familiar. I wanted to establish myself in new ways and finally be satisfied and successful in my new and much-loved career. I did fairly well until one day, someone asked me point-blank if I played an instrument. Not one who lies easily, I answered truthfully…which was followed by the inevitable question: Do you teach? I reluctantly agreed to teach a few select students. Still, I kept running into the same issues…ultimately firing two students due to a mismatch of expectations.  Horrified, I discovered that once again, I dreaded lesson time.

Then one day, a co-worker asked me if I would teach her child. I took a deep breath and told her that I needed to consider the request for a bit. That bit turned into several weeks. I really didn’t want to teach her child. Aside from my aversion to teaching, this child was challenging…some might say he’s unteachable due to his attitude. Additionally, because his parents are so very athletic…to the exclusion of all else…the fact that they’d even considered music lessons at all surprised me. The combination of all these factors had me itching in all the most unpleasant ways. 

I finally agreed to give it a trial run of six weeks.

Those were some of the most hair-wrenching, stomach-clenching six weeks of my life. Everything I asked this child to do was met with a force field of intense resistance. At times I wondered if there even existed a path through this wall of “no.” After each lesson I collapsed on my sofa, exhausted. There had to be a better way.

Finally, at the end of one particularly torturous lesson, the student informed me that, rather than weekly lessons, he would contact me when he was ready for the next lesson. Affronted by such a statement, I first panicked as I had come to depend on that income. Then I was furious that such an undisciplined stubborn pipsqueak of a kid had taken control away from me. I almost ended our music relationship right there. 

I’m so glad I didn’t. 

Today, almost two years later, I can honestly say that I am immeasurably grateful for the lessons this student has brought to me. This difficult person has definitely been one of my greatest teachers. Letting go was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Not only did I let go of my perceptions of how lessons should be, I also released years and years of pedagogy…both experienced as a student and taught in the classroom. My entire approach and attitude toward teaching has changed. I let my student guide the teaching and for the first time in my life, lessons are a discovery of fun.

The result for him has been incredible. He took ownership and responsibility for his progress with gusto. He pushes himself harder than I could (which is usually quite a bit), but more importantly, he enjoys it…something I really questioned at the beginning. He is truly transformed…from someone paralyzed to try anything new for fear of making a mistake and looking stupid, to one who voluntarily selects the hardest song in the book because it looks fun. He now willingly chooses to work on that one piece, 20 minutes each day for three weeks…just to master it. He’s also composing and asks incredible theory questions. He’s nine. 

I sat there today, looking at him in amazement…a big grin of satisfaction on his face. He knew he’d done something great, and he didn’t need me to tell him that. So, we just celebrated together and talked about all the things he’s learning about himself as he works through his musical challenges. When his time was up, he stood up and proudly and confidently told his dad he had a great lesson. His little brother, worshiping his big brother, now excitedly prepares for his own lesson.

Thank you, kiddo, for teaching me how to discover joy in letting go…for showing me how to be the “Guide on the Side”…for continually inspiring me to be a better teacher for you…for experiencing the passion and adventure of learning and teaching.

I am grateful for you.

Image: Music Manuscript, 16th century. Paint on vellum, 23 13/16 x 15 15/16 in. (60.5 x 40.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Howard L. Larsen in memory of his sister, Agnes Larsen Griffiths, 57.22.

Mahler Speaks

Earlier this year, a colleague gifted me with tickets to the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Music Hall. I was ecstatic, for they are one of the few symphonic orchestras to regularly perform flawlessly in public. The Disney Concert Hall, an architecturally sacred space for me, is equally flawless. The match is extraordinary.

Then, he told me the piece was Mahler‘s 9th Symphony. I took a deep breath and told myself I would take the opportunity to learn something new and be open to new experiences. It’s not that I don’t like Mahler…I just don’t know much about him. I’m only familiar with his first symphony, which I like very much…so I hope I’ll like his 9th just as well…although I’m certain he will have changed over his lifetime.

Then he tells me that Gustavo Dudamel is conducting. I instantly transcended. I had never before seen Dudamel conduct live. I had tried on numerous occasions to obtain tickets, but they were always sold out before I could get to them. I didn’t care if he conducted Ives or Schoenberg, I was going.

