Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Pedagogy Master Class and Brahms' Cigar

The unadorned door into Ms. Burganger's narrow office was painted institutional grey, belying the multi-hued experience that lay behind it.  Oh, the walls inside were the same dull-state-university ash, but the life of music and learning and expression that went on in there was as vibrant as a Florida sunset.

Two grand pianos at the office entrance made the walk to our seats tight, shimmying sideways between the bench and long wall lined with shelves of music books. A wider space in front of her desk framed by a picture window offered some room for seating. I took my seat.
"Sorry I'm late. I was navigating the parking lot." I apologized.

It's my first Master class to observe, though I had participated in several in college.  Student number 1, who looked to be around 13 played Brahms' Opus 76, Intermezzo and Capriccio with the sensitivity of a 33 year old.

The pedagogue made her comments ever so gently.

"Remember, the movements of your body influence the sound. So... should you be leaning back when the phrase needs more depth of tone?" She asked.

All she did was ask. Crafting her questions to allow the student to process the technique by himself.

Seldom dictating or mandating.

"Now there are two fortes in that section. Which is supreme?" Another great question. "Who gets the diminuendo, right hand or left?" The student is developing his ear and interpretive skills under the exquisite tutelage of a master.

She was a little more direct with the second student, her own, who just finished his master's degree.
"We want less of a steely attack. With Brahms, you must massage the keys with legato touch. Just wallow in the gorgeous sounds."

And wallow, we did.
When I wasn't reading the manuscript, my eyes scanned the walls and shelves. There were tidy boxes to hold music books to prevent them from leaning on each other; Henley, Peters, Urtext and Schirmer editions.

The opposite wall held posters from Festivals and a sketch of Ms. Burganger in 1965, whose resemblance had the class of Hepburn and the homey-ness of Mary Tyler Moore. Here in 2013, her face no less affable.

My eye stopped on a familiar hung portrait of Brahms. I'd seen it a million times, but never thought much about a certain detail that just now stood out.  It was the same poster I used as an Artist in Residence at Wellington High School. Displayed with a bevy of great composers around the piano room, I had hoped the teenagers who weren't hung over or sleeping or playing nasty pranks on me, might observe and learn.

Back then I never had noticed Brahms' tobacco habit.

Arms outstretched in mid-play, peaking out from his massive wooly beard, perched a stout cigar!!

I nearly laughed out loud!

My next thought was that he was in danger of sending a snow flurry of ash onto the precious ivories, dooming them to piles of silvery drifts between the keys.

Musical forecast: Smoky with a chance of sooty storms.

When I teach piano, it's a daily struggle to keep paper clips, eraser shavings and other debris from settling into the inner mechanics of the piano.

 I couldn't imagine such a dignified composer putting his instrument in this precarious situation. Brahms loved a good cigar, I learned. But shouldn't he save it for the smoking room, parlor or sun room?

He is not the only famous musician proned to mild vice. Beethoven drank pots of coffee while he composed, (hence the Tempest  piano sonata).  Horowitz practiced with a dish of chocolates on the music stand.

I share the not-so-healthy habits of coffee and chocolate (plus excessive sunning), but would never allow either too near my Kawai.

 Perhaps his full set of whiskers filtered the feathery slivers from sprinkling the keys!

Attention shifted back to the moment as Ms. Burganger sat down to demonstrate a teaching point. "Now, you've practiced, I haven't," she offered as a disclaimer to her students. (Hmm, I'll have to use that line).

But practiced or not, she played magnificently, squeezing every harmonic nuance and melodic shading out of her instrument, saturating us with splendor of soulful sound.

The 10 of us in this tiny office were ravished by Brahms' rich melodies and colorful harmonies, deep bass tones of his music, my eyes damp to be in the presence of such lush, passionate sonorities.


Driving home up the 95, late afternoon still clear and bright, I basked in the beauty we were submerged in that afternoon in a plainly painted office.

Then my contemplation took a distorted turn.

Tickled again by the thought of Brahms' stogie, an odd picture flashed in my warped mind, an off-the-wall idea, which humored me the rest of the way home.

The cigar scene was just begging for a re-enactment!

Don't worry about the piano or that I've adopted yet another vice.

I didn't inhale!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sometimes you need your friends to help get your Whoop! back.

I didn't noticed it had gone missing.

Until my vocal partner, Milt pointed it out.

"You don't do that little yelp when you're singing anymore."
"That what?"  I asked.
"You know," he continued, "that high pitched whoop thing you'd do in between phrases when we worship."

I was aghast! He was right! It had been gone so long from my ad-lib worship vocal riffs and improv repertoire, I'd forgotten I ever did it.

We are the layered voices, the background vocals (Bgv's), the back line that support the front platform lead singers.

A back line of singas.

 But, Oh My Gosh. I'd lost my Whoop! The casual version of Bravo! A vocal form of applause.

Where did it go? 