To say that night changed my life is a little extreme, but certainly accurate. I sat behind the orchestra and watched Maestro Dudamel’s face as though he were conducting me. The only research I’d done prior to the performance was to read the portion in the programme minutes before the concert began. Yet, I experienced the piece as though it were a living, breathing entity…a soul of its own. I not only conversed with Mahler and the piece, I also conversed with the Source of the music…along with Maestro Dudamel and the musicians. Three months later, I wrote a 6-page essay on that night’s impact on me…so great it was, it took that long to find the words. 

Since then, I have watched for opportunities to learn more about Mahler and listen to his music. When this documentary popped up on Netflix, I eagerly added it to my queue. So much of what I learned while experiencing his music, confirmed in this documentary, made me chuckle at this quote:

You want to know me? Listen to my music.

I wonder what I will create that will allow people to experience me long after I have transcended to a different form.

New Music and New Friends

Guitar Goddess

I love surprises and spontaneous adventures, and recently, after asking Goddess for a wee bit more spice in my life, some amazingly fun things have popped up.

Yesterday afternoon, my mother received a phone call asking her if she’d be interested in attending a concert that evening. The caller had an extra ticket that she wanted to share. My mom then called me and asked me if I wanted to go and she offered to pay for my ticket as a birthday gift (I love that my birthday is being celebrated for almost a month!). As always, up for an adventure, I instantly agreed without even knowing who was performing or what was involved.

Two hours later, we arrived early at the venue and decided to walk the grounds while we waited. As we walked, we met an older gentleman and we began chatting. Even though we had never met, all three of us felt quite comfortable in each other’s presence…like long-time friends. As we turned to walk back to the theatre, the gentleman asked if we’d purchased tickets. I responded no, as we were waiting for the rest of our party. He then stated that he’d purchased two tickets and offered one to us! Happy Birthday to me!! er…for you, Mom. Guess you get to come up with another way to spend that money 🙂

We three sat together during the concert, and had a splendid time. The performer was exquisite, but the gentleman’s company equally so. It definitely felt like a magical moment in time when all things come together at once as though Divinely appointed and orchestrated.

The performer, Lily Afshar, is a classical guitarist. She was the first woman guitarist to earn a Doctoral Degree in guitar performance and is now a professor at the University of Memphis. Originally from Iran, her performance list incorporated many pieces from Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, ParaguayTurkey and Iran…many of which she arranged or commissioned. 

Her performance lived up to all accolades. Her touch is light but with purpose; strong but with nuance. Many times I shifted in my seat in amazement in order to better view her fingers so I could see how she was creating such sounds. Her fingerwork was so clean that I never heard them squeak against the strings (a sound I detest), nor did she pluck a string just to have it die before it could resonate (another thing that frustrates my ears). There was no sliding from one note to the next, unless the piece specifically called for it as an effect. Just simple, clean, elegant, delightful and precise playing.

Thank you Goddess for yet another fun adventure, new music and new friends!

Ninth Ward Calling

Aural Fusion

The moment I saw Jesse’s Rainbow Hangover marching band photo, I instantly heard in my mind the rhythmic clapping, thumping and dancing sounds of “Ninth Ward Calling,” a signature piece (inspired by one of their favorite spots) by one of my favorite music experiences currently on tour: MarchFourth Marching Band (http://marchfourthmarchingband.com/).

Like Jesse, this particular group of musicians/entertainers always invigorates me because of the never-ending creativeness exhibited by each member of the band. Not only do they write their own music, make their own amazing and fantastical costumes and instrument harnesses, they are also all trained musicians…some with noteworthy schools on their resumes.  Yet, unlike so many trained musicians who forget to enjoy their craft, MarchFourth exudes enthusiasm for the inner music of joy. Their music, a wonderous fusion of funk, jazz, marches, circus tunes, klezmer, reggae, and ska over African and Latin rhythms, coupled with the visual marvels of the stilt, fire- and flag dancers and acrobats, requires one to constantly dance to the inner joy that quickly ignites and overflows. I have yet to leave a live performance without a smile on the face, a twinkle in the eye or a bounce in the step.

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