Why did it go? 

and most importantly 

How do I get it back?

Immediately my mind left the present conversation and scrambled to do an inventory of life events and emotions, interpersonal conflicts, problems at home and work that may have been the culprit; the thief that stole my "whoop!" away.

Was it sadness that a couple of my grown sons aren't quite on the path I'd hoped for? Empty nest syndrome? Was it financial worries? Was it the argument I had with my husband yesterday? Was it lack of job satisfaction? Or sleep deprivation?

Was it the fact that because the background singers are not always 'A' quality, the sound men mute our mics? (Now that can take take the wind out of your sails!)

We are Worship eye candy!

Or was it because the two 'brothers' I stand between are sooooo demonstrative - arms waving, hands gesturing, facial expressions exaggerated  - that I compensate to prevent a monstrous distraction to the worship service??

The BGV bozos.

The layered vocal team lulus!

The worship weirdos!

Yes, I have been trying to tone it down a bit. Yes, that's where my 'Whoo'! might have gone.

At any rate, I really needed my singing friends to point it out to me. To help me get it back. To sing with a heart that's no less full, just because my moves are more sedate than theirs.

Climbing out of myself, I became a free, more joyful and vocal fan of Jesus, again. None of the things listed above changed, but I could rise above them.

And it feels good to let a few Whooh's!" fly again!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Who are you and what are you doing in Russia?

The garage of my childhood was never very tidy or dust free, like the ones of today's houses; floor painted, walls finished with custom closets to hide the clutter. Ours had exposed wood framing, oil stained floors, makeshift shelves and a beat-up workbench lined with peanut butter and pickle jars full of multi-sized screws and bolts. It was rustic and unrefined.

But it was the perfect place to set up a short wave radio. I remember dad exulting when he got a far-away country.

"He's speaking German. I've tuned in to Germany"! He said all excited.

"What's that language? I think I hear someone from India"!

"Great Britain! By George, I've got Great Britain"!

It was as if our arms grew long and rubbery, Gumby-like, and we could stretch them in an arch to touch other countries!

Fast forward a few decades and we have blogging, cell phones (and countless other technological wonders) to reach out with!

These are the countries my readers live in. The green shows blog traffic sources. The darker the shade, the more readers. I understand the traffic from the US. Shout out to you all! But I gotta know:

Who are you and what are you doing in Russia?

And Ethiopia?
And Indonesia?
And Malaysia?
And Great Britain?
And Germany?

Here's a welcoming 'hello' to you all!

Thank you for visiting my humble blog. 

I'd like to get to know you.

Friday, March 15, 2013

What Miss Jennie Wong Taught Me About Songwriting.

Why is it we always blame our teachers and parents for our failures? At least I do when when I wonder why I hesitate to share music.

Sitting on the bench of an antique Steinway,  taking my weekly college piano lesson,  I mentioned to my Asian piano teacher that I wanted to be a songwriter. She rocked back and forth in her rocking chair (because it was better for her back than a stationery chair), took a sip of her chrysanthemum tea, eyes shifted to the ceiling. This is how I knew she was about to wax philosophical; a moment I generally looked forward to.

While I watched the baby chrysanthemum blossoms floating in the greenish liquid, like tiny tumbleweeds, she said, "Well you know, there's really nothing new to write about. Most every thing's already been said. Melodies and chords are just a re-hash of past music."

Being a timid twenty year old, I had no reply. What I heard her say was that songwriting was a waste of time; that I had nothing of significance to offer the world.

Now she taught me a lot of great things. Like, how a 5 foot petite Chinese woman could move a 7 foot grand piano all by herself. Miss Jennie Wong wasn't married and had to be self-sufficient with no man around. But by leaning her back against the piano and using the strength of her legs, she could push that monster around a stage all day long. I still use her technique, sans the help of a man.

And she taught me how to use the natural weight of my arms and shoulders to make the piano sound more beautiful. How relaxing improved the tone and warded off tendinitis and fatigue.

She taught me the joys of Prokofiev and Ravel and Brahms.

That a mistake played with passion is better than precision with no heart.

She didn't care for the ostentatious Rachmaninoff and Listz, so they were blaringly absent from my repertoire. Too bombastic, she would say.

But what has stayed with me the most was the negative comment about songwriting.

And it took years for me to realize       she          was        wrong.

People should still compose! 

There are still songs to be crafted, melodies to be made, topics to be sung about.

Every generation needs someone to speak their music language, to articulate the culture of their day, to verbalize the unique issues and struggles they face.

So, Sing a New Song.

Just like David, the chief musician told us to. If everyone stopped writing music, there would only be old songs. Yes, the tunes may be similar and there are only so many chord progressions and tonalities to choose from, but

Each person brings their own unique style, experience, giftedness and personality to their work.


And that's enough reason to share.

That's enough reason to write.

Enough reason to post music on a blog,

Sing in a choir, 
Play a recital,
Lead worship whenever you can, 
Share on a website,
Join a band,
Or just sing for your friends in your living room

While they rock back and forth in your rocker over a cup of chrysanthemum tea.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Terrifying Walk By A Torrential Florida Inlet

We didn't realize how dangerous our little stroll was about to become. Wanting a closer look at the inlet that took water from the Altantic into the Florida Intracoastal body of water, we ventured under a bridge on a narrow concrete path.

With the wall of the bridge on one side and a precipice overlooking the raging current on the other, we were sandwiched in on an unnervingly thin path, putting us in a very precarious situation.

A blast of air whooshed past our ears only matching the violent rush of water an uncomfortably close twelve feet below. The narrowing of the inlet increased the aquatic thrust to only race faster; much like the wind when you walk through a shop door, hair flying everywhere like the lady's on the logo of a Starbucks cup.

The water was deep; rocks and sand visible through its clear turquoise depths. Halfway in we were struck with a new terror that if anyone fell, they would be captured by the roiling river; no place to climb up for hundreds of feet. Rescue would be unlikely.
And here we were with one teenage girl and four young boys risking a treacherous plunge. I clutched my three-year-old's hand more tightly, knuckles whitened, as I realized

There Were No Guardrails!!

This was a sidewalk that went from the parking lot under a bridge, to a public beach, next to a horizontal version of Niagara Falls and there was no guardrail??? 

Do I scoop up my child and risk losing my own balance with us both falling in? My husband is at the end of the single file line of our family of 7, so I'm on my own to protect the children closest to me. I was experiencing a new definition of fear. Like a waterfall, the mom-words spilled out:

Be Careful!
Don't get too close to the edge!
Watch Your step. 
Not too fast!
Use your head!
Hold my hand tight!
That rip tide could carry you off to Cuba before you could ever cry, "help"!

Finally, we made it safely to the end of the walkway on to the shore side, away from the rushing ocean as the tiny path opened to the wide beachhead.

Nearly 15 years have passed since that scary stroll.  A while ago, I noticed the city had widened that path and put up rails. Who knows how many people toppled into the raging tide before the rails were added?

After railings were added.

Surprisingly, I  find myself in a similar situation.

My three year old is now seventeen. He is the last one going to college, but the trepidation is no less great despite the brothers going before him. It is heightened in fact, as I release him to the world and the college campus and realize...

He Has No Guardrails!

He has taken them down. 

Where once he had a firm faith in God, he looks now to the 'common sense' of an adolescent.  Where he once lead others to follow character, and virtue, he has discarded them for a more open set of mores.

And I can't hold his hand tightly anymore.

Or scoop him up in my arms.

Or keep him from falling into the perilous cultural current; the troubled waters he walks so closely by

Without guardrails.

Oh, I can preach!

Be Careful!
Don't get too close to the edge!
Watch Your step. 
Not too fast!
Use your head!
That surge could sweep you somewhere you never intended to go, before you could ever cry, "help!"

He may choose to listen.

Or not.

I can only hope and pray he makes it to the open beachhead safely.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Love in the Moment

Humans are hardwired to complain. I know, 'cause I'm one of them. Bent on the negative. Leaning in to the sordid.

Carpe Diem is generally my motto. Grab all the goodness you can get. Access all the adventure that invites. But I find my mind often sinking to all that is wrong with people and things.

I think that's why my daughter bought me a book for my birthday that celebrates all that is good in life.

Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist

I haven't read it yet. Perhaps I should. But instead my thoughts took the short cut to criticism.  "Why didn't she call her book, Cold Clementines? Then she would have had the alliteration. And clementines are so much more sweet and tender than the sometimes sour and tough tangerines." No matter that she is multi-published and has touched my heart in her writing.

Once again I took the quick trip to cynicism; the bee line to a bitter comment; a straight shot to the sarcastic.

But I had a revelation recently.

Instead of just living in the moment, which I often fail to do. Perpetually stuck in the past of how much better things used to be, (so my memory says) and in learning about my ancestors and the great things they did, (check out Elisabeth Marbury, a distant relative, who was an agent for playwrites such as George Bernard Shaw-My Fair Lady, and Oscar Wilde-Lady Windermere's Fan, which just blows my mind!);

what would really elevate my thought life and world perspective would be to

Love in the moment.


That is to look at every person I bump into at work or shopping or at home and, (what's the word?)  intentionally (such an overused word), pro-actively (that one too), creatively (too artsy)  thoughtfully (too passive a word). Ok, I got it. When I encounter another friend or stranger, I should offensively (That's the word!) counter my negativity, by actively saying or doing or praying something good for them. Offer a compliment. Get them coffee. Serve them. Pray a prayer of good for them. Give a gift.

So I am trying to not just

live in he moment

but to

love in the moment.

What a radical remedy!

The cure for the compulsively contrary!

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